Focus on Jesus Series
Major Players in the World of First-Century Judaism
by Ed Vasicek
In order to understand some of the events in the Gospels, it is important for us to understand the key players in first-century Judaism. We will list them by category.
The Pharisees This is by far the most important category. The Pharisees were “separated ones.” When the Greek culture began threatening Jewish ways, devout Jews who resisted compromising their beliefs formed this group called the Pharisees. They followed the solid teaching presented by Ezra and took the Scriptures very seriously. Modern Orthodox Jews descended from the Pharisees. Despite the hypocrisy of some Pharisees, particularly those with a lot of authority, many of them were sincere and devout. Christ strongly condemned those Pharisees noted for hypocrisy, which tended to be the more outspoken of the group.
Christian beliefs more closely match those of the Pharisees than any other group of the era. They believed the entire Old Testament and in the realities of heaven and hell. Besides the hypocrisy of some, the downfall of most was that they added accumulated traditions to the Bible. There is a principle: when people focus on traditions, the Word of God is displaced. One only has so much time and energy, and concentrating in one area means depleting another. Although they acknowledged the Word of God, the concentration of many Pharisees were the traditions added by men.
The common people did not belong to the order of Pharisees, but they looked to the Pharisees for direction. Since the Pharisees set the tone for the majority of Jews, when the Pharisee leaders rejected Christ, one could say that the Jews rejected Christ, even though many individual Jews, like the apostles, did believe.
The Scribes were Pharisees who copied, expounded, and taught the Scriptures. They were an early form of the modern Rabbi. These people are sometimes referred to as "teachers of the law" or "lawyers."
The Sadducees were the theological liberals of Judaism. They were wealthy and powerful. The high priestly families were Sadducees. They did not believe in angels or demons; only recognized the first five books of the Bible (the Torah); and did not believe in the after life. (that’s why they were “sad, you see.”) They owned the concession business outside the Temple area.
The Sanhedrin are also referred to as the “elders, chief priests, and scribes.” The Sanhedrin was the “Supreme Court” of Israel, with limited authority allowed by the Romans. To execute the death penalty, the Sanhedrin needed permission from the Roman governor. Understanding this explains the repeated trials Christ experienced. Not all the members of Sanhedrin wanted to crucify Christ: Nicodemus fought the decision, it is possible that Joseph of Arimathea was also part of the Sanhedrin. The leader, Gamaliel, was probably absent during Jesus' trial.
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