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The Pharisees (from the Hebrew perushim, from parash, meaning "to separate") were, depending on the time, a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews that flourished during the Second Temple Era (536 BCE–70 CE). After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Pharisaic sect was re-established as Rabbinic Judaism — which ultimately produced normative, traditional Judaism, the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism, with the possible exception of Karaite Judaism which began as a sect of Karaism. The relationship between the Pharisees and Rabbinic Judaism (exemplified by the Talmud) is so close that many do not distinguish between the two. Nevertheless, the social standing and beliefs of the Pharisees changed over time, as political and social conditions in Judea changed.
More specifically, the Pharisees were one of the successor groups of the Hasidim (the "pious"), an anti-Hellenic Jewish movement that formed in the time of the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes (175–163 BCE). (This group is distinct from the Hasidism established in 18th century Europe.) The first mention of the Pharisees is by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, in a description of the four "schools of thought" (that is, social groups or movements) into which the Jews were divided in the 1st century CE. The other schools were the Essenes, revolutionaries, and the Sadducees. The Essenes were apolitical; the revolutionaries, such as the Sicarii and the Zealots, emerged specifically to resist the Roman Empire. Other sects emerged at this time, such as the Christians in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt. The Sadducees and Pharisees began earlier, as political factions in the Hellenistic Hasmonean period of the Second Temple era. At no time did any of these sects constitute a majority; most Jews were non-sectarian. However, Josephus indicates that the Pharisees received the backing and good-will of the common people. Nevertheless, these sects are emblematic of the different responses of Jews to the political, economic, and cultural forces that characterized the Second Temple era.
For most of their history, Pharisees defined themselves in opposition to the Sadducees. Conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees took place in the context of much broader conflicts among Jews in the Second Temple era that followed the Babylonian captivity of Judah. One conflict was class, between the wealthy and the poor. Another conflict was cultural, between those who favored hellenization and those who resisted it. A third was juridico-religious, between those who emphasized the importance of the Temple, and those who emphasized the importance of other Mosaic laws and prophetic values. A fourth, specifically religious, involved different interpretations of the Bible, and how to apply the Torah to Jewish life. These conflicts practically define the Second Temple Era, a time when the Temple had tremendous authority but questionable legitimacy, and a time when the sacred literature of the Torah and Bible were being canonized. Fundamentally, Sadducees and Pharisees took clearly opposing positions concerning the third and fourth conflicts, but at different times were influenced by the other conflicts. In general, whereas the Sadducees were conservative, aristocratic monarchists, the Pharisees were eclectic, popular, and more democratic (Roth 1970: 84). The Pharisaic position is exemplified by the assertion that "A learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest." (A mamzer is an outcast child born of a forbidden relationship, such as adultery or incest; the word is often, but incorrectly, translated as "illegitimate" or "bastard.")
Background: The Religion of Ancient Israel
Although the Pharisees did not emerge until the Hasmonean period, their origins, like those of the Saducees, may be traced to institutions that developed during the First Temple era. The religion of ancient Israel, like those of most ancient Near Eastern societies, centered on a Temple, served by a caste of priests, who sacrificed offerings to their god. Among the Children of Israel, priests claimed descent from Aaron of the tribe of Levi, and were believed to have been chosen by God to serve God in the Tabernacle during Israel's wanderings in the desert. After the settlement of the land of Canaan, a number of sites served as centers of worship and the priestly service, including Shiloh.
In ancient Israel, as in most ancient Near Eastern societies, the institution of the priesthood was closely tied with the monarchy. According to the Tanakh, after a period of decentralized and un-institutionalized political authority (described in the book of Judges), the Children of Israel demanded that God provide them with a king. At first, Samuel (who may be considered the last judge, or the first prophet) anointed Saul of the tribe of Benjamin; later he anointed David of the tribe of Judah, and established the House of David as the definitive royal line.
