Below is an excerpt from a rabbinic Jewish text of the third century CE called Mishnah (repetition). In this volume, the ancient rabbis repeated the things they have been taught to successive generations and this passage turns to the conflict between Sadducees and Pharisees. Considering how little the NT explicitly teaches about these groups Mishnah offers some valuable background.

“The Sadducees say: we complain against you, Pharisees, because you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands, but the books of Homer do not defile the hands. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: Have we nothing against the Pharisees but this? Behold they say that the bones of a donkey are clean, yet the bones of Yohanan the high priest are unclean. They said to him: according to the affection for them, so is their impurity, so that nobody should make spoons out of the bones of his father or mother. He said to them: so also are the Holy Scriptures according to the affection for them, so is their uncleanness. The books of Homer which are not precious do not defile the hands.

The Sadducees say: we complain against you, Pharisees, that you declare an uninterrupted flow of a liquid to be clean. The Pharisees say: we complain against you, Sadducees, that you declare a stream of water which flows from a burial-ground to be clean? The Sadducees say: we complain against you, Pharisees, that you say, my ox or donkey which has done injury is liable, yet my male or female slave who has done injury is not liable. Now if in the case of my ox or my donkey for which I am not responsible if they do not fulfill religious duties, yet I am responsible for their damages, in the case of my male or female slave for whom I am responsible to see that they fulfill mitzvot, how much more so that I should be responsible for their damages? They said to them: No, if you argue about my ox or my donkey which have no understanding, can you deduce from there anything concerning a male or female slave who does have an understanding? So that if I were to anger either of them and they would go and burn another person’s stack, should I be liable to make restitution?” (Mishnah, Yadaim 4:6-7)



  1. Lawrence Schiffman has argued that the Sadducean view regarding bones of unclean animals, and streams of liquid was shared by the Qumranites: 4QMMT B21–22;55–58.
    • I am not familiar with that paper but Dr. Schiffman is a superb and experienced scholar and I generally trust what he says.
    • And then he added. "...whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Mat 5:19)
    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including Stories of the Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 and The Stories of the Jewish Christ: Among the Rabbis. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
  2. More than once Jesus chastises the Pharisees for NOT keeping the Torah: In Mark 7 where they use "Corban" as a weasel-word to avoid honoring parents, and in Matthew 23 where he says they tithe spices but neglect the more important matters of the law.
  3. Excerpts such as the above are quite revealing for those of us who hunger for the background narrative of the Gospels. Yeshua spent much of his early years listening and responding to mishnaic dialogs such as this. We get a glimpse when he was left behind in Jerusalem.
  4. 'Considering how little the NT explicitly teaches about these groups....'

    If one limits himself or herself to only the 'NT' (and 'OT') disseminated by the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, etc., then one is learning little about these groups. Other Jewish texts discuss the Nazarenes, Ebonites, Cerinthians, Hasidics, Karaites, etc.
  5. The Sadducees and the Pharisees just wanted others to know who they were and what they did. The scripture said they think they will be heard for their much speaking. Comparing what one or the other do is still their own rivalry with each other. The Scripture had few words to say about their behavior. But to make spoons out of their parents' bones and the other desire streams of water from a burial ground to be clean shows they had no religious duties mainly the Torah. This speaks also of our own idleness.


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