Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes

By Mitchell G. Bard

Of the various factions that emerged under Hasmoneanrule, three are of particular interest: the Pharisees, Sadducees, andEssenes.

The Pharisees

The most important of the three were the Phariseesbecause they are the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. Their maindistinguishing 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 tothe U.S. Constitution in the sense that it set down a series of laws thatwere open to interpretation. The Pharisees believed that God also gave Moses the knowledge of what theselaws meant and how they should be applied. This oral tradition was codifiedand written down roughly three centuries later in what is known as the Talmud.

The Pharisees also maintained that an afterlife existed and that Godpunished the wicked and rewarded the righteous in the world to come. Theyalso believed in a messiah who wouldherald an era of world peace.

Pharisees were in a sense blue-collar Jews who adheredto the tenets developed after the destruction of the Temple; that is, such things asindividual prayer and assembly in synagogues.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were elitists who wanted to maintain thepriestly caste, but they were also liberal in their willingness toincorporate Hellenism into their lives, something the Pharisees opposed.The Sadducees rejected the idea of the OralLaw and insisted on a literal interpretation of the Written Law; consequently, theydid not believe in an afterlife, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. The main focus ofSadducee life was rituals associated with the Temple.

The Sadducees disappeared around 70 A.D., after thedestruction of the Second Temple (see below). None of the writings of theSadducees survived, so the little we know about them comes from theirPharisaic opponents.

These two "parties" served in the GreatSanhedrin, a kind of Jewish Supreme Court made up of 71 members whoseresponsibility was to interpret civil and religious laws.

The Dead Sea Sect

A third faction, the Essenes, emerged out ofdisgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted thecity and the Temple. They movedout of Jerusalem and lived amonastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitmentto celibacy.

The Essenes are particularly interesting to scholarsbecause they are believed to be an offshoot of the group that lived inQumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherdstumbled into a cave containing various ancient artifacts and jarscontaining manuscriptsdescribing the beliefs of the sect and events of the time.

The most important documents, often only parchmentfragments that had to be meticulously restored, were the earliest knowncopies of the Old Testament. The similarity of the substance of thematerial found in the scrolls to that in the modern scriptures hasconfirmed the authenticity of the Bible used today.

Summary of Disputes Among theThree Parties

Social Class:Priests, aristocratsCommon people?
Figures of Authority:Priests"Disciples of the Wise""Teacher of Righteousness"
Attitude to Hellenism:ForSelectiveAgainst
Attitide to Hasmoneans:Opposed usurpation of priesthood by non-ZadokitesVaried?

Opposed usurpation of monarchy?


Personally opposed to Jonathan ("Wicked Priest")?

  1. Free will
  2. Angels
  3. Afterlife

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. None

  1. Mostly
  2. Yes
  3. Resurrection

  1. No
  2. ?
  3. Spiritual Survival (?)
Attitude to Bible:LiteralistSophisticated scholarly interpretations"Inspired Exegesis"
Attitude to Oral Torah:No such thingEqual to Written Torah"Inspired Exegesis"
Practices:Emphasis on priestly obligations (for priests)Application of priestly laws to non-priests (tithesand purity rules)"Inspired Exegesis"

Luni-solar (perhaps only under popular pressure?)

Luni-solarSolar: 364-day year

Source: Mitchell G. Bard, TheComplete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflicts, NY: MacMillan,1999. Chart courtesy of Prof. Eliezer Segal.