Different Sects of Jews – from Pharisees, Sadducees to sects of today


In the New Testament, we hear a lot about two of the different sects of Jews, namely Pharisees and Sadducees but except for remembering that one believed in the resurrection and one didn’t, many people know little about these sects. Who were they and what did they believe? What about the Pharisees beliefs elicited such strong words from Jesus ?  What happened to these groups? This note will be about that, as well as how these sects relate to sects we see in Judaism today.

SADDUCEES – (Tzadokim, plural Hebrew – meaning ‘descendant of Zakok’) were the party of high priests, aristocratic families and merchants; the wealthier people of the population and flourished for about two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

During the Persian period, the Temple became more than the center of worship after its reconstruction in 516 BCE; it also served as the center of society. As a result, the priests, who were Sadducees held important positions as official leaders outside of the Temple. During the Hellenistic period, the influence of democracy shifted the focus of Judaism away from the Temple and in the 3rd century BCE, the scribal class, known as PHARISEES began to emerge (see below).

Not much is known with certainty of the Sadducees’ origin and early history, but their name may be derived from that of Zadok, who was high priest in the time of King David and King Solomon. Ezekiel later selected this family as worthy of being entrusted with control of the Temple and Zadokites formed the Temple hierarchy until the 2nd century BCE. The Sadducees found merit and claimed authority based on birth into this high social class and in their economic position (whereas the Pharisees found merit and authority in their piety and learning) and made up the Temple priesthood.

The Sadducees held only to the Law as recorded in Written Torah i.e. the first five books of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Because of their strict adherence to the Written Law, the Sadducees acted severely in cases involving the death penalty and they interpreted literally the Mosaic principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. The Sadducees refused to accept any precept as binding unless it was based directly on the Written Torah. (The Pharisees belief system was very different, as you’ll see below. )

The Sadducees did not believe in immortality of the soul, bodily resurrection after death or the existence of angels or demons.

Though the Sadducees were conservative in religious matters they were staunch defenders of the status quo. Their wealth and social position based on birth as well as their willingness to compromise with the Roman rulers resulted in them being greatly disliked by the common people.

The Sadducees are believed to have died out sometime after the destruction of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, as without a Temple and it’s rites, there is no need for priests. It has been speculated that the later KARAITES (see below) may have stemmed from the Sadducees.

THE PHARISEES – The Pharisees (Perushim, plural Hebrew – meaning ‘separated’) emerged as a distinct group shortly after the Maccabean revolt and are thought to be a branch from the Hasideans, a religious party during the time of the Maccabean wars. The Pharisees were the ruling religious party during the latter part of the Second Temple period (515 BCE–70 CE) and were predominantly laymen and scribes.

Very different from what the High Priests, the SADDUCEES believed, the Pharisees believed that the Law (Torah) that God gave Moses consisted of two parts; the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.

Written Torah (called “Torah Shebichtav”) were the first five books of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament); including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Oral Torah (also called “Torah Sheba’al Peh”) were the explanations of the Written Law that were believed to have been given by God to Moses during the 40 days and nights he was on Mount Sinai and that are said to have been passed down orally in an unbroken chain from Moses to Joshua and in an unbroken chain generation to generation from there.

In addition to the Written Torah and Oral Torah, the Pharisees held to the principle of evolution in the Law and believed that men must use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying it to contemporary problems. They interpreted Written Torah according to what they believed the text suggested or implied and when they felt a law was no longer appropriately interpreted because circumstances had changed, they reinterpreted its meaning, seeking scriptural support for their actions through a system of hermeneutics. This progressive tendency of the Pharisees to interpret Torah continued to develop and continues right up until today in Judaism (see ORTHODOX JEWS, below).

Note: When Jesus was challenging the Pharisees and their practices, it was sometimes their hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another that He was addressing or that what they were teaching focused on the what others saw (the outward man) and not what God concerned Himself with (the inward man).  At other times it was their “traditions of men” that He was addressing — where their interpretations were elevated to the same status as Written Torah .

