Pharisees and Sadducees of Our Time

By Roberto de Mattei on Rorate Caeli

The Sandhedrin at the time of Jesus was the Council of Sadducees and Pharisees

The Sandhedrin at the time of Jesus was the Council of
Sadducees and Pharisees

Criticizing the “Pharisees” is recurrent in Pope Francis’ words. In numerous discourses, between 2013 and 2015, he has spoken of “the sickness of the Pharisees” (7th November 2013), “who rebuke Jesus for not respecting the Sabbath” (1st April 2014), of “the temptation of self-sufficiency and of clericalism, that codification of the faith in rules and regulations, as the scribes, the Pharisees, the doctors of the law did at the time of Jesus” (September 19th 2014). In the Angelus of August 30th 2015 he said that just as it was for the Pharisees it is “dangerous too for us to consider ourselves acceptable, or even worse, better than others simply for observing the rules, customs, even though we do not love our neighbor, we are hard of heart, we are arrogant and proud.” On November 8th 2015, he contrasted the behavior of the Scribes and Pharisees based on “exclusion” and Jesus’ behavior based on “inclusion”.

The reference to the Pharisees is evident, ultimately, in the Pope’s concluding discourse last October 24th, at the end of the XIV Ordinary Synod on the Family. In effect, who are the “closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families” if not “the Pharisees who were making religion […] a [never-ending] chain of commandments”? (June 26th 2014). A Pharisee seems to be anyone who defends, with stubborn pride, the existence of commandments, laws and the absolute, mandatory rules of the Church.

Yet, who were the Pharisees exactly? When Jesus began His preaching, the Jewish world was divided in various currents, which the Gospels mention, and also historians like Flavio Giuseppe (37-100 A.D.) in his works Jewish Antiquity and The Jewish War. The main sects were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees observed the religious prescriptions in great detail, but had lost the spirit of Truth. They were proud men, who falsified the prophecies relating to the Messiah and interpreted the Divine law according to their own opinions. The Sadducees taught even graver errors, by placing in doubt the immortality of the soul and rejecting most of the Sacred Books. Both disputed the power of the Sanhedrin, which was lead by the Sadducees at the time Jesus was condemned.

The Sadducees are mentioned only once in Mark and three times in Matthew, while the Pharisees appear repeatedly in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. In Chapter 23 of St. Matthew, there is in particular, an open accusation against them: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint […] and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone.”

In commenting this passage from Matthew, St. Thomas explains that the Pharisees were not reprimanded by the Lord for the payment of tithes “but only for the fact that they disregarded more important precepts, those of the spiritual order. However about the practice per se, He seems to commend them by saying “These things ought to be done” (Haec oportuit facere), under the law, as Chrysostom adds” (Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 87 ad 3).
St. Augustine, regarding the Pharisee St. Luke describes (18, 10-14), says that he is condemned, not for his works, but for having boasted of his presumed sanctity (Letter 121, 1,3). Again St. Augustine, in the Letter to Casulano, explains that the Pharisee was not condemned for his fasting (Luke, 18, 11), but “because he exalted himself, puffed up with pride, over the Publican” (Letter 36, 3, 7). In fact, “fasting twice a week is devoid of merit for a person like the Pharisee, whereas it is a religious act for a humbly faithful or faithfully humble person, even if the Gospel does not speak of condemnation for the Pharisee, but rather justification for the Publican” (Letter 36, 4, 7).

We have the most synthetic definition of the Pharisees from St. Bonaventure: “Pharisaeus significat illos qui propter opera exteriora se reputant bonos; et ideo non habent lacrymas compunctionis” (De S. Maria Magdalena Sermon I, in Opera omnia, Ad Claras Aquas, Firenze 2001 vol. IX, col. 556b). “Pharisees are those who consider themselves good because of their exterior works and hence they have no tears of compunction.”

Jesus condemned the Pharisees because He knew their hearts: they were sinners but considered themselves saints. The Lord wanted to teach His disciples that the fulfilling of exterior good works was not enough; what makes an act good is not only its object, but its intention. Nonetheless, if it’s true that good works are not enough when the good intention is not there, it is also true that a good intention is not enough, if there are no good works. The party of the Pharisees which Gamaliel, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea belonged to (Jewish Antiquity, 20.9.1)and St. Paul himself (Acts 23, 6) was better than the Sadducee party, precisely because, in spite of their hypocrisy, they respected the laws, whereas the Sadducees, who numbered in their ranks the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas (Jewish Antiquity, 18.35.95), looked down on them. The Pharisees were proud conservatives, the Sadducees were unbelieving progressives, but both were united in rejecting the Divine mission of Jesus (Matthew, 3, 7-10).

Who are the Pharisees and Sadducees of our time? We can say it in all certainty. They are those who, before, during and after the Synod tried to (and will try to) modify the practice of the Church, and, through practice, Her doctrine on marriage and the family.

