Pharisees and Sadducees 101

imagesIn my last post, I questioned the way present-day Christians use the word “Pharisee” to chastise other Christians. In current Christian vocabulary, “Pharisee” is a synonym for “self-righteous,” or “judgmental,” or “hypocritical.” Strangely enough, “Pharisee” is used by Christians primarily as a label to criticize other Christians, even though the historical Pharisees were a Jewish sect.

In an upcoming post, I plan to argue that Christians should not use “Pharisee” as a term of criticism. But first, I need to do a better job of explaining who the Pharisees were.  On my last post, commenter Jo Scott-Coe noted that her Christian education lumped together the historical Pharisees with the historical Sadducees. Jo said she’d like to know more about the differences between the two groups.

If someone asked me this question at a cocktail party, then (unprepared) I’d answer this way: in Jesus’ day, the Sadducees were the Jewish aristocrats. They were concentrated mostly in Jerusalem. They were closely associated with the Temple in Jerusalem: most of the Temple priests (and probably all of the high priests) were Sadducees. The Sadducees were more Hellenized than most Jews – they were familiar with Greek as well as Jewish culture. The Sadducees were politically active, and close to the Romans who ruled Palestine. The Sadducees were literalists when it came to Torah and the books of the Jewish Bible – they stuck to the language in the texts, and did not believe in an authoritative oral tradition that accompanied the texts. The Sadducees had some unique views for a Jewish sect: for example, they did not believe in fate, or an afterlife.

In contrast, the Pharisees were closer to the common people – they were more middle-class than aristocratic, and more popular with ordinary Jews than the Sadducees. Pharisees could be found throughout ancient Palestine, including in the Galilee where Jesus lived and did most of his preaching. The Pharisees functioned primarily as teachers and experts in Jewish law. They resisted Hellenization, and believed that their traditions were based on an oral law that Moses received from God along with the written law. The Pharisees took certain practices associated with the Temple – washing, for example – and made them sacred practices to be performed by Jews everywhere. The Pharisees disagreed with the Sadducees on certain basic questions. For example, the Pharisees believed in an afterlife, and resurrection of the dead in a future messianic age.

Possibly the most important distinction between the Pharisees and Sadducees was this: when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple during the first Jewish War (66-73 CE), the Sadducees were effectively destroyed along with the Temple, and the Pharisees emerged as the dominant force in Jewish life. The Pharisees were well-positioned to take this role, as they had traditionally been focused on Jewish life outside of the Temple. Today, Jews believe that the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud and provided the structure for post-Temple Judaism were the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees.

My cocktail party description of Pharisees and Sadducees is roughly the same description you’ll read elsewhere on the internet, and in many books on the subject. It is probably not too far from the truth. But it is also too confident, way too confident. The real truth is, we don’t know nearly as much about the Pharisees and Sadducees as we wish we knew.

Let’s focus on the Pharisees for the moment. Here I am relying on a collection of essays titled In Quest of the Historical Pharisees edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton. The essays examine what we know about the Pharisees, which comes from four sources: (1) the New Testament, (2) writings from the Jewish historian Josephus, (3) the Dead Sea Scrolls and (4) Jewish texts written more than a hundred years after the fall of the Second Temple.  These sources treat the Pharisees incidentally – none is primarily interested in the Pharisees, nor do these sources agree with each other. For example, while the Gospels are interpreted to paint the Pharisees as obsessively concerned with formal details of Jewish law, the Dead Sea Scrolls describe the Pharisees’ as lax when it comes to the law, inventing loopholes to make law observance easier.

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the Pharisees, often focusing on their faults. But even if Christians are inclined to draw their conclusions about the Pharisees primarily from the New Testament, it’s still the case that the evidence about the Pharisees there is mixed. The named Pharisees in the New Testament – Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and the apostle Paul –all come across as reasonably “good guys” (or in Paul’s case, ultimately a good guy). After his conversion, Paul described himself as a Pharisee, giving the impression that he thought one could be both a Pharisee and a follower of Jesus. Even Jesus had some nice things to say about the Pharisees – he described them as sitting in Moses’ seat (which has got to be a good seat, assuming you’re looking for a Jewish place to sit), and he ordered his followers to “do whatever they teach you and follow it.”