[addendum – July 7, 2015: The Scribes and Pharisees were tasked with the responsibility to “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:2) which was generally understood to mean that they had the authority to teach Moses.  According to Jesus in Matthew, the religious leaders taught the commandments of men which make void the commandments of God (15:6) and these teachings are plants which will be uprooted (15:13) since they were not planted by God, but by an enemy (13:37-39). The issue, it seems was an emphasis on human ordinances which affected the outer man while leaving the inner man untouched (23:25-28) and miss the deeper spiritual truths which Moses intended; i.e. they “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (23:24).  Jesus considered the teachings of these leaders to be leaven, which left unchallenged, would leaven the whole (16:11-12) lump.  He also said that the leaders erred because they “knew not the Scriptures” (22:29) and their traditions had led them away from the weightier matters of the Torah (23:23).]

The Pharisees were a society of scholars and enjoyed a large popular following right up to New Testament times.

About 100 BCE, the Pharisees tried to democratize the Jewish religion and remove it from the control of the Temple priests (Sadducees). They believed that God could and should be worshiped away from the Temple and outside Jerusalem and that worship of God was not to be found in the offering of sacrifices (which were the heart of the practice of the Temple priests; the Sadducees); but in prayer and in the study of God’s law. It was out of these beliefs that the synagogue was developed by the Pharisees, promoted and  given a central place in Jewish religious life.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was the synagogue and the Torah schools of the Pharisees that continued to function and to promote Judaism in the centuries following the Diaspora.

When the Mishnah (the first constituent part of the Talmud) was compiled about 200 CE, it incorporated the teachings of the Pharisees on Jewish law.

The Pharisees insistence on the binding force of “oral tradition” (a synonym for Oral Torah, or Oral Law) remains a basic tenet of Jewish theological thought as embodied by ORTHODOX JEWS right up to the present time (see below), as does the dynamic nature of Scriptural interpretation in the face of changing historical circumstances and devotion to education.


The Orthodox claim that their sect goes all the way back to when Moses received the commandments from God on Mount Sinai and the very nature of what it means to be Orthodox within Judaism is the insistence on the binding nature of both Written Torah and Oral Torah. To the Orthodox,

Written Torah (called “Torah Shebichtav”) are the first five books of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament); including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Oral Torah (also called “Torah Sheba’al Peh”) were the oral explanations of Written Torah given by God to Moses during his 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai that were passed down orally in an unbroken chain from generation to generation until its contents were finally written down in the Talmud and Gemara as a means to preserve them following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. “Oral Torah” consists of Midrashim (plural of Midrash) and includes exegesis of Written Torah along with homiletic stories as taught by the Rabbinic sages of the post-Temple era and the Tosefta which is considered a supplement to the Midrash and is a compilation of the Jewish Oral Law from the late 2nd century period.

Orthodox Judaism is not a single movement or school of thought. There is no single rabbinical body to which all rabbis are expected to belong, or any one organization representing member congregations. In the United States for example, there are numerous Jewish Orthodox organizations, such as Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel; none of which can claim to represent a majority of all Orthodox congregations.

In the 20th century, a segment of the Orthodox population took a stricter approach with their rabbis viewing innovations and modifications within Jewish law and customs with extreme care and caution. Some observers and scholars refer to this form of Judaism as “Haredi Judaism“, or “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism” ;  embodied by the black cloaked and wide brimmed hat-wearing men of Hasidim (also called Hasidic Jews).

Contemporary Orthodox Jews believe that they adhere to the same basic philosophy and legal framework that has existed throughout Jewish history, whereas the other denominations depart from it. Orthodox Jews believe that Orthodox Judaism as it exists today, extends from the time of Moses, through the time of the Mishnah and Talmud until the present time, essentially intact and unchanged.


The grandfather of Reform Judaism was Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).  Although Mendelssohn never publicly rejected Written Torah or Oral Torah’s divine origin, it is believed that his decision to reform Judaism stemmed from four out of six of his children becoming believers in Jesus.  Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), the most influential of Reform’s second generation proclaimed at the first Reform rabbinical conference in Germany that “the Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted human books, as a divine work must also go”.