The religious authority of the priests was centralized and institutionalized with the construction of Temple in Jerusalem around 950 BCE. , and when the high priest Zadok anointed Solomon king. Priests during the First Temple Era (from around 950 BCE to 586 BCE) were limited to the Temple service and interpreting and teaching Torah; political power officially rested in the hands of a king who ruled, ideally, by divine right.
In most ancient societies, sacrifice was the only form of worship. Unlike many other religions of the time, however, the Children of Israel had sacred texts (according to traditional Jews, revealed at Mt. Sinai; according to critical scholars, based on earlier literary and oral sources and later edited into the Torah, or Five Books of Moses) which contained moral stories and teachings, as well as laws, which provided all people with ways to worship their God in the course of their everyday lives. Prophets, inspired by God and by the values and teachings embodied in the sacred texts, however, often criticized the king, elites, or the masses and provided another potent political force.
Pharisees in the Second Temple Era
The Persian Period
In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and in 537 BCE, inaugurating the Persian period of Jewish history, Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple (completed in 515 BCE). He did not, however, allow the restoration of the monarchy, which left the priests as the dominant authority. Without the constraining power of the monarchy, the authority of the Temple was amplified. Around this time the Sadducee party emerged as the party of priests and allied elites; the name Sadducee comes from Zadok. Nevertheless, the Second Temple had been constructed under the auspices of a foreign power, and there were lingering questions about its legitimacy. This provided the condition for the development of various sects (including Josephus's "schools of thought"), each of which claimed exclusive authority to represent "Judaism," and typically shunned social intercourse, especially marriage, with members of other sects.
One of the earliest of these competing sects, the Pharisees, had its origins in a relatively new group of authorities — scribes and sages. The end of the Babylonian Exile saw not only the construction of the Second Temple, but canonical selection of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, by the Sanhedrin. Critical biblical scholarship puts forth the claim that the Torah was also redacted during this period according to the documentary hypotheses.
Although the priests controlled the monarchy and the Temple, scribes and sages (who would later come to be addressed as rabbi, "my teacher") monopolized the study of the Torah, which was read publicly on market-days, a practice which was institutionalized after the return from the Babylonian exile. These sages identified with the prophets (political and religious reformers active in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, who came from other tribes than Levi), and developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside of the Holy Writ. The rift between the priests and the sages developed during the Hellenistic period, when the Jews faced new political and cultural struggles.
The Hellenistic Period
The Hellenistic period of Jewish history began in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Upon his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his generals. At first, Judea was ruled by the Egyptian-Hellenic Ptolemies, but in 198 BCE,the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire, under Antiochus III, seized control of Judea.
The Near East had long been cosmopolitan, and was especially so during the Hellenistic period. Several languages were used, and the matter of the lingua franca is still subject of some debate. The Jews almost certainly spoke Aramaic among themselves. Greek was at least to some extent a trade language in the region, and indeed throughout the entire eastern portion of the Mediterranean. Thus, historian Shaye Cohen has observed that
- All the Judaisms of the Hellenistic period, of both the diaspora and the land of Israel, were Hellenized, that is, were integral parts of the culture of the ancient world. Some varieties of Judaism were more hellenized than others, but none was an island unto itself. It is a mistake to imagine that the land of Palestine preserved a "pure" form of Judaism and that the diaspora was the home of adulterated or diluted forms of Judaism. The term "Hellenistic Judaism" makes sense, then, only as a chronological indicator for the period from Alexander the Great to the Macabees or perhaps to the Roman conquests of the first century BCE. As a descriptive term for a certain type of Judaism, however, it is meaningless because all the Judaisms of the Hellenistic period were "Hellenistic." (Cohen 1987: 37)
There are significant distinctions in the manner in which Hellenism influenced factions within the Jewish world of that time. Some assimilated Greek language, dress and sciences. Others wholeheartedly incorporated Greek philosophy and culture, to the point where they assimilated their understanding of Judaism into a Hellenic idiom.
