Appendix 2C. Religious Leaders in Jesus' Day

James J. Tissot, detail of 'Conspiracy of the Jews' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, detail of 'Conspiracy of the Jews' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

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.1421

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.1422


"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.1423 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 on 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.1424 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."1425
  • "Lawyers" (KJV) or "experts in the law" (NIV), Greek nomikos, another word for "scribe."1426
  • "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.1427
  • "Teacher" (NIV) or "master" (KJV), Greek didaskalos, usually translates the Hebrew/Aramaic word rabbi.1428
  • "Master" (NIV and KJV), Greek epistatēs, is a more general term for a supervisory or official person1429 and appears rarely, and only in Luke's Gospel.
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[1421] Stephen Westerholm, "Pharisees," DJG, 609-614.

[1422] Bruce D. Chilton, "Judaism," DJG 402-405.

[1423] Rudolf Meyer, Saddoukaios, TDNT 7:35-54.

[1424] Graham H. Twelftree, "Scribes," DJG 732-735.

[1425] Ibid., DJG 734.

[1426] Ibid.

[1427] Rainer Riesner, "Teacher," DJG 807.

[1428] DJG 732.

[1429] DJG 807.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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