Reformed Judaism denies even Written Torah’s divine origin i.e. according to their beliefs, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are nothing more than human inventions. Nor do they believe in a personal messiah or in bodily resurrection; both of which are pillars of the Jewish oral tradition. Their prayer book did away with traditional prayers for a return to Zion, the rebuilding of the Temple and the Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College did away with Jewish dietary laws.  Having already freed themselves from the observance of “kashrut” (kosher) in 1885 they denounced the Scriptures as “the work of men”, circumcision; the mark of the Jewish covenant as “a barbarous cruelty” and abolished the concept of matrilineal lineage established by the ORTHODOX JEWS.

Note: Orthodox Jews (based on the interpretations of the rabbis) deem a child to be Jewish by the blood of the mother (in contrast to written Torah which is patrilear i.e. descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Reformed Judaism decided that if either parent is Jewish, the child is Jewish.

Seeking to “emancipate themselves from Rabbinic legality”,  the denomination completely abandoned the practices outlined in the Shulchan Aruch (literally “set table”) also known by various Jewish communities as “the Code of Jewish Law“.  Not only were Reformed Jews no longer considered bound to any Jewish observance, Jewish observance was discouraged. Since marriages between Jews and those of other religions are readily performed by Reformed Rabbis without any need for the non-Jew to adhere to any Jewish practice, assimilation takes place without much notice or care.

According to surveys, most Reformed Rabbis consider themselves agnostic, atheist or secular humanist with a small percentage believing in a ‘supreme being’ but certainly not the God of the Scriptures.


Zacharias Frankel, whom many cite as the Conservative movement’s intellectual ancestor believed that rather than the leadership of a movement stipulating what practices should and shouldn’t be adhered to (as in the case of the REFORMED JEWS), the task at hand was to confirm the abandonment of those ideas and practices which the community had already set aside. The goal was to have transformation from practice to non-practice occur in such a way as to proceed in such a way as to be “unnoticed’, and “seem inconsequential to the average eye”.

Many preferred Frankel’s more subtle approach to the REFORMED JEWS accelerating leaps away from Jewish tradition and these “conservatives” branched off to form a new movement – Conservative Judaism.

In 1886, they founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and an article printed in the new institution’s magazine declared that JTS would steer a course between “stupid Orthodoxy and insane Reform”.

Not that the Conservative Movement had any more affinity for the Law of Torah or Jewish customs, only the rate at which these foundations of Judaism were abandoned.

The Law of Moses (Torah) according to JTS Professor of Jewish Philosophy Neil Gillman “represents the canonical statement of our myth”.

As promised at the outset, observance of Jewish customs within Conservative Judaism was left to disappear at the “rate at which the community sets them aside”.


Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern American Jewish movement based on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983). The movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization and originated as a branch of Conservative Judaism. The movement developed from the late 1920s to 1940s, and it established a rabbinical college in 1968.

There is substantial theological diversity within the movement. Halakha, the collective body of Jewish laws, customs and traditions is not considered binding but is treated as a valuable cultural remnant that should be upheld unless there is reason for the contrary.

The movement emphasizes positive views toward modernism, and has an approach to Jewish custom which aims toward communal decision making through a process of education and distillation of values from traditional Jewish sources.


Karaite Judaism (from the Hebrew meaning “Readers of the Hebrew Scriptures”) – also called Karaism – is reported to have started in Baghdad circa 7th–9th centuries CE under the Abbasid Caliphate in what is present-day Iraq. Historians have argued over whether Karaites have a direct connection to the SADDUCEES dating back to the end of the Second Temple period (70 CE) or is a novel emergence of a sect with similar views.

Karaites have always maintained that while there are some similarities to the Sadducees, there are also differences, and that the ancestors of the Karaites were another group called Benei Sedeq during the Second Temple period.

