Who Were The Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes? . . . the Essenes?

A religious society, chiefly of laymen, frequently mentioned in the New Testament . . . a movement toward religious puritanism, marked by the Priestly and Holiness codes and stimulated by the reformation of Ezra and Nehemiah. (Ezra 6:21 and Neh 10:29). Where it characterizes one 'who separated himself from the spiritual uncleanness of the gentiles of the land' and from Jewish 'people of the land' to follow the law of God.

The Pharisees drew their following from all sections of the people irrespective of economic, social, and hereditary distinctions. They included priests and even members of the high priestly families. Their influence radiated not from the market place, but from the synagogue as the center of the threefold activity of study, worship, and works of charity.

Their chief distinction derived from their attitude toward the Law. As the word of God, the Torah, they believed, must be adequate for all times and circumstances. Accordingly, they devoted themselves to the interpretation of the Scriptural text in such a way as to find with it light for all conditions of changing times. 'Turn it and turn it again, for everything is within it.'

The Pharisees also drew the antagonism of Jesus and His disciples and particularly of Paul whose messianic claims and antinomist teachings they rejected. In consequence they were branded as bigoted formalists, hair-splitting legalists, and crafty hypocrites, devoid of charity and spirituality (Mk 7:1-23. Mt 23. Lk 11:38-54).

The Pharisees were in a sense Churchmen rather than statesmen. They emphasized spiritual methods. Their interests lay in the synagogue, in the schooling of children, in missionary extension amongst the heathen. Hence we are not surprised when we learn that, after the conflicts with Rome (A.D. 66-135). Pharisaism became practically synonymous with Judaism.

The priesthood was a close corporation. No man who was unable to trace his descent from a priestly family could exercise any function in the Temple. But the Pharisees and the Scribes opened a great career to all the talents. Furthermore, the priesthood exhausted itself in the ritual of the Temple. But the Pharisees found their main function in teaching and preaching. So Pharisaism cleared the ground for Christianity.

. . . About The Sadducees?

Probably the name 'Sadducee' is derived from the name Zadok, a notable priest in the time of David and Solomon (2 Samuel 8:17, 15:24; 1 Kings 1:34). His descendants long played the leading part among the priests, so that Ezekiel regarded them as the only legitimate priests (Ezk 40:46, 43:19, 44:15, 48:11). About the year 200 B.C., when party lines were beginning to be drawn, the name was chosen to point out the party of the priests. That is not saying that no priest could be a Pharisee or a Scribe. Neither is it saying that all the priests were Sadducees. In the time of Jesus many of the poor priests were Pharisees. But the higher priestly families and the priests as a body were Sadducees. With them were joined the majority of the aristocratic lay families of Judaea and Jerusalem. This fact gives us the key to their career. It is wrapped up in the history of the high priesthood. But in Jesus' time its leadership lay far back in the past. Its moral greatness had been undermined.

The Levitical priesthood was a close corporation. No man not born a priest could become a priest. More and more, as the interests of the nation widened and deepened, the priesthood failed to keep pace. Its alliance with the aristocratic families made thing worse. The Sadducees did not deny the immortality of the soul. But they lingered in the past, the period when the belief in immortality was vague, shadowy, and had not yet become a working motive for goodness. The Sadducees also denied the Pharisaic doctrine regarding angels and ministering spirits (Acts 23:8 -- "For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.").

From this sketch we can see why Jesus had almost no dealings with the Sadducees during His ministry. His interests were with the common people. This brought Him into continual conflict with the Pharisees. It was not until His popularity seemed to threaten the peace of Jerusalem that the high priest, with the Sadducees at his back, was moved to decisive action. We can also see why the Apostolic Church, in her first years, had most to fear from the Sadducees (Acts 4 and 5).

. . . About The Scribes?

The scribes were the writers, copyists, 'bookmen' and consequently the interpreters of the sacred writings of the Old Testament, as their professional occupation gave them unusual familiarity with these books. Among the forerunners of the scribes were also to be reckoned 'wise' teachers of Israel who produced and handed on a body of oral teaching and eventually created the Jewish Wisdom Literature

After the Exile, the scribe tended to take the place of the priest as teacher of the Law. In the Gospels the scribes are sometimes referred to as 'lawyers', i.e. Experts in the sacred Mosaic Law which was in theory the sole legislation, civil and religious, governing the Jewish people. They were usually associated with the Pharisees. Many of the scribes became members of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal administration body in the Jewish theocratic state. Among them were Gamaliel in Ac 5, Nicodemus in Jn 3 and 7. They sat 'on Moses' seat' (Mt 23:2) as official interpreters of the Law. They had the power of 'binding and loosing,' i.e. Of issuing authoritative judgments or decisions upon the legality or illegality of actions.

Their services, both educational and judicial, were rendered freely and without compensation. Unless he possessed independent means the scribe had to earn a livelihood in other ways and then teach as an avocation. It has been suggested that the rule grew out of the danger of bribery, cited in Ex 23;8, Dt 16:19 where 'judges' were ordered not to accept fees or gifts.

. . . About The Essenes?

In the life of a modern nation a great war has large results. Far greater were the effects of the Maccabaean War upon a small nation. The Essenes appear as a party shortly after the war. It is not necessary to suppose that at the outset they were a monastic order. It is more likely that they at first took form as small groups or brotherhood of men intent on holiness, according to the Jewish model. This meant a kind of holiness that put an immense emphasis on Levitical precision. To keep the Torah in its smallest details was part and parcel of the very essence of morality.

The groups of men who devoted themselves to the realization of that ideal started with a bias against the Temple as a place made unclean by the heathenism of the priests. So these men, knit into closely coherent groups, mainly in Judaea, found satisfactions of life in deepening fellowship, and an ever more intense devotion to the ideal of Levitical perfection. In course of time, as the logic of life carried them forward into positions of which they had not at first dreamed, the groups became more and more closely knit, and at the same time fundamentally separatistic regarding the common life of the Jews. So we find, possibly into the 1st Century B.C., the main group of Essenes colonizing near the Dead Sea, and constituting a true monastic order.

The stricter Essenes adjured private property and marriage in order to secure entire attention to the Torah. The Levitical laws of holiness were observed with great zeal. An Essene of the higher class became unclean if a fellow-Essene of lower degree so much as touched his garment. They held the name of Moses next in honour to the name of God. And their Sabbatarianism went to such lengths that the bowels must not perform their wonted functions on the Seventh Day.

At the same time, there are reasons for thinking that foreign influences had a hand in their constitution. They worshipped towards the sun, not towards the Temple. This may have been due to the influence of Pharism. Their doctrine of immortality was Hellenic, not Pharisaic. Foreign influences in this period are quite possible, for it was not until the wars with Rome imposed on Judaism a hard-and-fast form that the doors were locked and bolted. Yet, when all is said, the foreign influence gave nothing more than small change in Essenism. Its innermost nature and deepest motive were thoroughly Jewish.

It is possible that John the Baptist was affected by Essenism. It is possible that our Lord and the Apostolic Church may have been influenced to a certain extent. But influence of a primary sort is out of the question. The impassioned yet sane moral enthusiasm of early Christianity was too strong in its own kind to be deeply touched by a spirit so unlike its own. The Dead Sea Scrolls on the whole confirm these impressions. Whether the sect which produced them were identical with the Essenes or a distinct but closely related group, what has been said here applies to it as well as to the people described by Josephus, Philo, and Pliny. The Scrolls, however, give us an incomparably richer and more authentic picture of the sect.

Condensed from Hastings Dictionary of the Bible