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The nature and status of all of the various religious groups which arose after the fall of Judah (eg Pharisees, Sadducees, Boethusians, Essenes, Zealots, Samaritans; there were probably many others) are shrouded in obscurity. Although we have writings which are arguably sectarian in outlook, we have few contemporary descriptions of the varieties of Jewish faith. A few Roman authors offer descriptions, which are probably little more than "travellers' tales" (eg Pliny, NH 5.73); the Jewish philosopher Philo mentions some groups in passing; and in three broadly similar passages the Jewish historian Josephus sketches the views of what he describes as the three major Jewish sects -- Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes -- on a small range of issues, likening them to the Greek philosophical schools of Stoics, Epicureans and Pythaogreans well-known to his readers. Later rabbinic sources contain much material, but of questionable value. Each of these authors has his own agenda, and hence any reconstruction which rest on an uncritical use of these materials is most unlikely to be accurate. This probably includes the majority of current discussions of second-Temple Jewish groups: it is only since the work of Neusner (on the rabbininc materials) and Mason (on Josephus) that scholars have really begun to explore the sources in a properly scholarly fashion. It must also be borne in mind that the New Testament remains one of the most important sources for any reconstruction of the Judaisms of the first century; and yet there is no mention in it of the Essenes, even if some of its characters might have been Essene.
No early author discusses the origins of the name "Pharisee" and all modern discussions are pure speculation. Although Josephus does not presume his readers will be familiar with them, he says nothing about those aspects of the Pharisees we would find most significant: their origins, doctrines, self-understanding or social structures.
His presentation of the Pharisees is always subservient to his purposes in writing, which is predominantly an explanation of how God could have allowed the downfall of his own chosen people. His discussion of the religious views of the Jewish sects therefore focuses on fate (or divine providence), predestination and freewill. In this context Josephus' Pharisees appear to occupy a mediating position between the rigid predestinarianism of the Essenes and the human freedom attributed to the Sadducees. He regards them as an attractive and powerful faction, with an ascetic lifestyle, popular among the people and concerned to present themselves as rigorists for the Law of God. They have a body of interpretations and traditions which are not themselves part of the Torah, and religious practises are performed according to their interpretation (see especially Ant. 18.12--17). But their major role in his writings is a political one. Because of their power among the people, he claims, they effectively controlled the state at least from the time of Alexandra Salome (76--67 BCE), and they opposed Herod whose downfall they were able to foretell through prophetic gift. However, it is noteworthy that they hardly occur in his narratives between the time of Alexandra and that of Herod; and none of the actual achievements of the Pharisaic party which he records substantiate these claims to power. Hence many scholars see Josephus' claims as exaggerated, if not mere propaganda.
It is remarkable that our other major source, the rabbinic traditions, says nothing about such a political agenda. Here, rather, the issues are exclusvely religious. We need to note that the rabbinic materials are problematic for our quest. All are heavily redacted in the light of the radical re-assessment which followed the destruction of the Temple. Attempts to support indiscriminate use of rabbinic materials by appeal to NT parallels (eg over korban, Mark 7.11) are unsafe because we cannot say how distinctive such things were of the Pharisees.
Within the rabbinic materials the word "Pharisees" (PERUSHIN) is rare, and is sometimes used pejoratively; preferred terms are "sages" (HAKAMIM) or rabbis. We cannot assume that any of these references are to the group we know as Pharisees. Even those passages which explicitly refer to the Pharisees are not safe as a basis for a reconstruction (despite Rivkin's appeal to them) since it is rarely clear that the term is an original part of the tradition. Neusner's approach attempts to isolate the earliest rabbinic traditions, especially those connected with named individuals known (or presumed) to be Pharisees. The great majority of these traditions turn out to focus on the laws of purity; particularly with respect to washing, eating, tithing and Festival and Sabbath observance. For this reason Neusner suggested that the Pharisees saw themselves, though laymen, as the "kingdom of priests" of Exodus 19.6, who bound themselves to keep all the legislation relevant to a priest on Temple duty. (This motivation, it should be noted, may also be detected among the Essenes, and many of the Dead Sea Scrolls also manifest concern over this group of laws.) Such a view would certainly cohere well with the NT evidence, where again cultic purity seems to be high on the Pharisaic agenda. It is also worth noting that many of these laws are specifically relevant to the small land-owner class, which suggests a particular cultural milieu for the Pharisee-class (if "class" is an appropriate designation).
It is reasonable to suppose that the group designated as the "seekers after smooth things" in the Dead Sea Scrolls may be Pharisees, which suggests mutual animosity but gives little other information.
Relationship to Other Groups
In the Gospels, the various authorities who oppose Jesus are grouped together in a number of ways. The accompanying table attempts to categorise these occurrences. All four Gospels link scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5.20; 12.38; 15.1; 23 ( 7 occurrences); Mark 2.16 (scribes of the pharisees); 7.1; Luke 5.21; 5.30 (Pharisees and their scribes); 6.7; 7.30 (Pharisees and lawyers); 11.53; 15.2; John 8.3; cf also Acts 23.9. This is simply to say that some scribes were Pharisees, and were likely because of their learning to take leading roles within the movement.
Matthew alone links Pharisees with the Sadducees (3.7; 16.1, 6, 11, 12). Without other context this may suggest that they represented the leaders of the people; but it is clear that in general the Gospel writers see various combinations of chief priests, elders and scribes as taking that role. Matthew's usage may suggest that he saw these two groups as advocating doctrines which were most distinctive from other strands of Judaism (see further below). The opposition between Pharisees and Sadducees is an important part of Josephus' portrait, and figures also in the later rabbinic materials; cf also Acts 23.6--10.
