A question posed by one of my loved-ones as part of her odyssey into the communities which formed part of first-century Israel…

Who were the Pharisees and Sadducees, and why did the latter not believe in resurrection (contra the former)?

The Pharisees were a group (possibly consisting of scribes) which originated sometime around the Maccabean revolt (that which drove out Antiochus Epiphanes, in 164 BC) and whose focus was to exercise moral pressure on those in power, to influence the masses and uphold a high standard of purity.  They, like many Jews at the time, believed that the ruling regimes from the Hasmonean (Maccabeaen) family since its triumph in 164 BC to the Herodian dynasties (from 37BC onwards) has been unfaithful to the covenant God by, among other things, ignored ancestral traditions and compromising with Gentile oppressors.  The Temple administration was viewed with much suspicion and as long as Israel was under the heel of a pagan army, no governing leadership would be considered genuinely heaven-sent.


The Pharisees’ strict observances on matters of purity needs to be understood as an expression of their belief that God would in the future vindicate His true people from the present corrupted regime, and that His people – the true Israel – would be identified by their faithful observance of His Law.


“Faced with social, political and cultural ‘pollution’ at the level of national life as a whole, one natural reaction…was to concentrate on personal cleanness, to cleanse and purify an area over which one did have control as a compensation for the impossibility of cleansing or purifying an area – the outward and visible political one – over which one had none…Ceremonial purity functions almost as a displacement activity when faced with the apparent impossibility of national purity…(and also) as a means of symbolically enacting that resistance to pagan rule which was nursed secretly and maintained in readiness for revolutionary opportunities…” (New Testament & People of God, pg. 187-189)


Important:  There is good evidence that the Pharisees, contra popular evangelicalism, did NOT believe in ‘salvation by works’ (this applied to the Essenes as well).  Their intense practices were meant to reflect or express – not earn! – their status as the true people of God whom God will rightfully restore when He came again in power to bring Israel out of exile.  This is similar to the Christian understanding of ‘good works’ as merely demonstrating or ’accompanying’ (see Jas 3:17) faith in Christ, not meriting it.


It should be noted that the Pharisees were involved (at times substantially) in revolutionary campaigns against Rome but that most significantly they served as a political pressure-group constantly lobbying the administration to adhere to Israel’s traditions as they (the Pharisees) understood it.



The Sadducees, by contrast, were the chief priests and lay aristocracy who were installed by the Roman government, primarily for the purpose of ‘keeping the peace’ between Rome and the (often discontented) Jews.  They, unlike the Pharisees, had few links with Israel’s heritage and, unlike the Levites, were not from the ancestral line of priests.  On the other hand, they probably stemmed from Jerusalem priests who traced their ancestry from Zadok, the priests of Jerusalem who served both King David and King Solomon.  So, Meier:


“These sons of Zadok seem to have controlled the Jerusalem temple and the high priesthood from the time of the rebuildingof the Jerusalem temple (ca.520-515 BC) after the Babylonian exile down to the disruption and revolt caused by the Hellenizing policies of Antiochus IV (reigned 175-164 BC).  The victory of the Hasmonean family and their assumption in due time of the high priesthood meant that a priestly family that did not claim to stem from Zadok now occupied the supreme priestly office.” (Meier, Rethinking the Historical Jesus Vol.III, pg. 394)


The high priesthood was eventually back (more or less) in the hands of the Sadducees, however, because they – a grouping of the sons of the displaced and/or discredited Zadok with their priestly and lay supporters - managed to gain the support and membership of a Hasmonean leader, John Hyrcanus I.  This :


“(enhanced) the Hasmonean high priest’s patina of legitimacy, while the Sadducess could regain some power.  It was a holy horse trade.  The Sadducees (could be conceived as) a religious movement and a political party, made up mostly of old-time aristocratic priests and laymen, focused on Jerusalem, its temple, and its high priesthood.” (RHJ3, pg.395).


And Wright again:


“…(the chief priests) form in the first century a kind of permanent secretariat, based in Jerusalem, wielding considerable power…unlike the ordinary priests, they formed the heart of Judaism’s aristocracy…it was with them that the Roman governors had to deal in the first instance, holding them responsible for the general conduct of the populace.” (NTPG, pg.210)


The Sadducees were the ones who controlled the Temple which, being the economic and political center of the country, represented their power-base.  The Temple provided religious legitimation to their status granted by Herod and the Romans.


Now a brief look at resurrection


The Pharisees’ affirmation and the Sadducees’ denial of resurrection needs to be understood in the context of what ‘resurrection’ meant to first-century Jews.  The idea of resurrection involves the vindication of the true people of God from the present time of exile (that first-century Jews believing themselves still be in exile, though still debated, is most likely given that they were being ruled by Rome i.e. pagan oppressors[!], Israel’s God had not yet returned to Zion, the covenant not fulfilled, etc.  See NTPG pg. 268-272). 


‘Resurrection’, then, was associated with nothing less than the end of exile.