Cultural Struggles with Hellenism
Jews had to grapple with the values of Hellenism and Hellenistic philosophy, which were often directly at odds with their own values and traditions. Bath houses were built in Jerusalem, for instance, and the gymnasium became a center of social, athletic, and intellectual life. Many Jews embraced these institutions, although Jews who did so were often looked down upon due to their circumcision, which Gentiles viewed as an aesthetic defacement of the body. Many Jews lived in the Diaspora, and the Judean provinces of Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee were populated by many Gentiles (who often showed an interest in Judaism). Under such conditions, Jews had to confront a paradox in their own tradition: their God was the God of all, but their covenant with God — the commandments and laws through which this covenant took material and practical form — applied only to them. This tension between the universal and the particular in Judaism led to new interpretations, some of which were influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism.
Political Struggles with Hellenism
Generally, the Jews accepted foreign rule when they were only required to pay tribute, and otherwise allowed to govern themselves internally. Nevertheless, Jews were divided between those favoring hellenization and those opposing it, and were divided over allegiance to the Ptolemies or Seleucids. When the High Priest Simon II died in 175 BCE, conflict broke out between supporters of his son Onias III (who opposed hellenization, and favored the Ptolemies) and his son Jason (who favored hellenization, and favored the Seleucids). A period of political intrigue followed, with priests such as Menelaus bribing the king to win the High Priesthood, and accusations of murder of competing contenders for the title. The result was a brief civil war. Huge numbers of Jews flocked to Jason's side, and in 167 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Judea, entered the Temple, and stripped it of money and ceremonial objects. Jason fled to Egypt, and Antiochus imposed a program of forced hellenization, requiring Jews to abandon their own laws and customs. At this point Mattathias and his five sons, John, Eleazar, Simon, Jonathan, and Judah Maccabee, priests of the Hasmon family living in the area of ancient Modi'in, assumed leadership of a bloody revolt against the Seleucids.
Judah liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE and restored the Temple. Fighting continued, and Judah and his brother Jonathan were killed. In 141 BCE an assembly of priests and others affirmed Simon as high priest and leader, in effect establishing the Hasmonean dynasty. When Simon was killed in 135 BCE, his son John Hyrcanus took his place as high priest and king.
The Hasmonean Period
After defeating the Seleucid forces, Judah's nephew John Hyrcanus established a new monarchy in the form of the priestly Hasmonean dynasty in 152 BCE — thus establishing priests as political as well as religious authorities. Although the Hasmoneans were heroes for resisting the Seleucids, their reign lacked the legitimacy conferred by descent from the Davidic dynasty of the First Temple Era.
The Emergence of the Saducees, Essenes, and Pharisees
The rift between the priests and the sages grew during the Hellenistic period, when the Jews faced new political and cultural struggles. Around this time the Sadducee party emerged as the party of the priests and allied elites (the name Sadducee comes from Zadok).
The Essenes may have emerged as a sect of dissident priests. They are believed to have rejected either the Seleucid appointed high priests, or the Hasmonean high priests, as illegitimate. Ultimately, they rejected the Second Temple, arguing that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, and that obedience to the law represented a new form of sacrifice.
The Pharisee ("separatist") party emerged largely out of the group of scribes and sages who harked back to Ezra and the Great Assembly. The meaning of the name is unclear; it may refer to their rejection of Hellenic culture or to their objection to the Hasmonean monopoly on power. It is difficult to state at what time the Pharisees, as a party, arose. Josephus first mentions them in connection with Jonathan, the successor of Judas Maccabeus ("Ant." xiii. 5, § 9). One of the factors that distinguished the Pharisees from other groups prior to the destruction of the Temple was their belief that all Jews had to observe the purity laws (which applied to the Temple service) outside the Temple. The major difference, however, was the continued adherence of the Pharisees to the laws and traditions of the Jewish people in the face of assimilation. As Josephus noted, the Pharisees were considered the most expert and accurate expositors of Jewish law.
