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Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (1988)

Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (1988)

Thesis: In Roman Palestine, the Pharisees and scribes were low-level bureaucrats (members of the retainer class, not the middle class, which did not exist in antiquity), and the Sadducees were members of the governing class (though not all members of the governing class were Sadducees).

Chapter 1, “The Problem of Jewish Groups in Palestine,” situates Saldarini’s work among other scholarly reconstructions of the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. He argues that previous work has been misled by the assumption that people in antiquity saw religion and politics as two separate spheres of life (they did not) and that ancient societies had an upper, middle, and lower class like modern industrial societies (they had an upper class and a lower class; most people lived within the lower classes).

Chapter 2, “A Sociological Approach,” outlines Saldarini’s methodology. He uses social functionalism as his theoretical framework, though he acknowledges its faults. He then examines the nature of class and power in ancient society, adapting Weber’s triad of class, status, and power to Roman society, where classes were “legally defined categor[ies] which possessed clearly defined privileges and disabilities and which stood in hierarchical relationship to other orders” (27), though they declined in importance over time.

Chapter 3, “Social Classes in Palestinian Jewish Society and the Roman Empire,” summarizes Gerhard Lenski’s model of the social classes of agrarian empires (like the Roman Empire). Lenski sees nine classes in agrarian imperial societies, which Saldarini uses as a guide to Palestinian society under the Romans:

  1. The ruler, who “had far reaching power and was sometimes considered to be the owner of all the land” (40).
  2. The governing class: 1-2% of the population; “made up of both hereditary aristocrats and appointed bureaucrats” (40). The Sadducees were members of this group.
  3. The retainer class: “perhaps 5% of the population” (41) who served the elites but were not elites themselves. The Pharisees and scribes belonged to this class, as did low-level officials like tax collectors.
  4. The merchant class, which was somewhat liminal; merchants were not landowners (and, thus, were not elites), but were not under the direct authority of the elites, like peasants were.
  5. The priestly class, which was landless, but which controlled significant wealth and had power independently of the governing class.
  6. The peasants: “the bulk of the population” (43), who were very strictly controlled by the governing class. Their main role was to produce food for the high-ranked members of society, who taxed their food production “typically at the rate of 30-70% of the crop” (43).
  7. The artisan class, about 3-7% of the population, were not a middle class (as in industrial societies), but rather earned low wages and enjoyed very little power. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Andrew, James, and John were from this class.
  8. The unclean class: essentially artisans who performed “noxious but necessary tasks” (44) like tanning or mining.
  9. The expandable class (5-10% of the population): people who had been forced off their land and who lived as outlaws on the fringes of society. Most messianic claimants and their followers were from this class.

Chapter 4, “Social Relations and Groups in Palestine,” examines the nature and origins of social groups in Hellenistic/Roman Palestine. Saldarini gleans from social network theory to show how honor-shame and patron-client relationships were at work both within and between social groups. He also argues that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes probably formed in the same way as Hellenistic voluntary associations—though, after they formed, they also had sectarian features. Saldarini explains Palestinian groups via Bryan Wilson’s typology of sects:

  1. The conversionist seeks emotional transformation now, with salvation presumed to follow in the future after evil has been endured. Because of alienation from society a new community is formed. Early Christians fit this type.
  2. The revolutionist awaits the destruction of the social order by divine forces. Apocalyptic groups fit this type.
  3. The introversionist withdraws from the world into a purified community. The Essenes fit this type.
  4. The manipulationist seeks happiness by a transformed subjective orientation which will control evil. The gnostics fit this type.
  5. The thaumaturgical response seeks relief from specific ills by special, not general dispensation. Magicians and healers with their followers fit this type.
  6. The reformist seeks gradual, divinely revealed alterations in society. The Pharisees and Jesus with his disciples probably fit this type.
  7. The utopian seeks to reconstruct the world according to divine principles without revolution (72; emphasis original; list formatted for readability).

Chapter 5, “The Pharisees and Sadducees as Political Interest Groups in Josephus”: Saldarini begins with Josephus’ biography, before surveying Josephus’ treatment of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the War, Antiquities, and Life. He concludes that the Pharisees and Sadducees were both small political interest groups, and that the Pharisees belonged to the retainer class, while the Saducees were from the governing class. Not all retainers were Pharisees, however, nor were all governors Sadducees.

Chapter 6, “Josephus’ Descriptions of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” builds off of the previous chapter’s argument, giving further information about the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ roles as political action groups. This chapter also argues, contra Neusner, that Josephus did not have a pro-Pharisaic bias in the Antiquities.

Chapter 7, “Paul the Pharisee”: This brief (10-page) chapter complements the picture of the Pharisees drawn from Josephus. Paul’s identity as a Pharisee shows that Pharisaism was present in the Diaspora, whereas Josephus only places the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Paul also mentions Pharisaism in conjunction with disputes about purity laws, showing that the Pharisees probably made purity regulations one of their defining boundary markers. Paul’s letters show him to be a decently well-educated member of the artisan class with some connections to the upper classes; Acts moves him up to the retainer class.

Chapter 8, “The Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Mark and Matthew”: In Mark, the Pharisees are located almost exclusively in Galilee (as opposed to Josephus’ portrait of them living exclusively in Jerusalem) and have connections with other groups, like the Herodians. They are a politically active group, and are concerned with purity regulations. The scribes appear both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, but are more often located in Jerusalem; they were teachers who were known and esteemed among the people in both places, and their disputes with Jesus mostly concerned Jesus’ authority to teach. The Sadducees appear once, as members of a controversy over the doctrine of resurrection. In Matthew, the Pharisees are present both in Judea and the Galilee. The scribes, as in Mark, are teachers who are concerned with Jesus’ authority to teach; however, as “spokesmen for Judaism” (160) rather than for specific Jewish groups, the scribes are less politically active than in Mark.