Some scholars (a minority, to be sure) argue that Jesus himself might have been a Pharisee. This seems unlikely to me, but it also seems unlikely that Jesus and the Pharisees stood at opposite poles. In Matthew 23 at least, Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is based not on what they taught, but on their failure to “practice what they teach.” But this conflicts with a picture we get from Josephus, that the Pharisees were devout, pious and “think they ought earnestly to strive to observe” the commandments of the law. The best scholarly view may be that there was no fundamental point of disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees, and that the Gospel portrait of the Pharisees is a later development, representing tension between Christian and non-Christian Jews at the time the Gospels were written (some 30 to 70 years after Jesus’ death).

One reason why we get differing portraits of the Pharisees is that there were differences among the Pharisees. Within Judaism, perhaps the most famous disputes over Jewish law took place within the Pharisees, between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. As a rule, Shammai’s views on the law were stricter, and Hillel’s were more liberal (and popular). There are stories in Jewish texts suggesting that the disputes between these schools could become acrimonious, even violent. So if Jesus opposed the Pharisees, the logical follow-up question is to ask which Pharisees he opposed!

We should note that the Pharisees are in no sense universally beloved in Jewish sources. Much of what Josephus wrote about the Pharisees was highly critical of them. The Talmud itself says unflattering things about the Pharisees. It lists seven categories of Pharisees (including “delaying,” “bruised” and “pestle” Pharisees), only one of which (the “loving” kind) was deemed admirable. So it’s not right to think of the Pharisees as universally loved in the Jewish sources and reviled in the Christian sources. Both sets of sources have good and bad things to say about the Pharisees.

The picture we have of the Pharisees is so mixed that in the summary at the end of In Quest of the Pharisees, William Scott Glenn concludes that there’s enough “hard evidence” to conclude that the Pharisees existed, “but not yet enough to produce a systematic and substantive description of their nature, beliefs, and character.”

What lesson do we take from all this? My argument here is against the use of the term “Pharisee” as a term of insult. One reason to avoid this use is that we don’t exactly know who the Pharisees were. If a Christian calls another Christian a “Pharisee”, then based on what we know from history, we might conclude that the other Christian is self-righteous, or hypocritical. Or we might conclude that the other Christian:

  • Is pious
  • Walks the walk as well as talks the talk
  • Believes in resurrection of the dead
  • Sits in Moses’ seat (and I still insist that this is one of the best seats you can sit in)
  • Is a model for present-day Jews to follow
  • Is someone who attracts a lot of Jewish criticism
  • Is subject to inner turmoil
  • Is hard to figure out
  • John Brantingham

    Well, in the end, we should avoid any epithet that was created out of a group name. The term “to gyp” meaning “to con or swindle” and coming from Gypsy is a good example. It seems to me too that what Jesus was doing most of the time was turning expectation on its head, so he made the unpopular Samaritans heroes. This would suggest to me that Pharisees were probably normally considered good people. His larger suggestion being that any stereotype is a bad idea.

    • lbehrendt

      John, GREAT point about group names. I did not know that “gyp” came from “gypsy.” Live and learn.

      Jesus was a master teacher and story-teller, and his ability in parable to turn expectation on its head may have been without peer. This is the nature of parable — these are supposed to be provocative stories, and not the fables we often make them out to be.

      But I’m not sure that Jesus was opposed to stereotyping. If he said that Jews are the children of the devil (John 8:44), that was painting an entire group with the same brush. Personally, I doubt that Jesus ever said this. There’s something like stereotyping going on in Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus initially refused to heal the daughter of the (non-Jewish) Canaanite woman, proclaiming “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” All Canaanites are dogs? Of course, Jesus DID eventually heal this woman’s daughter, so this story can be read in more than one way. Jesus also makes blanket negative statements about the Pharisees (see for example Matthew 23).

      I can understand a reading of the New Testament that sees Jesus viewing everyone fairly and individually, without regard to race/color/creed/etc., but there IS evidence there to the contrary, so I personally don’t see anti-stereotyping at the core of Jesus’ message. Just my opinion FWIW.

      • David

        I apologize for the irreverent humor, but the discussion brings to mind this comedy sketch about Jesus and the “Samaritan stereotype”.

        • lbehrendt

          I apologize for enjoying this irreverent humor as much as I did.

