Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin

We were discussing these three in my men’s bible study this morning and found that none of us really understood the differences between these 1st century Jews. We knew of them, but were unable to really tell what the differences were. This article is based on my research on the subject. I hope it brings some clarity.

Biblical references

Matthew 3:7 – Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist. He called them both a brood of vipers.

Matthew 16:1 – Pharisees and Sadducees tested Jesus asking Him to show them a sign from heaven.

Matthew 16:5-12 – Jesus said, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27 – Sadducees do not believe in Resurrection

Matthew 22:34 – Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.

Acts 23:6-8 – Paul pitted the Sadducees and the Pharisees against each other in the Sanhedrin

Matthew 23 – Pharisees as hypocrites


There were at least four major schools of thought within the Jewish religion at the beginning of this century, Pharisees, Sadduces, Essenes, and the revolutionaries (zealots). The Essenes were apolitical and the revolutionaries were specifically to resist the Roman Empire. The Pharisees and the Sadduces were opponents.

Josephus (Jewish-Roman historian in the first century) indicated that the Pharisees received the backing of the common people. The Sadducees were more elite and associated with the ruling class.




Represent the common man Represent the Elite ruling class
Believed in the Rabbinic interpretations as well as the Torah Recognize only the written word, Torah
Eclectic, popular, and democratic Conservative, aristocratic monarchists
Considered the most expert and accuate expositors of the Jewish Law  
Purity laws applied outside the Temple Purity laws only applied within the Temple
Interpret the Torah liberally Interpret the Torah literally
Believe in resurrection of the dead in a future, messianic age and a literal resurrection of the body. Disappeared with the Temple
Believe in free will, but God has foreknowledge of human destiny Believe in free will
Believe in afterlife No afterlife


The religion of ancient Israel was centered on a Temple and served by a caste of priests, who sacrificed offerings to the God of Israel. The priests claimed descent from Aaron of the tribe of Levi. Early on the authority came from the Kings, but after the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity the monarchy was not allowed to be re-established (by authority of the Persians who released the captive Jews). The Jews rebuilt the Temple and its authority was amplified because of the absence of a king. Also during this time a group of people referred to as the scribes and sages developed. They monopolized the study of the Torah. The priests still ran the Temple. The sages developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside the written traditions. A rift developed between the sages and the priests. The Sadducee party developed from the priests and the allied elites. The Essenes may have emerged as a sect of dissident priests. The Pharisees (separatist) party emerged largely out of the sages and scribes.

The political parties gradually developed into religious sects within Judaism. As time passed the different sects fell. The revolutionaries were crushed by the Romans. The Sadducees disappeared when the second Temple fell. The Essenes disappeared, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the concerns of the times.

Josephus wrote that the Sadducees were a quarrelsome group whose followers were wealthy and powerful, and that he considered them boorish in social interactions.

An example of this differing approach is the interpretation of, “an eye for an eye”. The Pharisaic understanding was that the value of an eye was to be sought by the perpetrator rather than actually removing his eye too. In the Sadducees’ view the law was to be taken literally.

The Sanhedrin was a governing body made up of the chief priest (high priest), a vice chief justice, and 69 general members. It was made up of Pharisees and Sadducees. It is basically the Supreme Court and legislative body of ancient Israel. In Jesus’ time it was mostly made up of Sadducees. Annas and Caiaphas were Sadducees.

17 Responses

  1. Hello Morris,
    thank you for posting this information on your website.
    In my (personal) studies I was interested to know if Caiaphas was a Sadducee as I had read that they had taken on the role of High Priest. Your article answered that and much more.
    Thank you.

  2. […] time, the Sanhedrin was dominated by conservative judges from the wealthy elite class who embraced rigid literal interpretations of the Old Testament […]

  3. […] time, the Sanhedrin was dominated by conservative judges from the wealthy elite class who embraced rigid literal interpretations of the Old Testament […]

  4. […] time, the Sanhedrin was dominated by conservative judges from the wealthy elite class who embraced rigid literal interpretations of the Old Testament […]

  5. […] At a time, a Sanhedrin was dominated by regressive judges from a rich chosen category who embraced firm verbatim interpretations of a Old Testament […]

  6. […] — but this claim won’t hold up in any court. The Sanhedrin that convicted Jesus was a conservative court. It was dominated at that time by the conservative Saducees, who represented the elite and wealthy […]

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  9. […] was a powerful council made up of 71ish members, primarily Pharisees and Saducees. (Here’s a good primer on what those two groups […]

  10. […] The Bible condemns excessive and extortive taxation, where certain elites intervene between God and the individual, rob people of their livelihoods and property, then […]

  11. […] The Bible condemns excessive and extortive taxation, where certain elites intervene between God and the individual, rob people of their livelihoods and property, then […]

  12. […] It is feudalism of a Pharisaical kind in our time. I suggest reading about it in “Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin.” And what is that? What does it […]

  13. […] It is feudalism of a Pharisaical kind in our time. I suggest reading about it in “Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin.” And what is that? What does it […]

  14. […] It is feudalism of a Pharisaical kind in our time. I suggest reading about it in “Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin.” And what is that? What does it […]

  15. Regarding the most famous Pharisee, Paul…

    Many self-professed “Bible-believing Evangelicals” won’t listen to the words of Jesus, because they are brainwashed through reciting their “mantra” – “all scripture is God-breathed.”

