Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or Zealot: Which Are You?

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The students’ eyes glazed over before I could even get all four names out.  

I was substitute teaching in a high school bible class and the topic I was charged to present dealt with the four religious sects of Judaism in the first century, during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But, as I began to articulate the names of the Jewish groups, I could immediately see that my lesson was going to fall flat.

So, I tried a different angle.

“Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots,” I began…and then I introduced the twist:  “Which one are you?” Eyes sparked just a bit, but shoulders remained slumped. If I didn’t pull out of this tailspin fast, I’d never be asked to sub in a high school bible class again. “Believe it or not, each of you is probably already part of one of these groups and you don’t even recognize it.” That sentence landed the blow I needed.

“Mr. Brown,” said one student, a wave of indignation washing away the indifference, “Are you saying that we’re all hypocrites? Jesus said that the Pharisees were hypocrites!”

“Let’s consider the question, shall we?” I had them now. “What do we know about these groups? And, what evidence do you have that you are not part of one of these groups?”

The Four Pieces

First century Palestine – the providential time and place for a divine appointment with the God-Man, Jesus – was not the stage for the Jewish people alone. Four centuries had passed between the waning pages of the old testament’s last words of prophecy in Malachi and the dawn of the new testament in Matthew. But, in that time, while God had remained silent, other players had entered the stage: the first century was a season of Roman occupation and oppression. The Jewish people were living an anachronism: they had heard the promises which God had made to their ancestors, that this land was theirs, that a Messiah would rise from their midst, and that they would enjoy God’s Kingship and live as citizens of His Kingdom.  

But, in place of these promises, they suffered under the weight of Roman rule.

And, under the weight of oppression, occupation, disillusionment and disappointment, the faith of the people fractured…into four pieces.


The first fracture within Judaism was the group that fairly bore most of Jesus’ disappointment: the Pharisees. “Children of the devil,” “fools,” “white-washed tombs,” and “generation of vipers,” – Jesus didn’t mince words…and for what reason? Under the weight of cultural oppression and opposition, the Pharisees had retreated, complicating their faith, developing countless rules and laws to protect themselves, to separate themselves from the culture.  Their legalism may have seemed well-intended – some of these rules were even called “purity laws” – but the net effect was a retreat from culture, the abandonment of the religious high ground, and the complicated institutionalization of standards that no one was equipped to keep – not even themselves.


The second splinter sect was the Sadducees. Where the Pharisees chose to complicate their faith under the weight of culture, the Sadducees chose to compromise their faith. Holding to the devilish maxim, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, the Sadducees became complicit within Roman rule and culture, allowing their Temple-centered authority to come second behind Roman authority and politicking.

Cut and Run

The Essenes are the one religious first century sect that few recognize and it is for good reason. Where their brothers chose to complicate or compromise, the Essenes were the group that decided to cut and run. Literally. They retreated from culture all together, living away from cities within their own little communities. Eventually, they became irrelevant to their culture. And, most tragically of all, all but forgotten.


The final fracture took the form of the Zealots, a group that opted to pursue violent opposition to Roman oppression. The history books are filled with their tirades and temper tantrums against Rome and each story ends the same way: with bloody finality and fatality.

What Will We Choose?

At this point, still holding my students’ attention, I relaunched my initial ambush: “So, which are you?” Today, as Christ-followers, we live in a circumstance not too unlike that of the Jews to whom Jesus came in the first century. Their oppression and opposition came in the form of an earthy empire, Rome. The evil empire that would seek to oppress us today is even more insidious – it’s a culture that is opposed to truth. We live in a time of overt hostility towards the teaching and truth of God’s word. We’re opposed in schools, in courts, and in the market-place. So the question becomes, as an extension of the same question poised to the Jews of the first century, how will we respond?  

Do we choose to complicate our faith and implement legalistic rules that we will ultimately fail to follow?

Do we compromise our faith and live lives complicit with the chaos of culture?

Should we cut-and-run and retreat away from culture, essentially giving it over to cannibalize itself without the hope of Christ found within us?

Do we become confrontational and meet cultural hostility with our own self-righteous wrath?

If these questions echo those asked in the first century, so does the Answer. Jesus demonstrated a different way, a path along which He has seen opposing governments and evil empires crumble with predetermined inevitability. In His final marching orders to His disciples, in the Upper Room just hours before He knew His cross would appear, Jesus said this:  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Following Christ means that we avoid the temptation to complicate, compromise, cut and run, or confront. It means that we love our enemies as ourselves and, like Christ, we lay down our lives in the form of charity, generosity, and unrivaled forgiveness.

It’s true that the culture we live in is daunting and it seems as though pillars of truth and the firm foundations of faith that we’ve known seem to be crumbling under its weight. But, lives lived in love will win the day.

Geoff Brown is the Superintendent of Northwest Christian School located in Phoenix, AZ. Northwest Christian School is one of the largest private Christian schools in the state of Arizona and the only ACSI Exemplary Accredited school in the state.

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