      • John Brantingham

        Of course, when he’s talking about Jews, he’s talking as a Jew about other Jews. You know much more about this than I do, but isn’t there the sense when he talks like this he’s saying basically that everyone is the children of the devil.

        • lbehrendt

          John, you’re spot on when you point out that if John 8:44 contains words spoken by the historical Jesus, then these words must be understood as intra-Jewish, a comment made by a Jew to other Jews. But if we adopt this perspective, we’re going to struggle with a lot of what we find in John, where “the Jews” are discussed as if Jews are a “them” and not an “us.” At some point I’ll write more about this. But no, I do not read John 8:44 to make a universal statement about human depravity. I think it clear from the context that Jesus meant to exempt from this criticism those in his audience who believed in him.

          • John Brantingham

            That’s really fascinating. Never had the non-Catholic perspective before, and not even that for 30 years. I’d love to hear more about this.

  • David

    The New Testament attitude toward the Pharisees reminds me of criticisms leveled today against “Haredi” (black-hat, yeshiva-oriented) Judaism – i.e. that its focus on the study of details of the Law to the exclusion of nearly all else borders on obsessive, that it is intolerant, xenophobic and self-righteous, cloistered and uninvolved in the world, so focused on mechanistic practices and norms that basic “love your neighbor” and caring for the stranger is often neglected, and so on. Is there some truth to these criticisms? Certainly. Do the criticisms often get overblown and border on prejudice? Without a doubt. But one thing’s for sure – these have been the most robust Jewish communities over time and are ultimately responsible for the survival of the Jewish people and faith. So despite their excesses and imbalances, they serve a crucial role.

    But I would imagine that it’s not simply the “behavior” of the Pharisees which the New Testament doesn’t like. It’s also that they represent the categorical and emphatic rejection of Jesus as Son of God and Messiah. That being the case, the use of the term “Pharisee” today as an insult could reasonably be seen by Jews not simply as a put-down directed toward a certain group of Jews in antiquity, nor toward the “neo-Pharisees” – i.e. Haredi Jews, but more generally as a slight on ALL Jews apart from Messianic Jews who accept Jesus. Jews as a whole bear the torch of that rejection.

    I guess the question I’d pose to Christians is: What do you mean when you use the term Pharisee as an insult? Is it about behavior, belief, or both?

    And the question I’d pose to fellow-Jews: Even if the term Pharisee really equals “Jew” for all intents and purposes, do we really have to be offended? Most of us *do* reject Jesus as Son of God after all. Are we saying to Christians that they’re not allowed to criticize that rejection?

    • lbehrendt

      David, I would firmly reject any argument that the Haredi are ultimately responsible for the survival of the Jewish people. Part of my rejection stems from the impossibility of proving any such thing. Part of my rejection stems from what strikes me as a wide range of beliefs and attitudes among those labelled as Haredi, and from my belief that some of these attitudes (not held by all Haredi, or perhaps not even by most Haredi) are highly divisive and ultimately destructive.

      Your comment makes me think that I need another post, to try and pinpoint what I think Christians mean when they use the word “Pharisee.” But to answer the question in part, I do not think the intended meaning is in any sense anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. My argument (to be made in an upcoming post) is that the unintended EFFECT of this usage may be anti-Jewish.

      Your question to Jews is a difficult one, a question where I’ve had more than one change of heart. Possibly I start with the modern (or postmodern) idea that we’re all free to be the people we want to be, and that (historically speaking) “criticism” of modes of identity can quickly morph into active modes of persecution. We can say from our long experience of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that Christian “criticism” of Judaism has taken a terrible toll, and cannot be “allowed” in its historic form

      Yes, there’s an argument to be made that Jewish-Christian dialogue should not begin and end with acknowledgement of Jewish-Christian difference, that this dialogue will be artificial and stilted if it cannot include questioning of beliefs and criticism of attitudes. I think there’s something to this argument, particularly for those who look at religion as an effort to understand “Truth with a capital ‘T’,” or at least an effort to understand moral/ethical/ontological truths. From this perspective, we might engage in vigorous debate of religious questions, just as we debate questions involving science and politics, or our opinions regarding art and music.