Chapter 9, “The Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Luke-Acts and John”: In Luke, the Pharisees are a Galilean group that is disconnected from other Jewish political groups; the scribes have no clearly defined role; and he introduces a new Jewish group, the lawyers. In Acts, Pharisees appear as members of the Sanhedrin, where they argue with Sadducees over the concept of resurrection. The scribes again have no clearly defined role other than opposing the apostles. The Sadducees are leaders in Jerusalem. In John, “the Pharisees function both as government officials and as the learned doctors of the law who are interested in Jesus’ teaching and dispute its truth” (188). They are located in both Jerusalem and Galilee. The scribes and Sadducees do not appear in John.

Chapter 10, “The Pharisees and Sadducees in Rabbinic Literature,” critiques using rabbinic sources to describe the historical Pharisees and Sadducees, because the rabbinic authors use those groups for their own polemical purposes. Nevertheless, some information can be gleaned from these texts, for instance that Pharisaic leaders, like Hillel and Gamaliel, very probably existed, though they did not have the wide-reaching power that has been ascribed to them. Next, Saldarini discusses the origins and meanings of the names Pharisee and Sadducee, arguing that the typical etymologies do not sufficiently explain how the groups got their names. He also briefly discusses the Boethusians, who were probably a priestly group.

Chapter 11, “The Social Roles of Scribes in Jewish Society,” gives a history of scribes in Egypt and Israel, as well as how scribal activity shaped the Hebrew Bible. Scribes appear throughout Jewish literature filling various roles and occupying different social positions. Saldarini argues that, in Roman Palestine, a “scribe” was not a member of a unified political group, but was simply a literate individual in the service of a community leader. In the gospels, most scribes belong to the retainer class.

Chapter 12, “The Place of the Pharisees in Jewish Society,” argues that the Pharisees filled many social roles in Roman Palestine, including:

  • A political action group.
  • A reform movement.
  • A network of people mostly from the retainer class, struggling for power and influence.
  • A religious sect focused on ritual purity, using written texts and oral traditions as the basis of their beliefs.
  • A Greek-style philosophical school.

As a whole, they held beliefs that were distinct from other Jewish groups of the time, like the Sadducees and Essenes. However, they were also divided into factions—for example, the houses of Hillel and Shammai. It is also likely, contra Josephus, that some Pharisees lived in Galilee.

Chapter 13, “The Sadducees and Jewish Leadership,” argues that “the Sadducees were an established and well recognized group of first century Jews” (302) who were members of the governing class. However, not all governors were Sadducees. The Sadducees held to tradition more tightly than the Pharisees, using only the Torah as their sacred text and rejecting doctrinal innovations from the Persian and Hellenistic periods, like the doctrine of resurrection. The Sadducees’ history is “obscure” (305), and the sources available do not permit definite conclusions about the group’s origins.

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Sadduceic Christianity

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” (Acts 24:14-15)

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)

It’s interesting to me that, though Gentiles were largely allowed to remain Gentiles when they converted to Christo-Judaism,* Sadducees were expected to become Pharisees when they converted. Of course, it makes sense that Sadducees, who denied an afterlife and a resurrection of the dead, would have to first acknowledge both an afterlife for the soul and the resurrection, since Jesus’ resurrection was a central dogma for Christo-Judaism. But it is also true that the Sadducees represented the traditional approach to the afterlife, the one presented in the Torah, as opposed to the revisionist teaching of the Pharisees, which isn’t found until the post-exilic period, developed in the face of persecution.

Notice the difference between Gentile conversion and Sadducee conversion in the quotes from Acts above. While Luke has James saying that Jews “should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (15:19), Luke frames the conversion of Sadducees as “becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7). Likewise, he has Paul saying that the true Christo-Jewish interpretation of “everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” is that “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (24:14-15). In other words, while Acts shows the earliest, Pharisaic church being relatively lenient toward Gentile converts, the church in Acts is, to be honest, pretty harsh toward the Sadducees.

Thus, I’d argue that because Sadduceism, to a Pharisee, represented a wrong view of the Scriptures (though the Sadducees actually interpreted the Messianic predictions in the Hebrew Bible more accurately, from the standpoint of reading the Scriptures as the original authors understood them), Sadducees had to become Pharisees in order to “properly” follow the Messiah.

What’s interesting, though, is that since the advent of modern biblical criticism, with its denial of the supernatural, certain groups of Christianity have taken a Sadduceic turn. For this camp, it is no problem if Jesus did not work miracles and did not experience a literal, bodily resurrection. (There is debate over whether Paul and Mark themselves believed in a bodily resurrection, but that’s another post for another day.) The focus in this Christianity thus turns to what Jesus said (his teaching and ethics), rather than what Jesus did (his miracles, his death, and his resurrection).

Personally, I find this kind of Christianity compelling, if not wholly convincing. Jews did not hope for a literal, bodily resurrection until the time of the Maccabees; thus, in order to do responsible exegesis of the OT hope for a Messiah, we cannot include the concept of resurrection from the dead. On this reading, the talk of the supernatural in the New Testament — the afterlife, the resurrection, etc. — is actually a culturally-conditioned addition to the Hebrew Scriptures, and is thus invalid, meaning that our focus should not be a hope for some future bliss after death, but of acting justly and ethically while alive.

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* I use “Christo-Judaism” because the term “Jewish Christianity” seems to me to put an undue and anachronistic emphasis on the Christian side of the belief.

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