Matthew also once links them with the chief priests (21.45); and in John this combination is the moving force behind the formal opposition to Jesus (7.32, 45; 11.47, 57; 18.3). This might suggest, as Josephus also claims, that the Pharisees wielded considerable political power. Josephus however also notes that some of the leading priests were themselves Pharisees; though Matthew's reference appears to be to two separate groups.
The problems discussed above make it hard to be certain about what was distinctively Pharisaic. Josephus' statements about the Pharisees being "accurate interpreters of the Law" (eg BJ 2.162) must be tempered by his other comments which attribute such accuracy to all Jewish sects, and in particular to the priesthood (of which he was himself a part). That they were conservative on some parts of the Law and liberal on others, adding also their own traditions, is neither surprising nor unique to their group. A claim to be the definitive exponents of the Law would however give a cutting edge to Jesus' fierce denunciation of their shortcomings. Although the formalisation of a belief in the twofold Law (written and oral) may well be much later than the first century, it is clear that they already had a coherent body of traditions by the first century, which appear to have focused largely on purity issues.
The only point on which all our sources agree is their belief in an afterlife in contrast to the Sadducean denial. Josephus appears to contrast their position with Essene dualism: for the Pharisees unrighteous souls are punished while the righteous pass into "other bodies" (BJ 2.163). Presumably some sort of heavenly bodies is intended rather than a belief in reincarnation, since the latter appears to be foreign to all known Jewish beliefs. This then would presuppose some specific eschatological event.
The superficial reading of Josephus which has provided the popular image of the all-powerful and legalistic Pharisee is manifestly incorrect. His claim that they were able to control cultic practice is both incredible and contradicted by the events he relates. However, all our sources indicate an influence on society out of all proportion with their number (which Josephus suggests was very small) and there seems no good reason to doubt this. There is, though, no reason to suppose that they exercised any direct influence in the synagogues or other parts of everyday Jewish life. Josephus, the rabbinic materials and the Gospel of John would also suggest that their direct influence was limited to the environs of Jerusalem, while many of the Marcan stories appear to locate Pharisees in the Galilee (though we should note that in general Mark's location of events is very vague). Luke unambiguously locates Pharisees in every village in Galilee and Judaea (Luke 5.17). We cannot tell whether this is just a result of the evangelists' redactional activity of their material, or whether there was a significant Pharisaic presence there.
An important factor in assessing their influence, perhaps, is the impression given by the synoptic writers that as soon as Jesus began his ministry it was the Pharisees (with or without the scribes) who took it upon themselves to vet his credentials and to seek to destroy this subversive new teaching. Hence they are portrayed as natural leaders and authorities in the community of faith, or rather that part of it of most interest to the early Christian community. This coheres with both Josephus' report of the Pharisees as those who claimed to be the most accurate interpreters of the Law, and with what we know of the early life of the apostle and erstwhile Pharisee Paul (Gal. 1.13--14; Phil 3.5f). In Luke in particular, they appear to regard Jesus as an equal (they invite him to meals and address him as "teacher") even while they suffer his biting criticisms. In Acts they appear as a voice of moderation in the Sanhedrin.
It is clear that "the Pharisees" quickly became something of a stereotype for the opponents of Jesus: it is therefore hard to decide how much an incidental reference in the Gospels (especially when it appears to be a secondary addition in a Synoptic parallel) can tell us of specifically pharisaic attitudes. Luke's more positive approach suggests a particular concern for the Jewish leaders (see Mason 1995); though his precise concerns are still hotly debated.
Bibliography[in reverse chronological order]
S Mason, "Chief priests, Sadducees, Pharisees and Sanhedrin in Acts" in R Bauckham (ed), The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995) chapter 5.
J.A. Darr, On Character Building: The Reader and the Rhetoric of Characterization in Luke-Acts (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992)
LL Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian, Volume Two: the Roman Period (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 463ff
S Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992)
DB Gowler, Host, Guest, Enemy and Friend: Portraits of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts (New York: Lang, 1991)
S Mason, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: A Composition-Critical Study (SPB 39; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991)
J.T. Carroll, "Luke"s Portrayal of the Pharisees', CBQ 50 (1988) 604-21
AJ Saldarini, Pharisees Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Edinburgh: Clark, 1988)
J Neusner, "Josephus" Pharisees: A Complete Repertoire', in LH Feldman and G Hata (ed) Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 274--292
R.L. Brawley, Luke-Acts and the Jews: Conflict, Apology, and Conciliation (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987)
J.T. Sanders, The Jews in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987)
SJD Cohen, "The Political and Social History of the Jews in Greco-Roman Antiquity: The State of the Question", in RA Kraft and GWE Nickelsburg (ed) Early Judaism and its Modern Interpreters (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 33--56
GG Porton, "Diversity in Postbiblical Judaism", in RA Kraft and GWE Nickelsburg (ed) Early Judaism and its Modern Interpreters (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 57--80
MJ Cook, Mark's Treatment of the Jewish leaders (Leiden: Brill, 1978)
E Rivkin, The Hidden Revolution: An Historical Reconstruction of the Pharisees (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978)
J. Ziesler, "Luke and the Pharisees", NTS 25 (1978-79) 146-57
J Lightstone, "Sadducees versus Pharisees: The Tannaitic Sources", in J Neusner (ed) Christianity, Judaism and other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at 60 (Leiden: Brill, 1975) 3.206--217
GWE Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism (Cambridge: HUP, 1972)
S Van Tilborg The Jewish Leaders in Matthew (Leiden: Brill, 1972)
J Neusner The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 (3 volumes) (Leiden: Brill, 1971)
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