Daily life of Israel under Roman occupation was governed by a group of religious and political leaders known as the Sanhedrin. Rome allowed Israel to govern itself in many matters as long as they did not interfere wtih Rome’s laws or foster rebellion against the Empire. Like the American Congress today the Sanhedrin was comprised of men holding allegience with one of two ideological groups. The larger of the two groups was the Pharisees. They held a strict adherence to a broad reaching series of traditional laws that governed every part of daily living. The Pharisees endured the government of Rome but generally did little to cooperate with it.
The other group within the Sanhedrin was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were very different from the Pharisees in politics, theology and daily living. Sadducees were mostly wealthy men of the ruling class. They were fewer in number than the Pharisees, but they held the positions of leadership within the Sanhedrin. The Bible tells us that the High Priest in Jesus day was a Sadducee (Acts 5:17) and history indicates that most of the High Priests under the Roman occupation were Sadducees. As a result, the Sadducees were the more powerful of the two groups.
The greatest political disagreement between the groups was over the relationship of the Sanhedrin to civil government. This issue is believed to be one of the primary reasons the Sadducees split away from the Pharisees sometime around 150 BC. The Sadducees desired both political and religious authority, while the Pharisees taught that civil government and religious government should not be invested in the same individual.
Very little first hand information about the theological teachings of the Sadducees is available. History has not preserved any of their writings. What is known about their doctrine comes from a several references in the Bible, the writings of Josephus and a couple other Jewish works. The Sadducees held to the teachings of the Old Testament, particularly the writings of Moses, but rejected the authority of the traditions of the Pharisees. This caused great conflict with the Pharisees who believed the oral traditions to be as authoritative as Scripture. While the Sadducees adherence to Scripture alone appears laudable their rejection of the traditions of the Pharisees seems to have been driven by a refusal to follow the Pharisees rather than by a desire to obey God’s Word.
The Bible says the Sadducees rejected belief in the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). The believed the soul died with the body and that there was no promise of a future resurrection, either to a kingdom on this earth or to a life in heaven. The Sadducees also denied the existence of a spiritual essence in man and of angelic beings. They appear to have been materialists who were most concerned with maintaining their own power and wealth. Their influence in Israel lasted a little over 200 years. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, so was their power. They fell off the pages of history in 70 AD and have not reappeared since.
A reader of the gospels soon encounters a group of men who have become almost synonymous with religious frauds. Jesus tangled with the Pharisees more often than any other group. The Bible does not explain who the Pharisees were. The gospels were originally written to people that knew exactly who and what the Pharisees were. Modern readers are far removed from the culture of the New Testament and may wonder who and what the Pharisees were.
The Pharisees were religious leaders who exercised great authority over the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus records that there were 6,000 Pharisees in Israel during Jesus’ day. They were members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel. The beginning of the Pharisees can be dates to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, over 450 years before the birth of Jesus. They trace their lineage to a group of Jews who separated themselves from those who had remained in the land of Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. (Ezra 6:21) This group gained influence within the nation over the years. By the time of Jesus’ day the Pharisees were a major part of the ruling body of Israel.
The Pharisees were Old Testament scholars. They studied and debated it endlessly. They knew it minutely. They were actively involved in teaching the application of the law of Moses to the daily life of the average person. This application was made primarily through an extensive series of traditions. The Pharisees blanketed the Old Testament laws with a huge system of precise regulations addressing every area of life.
The Pharisees themselves were scrupulous to observe all the traditions. Jesus called them hypocrites because they obeyed the law and kept the traditions to impress others not because they taught a way of life they did not themselves practice. The Pharisees were extremely careful to observe all their traditions and they held in disdain all those who did not share their scrupulousness for outward religion. Jesus referred to them as ones “which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” (Luke 18:9) Even though the Pharisees were active in teaching the common people how to live they would have very little interaction with non-Pharisees. The traditions of the Pharisees placed great restrictions on all interactions with those not a part of the brotherhood of the Pharisees.
Jesus strongly denounced the Pharisees. The harshest words of Jesus were directed at the Pharisees. Matthew 23 contains a series of curses upon the Pharisees for their self-righteousness, heartlessness and elevation of their traditions over the Word of God. The Pharisees were a group of influential religious leaders in Israel who had come to believe that they were righteous because they kept an extensive series of outward laws. They gave no thought to the true condition of their sinful heart. They hated Jesus for His powerful repudiation of their false religion. They hated Jesus because he pointed out to them the wickedness of their own hearts that could never be made clean by the outward keeping of rules and regulations.