Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees: #4 Relationship to Other Groups

07 Dec

In the Gospels, the various authorities who oppose Jesus are grouped together in a number of ways. The accompanying table attempts to categorize these occurrences. All four Gospels link scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5.20; 12.38; 15.1; 23 ( 7 occurrences); Mark 2.16 (scribes of the pharisees); 7.1; Luke 5.21; 5.30 (Pharisees and their scribes); 6.7; 7.30 (Pharisees and lawyers); 11.53; 15.2; John 8.3; cf also Acts 23.9. This is simply to say that some scribes were Pharisees, and were likely because of their learning to take leading roles within the movement.

Matthew alone links Pharisees with the Sadducees (3.7; 16.1, 6, 11, 12). Without other context this may suggest that they represented the leaders of the people; but it is clear that in general the Gospel writers see various combinations of chief priests, elders and scribes as taking that role. Matthew’s usage may suggest that he saw these two groups as advocating doctrines which were most distinctive from other strands of Judaism (see further below). The opposition between Pharisees and Sadducees is an important part of Josephus’ portrait, and figures also in the later rabbinic materials; cf also Acts 23.6–10.

Matthew also once links them with the chief priests (21.45); and in John this combination is the moving force behind the formal opposition to Jesus (7.32, 45; 11.47, 57; 18.3). This might suggest, as Josephus also claims, that the Pharisees wielded considerable political power. Josephus however also notes that some of the leading priests were themselves Pharisees; though Matthew’s reference appears to be to two separate groups.

The central thrust of His message to every group and every person, of whatever persuasion or inclination, was that the way of His kingdom is first and above all a matter of the inside—the soul.

Jesus lived in a highly complex religious society, one that included many professional religionists. Those professionals were in five primary groups: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots and the Herodians. At this point, it is only necessary to introduce these groups briefly.

The Pharisees believed that right religion consisted in divine laws and religious tradition. Their primary concern was for fastidious observance of the Mosaic law and of every minute detail of the traditions handed down by various rabbis over the centuries. They focused on adhering to the laws of the past.

  1. The Sadducees focused on the present. They were the religious liberals who discounted most things supernatural and who modified both Scripture and tradition to fit their own religious philosophy.
  2. The Essenes were ascetics who believed that right religion meant separation from the rest of society. They led austere lives in remote, barren areas such as Qumran, on the northwest edge of the Dead Sea.
  3. The Zealots were fanatical nationalists who thought that right religion centered in radical political activism. These Jewish revolutionaries looked down on fellow Jews who would not take up arms against Rome.
  4. The Herodians are mentioned in only three places in the New Testament (Matt. 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13). In the earliest reference in Mark, they joined with the Pharisees in a plot to kill Jesus. The other two passages refer to the sending of Pharisees and Herodians to ask Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. It is assumed that they were Jews who supported Herod Antipas or sought to have a descendant of Herod the Great given authority over Palestine. At this time Judea and Samaria were under Roman governors.

In essence, the Pharisees said, “Go back”; the Sadducees said, “Go ahead”; the Essenes said, “Go away”; and the Zealots said, “Go against.” The Pharisees were traditionalists; the Sadducees were modernists; the Essenes were separatists; and the Zealots were activists. They represented the same primary types of religious factions that are common today. But Jesus’ way was not any of those. To the Pharisees He said that true spirituality is internal, not external. To the Sadducees He said that it is God’s way, not man’s way. To the Essenes He said that it is a matter of the heart, not the body. To the Zealots He said that it is a matter of worship, not revolution.


Group Basic thrust Category What Jesus said to them
Pharisees Go back Traditionalists True spirituality is internal, not external
Sadducees Go ahead Modernists It is God’s way, not man’s way
Essenes Go away Separatists It is a matter of the heart, not the body
Zealots Go against Activists It is a matter of worship, not revolution
1 Comment

Posted by on December 7, 2020 in Pharisees


One response to “Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees: #4 Relationship to Other Groups

  1. Stephen Maynard

    December 7, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Excellent article and explanation, Gary. Thanks



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