During the Hasmonean period, the Saducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties. Although the Pharisees had opposed the wars of expansion of the Hasmoneans and the forced conversions of the Idumeans, the political rift between them became wider when Pharisees demanded that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus choose between being king and being High Priest. In response, Alexander Jannai openly sided with the Sadducees by adopting their rites in the Temple. His actions caused a riot in the Temple and led to a brief civil war that ended with a bloody repression of the Pharisees, although at his deathbed the king called for a reconciliation between the two parties. Alexander was succeeded by his widow, Salome Alexandra, whose brother was Shimon ben Shetach, a leading Pharisee. Upon her death her elder son, Hyrcanus, sought Pharisee support, and her younger son, Aristobulus, sought the support of the Sadducees. The conflict between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus culminated in a civil war that ended when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BCE and inaugurated the Roman period of Jewish history.
Josephus attests that Salome Alexandra was very favorably inclined toward the Pharisees and that their political influence grew tremendously under her reign, especially in the institution known as the Sanhedrin. Later texts like the Mishnah and the Talmud record a host of rulings ascribed to the Pharisees concerning sacrifices and other ritual practices in the Temple, torts, criminal law, and governance. The influence of the Pharisees over the lives of the common people remained strong and their rulings on Jewish law were deemed authoritative by many. Although these texts were written long after these periods, many scholars have said that they are a fairly reliable account of history during the Second Temple era.
The Roman Period
According to Josephus, the Pharisees appeared before Pompey asking him to interfere and restore the old priesthood while abolishing the royalty of the Hasmoneans altogether ("Ant." xiv. 3, § 2). They regarded Pompey’s defilement of the Temple in Jerusalem as a divine punishment of Sadducean misrule. Pompey ended the monarchy and named Hyrcanus high priest and ethnarch (a lesser title than "king"). Six years later Hyrcanus was deprived of the remainder of political authority and ultimate jurisdiction was given to the Proconsul of Syria, who ruled through Hyrcanus's Idumaean associate Antipater, and later Antipater's two sons Phasael (military governor of Judea) and Herod (military governor of the Galilee). In 40 BCE Aristobulus's son Antigonus overthrew Hyrcanus and named himself king and high priest, and Herod fled to Rome.
The Herodian Dynasty, the Procuratorship, and the Sanhedrin
In Rome, Herod sought the support of Mark Antony and Octavian, and secured recognition by the Roman Senate as king, confirming the termination of the Hasmonean dynasty. According to Josephus, Sadducean opposition to Herod led him to treat the Pharisees favorably ("Ant." xiv. 9, § 4; xv. 1, § 1; 10, § 4; 11, §§ 5-6). Herod was an unpopular ruler, perceived as a Roman puppet. Despite his restoration and expansion of the Second Temple, Herod’s notorious treatment of his family and of the last Hasmonaeans further eroded his popularity. According to Josephus, the Pharisees ultimately opposed him and thus fell victims (4 BCE) to his bloodthirstiness ("Ant." xvii. 2, § 4; 6, §§ 2-4). The family of Boethus, whom Herod had raised to the high-priesthood, revived the spirit of the Sadducees, and thenceforth the Pharisees again had them as antagonists ("Ant." xviii. 1, § 4).
After Herod's death in 4 BCE, various radical Jewish elements rose in revolt: Judas in the Galilee, whose followers tore down the Roman Eagle that had adorned the Temple; Simon in Perea, a former slave of Herod, who burned down the royal palace at Jericho, and Athronges in Judea, a shepherd who led a two-year rebellion. The Syrian legate Publius Quinctilius Varus took command of Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee, and immediately put down the uprisings, killing thousands of Jews by crucifixion and selling many into slavery. Rome quickly re-established governance and divided Herod's kingdom among his sons: Archelaus received the southern part of the territory (Judea and Samaria), Herod Antipas became tetrarch of the Galilee and the southern Transjordan (Peraea), and Philip received the northern Transjordan (Batanaea).