Jesus proclaimed the indissolubility of marriage, basing it on the restoration of the natural law the Jews had departed from, and He reinforced it by elevating the marriage bond to [the level of] a Sacrament. The Pharisees and the Sadducees rejected this teaching, denying the Divine words of Jesus, to which they substituted their own opinion. They falsely referred to Moses, just like the innovators of our times refer to a supposed tradition of the first centuries, falsifying history and the doctrine of the Church.

For this a valiant Bishop, defender of the orthodox faith, Monsignor Athanasius Schneider speaks of a “Neo-Mosaic practice” which re-emerges: “The new disciples of Moses and the new Pharisees during the last two Assemblies of the Synod (2014 and 2015) masked their practical denial of the indissolubility of marriage and of a suspension of the Sixth Commandment on a case-by-case basis under the guise of the concept of mercy, using expressions such as: “way of discernment,” “accompaniment”, “orientations of the bishop,” “dialogue with the priest,” “forum internum,” “a more fuller integration into the life of the Church,” a possible suppression of imputability regarding the cohabitation in irregular unions (cf. Final Report, nn. 84-86).” (The Final Report, nn. 84-86).

The Sadducees are the innovators that state openly the abandonment of the doctrine and practice of the Church; the Pharisees are those that proclaim the indissolubility of marriage with their lips, but deny it hypocritically in facts, proposing the “case by case” transgression of the moral law. The true followers of Jesus Christ belong neither to the neo-Pharisees party nor to the neo-Sadducee party, both modernists, but belong instead to the School of St. John the Baptist, who preached in the spiritual wastelands of his time. The Baptist, when he stigmatized the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “race of vipers” (Matthew 2, 7) and when he admonished Herod Antipas for his adultery, was not hard of heart, but was moved by love for God and souls. The hypocrites and the hard of heart were Herod’s advisors who claimed to reconcile his condition as an impenitent sinner with the teaching of the Scripture. Herod killed The Baptist to suffocate the voice of truth, yet the voice of the Precursor still resounds after twenty centuries.

Those who defend good doctrine, do not follow the example of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but the example of St. John the Baptist and Our Lord.

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7 Responses to Pharisees and Sadducees of Our Time

  1. I know people who used to wonder sometimes if the pope understands who the Pharisees really were – and really are.

    With every word he utters, it seems clearer and clearer that he does not.

    And never will.


  2. johnhenrycn says:

    An absolutely wonderful and very welcome essay by Roberto de Mattei.


  3. Despite your eloquence, knowledge in theology and Church history you are short-sighted. You have your head buried so deep in the sand that you cannot comprehend that the Church cannot grow without sinners. Jesus said: “I come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Therefore, the Church should be open to everyone, and when they come our job is to feed them with the Word. Just like Jesus did with the Samaritan woman. After her conversation with Jesus, the Bible says she went away rejoicing saying ‘come see a man who tells me everything I did’.


  4. kathleen says:

    @ Noel Williams

    No offense meant, but perhaps it is rather ‘short-sighted’ on your part to fail to see how you have given the answer to your own objection!

    You say it yourself: Jesus said: “I come not to call the righteous but sinners to REPENTANCE.”
    To the Samaritan woman Jesus told her: “Go AND SIN NO MORE!” He said the same to all sinners; He never told them to continue in their lives of sinfulness as if the wrong they were doing was acceptable behaviour and did not matter! Salvation can only come about if it is proceeded by a humble recognition and sorrow for one’s sins, and a firm purpose of amendment.

    This is exactly what the Church is saying: repentance is the first step towards conversion. The Church’s doors are always wide open to welcome back repentant sinners. This is the whole point of its mission on Earth: to bring souls to the knowledge of the Truth and lead them to Heaven.

    For those who refuse to repent but still demand they receive the Sacraments, St Paul’s words are very clear: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord” – (1 Corinthians 11:29).


  5. Tom Fisher says:

    The Sadducees are the innovators that state openly the abandonment of the doctrine and practice of the Church

    That description may well apply to the ‘neo-Sadducees’, but it’s a strange legacy for the historical Sadducees. given that they were the arch-conservatives of 1st Century Judaism. Their rejection of the afterlife, and most of what are now canonical OT texts was an act of conservatism.


  6. Michael says:

    I linked to this not long ago during the Synod itself, but this blog post has some interesting things to say about what is truly Pharisaical as well:


  7. Michael says:

    Tom @ 08:28:

    Yes, I wouldn’t see the Sadducees as innovators either, but I wouldn’t align them with purely religious traditionalism per se either (N.B.; not saying you’re saying that!) – I’ve always seen them more as Erastian figures, desirous to uphold the socio-religious status quo in general and to preserve the special dispensations that the Jews had been given within the Empire. Hence why it is they who shout ‘we have no King but Caesar’ in John 19:15.


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