“Resurrection’, while focusing attention on the new embodiment of the individuals involved, retained its original sense of the restoration of Israel by her covenant god.  As such, ‘resurrection’ was not simply a pious hope about new life for dead people.  It carried with it all that was associated with the return from exile itself: forgiveness of sins, the re-establishment of Israel as the true humanity of the covenant god, and the renewal of all creation.” (NTPG, pg. 332)


“(Resurrection) will constitute Israel’s salvation: after the long years of oppression and desolation, she will be rescued at last.  (Resurrection will also) constitute Israel’s vindication (or ‘justification’): having claimed throughout her history to be the people of the creator god, the resurrection will at last make the claim good.” (NTPG, pg.334)


“By the first century, ‘resurrection’ had functioned for a long time as a symbol and metaphor for the total reconstitution of Israel, the return from Babylon, and the final redemption.  Ezekiel 37 spoke of the return in terms of Israel being awakened out of the grave; the Maccabaean martyrs, as presented in 2 Maccabees…spoke of their own forthcoming resurrection in the context of claiming that their god would vindicate his people against the tyrant… resurrection, in its sense of the restitution of a theocratic Israel, possibly under a Messiah, would mean the end of (the Sadducees’) precarious power.” (NTPG, pg. 211)



Resurrection therefore implied that the then-ruling government and Temple regime were evil and destined to be overthrown when God acts to save His people, which is almost exactly what the Pharisees were waiting for (and occasionally presuming to ‘jump-start’ with the endorsement of revolutionary campaigns) and what the Sadducees, being part of the governing regime(!), was diametrically – and thus doctrinally – opposed to.  For the former, resurrection when it occurs would ‘prove’ their status as the true people of God.  The Sadducees, on the other hand, had to reject any idea of resurrection because it would mean not only that their present power-status would be cut short in the future but that they were also, in fact, God’s enemies.  The last thing they would want is a major upheaval to cancel out their power/privileges. 


(The Sadducees’ rejection of the resurrection could be doctrinally attributed to their resistance to any authority apart from the Pentateuch which, arguably, does not explicitly affirm a belief in rewards and a life beyond death.  Nevertheless, one could wonder if their interpretation of what the Pentateuch implied about postmortem existence wasn’t colored by the discomfort to their situation of alternate views.  E.g. see Mark 12:18-27)


In a word, the Pharisees’ and Sadducees acceptance and rejection of resurrection respectively probably had much less to do with metaphysics than with politics. 


Before wrapping up, I decided to throw in yet another key Jewish group…


The Essenes were probably a community that lived in Qumran (by the north-west shore of the Dead Sea) and the possible writers of the acclaimed Dead Sea Scrolls.  The origins of the group can be traced back to the Hasmonean (Maccabaean) period, where members of a growing sect saw began to doubt the legitimacy of the ruline regime and saw themselves, again, as the true representatives of God over and against those in power.  Their activities were mainly non-revolutionary, being limited to occasional prophetic announcements; communal life was regulated by strict laws of purity and proper observance of all Jewish festivals and sabbaths.  Even pen and ink, Wright tells us, “…were used in symbolic in the service of Israel’s god.  Even the scroll jars themselves acquire…a profound symbolic value: these writings are to be kept safe through the present tribulation, so that when the day of vindication dawns they may again be read.” (NTPG, pg.205) 


Similar to the Pharisees, the Essenes (or simply the Scrolls writers, as Wright cautiously put it) saw themselves as God’s elect in whom He was secretly working and whom He will vindicate when He finally cleanses the Temple, fulfils His promises, restore true worship, put back the right people in power (which involved, of course, defeat over Israel’s pagan enemies which included the regining Jewish authorities) and bring redemption to then-unredeemed Israel.  When the resurrection happened – and the Essenes, seeing themselves as the recipients of God’s future eschatological benefits, naturally believed it would – members of the sect, having shown their faithfulness to God during the exile, would be reestablished as the true Israel.


The table below gives a hasty (though hopefully insightful) summary and comparison of the three groups above:






Influence of group

Minimal influence

Widespread public influence but very little ‘official’ power (somewhat like modern journalists who exert ‘moral pressure’ on the significant members of the ruling community)


Strong political and religious power

‘Badges’ of membership expressing themselves as God’s true people (who awaited divine redemption from exile)


Prayer and piety

Ceremonial purity and intensification of study/practice of Torah and its regulations


Not applicable.

Belief in resurrection

Yes.  And they will be shown to be the true people of the covenant i.e. the true Israel.


Yes.  (Same as the Essenes)

No.  Because resurrection means that another ‘true’ Israel will replace them.

Belief in ‘fate’ or ‘free-will’ (the need to hasten the restoration of Israel e.g. through revolutionary activity)

Fate (according to Josephus).



Socio-Political significance: 

God will act in His own ways and time and is, in fact, already acting secretly through them and their quiet devotional practices.

Middle position between fate and free-will (according to Josephus).


Socio-Political significance: 

Even though God will act, He will require human agents/instruments (this is why Pharisees have often shown support for violent rebellion against Rome).


Free-Will (according to Josephus). 



Socio-Political significance: 

God ‘helps those who help themselves’ and their position confirmed that.  It is also the ‘flip-side’ of the coin which implies that God will not act restoratively in the future or, if He does, not in a manner detrimental to the present temple administration.



The last row – in addition to providing a neat close to this essay - describes Josephus interesting labeling of the groups’ supposed stances with respect to human freedom (as part of his effort to make the groups resemble Greek philosophical schools with abstract metaphysical commitments).  Clearly there can be no separation between the groups’ position/praxis in the socio-political reality of Israel and the Hellenistic categories into which Josephus assigns them.  Wright sums it up nicely:


“The Essenes proclaimed by their very mode of existence that, though they longed for the liberation of Israel, they were simply going to wait and allow Israel’s god to bring it to pass in his own time.  The Sadducees proclaimed by their very existence that they believed in seizing and maintaining political power for themselves…Reasoning in parallel, we may take it that the Pharisees’ belief was as follows:  Israel’s god will act; but loyal Jews may well be required as the agents and instruments of that divine action.” (NTPG, pg.200-201)



Into such a turbulent clash of praxis and outlook our Lord emerged…with His radical agenda of defeating God’s enemies… of forgiveness and inclusion for anyone who would take up their crosses for His sake…of fresh new life for those who would live and manifest His redefinition of what it means to be the people of God…stay tuned (smile).




Back to Main Page