Archelaus antagonized the Jews as his father had, and in 6 CE the emperor Augustus acceded to a delegation by placing Judea and Samaria under the indirect rule of a Roman procurator (or prefect), and the direct rule of a Roman-appointed high priest instead. During this period Judea and Galilee were effectively semi-autonomous client-states under Roman tribute. For the most part, Jews were willing to pay tribute, although they complained when it was excessive, and absolutely refused to allow a graven image in their Temple although some emperors considered imposing one. The primary tasks of the tetrarch and high priest were to collect tribute, convince the Romans not to interfere with the Temple, and ensure that the Jews not rebel.
In 57 BCE the Proconsul Cabineus established five regional synhedria (Sanhedrins, or councils) to regulate the internal affairs of the Jews. The Sanhedrinae was a legislative council of 71 elders chaired by the high priest, that interpreted Jewish law and adjudicated appeals, especially in ritual matters. Their specific composure and powers actually varied depending on Roman policy.
Religious and Cultural Life During the Roman Period
In the first decades of Roman rule, the Temple remained the center of Jewish ritual life. According to the Torah, Jews were required to travel to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices at the Temple three times a year: Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. Yet, the Temple was not the only institution for Jewish religious life. During the 70 year exile in Babylon, Jewish houses of assembly (known in Hebrew as a "beit knesset" or in Greek as a "synagogue") were the primary meeting place for prayer. The house of study (in Hebrew: "beit midrash") was the counterpart for the synagogue. After the building of the Second Temple in the time of Ezra, the beit knesset and the beit midrash remained important institutions in Jewish life, although secondary in importance to the Temple. Outside of Roman Palestine, the synagogue was often called a house of prayer (in Greek: proseuchai; in Hebrew Beit Tefilah). One such synagogue in Alexandria, the Diopeloston, was a basilica with a double roofed colonnade, was said to be large enough to house one million worshippers (see Succah 51b). While that number is likely exaggerated, it demonstrates the importance and centrality of the synagogue at that time. While most Jews could not regularly attend the Temple service, they could meet at the synagogue for morning, afternoon and evening prayers. On Mondays, Thursdays and the Sabbath, a weekly Torah portion was read publicly in the synagogues, following the tradition of public Torah readings instituted by Ezra (see, Nehemiah 8:1-18).
From Political Party to Sect: Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees in the Roman period
There is a record of only one high priest (Ananus, in 62) being a Sadducee, although some scholars assume, based purely on speculation, that the Sanhedrin was dominated by Sadducees. Nevertheless, their power severely curtailed, during the Roman period Sadducees are better understood as a sect rather than a political party. Similarly, the Pharisees were politically quiescent, and studied, taught, and worshiped in their own way. Although popular and respected, they had no political power. Rather, they only had the power of persuasion.
During this period serious theological differences emerged between the Sadducees and Pharisees. Although the Essene lack of concern for the Second Temple alienated them from the great mass of Jews, their notion that the sacred could exist outside of the Temple was shared and elevated by the Pharisees.
Many, including some scholars have distinguished the Sadducees as a sect that interpreted the Torah literally, whereas the Pharisees interpreted the Torah liberally. According to Jacob Neusner, this view is a distortion. He suggests that two things fundamentally distinguished the Pharisaic from the Saducean approach to the Torah. First, Pharisees interpreted Exodus 19:3-6 literally:
- And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel."
Or, in the words of 2 Maccabees 2:17, Pharisees believed that "God gave all the people the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood, and the holiness."
The Pharisees believed that the idea that all of the children of Israel were to be like priests was expressed elsewhere in the Torah, for example, when the Law itself was transferred from the sphere of the priesthood to every man in Israel (Exodus 19: 29-24; Deuteronomy 6: 7, 11: 19; comp. 31: 9; Jeremiah 2: 8, 18:18). Moreover, the Torah already provided some ways for all Jews to lead a priestly life: the precepts concerning unclean meat were perhaps intended originally for the priests, but were extended to the whole people (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14:3-21); the prohibition of cutting the flesh in mourning for the dead (Deuteronomy 14: 1-2, Leviticus 19: 28; comp. Lev. 21: 5). In practice, this meant that the Pharisees believed that all Jews should observe the rules and rituals concerning purification that had developed around the Temple priesthood.
