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Groups in the Gospels (4): Occupational and Religious Groups

Howard A Barnes, Westhoughton


During New Testament times slavery was very much an everyday part of life in Judæa, Galilee, and Perea, as well as the rest of the Roman Empire. On most occasions (70 out of 93) the word given as "servant" in the Authorised Version of the Gospels comes from a Greek word which means a slave (doulos), and other Greek words so translated can also relate to slaves. Such slaves – like domesticated animals - were the property of their owners, who ranged from ordinary individuals to kings. People were slaves because of birth; unpaid debt (Mt 18.25); being a convicted thief unable to pay restitution (Ex 22.3); prisoners of war, etc. Slaves could be manual workers, skilled workers, or even secretaries, managers, doctors, teachers, accountants. They worked in the home, the palace, on farms, in ships, or even in factories.

However, slaves’ freedom could be bought. Jesus said He came "to give his life a ransom for many" (Mt 20.28). This word "ransom" is the one commonly found in the written transactions of the time as the price paid for a slave who was then set free by the one who bought him, the purchase money for release of slaves. (We also note that the word "redeemed" in Galatians 3.13 means to purchase a slave for the purpose of setting him free.)

Given the miserable state in which slaves found themselves, it is not surprising to find that their motto at that time was: "Love one another; love robbery; love wickedness; hate your masters and never tell the truth".

Religious Groups


The Sadducees were a small but influential Jewish religious group made up of members of wealthy, upper-class, aristocratic Jewish families living in Jerusalem in New Testament times, and they saw themselves as particularly responsible for the running of the temple. The high priests and many of the priestly families - or else those married into priestly families - were Sadducees (Acts 5.17). Although their rivals the Pharisees were numbered in thousands, the Sadducees were probably only numbered in hundreds. (Effectively, they ceased to exist after the destruction of the temple in AD 70.)

Unlike the strict, unworldly Pharisees (Acts 26.5), the Sadducees were quite worldly in their attitude to politics (i.e. working with the Romans) and culture (e.g. Greek theatre and philosophy). They believed that Jewish national life should revolve around the temple and the three associated annual feasts which all Jewish males were obliged to attend (Ex 23.17; 34.23). They played a leading role in the Sanhedrin, represented the Jews to the Roman authorities, and got involved in national administration. They also had responsibility for collected taxes, especially the temple tax and tribute from Jews who lived abroad.

They were very peculiar in their religious beliefs: they did not believe in life after death (i.e. resurrection), nor in angels or demons (i.e. spirits with no bodies) (Acts 23.8). They believed in outward, showy, but undemanding religion (e.g. the popular national temple-based festivals). Unlike the Pharisees they did not accept the Oral Law, received by tradition, with its many prohibitions. However, since the Old Testament supported the idea of the temple, they accepted the written Old Testament, especially the first five books, the Pentateuch. They believed that God punished a man’s sins during his lifetime, that man’s will was free, and that he had power to control his cravings. In consequence they were stern judges. Unlike the Pharisees, they did not zealously seek converts to their beliefs, but rather sought to preserve their privileged position.

John the Baptist did not differentiate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees when some came to his baptism. He roundly condemned them both and said, "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Mt 3.7). Irrespective of the differences of doctrine, John describes their snake-like character, ripe for judgment. No doubt the Sadducees were the same as the Pharisees and lawyers, who "rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him" (Lk 7.30). However, many ordinary people and many tax-gatherers, having been baptized by John, declared that God was righteous in His dealing with them as sinners needing repentance and baptism (Lk 7.29). However, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees (as members of the Sanhedrin) were concerned with John’s growing popularity lest he should diminish their status, so they monitored his influence.

There are two particular incidents during the ministry of the Lord Jesus where the Sadducees come into view, the first as minor players, for it was "the Pharisees also with the Sadducees" who came to Jesus asking Him to show them a "sign from heaven". They had no interest in learning anything to their advantage, but were looking to trip Him up (Mt 16.1ff). Although they had little common ground, when it suited them they happily but hypocritically joined forces to try to catch out the Lord Jesus.

The only time we hear of the Sadducees in their own right is when they came to the Lord Jesus following His silencing of the Herodians. The Sadducees had brought what they thought was an ingenious question to ridicule the Lord Jesus on the issue of resurrection, in which of course they did not believe. He answered them from their own beloved Pentateuch, by telling them that "Ye do err [go astray], not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God" (Mt 22.29). He explained that, first, there is no institution of marriage after resurrection and those who had experienced resurrection were, in that respect, just like the angels of God in heaven (v.30) i.e. genderless. Then He proved the reality of resurrection by noting that God had said about Himself, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (v.32; see Exodus 3.6). So the truth of resurrection, life after death, as well as the reality of angels was expounded – all from the Scriptures. The result was that the Sadducees were silenced and the ordinary people astonished. Seeing the Sadducees bested, the Pharisees then crowded around, but they themselves were silenced by asking about the Messiah as David’s son and Lord (Mt 22.46; Mk 12.35–37; Lk 20.41-44). So these Gospel writers brought together the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees, and showed how the Lord Jesus dealt with them all on the same day.

The Sadducees constituted a threat to true believers then and now. The Lord Jesus warned the disciples against the "leaven…of the Sadducees" (Mt 16.6), which they eventually realised meant the teaching of the Sadducees. The disciples were told to "take heed and beware" of such teaching (Mt 16.6), since it could propagate itself insidiously among believers just like yeast in bread dough.

The Lord Jesus posed an obvious threat to the Sadducees, so, although not specifically mentioned, they were obviously complicit, through their leading members the high priest and the chief priests, in the death of the Lord Jesus.

To be continued.


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