- Priests/High Priests
- Essenes (not mentioned in the New Testament)
Judaism was meant to pave the way for Christianity, so you would think that the Jewish leaders would have been the first people to embrace Jesus, but that wasn't the case. You would think that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day would have been the people closest to God, but Jesus said that they"made the Word of God void" and that they were "making disciples of hell." Jesus rebukes them many times, and of course they ultimately kill him. Then when the apostles try to spread the gospel, the Jewish leaders kill Christians, and in some cases are even successful in converting Christians back to Judaism.
However, if you look at the Old Testament, these spiritual leaders were often described in a positive light, as agents of God. How did they go from being such Godly men in the Old Testament, to opponents of God in the New? Did it happen overnight? No, I think history shows a clear progression away from God. And this isn't a problem that only affected the Jews, progressing away from God is an issue that has to be constantly dealt with, even today. Haven't we all seen or heard of congregations that used to only teach the truth, and now are teaching something not found in scripture?
First, lets look at the Scribes. We read occurences of them through out the New Testament. They falsely accuse Jesus in Matthew 9:3, and are then censured strongly by Jesus in Matthew 23. So who where these Scribes?
The word Scribes in its hebrew form is "sopherim", which means "to write", "to set in order", and "to count". Which is a good description of what their early responsibilities entailed. The first occurance of them in the Bible is in 2nd Samuel 8:17 and 20:25, where two different men are mentioned as being scribes for king David. Scribes of this era are generally thought to be akin to secretaries, writing the King’s letters, drawing up his decrees, and managing his finances. They are mentioned a few times for counting, like counting David’s military. At this point in history though, the title of “Scribe” had no religious significance. Over time, this changed however.
“These are also proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out.”
If you recall, King Hezekiah was eager to abolish idolatry and restore the worship of Jehovah. To this end, he organized a group of men and gave them the responsibility of transcribing old records; writing what had thus-far only been handed down orally. To this period, the term “Scribe” becomes a more significant title. It no longer designates only an officer of the king's court, but an entire class of students of the law. These Scribes mostly hailed from the tribe of Levites, same as the Priests (2 Chr. 34:13-14; Neh. 8:3).
Unfortunately, Scribes of this era soon gained a reputation for being boastful of their wisdom. Jeremiah mentions this in Jeremiah chapter 8. Still, they did a lot of good by recording many of the books of the Old Testament for future generations.
After the Jews return from Babylonian captivity, the position of Scribe changed again. Ezra was the spiritual leader for the Jewish people after the return. He is described as both a Priest and a Scribe. Starting with him, the position of “Scribe” starts to be viewed by the Jews as being on at least level footing with the position of Priest, if not greater. In any case, Scribes gained more and more notoriety afterwards. They began being called “Rabbi” which means “master” or “great one”, and signified that they were Teachers of the Law. It was taught: “Respect for a teacher should exceed respect for a father, for both Father and Son owe respect to a teacher”.
Men of the Great Synagogue
The most influential Scribes organized into a group known as the “Men of the Great Synagogue”. It was their job to see to it that the Jews followed the letter of the Law. They were no longer merely transcribers of the Law, like in King Hezekiah's day, but interpreters. The Jews would come to the Scribes to have them judge on matters, and their judgements were seen as legally and spiritually binding. As such, with each judgement a new tradition was brought to life that must be strictly followed. In fact, it was considered a greater crime to break one of their traditions than it was to break God’s written law.
During the 400 year interim between the Old and New Testaments, this pattern progresses until the Scribes of the New Testament barely resembled those of the Old. The Scribes of the New Testament are characterized by Legalism; they were too concerned with insignificant details. They had amassed hundreds, maybe thousands of traditions, more than the average Jew could hope to know. Only a Scribe, who had studied these traditions from his youth could hope to learn them all, which lended to the notion that only the Scribes possessed the true knowledge of God. Many of these traditions were in direct violation with God’s law, and the rest had little to do with pleasing God.
To understand how this developed, it’s important to take a look at the Jewish mindset of this era. First, the Scribes put a large value on "Oral Tradition". That is, the interpretations that were orally handed down through the generations. It was thought that a person could not understand God’s word correctly without reading it through the lens of their Oral Tradition. This is a mindset we see in many modern day Jews, and also Catholics. If you were to confront someone of the Catholic persuasion about some practice not found in the Bible, they would respond with it’s in our Oral Tradition. This is something Jesus directly condemns in the New Testament, and this over-valuing of Oral Tradition played a big part in the digression of the Scribes.
Also, the Scribes had a motto. They believed their job was to “put a fence about the law”. We see this phrase in Jewish literature of the day. By this, they meant that it was their job to create traditions that put distance between man and the possibility of sin. For example, in God said not to work on the sabbath, they would create laws for what constituted work. In doing so however, they added to the law, and over time these traditions often cancelled out the original command, or drew attention away from its true purpose. For example: the Law taught “love thy neighbor as thyself”, but the Scribes taught that only Israelites were neighbors, so Jews didn't have to show love to Gentiles. In fact, Jewish midwives were forbidden to help with Gentile births, even if not helping meant the death of the Mother. Jesus specifically condemns this attitude though in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
These Oral Traditions were formed in three different ways:
- Some were extensions of Mosaical Law
- Some were disputed points that were voted on by the majority
- Some were decrees made by wise men throughout the ages (Once a decree had meed made, it was impossible to reverse. They had a saying: “not even Elijah could take away anything once determined.”)