Second, the Pharisees believed that there were two Torahs. In addition to the Torah recognized by both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and believed was written by Moses, the Pharisees believed that there was another Torah. They referred to the five books of Moses as the “Written Torah,” and the corpus of oral laws and traditions as the “Oral Torah,” because it was not written down but was rather transmittted by God to Moses orally, and was then memorized and then passed down orally by Moses and his successors over the generations. In other words, they did not interpret the Written Torah liberally; rather, they asserted that the sacred scriptures were not complete and could therefore not be understood on their own terms. The Oral Torah functioned to elaborate and explicate what was written; it is unclear whether or not the Pharisees and later rabbis believed they were interpreting the Torah. The sages of the Talmud believed that the Oral law was simultaneously revealed to Moses at Sinai, and the product of debates among rabbis. Thus, one may conceive of the "Oral Torah" not as a fixed text but as an ongoing process of analysis and argument; this is an ongoing process in which God is actively involved; it was this ongoing process that was revealed at Sinai, and by participating in this ongoing process rabbis and their students are actively participating in God's ongoing revelation. That is, "revelation" is not a single act, and "Torah" is not a single or fixed text. It is this ongoing process of analysis and argument that is itself the substance of God's revelation. As Jacob Neusner has explained, the schools of the Pharisees and rabbis were and are holy
- because there men achieve sainthood through study of Torah and imitation of the conduct of the masters. In doing so, they conform to the heavenly paradigm, the Torah believed to have been created by God "in his image," revealed at Sinai, and handed down to their own teachers ... If the masters and disciples obey the divine teaching of Moses, "our rabbi," then their society, the school, replicates on earth the heavenly academy, just as the disciple incarnates the heavenly model of Moses, "our rabbi." The rabbis believe that Moses was (and the Messiah will be) a rabbi, God dons phylacteries, and the heavenly court studies Torah precisely as does the earthly one, even arguing about the same questions. These beliefs today may seem as projections of rabbinical values onto heaven, but the rabbis believe that they themselves are projections of heavenly values onto earth. The rabbis thus conceive that on earth they study Torah just as God, the angels, and Moses, "our rabbi," do in heaven. The heavenly schoolmen are even aware of babylonian scholastic discussions, so they require a rabbi's information about an aspect of purity taboos. (1998: 8).
Finally, unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead in a future, messianic age.
The Destruction of the Temple and the end of the Second Temple Era
By 66 CE Jewish discontent with Rome had escalated. At first, the priests tried to suppress rebellion, even calling upon the Pharisees for help. After the Roman garrison failed to stop Hellenists from desecrating a synagogue in Caesarea, however, the high priest suspended payment of tribute, inaugurating the Great Jewish Revolt. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE not only put an end to the revolt, it was a profoundly traumatic experience for the Jews that marked the end of an era.
From Pharisees to Rabbis
Revolutionaries like the Zealots had been crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility (the last Zealots died at Masada in 73 CE). Similarly, the Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple cult, disappeared. The Essenes too disappeared, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the concerns of the times.
Of all the major Second Temple sects, only the Pharisees remained, poised with teachings directed to all Jews that could replace Temple worship. Such teachings extended beyond ritual practices. According to the classic midrash in Avot D'Rabbi Nathan (4:5):
- The Temple is destroyed. We never witnessed its glory. But Rabbi Joshua did. And when he looked at the Temple ruins one day, he burst into tears. "Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!" Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: "Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness."
Following the destruction of the Temple, Rome governed Judea through a Procurator at Caesarea and a Jewish Patriarch. Yohanan ben Zakkai, a leading Pharisee, was appointed the first Patriarch (the Hebrew word, Nasi, also means prince, or president), and he reestablished the Sanhedrin at Yavneh under Pharisee control. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and sacrificing offerings at the Temple, the rabbis instructed Jews to give money to charities. Moreover, they argued that all Jews should study in local synagogues, because Torah is "the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob" (Deut. 33: 4).
