Who were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes & Zealots?

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The Sadducees were mostly members of the wealthy conservative elite. They had opened their hearts to the secular world of Greek culture and commerce, while insisting that the only worthy form of Judaism was to be found in a rather spiritless, fundamentalist, “pure letter-of-the-law” reading of the Torah. Philosophically, they denied such concepts as resurrection, personal immortality, or other ideas that were only found in the Oral tradition (eventually written down in the Talmud). Politically, they contented themselves with the way things were and resisted change – preferring instead to promote cordial relations with the Romans. Although they often held influential positions in society, they were unpopular with the masses who generally opposed all foreign influences.

The Great Sanhedrin was the supreme court of ancient Israel, made up of 70 men and the high priest. In the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Temple in Jerusalem. The court convened every day except festivals and on the Sabbath. The Sanhedrin as a body claimed powers that lesser Jewish courts did not have. As such, they were the only ones who could try the king or extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. The last binding decision of the Sanhedrin was in 358, when the Hebrew calendar was adopted. The Sanhedrin was dissolved after continued persecution by the Roman Empire. Over the centuries, there have been attempts to revive the institution, such as the Grand Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Pharisees, the largest group, were mostly middle-class Jews who emphasized the exact keeping of the law as it had been interpreted by sages, elders, and rabbis. Politically, they were ardent anti-Hellenists and anti-Romans. The Pharisees were admired by the majority of Jews, but they were never a very large group since most people had neither the education nor the time to join the party and follow all their stringent rules regarding prayer, fasting, festival observance, tithing, etc. Pharisees were greatly influenced by Persian ideas of Good and Evil, and they adhered to the growing belief in the resurrection of the body with an afterlife of rewards and punishments. Over time, many of the finer impulses of Pharisaism would weaken into an empty religious formalism (as is ever the case), focusing on outward actions rather than the inward experience of the soul. Although the group had initially been exceedingly tolerant, this began to devolve into a feeling of contempt toward those Jews who did not meet their standards of behavior.

From among the more politically radical of the Pharisees there came a new group called the Zealots, meaning ‘men of action’. These were revolutionary patriots, who sought to overthrow the Roman regime by whatever means necessary. They were strongest in Galilee. As the Romans committed one atrocity after another, the ranks of the Zealots grew. (By 66 A.D., their ranks would be swollen, and they would lead the charge against the Roman oppressors, initiating a long, costly, and bitter war, that finally ended with the inevitable Roman victory and the destruction of the Second Temple).

At the other extreme were the Essenes (es-een). These were religious Jews who, in contrast with the Sadducees, now rejected the Temple and the Priesthood believing these had been defiled by corruption and murder. They also scorned what they felt was the spiritually empty and overly ‘comfortable’ life of the Pharisees. And unlike the Zealots, they had no taste for politics or violence. They chose, instead, to withdraw from secular activities and devote themselves entirely to spiritual purification and contemplation within austere religious communities. The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament, but Flavius Josephus, Philo, Pliny, and various others speak of them in their writings. According to the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in 1947, and the additional scrolls that were later excavated from a Jewish monastery in Qumran, the Essene communities worked and worshipped according to their own customs, studied and copied religious literature, practiced baptism and a communion meal, and lived an ascetic life devoted to spiritual growth and the perfection of the soul.

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