What Is the Difference Between the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

What Is the Difference Between the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

Throughout the Gospel records, Jesus came into contact with various leaders in Israel. Some of them were political, some were social. Often they were religious leaders.  By this time in Israel’s history, there had been divergences in the way people thought about and approached Judaism, much like how there are different denominations of Christianity today.

The two biggest religious sects in Judaism during the earthly ministry of the Lord were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They agreed on certain key tenets of the Jewish faith, but disagreed on others. They competed for political power and tried to sway the Jews to their side of the religious debate.

Jesus’ message conflicted with both approaches. The Pharisees and Sadducees were important figures rising to prominence in Israel after the return from exile through the first century, but Jesus’ important message of salvation highlighted the problems with their religious traditions.

What Is the Historical Context of the Pharisees and Sadducees?

The rise of the popular sects of Jewish thought present during the earthly life and ministry started after the exile. The Babylonian empire conquered the southern kingdom of Judah in 597 B.C. and carried many Hebrews off. Some estimates are that as many as a quarter of Judah’s population were carried off, mostly the young and the healthy.

The Books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Lamentations, and Jeremiah all touch on this event and its ramifications. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah address the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, including the second temple. The Book of Esther addresses what happened to some of the Jews who stayed in Babylon and did not return.

When the second temple was built, it was not as magnificent as Solomon’s Temple, and certain traditions and thoughts had been lost during the exile. Some habits and customs were brought back from Babylon, such as certain practices around hand–washing. This period changed the way the Hebrews worshipped. It was during this period of re-grouping, re-organizing, and renewal that certain thinkers arose who started the sects known as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. While they were not the only sects that rose to prominence, they were dominant in Jerusalem and came into conflict with Jesus the most in the Gospels.

Who Were the Sadducees?

When the Second Temple was built, there was a need for people to fill roles to ensure religious rituals were finished. They were responsible for conducting sacrifices. During the Jewish festivals, they took prominent, visible roles in the culture and the religious rites of sacrifice, many of which were mandated in Leviticus.

It could be seen as a priestly class in Israel, though not exclusively. They were considered high-status individuals, and often dealt with and had good relationships with the Romans after the nation became a part of the Roman empire. Many embraced Hellenization, which was the process of becoming more like the Greeks and the Romans. They could hold administrative or representative positions in the government. Some of them held positions in the army, collected certain taxes, and could solve domestic conflicts. Like the Pharisees, they served in the Sanhedrin - the tribunal of elders.

The Sadducees held beliefs that differed from the Judaism practiced before the exile, and differed from the Pharisees. Rather than maintaining the oral tradition of the Torah, they believed it should be written down. Notably, the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife or a supernatural realm. They did not believe the soul went on after death, or in the existence of angels. In one of their most notable conflicts with Jesus, they tried to trick him with a question about Heaven, because they did not believe it existed. They also believed exclusively in the power of humanity’s free will, rather than in destiny or God foreordaining anything.

Some Bible verses about the Sadducees are:

Luke 20:27 “There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection.”

Mark 12:18-23 And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died.  In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.’”

Matthew 12:39 “But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’”

To read more about the Sadducees, click here.

Who Were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees also rose to prominence in the wake of the building of the Second Temple and the return from exile. They actually came about as a political movement. After the return from Babylon, there were still forces that would come and conquer Israel, which would have to resist influence. A family called the Maccabees successfully fought back the Greeks. When one of these Maccabees, John Hyrcanus, became the high priest he influenced both political and religious authority. They were considered heroes and were popular among the people because of their resistance to the Greeks.

In many ways, their beliefs were in direct conflict with the Sadducees. They believed in the oral Torah, the books of wisdom, and the prophets. They believed in an afterlife and the supernatural realm. While they did believe people exercised free-will, they believe God possessed foreknowledge of human destiny. They believed in the immortality of the human soul, but not in a resurrection of the body. The Pharisees saw Jewish practice as something that should inhabit the daily life of a Jewish person, and that it should be practiced outside the Temple.

Because of this view, they began to develop strict interpretations of the Law, even where rules were not present. They lived their lives based on these strict rules about cleanliness, work on the Sabbath, what material to wear, and many other daily tasks.

In one of their notable interactions with Jesus, He admonished them for tithing so literally they tithed exactly 10% of the leaves on their mint plants, but did not extend love to others, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). This strict lifestyle is one of the features highlighted the most in the Gospel.

Some Bible verses about the Pharisees include:

Matthew 23:1-3 “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat,’ so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.’”

Luke 20:45-47 “And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’”

Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What Can We Learn from the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

Because both the Pharisees and the Sadducees lost sight of the purpose of their religion and the temple, to draw people closer to the one true God, they lost their own purpose. The Sadducees forgot about their own souls, the importance of their identity as children of Abraham, and why it was important for Israel to exist as a shining city on the hill for the nations.

God intended for Israel to bless the nations so they could turn to God for salvation and a redeeming relationship with him. The church should not lose its purpose by becoming too like the world around it, forgetting its mission to obey the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

The Pharisees forgot that no one can be good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven on their own merit, and that putting too many constraints and restrictions between a person and God prohibits people from reaching Him. Christians should not lean too much on their own righteousness or add to the Gospel. Their aggression toward one another is also a lesson in how allowing disagreements between sects, or in today’s context church denominations, can divide people in ways that are damaging to their faith.

The difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees were rooted in their differing approaches to politics and religious interpretations. Despite their many differences, they did not like the message of Jesus during his earthly ministry, and sought his destruction. However, the Lord Jesus’ message was true, right, and eternal. It was life-saving, offering all people a path to eternal salvation and a relationship with God. Understanding these sects can give insight into problems with the church today, and remind people about the wonderful message of the Gospel.


Bell, J. The Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes Their Origin and Finale. Dog Ear Publishing, LLC, 2017.

Grundmann, Carl Frederic. The Pharisees and Sadducees During the Time of Christ.Seward: Concordia Teachers College, 1943.

Saldarini, Anthony. Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees in Palestinian Society. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.

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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.