After the destruction of the First Temple, Jews believed that God would forgive them and enable them to rebuild the Temple – an event that actually occurred within three generations. Would this happen again? When the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter, in 132 CE, some of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin supported a rebellion led by Simon Bar Koziba, who established a short-lived independent state that was conquered by the Romans in 135 CE. According to a midrash, in addition to Bar Kochba the Romans executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin: the high priest, R. Ishmael; the president of the Sanhedrin, R. Shimon ben Gamaliel; R. Akiba; R. Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R.Eliezer ben Shamua; R. Hanina ben Hakinai; the secretary of the Sanhedrin, R. Yeshevav; R. Yehuda ben Dama; and R. Yehuda ben Baba. The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R. Akiba was flayed, and R. Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death.
Romans forbade Jews to enter Jerusalem and forbade any plan to rebuild the Temple. Instead, it took over the Province of Judea directly, and renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina. Romans did eventually reconstitute the Sanhedrin under the leadership of Judah haNasi (who claimed to be a descendant of King David). They conferred the title of "Nasi" as hereditary, and Judah's sons served both as Patriarch and as heads of the Sanhedrin.
According to historian Shaye Cohen, by the time three generations had passed after the destruction of the Second Temple, most Jews concluded that the Temple would not be rebuilt during their lives, nor in the foreseeable future . Jews were now confronted with difficult and far-reaching questions:
- How to achieve atonement without the Temple?
- How to explain the disastrous outcome of the rebellion?
- How to live in the post-Temple, Romanized world?
- How to connect present and past traditions?
Regardless of the importance they gave to the Temple, and despite their support of Bar Koseba’s revolt, the Pharisees’ vision of Jewish law as a means by which ordinary people could engage with the sacred in their daily lives provided them with a position from which to respond to all four challenges in a way meaningful to the vast majority of Jews. Their responses would constitute Rabbinic Judaism.
During the Second Temple era, when Jews were divided into sects, the Pharisees were one sect among many, and partisan. Each sect claimed a monopoly on the truth, and discouraged marriage between members of different sects. Members of different sects did, however, argue with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, although there is no significant, reliable record of such debates between sects. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these sectarian divisions ended. The Rabbis avoided the term "Pharisee," perhaps because it was a term more often used by non-Pharisees, but also because the term was explicitly sectarian. The Rabbis claimed leadership over all Jews, and added to the Amidah the birkat haMinim, a prayer which in part exclaims, "Praised are You O Lord, who breaks enemies and defeats the arrogant," and which is understood as a rejection of sectarians and sectarianism. This shift by no means resolved conflicts over the interpretation of the Torah; rather, it relocated debates between sects to debates within Rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisaic commitment to scholarly debate as a value in and of itself, rather than merely a byproduct of sectarianism, emerged as a defining feature of Rabbinic Judaism.
Thus, as the Pharisees argued that all Israel should act as priests, the Rabbis argued that all Israel should act as rabbis: "The rabbis furthermore want to transform the entire Jewish community into an academy where the whole Torah is studied and kept .... redemption depends on the "rabbinization" of all Israel, that is, upon the attainment of all Jewry of a full and complete embodiment of revelation or Torah, thus achieving a perfect replica of heaven" (Neusner 1998: 9).
The Rabbinic Era itself is divided into two periods. The first period was that of the Tannaim (from the Aramaic word for "repeat;" the Aramaic root TNY is equivalent to the Hebrew root SNY, which is the basis for "Mishnah." Thus, Tannaim are "Mishnah teachers"), the sages who repeated and thus passed down the Oral Torah. During this period rabbis finalized the canonization of the Tanakh, and in 200 CE Judah haNasi edited together Tannaitic judgements and traditions into the Mishna, considered by the rabbis to be the definitive expression of the Oral Torah (although some of the sages mentioned in the Mishnah are Pharisees who lived prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, or prior to the Bar Kozeba Revolt, most of the sages mentioned lived after the revolt).