    This “Evangelical Mantra” has been accepted by the collective subconscious mind of “The Evangelical Church” without thought, question, reflection, or even 2 witnesses from the Scripture itself. It’s based on a misinterpretation, out of context, of one verse in one letter written by one man, Paul the Pharisee, who was unfamiliar with the personal ministry and teaching of Jesus.

    But, “Once an idea has been accepted by your subconscious, it remains there and it governs your behavior until it is replaced or changed.” [ as a pastor named Bishop Dale C. Bronner observed in one of his sermons]

    (Definition from the American Heritage Dictionary.) Mantra (noun) (Hinduism.) A sacred formula believed to embody the divinity invoked and to possess magical power, used in prayer and incantation.

    When cult members repeat their mantra, it makes them deaf to the voice of God, unable to hear God. Instead, it puts their focus on their one “special man” above all others – his personality, words and teachings, character, life example, feelings, experience, intentions, mind, will, emotions, etc. Their cult leader is their hero – he is always right, could never be wrong about anything specific, and he must be obeyed in all things and never questioned. He will give himself a special title, write at least one special book, and claim special authority, with no need for a second witness to back him up.
    Here are 3 examples.

    .1) Fuhrer. The title of Adolf Hitler as the leader of the German Nazis, author of “Mein Kamph”. Mantra: “Heil Hitler.”

    .2) The self-appointed Prophet Muhammad, author of The Koran. Mantra: …..”and Muhammad is his prophet.”

    .3) Paul the Pharisee, the self-appointed Apostle to the Gentiles, whose 13 letters comprise one third of what, today, we call the “New Testament.” (The first, original “New Testament” was composed by the second century heretic Marcion, and he coined the term “New Testament.” His new “book” contained nothing except 10 of Paul’s letters and an abbreviated Gospel of Luke. There were no other “New Testament” books, and the Hebrew Scriptures were the “Old Testament” which was irrelevant, according to the heretic Marcion.) Mantra: “All Scripture is God-breathed….”

    I got my Masters Degree at Dallas Theological Seminary. I was attracted to the school because they put Paul’s mantra of “All Scripture is God-breathed” above everything else, and I wanted to heed Paul’s command and “Preach the Word” like Paul….

    This mantra is a misinterpretation out of context of 2 Timothy 3:16. It ignores the previous verse, 2 Timothy 3:15, which clearly indicates that Paul was NOT referring to his own letters when he wrote the words “All Scripture.”

    Paul was probably making reference to some of the Hebrew Scriptures, quite likely including the Law and the Prophets. We cannot be completely certain exactly which “Scriptures” Paul meant in “All Scripture”, and what Paul meant by “God-breathed.” Why can’t we be certain?

    Because we must establish a matter by the testimony of two or three witnesses, especially something as important as “What is the Word of God.” No one else in the pages of the Bible besides Paul ever said anything like “All Scripture is God-breathed”. And Paul only said it here, one time, in the middle of a personal letter.

    The Apostle Peter made reference to “Prophecy of Scripture,” not “All Scripture,” and no it’s not the same thing at all. Jesus never said anything like that. And no one, not even Paul, ever said that all Scripture was equal.

    I remember the general approach to the Bible at Dallas being that “every word in the 66 Books is the Word of God”….. and we should interpret it based on “the intended meaning of the author in the historical grammatical context.”

    That is the basic idea of the heavy-duty seminary language we were being trained in. It sounds so right, so intelligent, so professional, so “godly”….. but it is fundamentally flawed.

    When we look at Paul’s teachings and testimony about himself, (in his letters that make up 1/3 of the New Testament,) we should NOT immediately ask ourselves; “what did Paul say, what did Paul mean, and how does this apply to my life?” The fundamental question is NOT “what was in the mind of Paul?”

    Before any of that, the FIRST question to ask is; “does Paul agree with Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?”

    Paul contradicted himself, and his teachings and testimony about himself don’t harmonize with the teachings of Jesus (or with Luke’s record of his life.) Let’s not waste our time with endless debates about “what Paul really meant” with his wacky teachings about “baptizing the dead” or “there is neither male nor female.” Paul was wrong. Jesus reminds us from The Law “at the beginning, the Creator made them male and female.” [Matthew 19:4, Genesis 1:27]

    As to the question of “whether the Bible is ALL truly Gods WORDS”…

    The underlying unspoken assumption is that “The Bible” (66 Books) was given to us by God as “one book” and it’s all “equal” in level of authority, priority, and importance. This comes from inconsciously believing Paul’s mantra, the “Evangelical Mantra”, that “All Scripure is God-breathed”, and falsely assuming Paul was referring to every word in the 66 Books of the Bible. Yet even here, not even Paul, not even once, ever said that “All Scripture is EQUAL” in authority, priority, and importance.

