When we read the New Testament we find repeated references to these three groups of people – usually as Jesus’ antagonists. But who really were they? (And why did Jesus have so many arguments with them?)
The Sadducees were the aristocratic conservatives of the Jewish people – an elite sect of ‘establishment’ Jews who controlled the Temple at the time of Jesus and thus much of Jewish society. Most (but not all) of the priests were Sadducees. They accepted as scripture only the Torah (the five books attributed to Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and insisted on strict enforcement of all the commands written there. These were rigidly dogmatic people who were all about ‘law and order’ in the here-and-now and had no use for ideas about angels, spirits, and life after death. At the crux of several mentions in the Bible is their rejection of the possibility of resurrection (e.g., Matthew 22:23-33, Acts 23:6-9), and that’s the basis for a lame pun that many of us can’t forget: “The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, and that’s why they were ‘sad you see.’” (Warned you!) As you might expect, the Sadducees weren’t very popular with ordinary folks, but their control over the Temple gave them power. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, they lost that power and disappeared from the scene.
The Pharisees were the liberal progressives of Jesus’ time. They tended to be the ‘upwardly mobile’ members of Jewish society – small land-owners and the like – who had the money and leisure to spend their time immersed in religious study and observance. Unlike the Sadducees, who were widely regarded as corrupt, the Pharisees were generally held in high esteem for their piety and the way they practiced what they preached. The Pharisees not only survived the destruction of the Temple, but they are the forefathers of modern Judaism (called Rabbinic Judaism). Unlike the Sadducees who held strictly to the ‘Written Torah,’ the Pharisees developed the idea of an ‘Oral Torah’ – things that God had supposedly taught Moses on Sinai that he had not written down but were passed down by word-of-mouth via the Jewish sages. These additional regulations largely focused on matters of personal piety (such as the washing rituals referred to in Mark 7). The Pharisees also stressed regular worship at local synagogues, so when the Temple was destroyed their influence grew even as the Sadducees’ influence collapsed.
Though Pharisees and Sadducees both insisted on strict observance of the written Torah, they often differed in how they applied it. For example, if you put out someone’s eye, the Pharisees applied the “eye for an eye” dictum of Leviticus 24:20 to say you owed monetary compensation; the Sadducees said that you literally should have your eye gouged out!
The Scribes were not a distinct religious sect like the Pharisees and Sadducees, but more of a profession. They were the experts on the Laws of Moses, which applied to every aspect of life. They were essentially lawyers who handled contracts, resolved disputes, etc. and they provided an essential service in every community. Like the Sadducees, the Scribes were obsessive about the Laws of Moses – and a lot of the Scribes were Sadducees, but some were also Pharisees, and many weren’t associated with either sect.
Since Jesus was a faithfully-observant Jew, why did He have so many run-ins with the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees? Simply because all three groups saw Jesus as challenging their authority (Mark 1:22). But actually, some notable Pharisees like Nicodemus (John 3:1) and Gamaliel (Acts 5:34) appear to have been at least somewhat sympathetic to Jesus. And Paul, the great missionary Apostle of the Christian Church, was originally a fanatical Pharisee, though it literally took an act of God for him to ‘see the light’ (Acts 9). God has a way of finding disciples in unlikely places!