Let’s Talk About Sects

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes on law.

The differences between these three Second Temple-era sects are even more salient than their similarities, owing to the fact that the primary sources often highlight them. Rabbinic literature emphasizes halakhic (Jewish legal) differences, while the New Testament focuses on ideological and ritual issues separating the Pharisees and Jesus. First century CE Jewish historian Josephus first introduces the sects in his account of Jonathan the Hasmonean leader who assumed the office of the high priest after the death of his brother Judah (ca. 150) as follows:

Now at this time there were three schools of thought among the Jews, which held different opinions concerning human affairs; the first being that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes.

As for the Pharisees, they say that certain events are the work of Fate, but not all; as to other events, it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not. The sect of Essenes, however, declares that Fate is mistress of all things, and that nothing befalls men unless it be in accordance with her decree. But the Sadducees do away with Fate, holding that there is no such thing and that human actions are not achieved in accordance with her decree, but that all things lie within our own power, so that we ourselves are responsible for our well being, while we suffer misfortune through our own thoughtlessness. [Jewish Antiquities 13.5.]

This is not the only place where Josephus focuses on philosophical differences between the sects; he notes other difference between them later on, in his account of Hyrcanus’ rule. With the above distinctions in mind, we will next discuss the fundamental differences between the two sects that were based in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees and Oral Law

Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the Pharisees was their unique doc­trine of the Oral Law, which they considered as binding as the written Torah itself. Josephus wrote:

For the present I wish merely to explain that the Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not record­ed in the Laws of Moses, for which reason they are rejected by the Sadducean group, who hold that only those regulations should be considered valid which were written down (in Scripture), and that those which had been handed down by former generations (lit., by the fathers) need not be observed. [Jewish Antiquities 13.10.]

The Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah, which ipso facto made up their Oral Tradition, thus carried an enormous degree of authority and legitimacy for those who accepted this claim. How exactly the Pharisees themselves would have formulated this idea is unknown, although later rabbinic tradition contains a number of statements in this vein.

Moreover, how the Pharisees defined the relationship between the Written and Oral Laws is beyond the scope of the sources at hand; later on, the Mishnah clearly differentiates between various categories of law in this respect:

The rules about release from vows (i.e. rabbinic law) hover in the air and have nothing to support them; the rules about the Sabbath, festivals, and instances of misusing objects dedicated to the Temple are as mountains which hang by a hair, for Scripture is scanty and halakhot many; the rules concerning civil cases, the temple service, determining what is clean and unclean and forbidden relationships, they have many (biblical sources to) support them, and they are the essentials of the Torah. [Hagigah 1,8.]

The Sadducees and Nonbiblical Rules

It is commonly assumed that the Sadducees believed only in the Torah or Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses) as God’s word and rejected any oral tradition, particularly that of the Pharisees. This assumption is not entirely mistaken, but requires some revision and fine‑tuning. True, the Sadducees did not accept the Pharisaic Oral Law, but this does not mean that they did not have their own non-biblical rules. The difference may have been that for the Sadducees everything had to be derived exegetically from the Torah, whereas for the Pharisees the Oral Law could be independent of Scriptures.

Three considerations would seem to bolster this assumption:

(1) No one can apply Scripture without some degree of interpretation. Once one relates a spec­ific case or issue to a particular verse and then reaches some sort of conclusion, interpretation or midrash has taken place; this, then, is an instance of a non-writt­en (i.e., oral) exegesis.

(2) We know that the Sadducees derived many of their regulations and halakhah [law] from midrash; rabbinic literature has preserved many instances of the Sadducees interpreting a biblical verse in one way and the Pharisees in another. The case of the daily sacrifice is classic in that it also clear­ly reflects the socioeconomic status of each sect. The Sadducees claimed that the daily sacrifice should be paid for by individual donors; the Pharisees, that it should come from the Temple coffers to which all Jews contributed, each side quoting a verse in support of its position. There is no reason to doubt that such exchanges on a variety of issues did, in fact, take place before 70 B.C.E.

(3) We read of a Book of Decrees that belonged to the Sadducees and liste­d their halakhic decisions. Thus they, too, clearly possessed such decisions over and above that which existed in the Torah.

A second, and related, fundamental difference between the Sadducees and Pharisees was that the latter considered their Oral Tradition as completely binding, having derived from Sinai no less than the Written Law. The Sadducees, however, considered only the Torah as authoritative and that their exegetically derived traditions were ad hoc decisions commanding no authoritative value over and above their original intent and context.

Power and Popularity

Finally, Josephus, corroborated by a later rabbinic tradition, delineates another important distinction between the two groups, this time in the social sphere:

And concerning these matters the two parties came to have controversies and serious differences; the Sadducees having the confidence of the wealthy alone but no following among the populace, while the Pharisees have the support of the masses. [Jewish Antiquities 13:10.]

Josephus’ statement focuses on one of the most debated issues regarding Pharisees in this and the subsequent Herodian and post‑Herodian eras, namely the degree to which they influenced the people politically and religiously. At first glance, the sources at our disposal seem to be unanimous in this respect, namely that the Pharisees, at least in the first century C.E., indeed constituted most powerful and popular sect.

However, the issue is more complex than it first appears. Two of the three primary sources, Josephus and rabbinic literature, closely identify with the Pharisees; Josephus became a member of the sect and the rabbis regarded themselves as the Pharisees’ successors. Therefore, the testimony of each may be considered tendentious.

The New Testament, for its part, emphasizes the Pharisees’ role in the Galilee as adversaries of Jesus but has them play a distinctly secondary and peripheral role in the Jerusalem episodes of his life. However, it is precisely the Jerusalem accounts of the gospels that are considered the most detailed and more historically accurate traditions concerning Jesus’ life.

Furthermore, some scholars have detected a shift in emphasis in Josephus’ accounts of the Pharisees, from a less to a more sympathetic one (or vice versa, according to others). Such considerations raise questions about exactly how reliable a source Josephus is in this regard.

Finally, the intense research focusing on the Qumran, or Dead Sea Scrolls [tens of thousands of scroll fragments, including the earliest known copies of the Bible and manuscripts detailing the events of the time, discovered in the caves of Qumran in 1947], and related literature in the late 20th century has opened up new horizons with respect to the variety and richness of Second Temple religious life. Thus the inclination to view any one sect as dominant and normative is far rarer today than ever before.


The third sect noted by Josephus ‑‑ the Essenes ‑- was also to be found in Jerusalem. Although its headquarters seems to have been in Qumran, we know from [the philosopher] Philo and Josephus that there were communities of Essenes throughout Judaea. As for Jerusalem, Josephus specifically mentions one Judas the Essene who instructed his “companions and disciples” in the Temple area during the reign of Aristobulus 1 (104‑103)…

If indeed there was an Essene community in Jerusalem, it would have contributed to the diverse and variegated social and religious character of the city. As well as is known, this sect had adopted a number of strikingly different practices and beliefs that appear to have distanced them from other Jews: a monastic‑type community with communal property, an emphasis on community-­focused activities, rarer instances of marriage, use of the solar calendar, a belief in predestination, etc.

The aforementioned characteristics relate first and foremost to the sect living Qumran; unfortunately, we know next to nothing about the Essenes of this period b­esides what is noted in the Qumran scrolls. We are uninformed as to the extent, if at all, that the political‑religious ideology fueling those at Qumran also applied to the Essenes of Jerusalem and elsewhere. According to the scrolls, members of the sect retired to Qumran in protest of the corruption of the Jerusalem authorities, i.e., the Hasmoneans, and their misguided halakhah.

How would the Jerusalem Essenes have handled such an issue on a day-to-day basis? Clearly, for such a community to have existed in the capital city would have required a large measure of tolerance on the part of the ruling Hasmonean establishment. This, however, cannot be readily assumed on the basis of other data regarding Hasmonean attitudes toward dissenters, unless, of course, the Essenes in the city were so inconsequential in number or so eccentric in practice as to be easily disregarded.

Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (Jewish Publication Society).

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