Appendix 3. Religious Leaders in Jesus' Day

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The religious leaders of Jesus' day mentioned in the Gospels can be confusing, since some of the terms are overlapping. For example, a scribe could be either a Pharisee or a Sadducee, and the word "scribes" is synonymous with other terms such as "teachers of the law" and "lawyers." Hopefully the following will clarify these in your mind.


"Pharisees" belonged to a lay movement or party that defined righteousness as observing every detail of traditional rules designed to serve as a "hedge" or "fence" around the commandments. If one kept the traditions, he would not then transgress the law itself. The Pharisees were relatively small in number, but had great influence in first century Judaism. They believed in angels and in the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, in contrast to the Sadducees. As strict observers of the traditional, oral law they are somewhat akin to modern-day Hasidic Jews.[254]

High Priests

High priests were powerful figures in first century Jerusalem. The high priests (there were several in Jesus' day who had short tenure) had a vested interest in the religious status quo, and probably gained financially from money-changing and sales of sacrifices in the temple. Since in Jesus' day the high priest was appointed by Herod, and served at the pleasure of the Roman Governor, the high priests were often closely aligned with Roman interests.[255]


"Sadducees" were a group closely identified with the priestly aristocracy. They rejected the oral law or "traditions of the elders" held by the Pharisees, and held rather to the Torah itself. They denied the resurrection, and perhaps angels or spirits.[256] Most of Jesus' conflicts were with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees.


"Scribes" (KJV) or "teachers of the law" (NIV) translates Greek grammateus -- "a class of professional exponents and teachers of the law" who might belong to either the Sadducee party or the Pharisee party. While any male Jew could read the scripture in the synagogue and give an interpretation of the scripture, scribes were respected teachers who often had pupils who studied the law with them. Scribes were often poor and depended upon gifts from their students, funds from the distribution to the poor, or the Temple treasury. It was considered meritorious to show hospitality to a scribe, to give him a share of one's property, or to run his business for him.[257] In some ways, Jesus would have been classified in his day as a scribe, with students who leave their families to study with him. But he didn't teach like the scribes, appealing to tradition; rather he spoke authoritatively from God himself.

  • "Teachers of the law" (NIV) or "doctors of the law" (KJV). Greek nomodidaskalos, another word for "scribe."[258]
  • "Lawyers" (KJV) or "experts in the law" (NIV), Greek nomikos, is another word for "scribe."[259]
  • "Rabbi" (KJV and NIV), a Hebrew/Aramaic word, is a respectful form of address for all teachers that means, literally, "great one." In Jesus' day it was not yet a fixed title for academically schooled, ordained scribes as it became later, and is in our day.[260]
  • "Teacher" (NIV) or "master" (KJV), Greek didaskalos, usually translates the Hebrew/Aramaic word rabbi.[261]

The Sanhedrin in Jesus' Day

Where it was possible, the Romans would have had a provincial governor who represented Roman authority, but sought to keep in place the local kingdoms and administrative systems that were native to a country (client kingdoms or vassals) -- unless a province was so rebellious that the Romans had to rule directly. The Romans had ruled Israel since 36 BC, recognizing Herod the Great as King of the Jews. After Herod's death his kingdom was divided into four tetrarchies, each ruled by one of his sons. During Jesus' time, Herod Antipas was tetrarch[262] over Galilee, who beheaded John the Baptist, and before whom Jesus appeared at his trial.

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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While the Romans and Herodian kings held civil power, the Jewish Sanhedrin acted as a ruling body for the Jewish people, both at the local level (a "lesser Sanhedrin" which consisted of 23 members in every town that had at least 120 adult male Jews) and the national level (the "Great Sanhedrin"). The latter consisted of 71 members, following the pattern of 70 elders plus Moses (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:16, 24-25), though lesser decisions could be made by a panel of 23 members. In Jesus' day, the Great Sanhedrin functioned as both a supreme court, as well as legislature, and met in The Hall of Hewn Stones on the temple mount. In Jesus' day, the Great Sanhedrin was made up of members of the nobility (Sadducees, both priestly and lay), and scholars in the law (mainly Pharisees).[263]


[254]Stephen Westerholm, "Pharisees," DJG, 609-614.

[255]Bruce D. Chilton, "Judaism," DJG 402-405.

[256]Rudolf Meyer, Saddoukaios, TDNT 7:35-54.

[257]Graham H. Twelftree, "Scribes," DJG 732-735.

[258]Ibid., DJG 734.


[260]Rainer Riesner, "Teacher," DJG 807.

[261]DJG 732. "Master" (NIV and KJV), Greek epistatēs, a more general term for a supervisory or official person appears rarely and only in Luke's Gospel (DJG 807).

[262]A tetrarch is the governor over a fourth part of a province.

[263]William J. Moulder, "Sanhedrin," ISBE 4:332-334.

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