Among the Jewish sects during the ministry of Jesus were three principal adversaries: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Scribes (although not strictly a sect as we shall see). The 23rd chapter of Matthew reports the vilification that Christ heaped on the Scribes and Pharisees. The Sadducees had been foiled in their effort to discredit the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead in the preceding chapter where they asked Christ whose wife the woman with seven husbands would be in the resurrection. One Pharisee, a lawyer, came running with another question designed to tempt Jesus, for which they received the excoriation recorded in the following chapter in Matthew. For years you've read about these sects and probably rightly categorized them as Jesus did: the Sadducees - faithless; the Scribes - self-righteous and the Pharisees - hypocrites. Perhaps we can more fully understand the message of Jesus if we knew more about them.
The Sadducees could be labeled a "first family" in the Jewish community. They claimed to be the descendants of Zadok, the high priest during the reign of Solomon, whose descendants were the most prominent family among the priests until the time of the Maccabees. After the exile and their loss of autonomy they, as the priestly nobility, were both religious and secular leaders. They acted as liaison first between the Medes and Persians, next with the Greeks, and finally with the Seleucid or Syrian kings. In 4th century Rome and down to the time of Christ these kingdoms were Hellenistic in their philosophy, and embraced Dualism , the physical and spiritual natures of man underpinning a doctrine of immortality. To their credit the Sadducees were not influenced by this philosophy. They believed in the Pentateuch, the Torah, and no other inspired work. They did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. Their concern was solely for the welfare of Judaism, without thought, apparently, of rewards.
The Pharisees generally were laymen, as opposed to priests. They were newcomers in Jewish history compared to the Sadducees. History first shows them as a sect during the time of the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century B.C. during the reigns of the Hasmoneon kings. Their name means "separate". They were people who set themselves apart from the common folk whom they considered to be not very meticulous in their observance of the Law. They believed in the Torah, but they viewed it like the Supreme Court of the United States views our constitution: that it was constantly in need of expanding, modification, and interpretation to keep up with the times. Which is to say they believed in the oral tradition, which became Rabbinical writings, the chief being the Talmud.
Now the Scribes were not what is called a sect, nor were they exclusively copiers of scripture. They were lawyers and interpreters. They embellished. The Scribes knew certain secrets which could only be spoken in the presence of one or two persons. They went through an ordination process which ultimately allowed them to be called Rabbi (great man, teacher). As leaders in the synagogues there was a natural antipathy between them and the Sadducees, who led the worship at the temple. In Christ's time, the title 'Rabbi' had declined somewhat. At the risk of oversimplification, no Scribes were Sadducees, all Scribes were Pharisees, but all Pharisees were not Scribes.
At the time of Christ the Pharisees were the largest and most popular sect and there were sects within the sect. Jews today are descendants of the Pharisees and believe in the oral tradition. During the centuries before Christ, the Pharisees had assimilated much of Hellenistic thought into their theology, most significantly in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. According to the historian Josephus (b.37 AD), they believed that all souls were detained after death awaiting the resurrection, in sheol (grave), or hades (subterranean region); the just guided to the right, to the Bosom of Abraham, the unjust to the left, Hell itself. The Pharisees modified Hellenism with Jewish thought, and came to believe that souls were never happy until they were re-united with the body at the resurrection. When Jesus told this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, with Lazarus going to Abraham's bosom, he used their own theology (Luke 16. 19 - 31).
Paul identified himself with the Pharisees when he was brought up on charges before the Sanhedrin, so as to cause a division. "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee", he said, "of the hope and resurrection of the dead am I called in question" (Acts 23). He goes on to recount that Pharisees believed in not only the resurrection, but in angels and spirits. Keeping in mind that many of Jesus converts were probably Pharisees, a reading of the gospels shows us by their example what sins Jesus chose for men to avoid. Unrighteousness. (Mat 5. 20) - "Except your righteousness shall exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven"; Self-righteousness - (Luke 18. 10 - 14) - "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, the other a Publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess. And the Publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted." Letter of the Law - (Mat 15. 8) - Literalists who believe in the letter of the law and not the spirit. Jesus was rebuked for plucking and eating corn and even healing on the Sabbath. Hypocrisy - (Mat 15. 4, 5) - Although well knowing the commandment to Honor Thy Father & Mother, they failed to follow it.
Why didn't Jesus tell the multitudes in explicit terms about the falsity of Pharisaical notions about "hell" and "souls"? It is true that he said that in their Rabbinical writings that their worship is vain, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men. We also identified the leaven of the Pharisees in Matthew as their doctrine, but in Luke he identifies it as hypocrisy. The answer to the question is, of course, unanswerable. Nor do I denigrate the necessity of an understanding of the one true faith, for it is the foundation. But the most important enemies of truth, as I believe the teachings of Jesus point out, are human characteristics, not doctrines. Self righteousness, unrighteousness, hypocrisy, choosing the letter over the spirit, giving God lip service, these are the enemies of truth. Self-righteousness stands in the way of learning and after learning, stands in the way of understanding. The battle against unrighteousness is the one with which we are all too familiar. Hypocrisy comes as naturally to us as breathing. Abiding by the letter of the law, almost synonymous with self-righteousness, leads Christians to hair splitting over various points of view. Lip service is a sin peculiar to the 20th century. And when a Christian begins to talk about Christ's Law of Liberty, and all things being lawful, he gets two reactions: he needs watching, and others breathe a little easier.
It takes great discipline to really live by the spirit of the law, rather than by the letter. Those that live by the letter are do-nothings; they don't want to risk temptation or sin. Those who truly want to live by the spirit of Christ's law are the doers, they get into the fray. And it takes discipline not to gossip, not to backbite, not to revel in intellectual victories in narrow doctrinal matters, to cultivate the fruits of the spirit. It takes heroic discipline to really understand and perform the end of the commandment which is charity out of a pure heart, with a good conscience and sincere faith.