Karaites were at one time a significant proportion of the Jewish population however estimates of the Karaite population are difficult to make because they believe on the basis of Genesis 32 that counting Jews is forbidden.  Some 30–50,000 Karaites are thought to reside in Israel, with smaller communities in Turkey, Europe and the United States. Another estimate holds that of the 50,000 world-wide, over 40,000 descend from those who made aliyah from Egypt and Iraq to Israel.

The Karaites are characterized by the recognition of the Tanakh alone (i.e. only the Old Testament) as its supreme legal authority in Halakha (Jewish religious law) and theology.

[Recall that Rabbinic / Orthodox Judaism considers the Oral Torah, as recorded in the Talmud and Gemara to be as authoritative as Written Torah, as outlined in the first five books of Moses].

Karaites maintain that all of the divine commandments handed down to Moses by God were recorded in the written Torah without additional Oral Law or explanation.  As a result, Karaite Jews do not accept as binding the written collections of the oral tradition in the Midrash or Talmud.

When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain or most obvious meaning (“peshat”) of the text; this is not necessarily the literal meaning, but rather the meaning that would have been naturally understood by the ancient Israelites when the books of the Tanakh were first written.

[Rabbinic / Orthodox Judaism relies on the legal rulings of the Sanhedrin as they are codified in the Midrash, Talmud, and other sources to indicate the authentic meaning of the Torah.]

Karaite Judaism holds every interpretation of the Tanakh to the same scrutiny regardless of its source and as a result would consider arguments made in the Talmud or Midrash without exalting them above any other viewpoints.

Karaite Judaism teaches that it is the personal responsibility of every individual Jew to study the Torah, and ultimately decide for themselves its correct meaning.


Messianic Jews are Jews (physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) that believe Jesus (Yeshua , His Hebrew Name) is the Messiah of Israel of whom the Law and Prophets spoke. The Early Church (ekklesia) was comprised largely of Jews and it wasn’t until Jesus’ death and resurrection that Gentiles came into focus.

From the record in Acts and other historical evidence, it is believed that hundreds of thousands of Jews followed Jesus’ teachings (Acts 2:41, 2:47, 4:4, 6:7, 9:31, 21:20) and continued to live as “Jews that believed” – just as Jesus did during His life in keeping the Passover (John 2:13-22, John 5), Succoth / Feast of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7), Chanukah / Feast of Dedication (John 10) and the Sabbath where He was in synagogue “as was His custom” (Luke 4:16).

The Apostle Paul, went to the synagogue as well (Acts 13:13-15) and not just on isolated occasions. Like Jesus, Paul went to the synagogue “as was his custom” (Acts 17:2).

The early Jewish believers were no different.

Jewish believers along with Gentile believers in the Church at Jerusalem and Antioch, including Polycarp, a Church Father (80-167 CE) continued to celebrate the Passover on the 14th of Nisan and did so for the first two centuries, possibly until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.  For more information on that see http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/early-church-including-polycarp-continued-to-celebrate-passover/

The Nazarenes (as the early Jewish believers were also called) were seen as a Jewish sect by the Romans and fared no better than non-believing Jews during the siege of Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Temple, the Nazarenes fled Jerusalem in 70 CE, along with the other Jews.  With the Temple destroyed, the Jewish believers continued to be able to attend synagogue to hear the Law and the Prophets read, until changes in the synagogue liturgy made by Gamaliel II (grandson of the Gamaliel referred to in Acts 5) in 72-73 CE made it impossible for them to do so. These changes in liturgy were designed to expose what Gamaliel considered “minim” or heretics, including the Nazarenes (Jewish believers).  By adding a prayer to the Amidah (the central prayer of the liturgy) cursing the “mimin”, the Nazarenes could neither say the prayer nor respond ‘amen’ to it.  Forty years after Jesus’ death, the traditional synagogue was no longer open to Jewish believers. For more on this, see http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/the-temple-synagogue-in-the-early-church/

Whether the Jewish believers formed their own synagogues at this time or stopped meeting on the Sabbath altogether is unknown although there may be archaeological evidence of a Messianic synagogue in Jerusalem from this period.

