Jewish Sects (1): Some Terms Considered

Fred A. Shewmaker
Evansville, Indiana

Available sources of information on this subject are quite limited and much of that which is available is questionable with regard to its accuracy. Nevertheless, I believe that a study of this subject will be profitable. Those who pursue such a study should be better able to understand the points made by Jesus in his numerous discussions with Jews of the various sects.

Josephus wrote, "The Jews had for a great while three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves: the sect of the Essens, (sic) and the sect of the Sadducees, and the third sort of opinions was that of called Pharisees."1 However, Josephus also writes of what he designates, "the fourth sect of Jewish Philosophy."2 This "fourth sect" has been commonly referred to as the Zealots.

The sects of the Jews were of "two kinds, arising from the fact that the differences of opinion, sentiment, and conduct were sometimes of a theosophical and sometimes of a practical character."3 But the conduct of the various sects indicates that a religious sect would have definite political leanings while a political sect would be composed of those having definite religious views.

J.E.H. Thomson wrote, "With the outbreak of the Jewish wars, the Sadducees with their allies the Herodians were driven into the background by the Zealots."4

The five Jewish sects introduced to us in this study may be classified as to "kinds" as follows: Religious: Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees. Political: Zealots and Herodians.

Before entering into a study of these sects, there are certain terms in the Bible with which we should familiarize ourselves. The first such term is, scribe. We learn from Matthew 7:29 and Mark 1:22 that the scribes were teachers. But they did not teach with the authority which Jesus employed. "In the earlier period after the exile the scribes belonged to the Levites; but gradually an independent class of laymen sprang up, and at last they were nearly all laymen.'5 "The duty of the scribes was (1) to add to the law the regulations for the minor details there omitted; (2) explanations of the law itself. These together formed the oral law. (3) The scribes were to teach the law to others, and later (4) make decisions or practically be judges, under the law."6 Numbers I and 2 would indicate that the scribes were not of the Sadducees. By a comparison of Matthew 12:24 and Mark 3:22 we can see that the scribes were by party Pharisees.

The second term with which we should familiarize ourselves is the term lawyer. In Matthew 22:35 we find a lawyer asking Jesus a question "tempting him." "The term is equivalent to 'teacher of the law.'"7 Frank E. Hirsch wrote, "Their business was threefold: (1) to study and interpret, the law; (2) to instruct the Heb youth in the law; (3) to decide questions of the law."8 Comparing this statement of the case with the work of the scribes will make our next quotation no surprise. "The title 'lawyer' is generally supposed to be equivalent to the title 'scribe.'"9 This is certainly in harmony with the Bible. When Jesus was asked the question about the great or first commandment, Matthew 22:25-26 has a lawyer asking the question but Mark 12:29 attribute the question to a scribe. This means that the lawyers were of the sect of the Pharisees.

The third term we should consider is the term doctors of the law. Jesus was found by his parents, "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing-1hem, and asking them questions" (Luke 2:46). When Jesus healed the "man which was taken with a palsy" "there were Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting by" (Luke 5:17-18). But when Jesus said to the one with palsy, "Man thy sins are forgiven thee... The scribes and Pharisees began to reason" (verses 20, 21). In that "scribes" were not mentioned at first and "doctors of the law" later, it is my conclusion that these two terms refer to the same men. The only other passage where the term "doctor of the law" is used, it is applied to "a Pharisee, named Gamaliel" (Acts 5:34).

The next term with which we should become familiar is the term chief priests. We learn from Acts 9:1-2 that Saul "went unto the high priest and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues" but when Ananias discussed Saul with God, he said, "He hath authority from the chief priests." The Jewish priests were divided into 24 courses. "The heads of these courses, together with those who have held the high-priesthood (the office no longer lasting for life), are chief priests."10 We read in Acts 5:17, "Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect of the Sadducees)." Therefore we conclude that "the chief-priests of the Gospels and the Acts were apparently consistently Sadducees."11

Another term that we should consider is the term elders. In Numbers 11: 16 God told Moses to gather men "whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people and officers over them." Thus the elders of the Jews were their rulers. They were members of the various sects.

The final term we will notice is the term the people. The great majority of the Jews were not members of any sect. They, no doubt, sympathized with one or another of the sects but were not formally affiliated with one. These who were not members of one of the sects were often times referred to simply as "the people." We read in Luke 20:19, "The chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people."

Among the Pharisees were those called scribes, Lawyers and doctors of the Law. However, one might be a Pharisee who could not rightly be called by any of these terms. Among the Sadducees were those who were termed chief priests but there were Sadducees who were not chief priests. The riders of the Jews came from various sects and were often termed the elders. And the term the people refers to the Jews who were not members of one of the sects.


1. F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (London: 1842), p. 484 (B. XVIII, Ch. 1, Sec. 2.).

2. Ibid., p. 484 (Sec. 6.).

3. McClintock & Strong, "Pick," Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical, Literature, (Grand Rapids: 1970), Vol. IX, P. 500.

4. "Thomson," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: 1957), Vol. IV, p. 2660.

5. F. N. Peloubet, Bible Dictionary, (Athens, Ala.: 1947), p. 597.

6. Ibid.

7. McClintock & Strong, Vol. V, p. 296.

8. I.S.B.E., Vol. III, p. 1859.

9. Peloubet, p. 355.

10. McClintock & Strong, Vol. VIII, p. 580.

11. Ibid., p. 581.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 6, pp. 9-11
December 9, 1971