One thing has always puzzled me when moving from reading the Old Testament to the New Testament. There seems to be an abrupt shifting of gears with regard to the political and social settings. The backdrop of Jesus’ life in the Gospels involves characters like Scribes, Sanhedrin, Pharisees, and Sadducees. However, these characters are almost completely absent from the landscape of the Old Testament. So, what has happened? How did we get all these new faces? And who are they?
From the last events of the Old Testament (as described in Ezra & Nehemiah) and the final prophecy made by Malachi, to the unveiling events of the New Testament, there is about a 400 year gap. Theologians often call this period “The Four Hundred Silent Years,” because God seemed to be silent, not communicating through his prophets (this era is called the “Second Temple Era” by the Jews). But don’t let the absence of a prophet from God make you think that these 400 years were insignificant. Their events created the scenery of the world in which Jesus was born, served, lived, died, rose, ascended from, and began to transform.
Out of these 400 silent years came various groups of people who play a momentous role in the New Testament Gospel accounts. Jesus confronts, rebukes, engages, impassions, and even submits in death to people who hold titles like “Scribe,” “Sanhedrin,” “Pharisees,” and “Sadducees.” So, who are they? It would be a mistake to lump them all together. As you read the New Testament you see that Jesus understood in detail even the smallest differences between the groups. In fact, his sometimes odd statements become clearer when we understand to whom he spoke—his audience (this is why one essential principle of biblical interpretation involves asking questions about the original audience).
After God allowed Babylon to destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C. (2 Kg 25 & 2 Chr 36), the central focus for the Jew shifted from the Temple (sacrifice) to obedience to God’s Law (Torah), since the Temple no longer existed and sacrifices were impossible. The Hebrews reasoned that since their failure to observe the Law of God was what got them into national disaster, therefore, its remedy would be careful observance of the Law. And with this shift, the people’s focus and attention changed from being upon the priest (previously performing sacrifices), to the scribe (the one who best knows God’s commands). So, with this swing in spotlight came the rise of new experts and leaders. Here’s a breakdown in some of these leaders:
Scribes: These were the lawyers whose primary job was to copy the Scriptures. Their focus became the details or the letter of the law. They transitioned from mere copyists to teachers of the Scriptures (Ezra was a scribe, Neh 8:2-8).
Sanhedrin: This is the group of judges. It was made up of a council of 70 Jewish men who were directly under the high priest. They acted as the “supreme court” in legal/religious trials. Some believe that this group began under the rule of King Jehoshaphat around 800 B.C. (2 Chr 19:4-11).
Pharisees: It is likely that this group evolved out of a priestly group of Jewish separatists during the Maccabean revolt. The revolt began when certain Jewish priests refused to bow down to Antiochus Epiphanes, but sought to protect the right worship of God. Jesus eventually criticized some of the Pharisees for their inflexible adherence to the “traditions of their fathers” rather than seeking God’s Word (Mt 15:14, 23:16).
Sadducees: This priestly group of religious leaders were functionally like the Pharisees. However, the two groups hated one another, except when they found a common enemy (e.g., Jesus). The primary ways the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees is (1) Sadducees rejected all Scriptures (Joshua—Malachi) besides the Torah (Gen-Deut), and (2) Sadducees rejected the belief in a future general resurrection of the body (Luke 20:27).
Anytime we pick up the Bible—in hopes of growing in intimacy with our God—we have a better chance of understanding what God is communicating if we have our finger on the pulse of the Bible’s cultural and political background. Knowing the background allows us to accurately interpret the situations to which Jesus and the Apostles spoke. In fact, it is the bridge to applying the original meaning of God’s Word then to us today.