Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes
By Mitchell G. Bard
Of the various factions that emerged under Hasmonean rule, three are of particular interest: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
The most important of the three were the Pharisees because they are the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. Their main distinguishing characteristic was a belief in an Oral Law that God gave to Moses at Sinai along with the Torah. The Torah or Written Law was akin to the U.S. Constitution in the sense that it set down a series of laws that were open to interpretation. The Pharisees believed that God also gave Moses the knowledge of what these laws meant and how they should be applied. This oral tradition was codified and written down roughly three centuries later in what is known as the Talmud.
The Pharisees also maintained that an afterlife existed and that God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous in the world to come. They also believed in a messiah who would herald an era of world peace.
Pharisees were in a sense blue-collar Jews who adhered to the tenets developed after the destruction of the Temple; that is, such things as individual prayer and assembly in synagogues.
The Sadducees were elitists who wanted to maintain the priestly caste, but they were also liberal in their willingness to incorporate Hellenism into their lives, something the Pharisees opposed. The Sadducees rejected the idea of the Oral Law and insisted on a literal interpretation of the Written Law; consequently, they did not believe in an afterlife, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. The main focus of Sadducee life was rituals associated with the Temple.
The Sadducees disappeared around 70 A.D., after the destruction of the Second Temple (see below). None of the writings of the Sadducees survived, so the little we know about them comes from their Pharisaic opponents.
These two “parties” served in the Great Sanhedrin, a kind of Jewish Supreme Court made up of 71 members whose responsibility was to interpret civil and religious laws.
The Dead Sea Sect
A third faction, the Essenes, emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.
The Essenes are particularly interesting to scholars because they are believed to be an offshoot of the group that lived in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd stumbled into a cave containing various ancient artifacts and jars containing manuscripts describing the beliefs of the sect and events of the time.
The most important documents, often only parchment fragments that had to be meticulously restored, were the earliest known copies of the Old Testament. The similarity of the substance of the material found in the scrolls to that in the modern scriptures has confirmed the authenticity of the Bible used today.
Summary of Disputes Among the Three Parties
Sect: Sadducees Pharisees Essenes
Social Class: Priests, aristocrats Common people ?
Figures of Authority: Priests “Disciples of the Wise” “Teacher of Righteousness”
Attitude to Hellenism: For Selective Against
Attitide to Hasmoneans: Opposed usurpation of priesthood by non-Zadokites Varied?
Opposed usurpation of monarchy?
Personally opposed to Jonathan (“Wicked Priest”)?
Spiritual Survival (?)
Attitude to Bible: Literalist Sophisticated scholarly interpretations “Inspired Exegesis”
Attitude to Oral Torah: No such thing Equal to Written Torah “Inspired Exegesis”
Practices: Emphasis on priestly obligations (for priests) Application of priestly laws to non-priests (tithes and purity rules) “Inspired Exegesis”
Luni-solar (perhaps only under popular pressure?)
Luni-solar Solar: 364-day year
Source: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Conflicts, NY: MacMillan, 1999. Chart courtesy of Prof. Eliezer Segal.