      But from conversations I’m having with friend-of-this-blog Anthony Le Donne, I’m coming to consider a different perspective, one that says that Jewish-Christian dialogue must be based on a commitment by each religion to the well-being of the other. I admit that I’m struggling to grok this concept, but at minimum I think that there are aspects of this concept that are fundamental to our dialogue. One of these fundamentals is that we are not engaging in anything like “dialogue” if the goal of one group in the dialogue is the elimination of the other group, even if this elimination is accomplished by means of incorporation. There’s much here that can and should be discussed … but to be as brief as I can manage … in Jewish-Christian dialogue, where my goal is to talk to Christians, there must be some limit on my ability to criticize a Christian’s choice to have the very identity I’m hoping to encounter in my dialogue … or else what I’m calling “dialogue” should be given a different name.

      • David

        Larry, I’m leaving the debate of “who’s responsible” for Jewish survival aside, since in any case it was more of a tangential point.

        I agree that we need to distinguish between the “effect” of Christians using the word Pharisee vs. the the “intent” – which is why I thought I’d ask the question directly. In fact I think that’s something which is probably very useful in the context of a dialog. Instead of assuming what people think and feel, just ask them. (And also realize that they don’t speak for everyone.)

        But the statement of yours I’d really like to hone in on is “that Jewish-Christian dialogue must be based on a commitment by each religion to the well-being of the other”. I like the sound of that – the question is to define what it means. Is it about committing to securing one another’s physical safety, given historical precedents to the contrary? Is it about a commitment to religious freedom for the other, that no one should be blocked from their chosen beliefs/practice, either by force or by law?

        Or does it go further, to commit to using no “ideological force” against the other – not to question one another’s claims on Truth, not to attempt to influence people’s beliefs or proselytize? Or does it go further still, where a commitment to well-being means actually wanting to see the other’s religion perpetuate and thrive? And if so, how do you resolve the inherent tension that while you want to see *people* thrive, and while you may want to see certain shared values thrive, do you really want theological beliefs to thrive which clash with your own? For someone who’s “moderate” in their beliefs, this last question is simple — Sure, believe whatever you want. In fact the more beliefs the merrier, as long as no one imposes their beliefs on others. But for staunch believers, fundamentalists, people who hold that granting legitimacy to anything other than the One Truth – which they possess – is tantamount to heresy, it’s not such a simple question. What “level” of commitment would you ask from them?

        • lbehrendt

          David, with regard to Jewish-Christian dialogue being based on a commitment to the well-being of the other, you ask many of the questions I’ve asked myself. As I’ve already admitted, I’m struggling with this concept.

          Personally, I’ve come to value my contact with nearly all of the Christians who engage in dialogue with me. There is something valuable that comes out of “good” contact with an “other” that I cannot achieve in any other way. The thing here I value cannot be reduced to agreement or disagreement concerning values, or questions of theology, or truth, or Truth. There is also a value in the perspective that comes from this dialogue, a means of coming to know better my own traditions, beliefs and self. It’s a complex mix. But I see the value of this dialogue arising from the value of a Jewish-Christian difference. Thus I am committed in some sense to the preservation of this difference.

          I admit, the way I see this dialogue is riddled with tensions. You’ve mentioned a number of them. Personally, I cannot imagine that Jewish-Christian dialogue can have much vitality if it’s limited to polite exploration of the Jewish-Christian difference. Part of what I value about dialogue is its potential to change me. But perhaps there needs to be some limit on how vigorously one side seeks to change the other. You suggested ideas of religious freedom, and safety. Those are good ideas. For certain, this dialogue is not meaningful if it devolves into something like a medieval disputation.

          I don’t know if this dialogue is for everyone. I imagine that many Jews and Christians believe that their best potential for personal and spiritual growth lies exclusively within their individual religious tradition. As you pointed out, some may consider dialogue primarily as a dangerous encounter with heresy. My experience is that these are not the people who seek the kind of dialogue I seek.

          What do you think? What do others here think? I’d very much like to know.

          • David

            I think your detailed and thoughtful writing will naturally draw people who are inclined to engage in a thoughtful and respectful dialog. (And if others hop aboard occasionally, that’s OK too.) As long as the conversation is respectful, meaning people show some reasonable sensitivity, not wanting to offend or “bum out” others, then for the purposes of dialog, I think that’s “commitment to well being” enough.

  • Jo Scott-Coe

    Comprehensive and incredibly helpful! Thank you for unpacking all of this so thoughtfully.