Sects of Judaism


Pharisees – The largest and most influential group in New Testament times was the Pharisees.  Their name comes from the word parash which means “to separate.”  It is believed they became a separate group following the time of the Maccabees (between the Old Testament and the New Testament). They sought to separate themselves from the influence of foreign rulers and to obey every precept of the oral and written law.  By 135 B.C. they were established in Judaism. 

They founded their theology on the entire Old Testament – the Law of Moses (the Torah – first five books of the OT), the Prophets and the Writings.  The oral law, or tradition, was highly valued.  They practiced ritual prayer and fasting, kept the Sabbath strictly, believed in angels, the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.

They taught that when God gave the Law to Moses (the Torah – the written law), he also gave an oral law.  This oral law formed the core of the Talmud.  Although it was called “oral law,” it was actually also written.  The Pharisees taught that there were many situations which the written law did not cover specifically.  So they wrote down another set of laws (the oral law) to cover these situations.  By keeping the rules of the oral law (Talmud), the Jews could be sure to avoid breaking the written law (Torah). 

The Pharisees were a party with considerable popular influence, according to Jewish historian Josephus.  He says they had the ability to sway the masses.  The Pharisees were the party of the synagogue and the Law. 

Although Jesus condemned the self-righteousness of many of the Pharisees, they were those among them who were good.  Not all were hypocrites.  Nicodemus, who came to Jesus searching for answers in John 3, was a Pharisee.  Saul of Tarsus was also a Pharisee and stated that “touching the righteousness which is in the law [he was] found blameless.”  Although the Pharisees tended toward self-righteousness and hypocrisy, many were honestly seeking to prevent the corruption of God’s law that they saw all around them.

The traditions of the Pharisees survived the destruction of the temple and the crushing defeat of the Bar Cochlea rebellion.  This was possible mainly because the Pharisees spiritual life revolved around the synagogue, rabbi, prayer and study of the Torah.  They were not dependent, as were the Sadducees, on the temple with its sacrifices and rituals.  

Pharisaic traditions are the source of what is known as rabbinical Judaism.  Modern Judaism owes its existence to the Pharisees. 


Sadducees – The origin of the name “Sadducees” is not known.  According to tradition, they derived their name from the sons of Zadok.  Zadok was the High Priest during King David’s reign (1 King 2:25).  Zadok’s sons were the priestly hierarchy during the captivity (2 Chronincles. 31:10; Ezekiel. 40:46; 44:15; 48:11) and tradition says this name remained as the title of the priestly party during Jesus’ life.  The earliest historical record we have of the Sadducees was during the reign of the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus (135-105). 

The Sadducees were aristocratic Jews and drew their support from the upper class and the priesthood.  Although they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and less influential with the masses, they possessed political power and governed in the civil life of Judaism under the Herods.

They maintained that only the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) had authority and they gave less importance to the Prophets and the Writings.  They also maintained that the subsequent tradition handed down by the rabbis (Talmud) had no authority.  According to Mark 12:18, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  They also denied the existence of angels and the immortality of the soul. 

Their religion was coldly ethical and literal.  They were opportunists politically and willing to ally themselves with the dominant ruling power if this would enable them to maintain their own power and influence.

After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Sadducees ceased to exist.  This was apparently because their religious expression was tied to the priesthood and the operation of the temple.  When the temple ceased to exist, so did their existence as a group.


Scribes – Scribes is really the name of an occupation rather than an organization.  Scribes could read and write and worked as teachers and secretaries.  Because of their ability to read and write, many Scribes served in leadership positions.  They are often found in the Bible confronting Jesus with questions about the law. 


Essenes – This group is more mysterious than the other groups of New Testament times.  The meaning of their name is uncertain.  Some Bible scholars have connected it with the Greek word hosios which means “holy.” 

Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes could be entered only by submitting to regulations of the group and undergoing initiation ceremonies.  They did not believe in marriage and was able to increase their ranks only by adoption or converts.  They hold all property in common, dressed plainly and ate simple foods.  They believed in the immortality of the soul.  They would not blaspheme God or eat unlawful food, even when threatened with torture. 

The New Testament does not explicitly mention the Essenes, but it is clear that many of their ideas could be found in other circles.  In 1947 some Bedouin sheepherders found eight large jars in a cave near Qumran.  These scrolls (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) contained manuscripts from the time around the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66-70.  Included in these scrolls was part of the book of Isaiah.


Zealots – The Zealots were not a religious sect like the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Rather they were armed resisters who fought against foreign rule and taxation.  Their belief was that since God is the only Lord, no tribute should be paid to the Roman emperor.  Founded by Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, they looked up to the “zealous” followers of Yahweh like Phinehas and Elijah in the Old Testament and the Maccabees in the second century B.C.  They may have been associated with the “Assassins” mentioned in Acts 21:38.

When Jerusalem was under siege by the Roman general Titus, they formed one of the factions in the city and contributed significantly to its downfall.  It appears one of Jesus’ disciples may have been at one time a member of this group (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).


The Hebraists – The Hebraists, or “Hebrews,” were those Jews who not only retained the religious faith of Judaism, but also kept the Use of the Hebrew or Aramaic language and the Hebrew customs.  Paul wrote that he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians. 3:5).  Although there were Hebrews who lived throughout the Roman world maintaining their Jewish beliefs, untouched by the Gentile customs around them, the bulk of the Hebraists lived in Palestine where their life centered in the temple. 


Hellenists – A larger group of Jews had absorbed the Graeco-Roman culture and were Jews only in matters of faith.  They had adopted the Greek language or whatever language was spoken in the area where they lived.  They adopted the customs of their neighbors.  The Hellenists were somewhat broader in their sympathies than the Hebraists and perhaps more open to see the wider implications of the Old Testament Scriptures as they pertained to Christ.

In Acts 6 the division between these two groups threatened to disrupt the Early Church. 

Ten Rules on How to be a Good Pharisee (Or, Not the Way to Live Your Life)

Matthew 23:

  • Require of others more than you require of yourself or more than God requires

1-4 – Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

  • Desire to be the center of attraction

5-12 – But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

  • Limit God

13 – But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

  • Good pretender/Put on a good show

14 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.

  • Want to be the leader/People to follow/You teach them so well they are bigger fanatics than you are

15 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

  • Good debater – even the smallest detail/always learning more and more about everything until you know less and less about nothing.

16-22 – Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.

  • Major in the minors (strain at a gnat and swallow a camel)

23-24 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

  • Look religious but corrupt on the inside

25-26 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.

  • People pleaser

27-28 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

  • Blind to what you really are

29-33 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’  “Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?

  • Four things will follow if you practice the above ideology:
  1. Put down those in authority – always critical
  2. Stubborn – refuse to yield
  3. Never see the reality of Jesus
  4. Jesus will not dwell in your life
  • The Solution:

John 15:4-8 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.  “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples