Mark's Gospel

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Jewish Groups in the Gospels


The Sanhedrin was the highest court of Jewish law both religious and political. The name 'Sanhedrin' means 'council'. The president of the council was the high priest. The Sanhedrin dealt with all serious cases and was the final court of appeal. The origin of the Sanhedrin was the seventy men Moses appointed to assist him in judging the children of Israel. The seventy members of the Sanhedrin were drawn mainly from two opposing parties, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. In criminal cases the Sanhedrin could pass the sentence of death but could not carry out such a sentence without the approval of the Roman Procurator.


The name Sadducee is probably derived from Zadok who was High Priest in the reign of Solomon (c.950 BC), and from whom the Sadducees claimed direct descent. As the most prestigious priestly family, they had control of the Temple worship, its sacrifices and finances. They were recruited from the rich priestly aristocracy and had little direct contact with or influence over, the mass of the people.

Their only rule of religious, moral and social life was the Law of Moses as written in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). They took the commandments literally, and saw no need to interpret them or adapt them to meet the needs of changing circumstances, and so refused to be bound by the 'oral law' which expanded and interpreted the Law, and which the Pharisees believed was also given by Moses. They laid little emphasis on the message of the prophets. They were ultra conservative and distrusted new ideas. They rejected the popular belief in a Messiah whom God would send to liberate His people, because it could lead to conflict with the Romans whom they actively supported as the keepers of public order. They wanted nothing which might pose a threat to their privileged position. It is no surprise that they did not believe in resurrection since it was a comparatively recent addition to the faith of Israel, and this is a good example of their conservatism.

It is understandable that they were opposed to Jesus for he had dared to expand and even amend the Law; they saw his claim to be Messiah as both blasphemous and dangerous to the security of the state, and it was therefore in their interest to have him killed.

Unlike the Pharisees, whose whole activity was centred on religion, the Sadducees were actively involved in politics, and though they had considerable influence in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body, they had little popular support.


The Pharisees were far more influential among the people than the Sadducees. They formed the progressive wing of Judaism. For them religious life centred round the study and observance of the Law of Moses. They were closely connected to the synagogue tradition. This tradition had grown up after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC by the Babylonians and the people taken into captivity. Whilst in exile the Jewish faith was kept alive by strictly adhering to the Law of Moses. Since the Law could not be expected to make provision for every situation, the Pharisees were convinced that the written text should, by careful rethinking, be made as relevant as possible to the needs of daily life.

They appealed, not only to the Law (Torah), but also to the 'oral tradition' which they believed was also given by Moses and was equally binding. This tradition was later written down in the Mishnah and Talmud. They observed no distinction in practice between the moral and ceremonial law, both of which were held to express the will of God, and the picture we have of them in the New Testament is of hypocrites who devote their time to enforcing petty distinctions and keeping the letter, rather than the spirit, of the Law. This view is now considered to be one-sided, and reflects the fact that in New Testament times Christians were in bitter conflict with the Jewish leaders. The majority of the Pharisees were men of sincere religious conviction, and it must not be forgotten that modern Judaism owes almost everything to Pharisaism.

The name 'Pharisee' means 'separated ones'. In the second century BC Judah was occupied by the Greeks, the Pharisees refused all Greek influences. The ideal of Pharisaism was to 'build a fence around the Law', to hedge the commandments with a multiplicity of minor related laws derived from the main principles, and so to protect them. They looked forward to the coming of the Messiah whom God would send to set up His Kingdom on earth and give His 'chosen people' their rightful place among the nations. The coming would be in God's own time, but the day would be, to a large extent, the reward for Israel's faithfulness in keeping the Law; the long-awaited event could be hastened by observing the Law in all its parts, and encouraging their fellow Jews to do the same. They separated themselves from all who did not keep the Law, unfaithful Jews (sinners) as well as gentiles.

Some leading Pharisees believed that even the heathens were being called by God to accept the Law, and it is clear from Matthew 23:15 that the Pharisees were actively engaged in missionary work among the gentiles.

Unlike the Sadducees, they believed in resurrection.


The Scribes belonged mainly, though not exclusively, to the Pharisees. As the name suggests, they were originally responsible for making faithful copies of the Scriptures, and for guarding the text from corruption. As a result they became lawyers and authorities on the Scriptures. In the Gospels the terms 'Scribe' and 'lawyer' are synonymous. As administrators of the Law they were represented in the Sanhedrin.


The Zealots differed from all other Jewish sects by their violent and uncompromising nationalism. Whereas each sect believed that the true ruler of Israel was God Himself, the Sadducees could compromise with and accommodate the Romans, the Pharisees could ignore them, but the Zealots openly hated them and believed that national liberation could only be achieved by violence. They are known as 'Sicarii', dagger-men (hence possibly Judas 'Iscariot'), and were involved in terrorist activity against the Romans and those who co-operated with them. They were fanatically brave and were mainly responsible for the atmosphere of deep-seated discontent and agitation which finally led to the great revolt of 66 AD and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They were religiously minded fanatical patriots. One of the disciples of Jesus, Simon (not Peter), was formerly a Zealot (Mark 3:18).


This sect is not mentioned in the New Testament and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumr‚n monastery little detailed information about them was available. They took their inspiration from the 'Teacher of Righteousness', a religious leader of the second century BC who believed that God had revealed to him the mysteries of Old Testament prophecy and given him the secrets of the 'Divine Plan' for the world. He founded a religious community in the desert, the purpose of which was to make it possible to follow the revealed will of God. The Essenes were 'volunteers for holiness' who led lives of rigorous discipline, far outstripping even those of the Pharisees, in order to prepare for the coming of the Lord. This great event would take place as a result of their diligent study and observance of the Law.

The life of the community was to be an offering to God to make amends for the wrong-doings of the nation; they believed that by the purity of their lives, their sufferings, their submission to severe discipline, and their single-minded devotion to the Law, their offering would be acceptable to God as an atonement (at-one-ment).

Since the discovery of the Scrolls there has been a great deal of speculation among scholars about the possible influence of the Essenes on John the Baptist and even upon Jesus himself. There are, however, fundamental differences to be accounted for in each case. Some scholars hold that it was from this particular sect of Judaism that Christianity evolved.


The Herodians were members of a very small party who saw hope for the future of Israel in the return of the rule of the Herodian family to all the Jewish territories. They were supporters of the Herod family and therefore of Rome. Mark records on a couple of occasions that they joined with the Pharisees in attacks on Jesus (Mark 3:6, 12:13). This is a very surprising alliance since they hated each other. They were found mainly in Galilee, the territory of Herod himself. They were not a religious sect although some believed that Herod the Great was the Messiah.


Since the Samaritans were not recognized by the Jews as true Israelites, they cannot be regarded as an actual sect within Judaism.

The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was many centuries old. On the death of Solomon, (c.935 BC) his kingdom was divided into two parts, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south adhering to Rehoboam, Solomon's heir, while the ten northern tribes made Jeroboam, who was not descended from David, their king. The two factions were often at war. After the city of Samaria was built by King Omri, c.880 BC, it was always considered to be a rival to the southern capital of Jerusalem.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians who colonized it with pagans, and as a result of inter-marriage, a population of mixed race was produced. At first, heathen elements influenced worship, but eventually the Samaritans became as opposed to idolatry as the Jews, and accepted the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch) as their Scripture. They rejected the other Jewish books.

During the reign of Alexander the Great (c.333 BC) a Temple was begun on Mount Gerizim to rival that at Jerusalem. The head of the Samaritan community, as of the Jewish, was a High Priest claiming descent from Aaron, the first High Priest. Sacrifices were made, and prayer was offered, to Yahweh, the one true God. As the woman of Samaria in John 4:19 implies, the Samaritans believed that their Temple was the only legitimate one.

At the time of Jesus there was bitter hatred between the groups. An ancient Jewish writing states that 'a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine's flesh'. Against this background of hatred, Jesus dared to speak of the grateful Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19) and the 'Good Samaritan' (Luke 10:30-37).

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