The high priest and the chief priests formed an elite religious nobility within Jerusalem. Their members were selected from a small number of wealthy families who traced their descent back to Zadok, the high priest during Solomon's reign. But in the time of Jesus, the dominant priestly families constituted an illegitimate aristocracy whose members were not of pure Zadokite blood. The powerful clans of Boethus, Annas, Phiabi and Kamith, all members of the illegitimate priesthood, supplied all the high priests in the temple. The house of Annas was especially powerful. Annas had been high priest from 6-15 AD, and five of his sons, his son-in-law Caiaphas and his grandson Jonathan also held that important post.

These men controlled not only the temple, but a large number of seats on the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial body of the Jewish nation. Its 71 members were divided into three groups, the chief priests, the elders and the scribes. The high priest served as its presiding officer. Although in theory the Sanhedrin had executive and legislative functions as well as judicial authority, the Roman rulers had restricted its powers. In Jesus' day, the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to carry out the death sentence.

There was also influential lay nobility within Jerusalem, represented by the elders who sat on the Sanhedrin. They were the descendants of ancient ruling families whose powers had originated in the days following the Conquest.

After the return from exile in Babylon they had functioned as representatives of the people in dealing with the Persian, Egyptian and Syrian rulers. Many elders were wealthy merchants and landowners.

These two powerful ruling elites, the priestly and lay aristocracy of Judaism, made up the party known in Jesus' time as the Sadducees. They constituted a tightly closed circle of influential families who wielded great political power by virtue of their control of the Sanhedrin and their favored status in the eyes of the Roman rulers. They had found that they could best maintain their position by following a policy of cooperation with Rome. Their political and religious outlook was conservative, aimed at preserving both the temple and their own authority.