Most of their traditions revolved around the idea of “Ceremonial Purity”; determining what was clean and unclean. There was little distinction to them between physical cleanness and spiritual cleanness. Which is why they were critical of Christ and his Apostles for not washing their hands (Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:1-5).
Men of the Great Synagogue/Senate/Sanhedrin
It’s also interesting to note the Scribe's rise in political power. The Men of the Great Synagogue formed during the return from Babylonian captivity and existed until the early Hellenistic period. It is believed that they were the backbone to the Maccabean revolt. It’s hard to find information about this group, most of it’s history is lost now, but you can see that the position of Scribe is starting to gain a political component.
After the Maccabean revolt, Judas Maccabee founded a governing body to oversee the Jews, called “Gerousia” or “Senate”. This body was the precursor to the Sanhedrin council we see in the New Testament. Scribes were allowed to be part of the Senate as representatives to the people.
Some believe the Sanhedrin dates back to the 70 elders that Moses selected to aid him in Numbers 11:16 and that it has existed ever since, but this idea is not backed up by scripture or the historical accounts. The first mention of the Sanhedrin is during the reign of Herod. This group had a varying amount of power depending on which ruler was currently reigning, but it essentially acted as a tribunal, passing judgements and issuing decrees. It played a pivotal role in the trial of Christ (Matthew 26:57-67; Mark 14:53-65), and is mentioned again in Acts when it had Stephen stoned (Acts 7:54-60), and then later in the trial of Paul (Acts 23).
The Sanhedrin consisted of two political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Acts 4:5-6) and these two parties bitterly opposed each other. It would be similar to being Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. And both of these parties came into existence after the Maccabean revolt, when the Jews were ruled by the Senate.
Josephus was a Jewish historian in the first century; we can a learn a lot about Jewish history from his writings. He also happened to be a Pharisee, so when we read his writings we see history from a Pharisee's point of view, which can be enlightening. So here is how Josephus described the Pharisees and Sadducees:
“Of the two named schools, the Pharisees, who are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws, and hold the position of leading sect, attribute everything to Fate and to God; they hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests, indeed, for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate co-operates. Every soul, they maintain, is imperishable, but the soul of the Good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.
The Sadducees, the second of the orders, do away with Fate altogether, and remove God beyond, not merely the commission, but the very sight of evil. They maintain that man has free choice of good or evil, and that it rests with each man’s will whether he follows the one or the other. As for the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards, they will have none of them.
The Pharisees are affectionate to each other and cultivate harmonious relations with the community. The Sadducees, on the contrary, are, even among themselves, rather boorish in their behaviour, and in their intercource with their peers are as rude as to aliens. Such is all I have to say on the Jewish philosophical schools.”
It's clear that these two groups were bitter rivals with differing ideologies. The Pharisees as a party were made up of people from all walks of life: farmers, merchants, fisherman, ect. But the leaders of the Party were the Scribes. It is possible that some Scribes also belonged to the Sadducee party, but our only evidence for this are verses that mention “Scribes of the Pharisees” which infers that there might be Scribes of other parties. Still, historically the vast majority of Scribes, if not all, were Pharisees. And the defining trait of the Pharisees was that they followed the Oral Traditions of the Scribes.
The Sadducees were polar opposites of the Pharisees. If the Pharisees were conservative, than the Sadducees were liberal. This party was made up mainly of High Priests. If you recall, Moses made his brother Aaron and Aaron's sons the first priests, and only their descendants were allowed to become priests after them. In the Old Testament, these priests were often times spiritual giants, but it seems this changed after the Maccabean revolt. In any case, unlike the priests of the Old Testament, these New Testament High Priests were aristocrats. They were a much smaller party than the Pharisees and didn't have as much pull with the jewish populace, but they were much wealthier and had stronger ties with Rome. They supported their lavish lifestyles with a temple tax which every Jew was required to pay.
Basically Sadducees were living the good life, and this lead to them not caring very much about the afterlife. They didn't believe in eternal reward or punishment. They were too busy enjoying what they had. This is a stark contrast to the Pharisees. According to Josephus, Pharisees “lived frugally, with no regard to luxuries”.
The Sadducees had a few other defining characteristics: they did not follow the oral traditions of the Scribes, they did not believe in resurrection from the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18-27; Acts 23:8), and they did not believe in the existence of angels (Acts 23:8).
Why these groups opposed Jesus
- Because they believed themselves to be spiritually unfailable, and were angry that Jesus would criticize them in any way
- Because Jesus opposed their self-created Oral Tradition
- Because they misinterpreted who the messiah was to be (they believed he would be an earthly king)
- Because they enjoyed a position of prominence in Jewish society, and didn’t want to let it go. Luke 20:46 “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts,”
- Because they feared losing their political power
- Because they feared losing their wealth (no more temple tax)
- Because they did not believe in an afterlife or very much of the supernatural
- Smith's Dictionary (edited by H.B. Hackett)
- The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible
- The People's Bible Encyclopedia
- Davis DIctionary of the Bible
- Unger's Bible Dictionary
- Bible Manners and Customs (Howard Vos)
- The Works of Josephus