We do know from Scripture that the Jewish believers met together in homes (Acts 2:46) and it is thought that some began to meet on the first day of the week after Jesus’ resurrection.  While we often think of this as Sunday morning, in Jewish understanding the first day of the week begins Saturday after sunset. It is thought that the early believers may have gathered at the end of the Sabbath, on Saturday night for fellowship and breaking of bread.

The early Church consisted of two distinct but united corporate bodies; Jews and Gentiles but in time, as more and more Gentiles followed Jesus, the proportion of Gentiles in the Church far outweighed that of Jews. With the death of the original Jewish Apostles and proportionately less Jews in the Church, Jewish expression within the Church essentially disappeared from view until the resurgence of the modern Messianic Jewish movement in the 19th century.

In the early 1800s, some groups created congregations and societies of Jewish believers with some started by Jewish believers themselves, including the Anglican London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews started by Joseph Frey (1809) — which also published the first Yiddish New Testament, the Beni Abraham Association established by Frey in 1813 with a group of 41 Jewish believers who started meeting at Jews’ Chapel, London for prayers Friday night and Sunday morning and the London Hebrew Christian Alliance of Great Britain founded by Dr. Carl Schwartz in 1866. The establishment of Frey’s Beni Abraham Congregation in September 1813 at the rented “Jews’ Chapel” in Spitalfields is considered by some to be the birth of the semi-autonomous “Hebrew Christian” movement with the later Episcopal Jew’s Chapel Abrahamic Society being registered in 1835.

In Eastern Europe, Joseph Rabinowitz established a Hebrew Christian mission and congregation called “Israelites of the New Covenant” in Kishinev, Ukraine in 1884 and was supported by the well-known Jewish believer Franz Delitzsch, translator of the first modern Hebrew translation of the New Testament. In 1865, Rabinowitz created an order of worship for Sabbath morning service based on a mixture of Jewish and Christian elements.

In the United States, a congregation of Jewish believers was established in New York City in 1885 and in the 1890s, immigrant Jewish believers worshiped at the Methodist “Hope of Israel” mission on New York’s Lower East Side while retaining some Jewish rites and customs. The first use of the term Messianic Judaism occurred in 1895, with the 9th edition of the Hope of Israel’s magazine Our Hope carrying the subtitle “A Monthly Devoted to the Study of Prophecy and to Messianic Judaism”.

In 1894,  Jewish believer and Baptist minister Leopold Cohn founded the Brownsville Mission to the Jews in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York.  After several changes in name, structure and focus, the organization changed its name to Chosen People Ministries and continues to operate to this day around the world.

Missions to the Jews saw a period of growth between the 1920s and the 1960s during which time the term meshichim (literally “Messianics”) became popular to counter the negative connotations amongst Jews of the term notsrim (from “Nazarenes”, meaning “Christians”).

Messianic Judaism as a denomination took root in the 1960s and 70s with Jewish believers committed to maintaining their Jewish lifestyle within their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Martin Chernoff, who was president of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA) from 1971 to 1975, led the effort to change the name of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA) to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) which was accomplished in June  of 1975.

The name change was more than semantics; it represented the desire of Jewish believers to live out their faith in the Messiah promised in the Law and the Prophets in a way consistent with the expression of the early Church.

From 2003 to 2007, the movement grew from 150 Messianic congregations in the United States to as many as 438 Messianic Congregations in the US and over 100 in Israel — with more worldwide. Most congregations affiliated with larger Messianic organizations or alliances. As of 2008 the movement was estimated to have between 6,000 and 15,000 members in Israel alone.

A 2013 survey by Pew Research Center determined that there are about 159,000 Messianic Jews in the United States with estimates of the number worldwide of 350,000.

[Note: It is important to note the Supreme Court of Israel rejects Jewish believer’s claims to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return on the basis that they assert that Messianic Judaism is a form of Christianity.]

Often seen as “too Jewish for the Church and too Christian for the Jews” Jewish believers continue to strive to find their place as Jews within the congregation of Israel’s multinational extension — the Church.