The three main philosophies which characterized Judaism in the New Testament period and before were the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
So what’s the difference between these three groups?
Though one may at first be struck at the apparent disunity that is suggested by the Jewish faith having such distinct sects, it is important to remember two things:
First, these different “schools of thought” as Josephus called them were not very large. Although they were certainly influential and may appear in the New Testament and various other writings of the time, this influence was not proportional to their number of followers. This is largely due to how each group dealt with those in power, which will be discussed later.
The second point to be made is that these three groups were similar in many ways. They were strictly monotheistic, focused on their covenant relationship with God, and were adamant about properly following God’s law.
Though there are some theological and social disagreements between them, the varied opinions on how to rightly interpret and live out the law account for most of their distinguishing characteristics.
Who Were The Pharisees?
As of the New Testament period, the Pharisees were the largest of these three groups and had the most power. They are mentioned several times in the gospels as being on the receiving end of Jesus’ rebukes (Matt. 3:7; 23:15; Luke 11:39; John 9:39-41). They are also the group associated with instigating His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
As a group the Pharisees are distinct for being opposed to the political rulers of Israel, focusing on ceremonial washing, and most notably for their strict adherence to the oral law, or traditions of the elders. Their theological beliefs included supernatural elements such as the eternity of the soul, the existence of angels, and belief in the resurrection of the dead.
These convictions put them in stark contrast to the Sadducees.
Who Were The Sadducees?
As mentioned above and as described in Acts 23:8, the Sadducees did not believe in some supernatural aspects of Judaism. Unlike the Pharisees they were few in number and rejected the notion of having to follow the oral law. Their belief that God is essentially separated from taking part in human affairs and their rejection of the afterlife makes their theology distinctive.
Despite their small numbers, the Sadducees were able to maneuver themselves politically to positions of power within the Sanhedrin (a sort of religious Supreme Court) and allied themselves with the Romans.
Despite their opportunism, this sect would not survive the turbulent times ahead. The Sadducees were tightly integrated with the institutions of Judaism, especially the Temple. When the Temple and Jewish state were destroyed in A.D. 70, the Sadducees went away as well.
Who Were The Essenes?
The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament and are likely an offshoot of Pharisaism, as much of their theology appears to have been similar. They were particularly in opposition to what they believed to be a corrupt priesthood. This conviction prevented them from sacrificing at the temple, which further contrasts them from the two sects of Judaism discussed above.
The Essenes are also believed to have been residents of the reclusive Qumran community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although there is still much unknown about this group, they appear to have been theologically distinct for a heightened reverence for Moses, a strict interpretation of the law, and for following their own sacrificial system.
While such distinctions might seem to point to great disunity among Judaism, it is important to compare these various sects with modern day Christianity. A parallel to the interfaith debates, reformations, and varied denominations which mark the Christian faith can be easily seen.
Realizing this fact helps us relate to the situation experienced by the Jews of this period and allows us to better understand the background of the events recorded in the New Testament.