Jesus and the Jewish Sects


This article is part of a series on Jesus the Jewish Messiah by Gerald McDermott. Click here to view other articles in this series.

The scribes and the Pharisees have been sitting on Moses’ seat. Therefore practice and protect everything they tell you, but don’t practice their works (Matthew 23:2-3).

Most Anglicans know that there were different kinds of Jews in Jesus’ world of the first century. These different Jewish groups are what scholars call “sects,” which means religious groups with distinctive beliefs and practices. So most of us have heard of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.


Four Sects

Some of our knowledge of these sects comes from the famous first-century Jewish historian Josephus in his book Bellum Judaicum or The Jewish War, chap. 7,[1] where he describes what he learned from living with each of the first three groups. For example, he tells us that the Essenes shared their property with one another so that “their entire property belongs to them all,” carried “no baggage at all” when travelling, abjured swearing and especially by using God’s name, and got baptized with “the purer waters of sanctification” after a year of probation.

The Sadducees denied “Fate” and insisted that men are free to choose good or evil, but that the soul is impermanent and therefore there are no rewards or punishments after death. They had a “disagreeable spirit” even toward each other.

The Pharisees, Josephus wrote, were the “leading sect” in first-century Israel. They were “the most authoritative exponents of the Law” and ascribed everything to free will or God’s determining “Fate.” Pharisees were “friendly to one another and [sought] to promote concord with the general public.”

Josephus distinguished the nationalistic Zealots–who he says emerged only with the Jewish revolt in 66 AD and wanted “God alone as leader and master”–from a violent sub-group known as sicarii or “daggermen” (from the Latin sica or dagger) who attacked pro-Roman Jews. Their predecessors were what Josephus called “bandits” who claimed to be fighting against Rome and might have included Barabbas and the “robbers” in the Good Samaritan story.

Jesus Condemned Pharasaic Practice

Of the four sects, New Testament readers are most familiar with the Pharisees. We probably remember Jesus’ condemnations of Pharisaic practice. In Matthew 23 he rebuked them for being, first, bad shepherds. They placed heavy burdens on the shoulders of men and were unwilling to lift their finger to ease the burdens (4). They drew lines around the Kingdom of God that lock people out  and prevent others who were intent on going in from entering (13).

Second, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their pride. They cared more about being seen by men than by God (5). Jesus wore tassels, but the Pharisees wore long tassels and broad phylacteries (5)They relished being given prominent seats at dinners and in the synagogues. They loved being called Rabbi (Teacher) but lacked self-awareness (6-7). While condemning past leaders for killing the prophets, they fail to realize they would have been among the killers (29-35).

And third, they misrepresented God because in their fixation on little things they missed what was really important, justice and mercy and faithfulness (23). They taught ways to swear to protect self-interest while avoiding the truth, and focused on externals while ignoring matters of the heart. As a result, they appear to men to be righteous outwardly but on the inside are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (28).

The Pharisees must have been skilled in their hypocrisy – or Jesus was referring to leaders rather than the rank and file – for Josephus said they were the most popular Jewish sect in the first century. They were the most esteemed for their knowledge and piety. Perhaps that is why Jesus paid the Pharisees a back-handed compliment when he told his disciples that their righteousness must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus Praised the Pharisee’s Teaching

I remember the day more than twenty years ago when I first saw that Jesus promoted the teaching of the Pharisees.  I was shocked. Despite my having read the Greek New Testament for a quarter-century until that time, I had never seen these stunning words. At the beginning of the chapter in which he excoriates the practices of the Pharisees, he is remarkably positive about their teachings.

Then Jesus was talking to the crowds and his disciples, saying, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have been sitting on Moses’ seat’ (Matthew 23:1-2).

Moses’ seat was a chair placed to the left at the front of the synagogue, and from which the rabbis would preach on the Torah portion for the Sabbath. It was called “the seat of Moses” because Moses was believed to speak through the rabbis expositing his words. As Jesus taught the Jewish law, so did they. This is the liturgical origin of “the bishop’s chair” in the same place at the front of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox sanctuaries.

Therefore practice and protect everything they tell you, but don’t practice their works. For they teach but do not practice (Matthew 23:3).

Pharisaic Teachings Which Jesus Endorsed

This is not the only place where the gospels refer to the Pharisees in positive ways. In Luke’s gospel we are told that only some of the Pharisees opposed Jesus (Luke 6:2). Pharisees invited him to their homes for meals (Luke 11:37; 14:1), and some Pharisees tried to protect Jesus by warning him about Herod (Luke 13:31). Nicodemus and probably Joseph of Arimathea, both of whom became Jesus-followers, were Pharisees.

But what could this mean? If the Pharisees came in for some positive comment in the New Testament (and Paul insisted toward the end of his life, “I am a Pharisee” in Acts 23:6), what teachings by the Pharisees was Jesus endorsing?

There is much in the Pharisaic oral tradition (later written down to become the Mishna) that is identical to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, but there are explicit teachings by Jesus that come from what we know to have been Pharisaic teaching. For example, Jesus says the Pharisees were wrong to have neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23), which implied that there were weighty and light matters of the law. This was thoroughly Pharisaic teaching, which distinguished between the “heavy” and “light” commandments. Sins against the “heavy commandments” were more serious than sins against the “light” commandments. John suggests this same distinction in his contrast between sins that lead to death and sins that do not (1 John 5:16-17).

A second Pharisaic teaching that Jesus affirmed was tithing. He told the Pharisees they should practice justice, mercy and faithfulness without neglecting the others–less weighty matters of the Law such as tithing mint and dill and cumin (Matthew 23:23). These were the minor tithes that were still obligatory. The greater tithes were for the support of the Levites (Numbers 18:21, 24), for participation in the great feasts (Deuteronomy 14:22-27) and for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).

Jesus affirmed other Pharisaic teaching such as regular fasting (in the Sermon on the Mount he taught, When you fast . . .), keeping the Sabbath (he argued about its purpose, not its validity; Mark 3:4), and “binding and loosing.” The latter was the power of rabbis to give rules for their followers that God would endorse (Jewish Encyclopedia, “binding and loosing”). Jesus told his apostles, Whatever you[leaders] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be bound in heaven (Matthew 18:18).

The One Sect That Survived

If Jesus endorsed the teachings of the Pharisees, while condemning their hypocrisy, there is a lesson here. We should be loath to criticize all the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, for it is descended from the Pharisees–and they are the only one of the four first-century Jewish sects to have survived. If Jesus praised the teachings of modern Orthodoxy’s ancestors, we should recognize our affinities with Orthodox Jewish teachings. We differ on the identity of the Messiah, but we agree on much else, such as our mutual conviction that the Old Testament is God’s Word.

[1] Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin Books 1970 [orig. 1959]).

Cover Image by James Tissot

Published on

March 9, 2023


Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott serves as Distinguished Professor of Theology at Jerusalem Seminary, priest-in-residence at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Crozet, VA.

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