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Difference between Pharisees and Sadducees?

A church member writes: "In Luke. 18:13 I read about the Pharisee praying his prayer, thanking God that he is not like the other men. Then the tax collector prayed his prayer of humility. Somehow I always thought that the other man was a Sadducee; and I was surprised when I read it again and found it was the tax collector and not the Sadducee. Where did I get the idea that the Sadducee was 'sad you see', and that therefore that was how you distinguish one from the other? What is the difference between the Pharisee and the Sadducee? Is there any other place that uses the Pharisee and the Sadducee in a situation that would have made me think that the Sadducee was a humble man?"

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Dear friend,

I think a good way to deal with the confusion on this would be to clarify who these three biblical characters are: the tax collector, the Pharisee, and the Sadducee.

First, let's consider the tax collector or tax gatherer. The tax collector in the New Testament was a Jewish man who had, basically, become a traitor to his own people. (Some Bible translations refer to a tax collector as a "publican"; as the King James Version.) Sometimes, a tax collector was a wealthy man who contracted with the Roman government for the responsibility to collect taxes from a specific district - often with the backing of the Roman military. Such a man was often called a "chief tax collector", because others worked under him. An example of such a man was Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). On some occasions, a chief tax collector was a non-Jewish person; but in the case of Zacchaeus, he was a Jewish man. Others, also called tax collectors, were employed by the chief tax collector to do the actual collecting of the tax money from their own towns-people. A good example of that sort of tax collector would probably be Levi - or, as he is also known, Matthew (Mark 2:13-17).

Now, let's consider who the Pharisee were. The Pharisees was a religious and political party that had its origin in the second century before Christ. During a time when it seemed as if the whole world was embracing Greek culture, the Jewish group known as the Hasidim arose to combat this influence and to preserve Jewish ways. Eventually, one branch of the Hasidim broke off and formed their own community. Others however, who remained a part of regular Jewish life, formed the group that later became known as the Pharisees ("separate ones"). They so esteemed the "letter" of the law of Moses (more so than the "spirit" of the law), and so esteemed the oral traditions that were said to have sprung from the law, that they developed strict applications of the law for everyday life. The most famous Pharisee in all the Bible - although few people realize that that's what he once had been - is the Apostle Paul (Phil. 3:5).

The reason Jesus compared a Pharisee with a tax collector in the story you mentioned is because there couldn't have been two greater opposites than a Pharisee and a tax collector. A Pharisee was an esteemed and respected student and defender of the law; and was considered to be a careful seeker of righteousness through the law. A tax collector, however, was considered a reject of the law - the most despised person in the community; a greedy sinner who had become a traitor to his own people, and who collected money from his fellow Jews to give to Roman Gentile oppressors. Jesus used these two persons in His story to show that it's the humble, repentant sinner who confesses his or her sin that God justifies - rather than the proud, strictly religious, self-righteous man or woman who boasts in good works.

This leads us to who the Sadducees were. As you might have picked up by now, a Sadducee is not at all the same thing as a tax collector. The Sadducees were, like the Pharisees, a political and religious party in Jewish culture. Some scholars believe that they had their roots in a high priest named Zadok who lived in the days of David and Solomon (2 Sam. 15:24; 1 Kings 1:34-35); although this isn't certain. By Jesus' day, they were the ruling party in Jewish cultural life. They were generally wealthy men; and they generally tried to get along with the Roman government.

The Sadducees were distinct from the Pharisees in several ways. The Sadducees, for example, rejected the oral traditions that the Pharisees held to. The Sadducees believed that only the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were authoritative. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, and in angels and spirits; while the Sadducees rejected such beliefs (Acts 23:6-10). (This, by the way, is probably why you've heard that little saying about the Pharisees and the Sadducees: The Pharisees believed that they were righteous because of their good works - and thus were "Phar" [fair] "you see?" And because the Sadducees didn't believe in angels or spirits or in the resurrection, they were "Sadd ... you see?" This was just a cute way of explaining the differences between them; but had no actual connection to their names. We preachers can come up with the strangest things sometimes, can't we?)

A perhaps-overly generalized way to think about the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the times of Jesus was to see the Pharisees as Scripturally liberal (because they added oral traditions to its commands), but conservative in politics (because they opposed the Romans); and the Sadducees as Scripturally conservative (because they rejected oral tradition), but liberal in politics (because they sought to fit in with the Romans). Both groups fought against each other for influence over the population; and both groups were in conflict with Jesus (Matthew 22:15-33; and especially verse 34 and following).

You asked if there was any story in the Bible that would suggest the idea that a Sadducee was a humble man. I'm afraid I know of none. They are generally presented, along with the Pharisees, as proud and in debate with the Savior. They are both symbolic of religious pride and arrogance in the New Testament. And I'm afraid I would have to admit that, even though I have much in common with a sinful tax collector, I also have a little bit of the Pharisee/Sadducee complex in me at times. May God have mercy on me.

In Christ's love,
Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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