    No one in the pages of the Bible ever said or wrote that “all Scripture,” or “the Bible,” is “all truly God’s words”. Jesus never said anything like that, and Jesus did not see it that way. Jesus did not see even the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the “Old Testament”, as a whole unit or book that was all equal or “all truly God’s words.” Jesus spoke of The Law, or The Law and the Prophets, holding these 2 sections of the Old Testament above the third, least important sections the “Writings.” And Jesus held the Psalms, the first book of the “Writings” section, above the other books in the “Writings” section in importance, since some parts of some Psalms are prophetic.

    Obviously, the New Testament Scriptures were not written when Jesus was walking the earth. But if we want to get closest to The Source, Jesus himself, it makes sense that we should look first to the eyewitness testimony of two of His appointed Apostles who walked with Him faithfully for over 3 years, Matthew & John. (Also to other eyewitness testimony, recorded by Mark and Luke.) This is more accurate, important, and authoritative than personal letters written by Paul the Pharisee, who never knew Jesus personally, had no part in His ministry, and had no eyewitness testimony.

    We should follow the Jesus of the Gospel writers. We should not follow the “jesus” of Paul the Pharisee or Muhammad or any other man, who had their own ideas of who “jesus” was and what He did.

    • Dear Matthew,

      Although I agree with your general position that we should be wary of putting our faith in doctrines derived from the will of men, I don’t share your same assessment of Paul’s writings. First, Peter called Paul’s writing scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16) in the same letter you referenced about “prophecy of scripture” (2 Peter 1:20-21). Peter’s point in chapter 1 relates to the position that the Holy Spirit guided prophecy and that it was not from the will of man. Using your own metric, i.e., an eye witness gospel, Jesus uses the same logic in the gospel of John to defend His own witness before the religious rulers of His day. He gives the Father as His witness and says that He only does and says and judges as the Father wills (see John 5 and 8). Jesus then explains how the Holy Spirit will work through His disciples in John 14-16, leading them to truth and helping them bear witness to Jesus. It sounds a lot like what He described is Peter’s position with regards to the will of men versus God and with regards to satisfying the requirements of witness (Deut. 19:15) through the partnership of the Holy Spirit acting through the prophet just as Jesus could call God the Father His witness. Prophets were always mouthpieces for God. Paul is a great example of someone who suffered for what he spoke; he wasn’t in it for himself. As such, I think we should have a higher estimation of the scriptures that are Paul’s letters, again, something Peter confirms:

      “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” – 2 Peter 3:15-16

      • Matthew B,
        Underlying your reasoning here is the unconscious “Evangelical Mantra” that I wrote about above. You’ve already decided that Paul COULDN’T be wrong, about anything – that he wrote, or even that he said or did, recorded in his biography by Luke in Acts.

        Rather that justifying why Paul couldn’t be wrong, why don’t we compare and contrast the teachings of Paul and Jesus on a specific example.
        Which is the Most Important Commandment?

        Poem – What is love?

        Two men came to Jesus
        With different motivations.
        They asked Him the same question
        Relevant to all the nations:

        Which is the Most Important?
        The answer was the same.
        Jesus did not manipulate
        He was not there to play a game.

        “Love the Lord your God” said Jesus
        as He quoted from The Law –
        to fulfill and not abolish
        was His purpose, full of awe.

        Jesus did not make all Scripture
        Into one new great commandment.
        He summarized The Law and Prophets
        “First and Greatest” and “The Second.”

        The Love of God is higher
        Than the love of any man.
        Receive from God, give back to God-
        Then to others, that’s His plan.

        The Love of God involves much more
        Than simply “love your fellow man.”
        Worship, trust, and pray to God,
        and obey Him – that’s His plan

        To worship and pray to neighbors,
        Whoever they may be,
        Or trust and obey our enemies
        Would be idolatry.

        The love of God is first and greatest,
        And the love of man is second.
        “All we need is love” are words
        of dead Beetles on the pavement.

        “The entire law is summed up in a single command”
        are not the words of Jesus our Salvation.
        It’s false teaching of Paul the Pharisee
        an “accuser of our brethren.”

        “Love” without God is Satan’s word through Paul
        in his chapter to the Corinthians.
        “I will show you the most excellent way”
        is the road to eternal perdition.

        Where is God in Paul’s chapter on love?
        Nowhere in view of the eye.
        Paul sings about himself like a Mexican Mariachi
        “I, I, I, I.”

        Jesus is The Most Excellent Way
        Not the words of a Pharisee.
        The words of Jesus are very clear.
        Jesus said, “You must follow ME.”

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