The second period is that of the Amoraim (from the Aramaic word for "speaker") rabbis and their students who continued to debate legal matters and discuss the meaning of the books of the Bible. In Palestine, these discussions occurred at important academies at Tiberias, Caesarea, and Sepphoris. In Babylonia, these discussions largely occurred at important academies that had been established at Nehardea, Pumpeditha and Sura. This tradition of study and debate reached its fullest expression in the development of the Talmudim, elaborations of the Mishnah and records of Rabbinic debates, stories, and judgements, compiled around 400 CE in Palestine and around 500 CE in Babylon.
Rabbinic Judaism eventually emerged as normative Judaism and in fact many today refer to Rabbinic Judaism simply as "Judaism." Nevertheless, as Jacob Neusner has pointed out, the Amoraim had no ultimate power in their communities. They lived at a time when Jews were subjects of either the Roman or Iranian (Parthian and Persian) empires. These empires left the day-to-day governance in the hands of the Jewish authorities: in Roman Palestine, through the hereditary office of Patriarch (simultaneously the head of the Sanhedrin); in Babylonia, through the hereditary office of the Reish Galuta, the "Head of the Exile" or "Exilarch" (who ratified the appointment of the heads of Rabbinical academies.) Consequently,
- The "Judaism" of the rabbis at this time is in no degree either normal or normative, and speaking descriptively, the schools cannot be called "elite." Whatever their aspirations for the future and pretensions in the present, the rabbis, though powerful and influential, constitute a minority group seeking to exercise authority without much governmental support, to dominate without substantial means of coercion. (Neusner 1998: 4-5)
The rabbinic project, as acted out in the Talmud, reflected not the world as it was but the world as rabbis dreamed it should be.
Pharisaic Principles and Values
At first the values of the Pharisees developed through their sectarian debates with the Sadducees; then they developed through internal, non-sectarian debates over the law as an adaptation to life without the Temple, and life in exile, and to a more limited degree, life in conflict with Christianity. These shifts mark the transformation of Pharasaic to Rabbinic Judaism.
One belief central to the Pharisees was shared by all Jews of the time: monotheism. This is evident in the practice of reciting the Shema, select verses from the Torah, at the Temple and in synagogues. The Shema begins with the verses, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." According to the Mishna, these passages were recited in the Temple along with the twice-daily Tamid offering; Jews in the diaspora, who did not have access to the Temple, recited these passages in their houses of assembly (in Hebrew: "batei knesset"). According to the Mishnah and Talmud, the Men of the Great Assembly instituted that Jews both in Judea and in the diaspora were required to pray three times a day (morning, afternoon and evening), and include in their prayers a recitation of these passages in the morning ("Shacharit") and evening ("Ma'ariv") prayers.
According to Josephus, whereas the Sadducees believed that people have total free will and the Essenes believed that all of a person's life is predestined, the Pharisees believed that people have free will but that God also has foreknowledge of human destiny. According to Josephus, Pharisees were further distinguished from the Sadducees in that Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead.
It is likely that Josephus highlighted these differences because he was writing for a Gentile audience, and questions concerning fate and a life after death were important in Hellenic philosophy. In fact, it is difficult, or impossible, to reconstruct a Second Temple Pharisaic theology, because Judaism itself is non-creedal; that is, there is no dogma or set of orthodox beliefs that Jews believed were required of Jews. Josephus himself emphasized laws rather than beliefs when he described the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherence to traditional customs). In fact, the most important divisions among different Jewish sects had to do with debates over three areas of law: marriage, the Sabbath and religious festivals, and the Temple and purity. Debates over these and other matters of law continue to define Judaism more than any particular dogma or creed.
Not one tractate of the key Rabbinic texts, the Mishnah and the Talmud, is devoted to theological issues; these texts are concerned primarily with interpretations of Jewish law. Only one chapter of the Mishnah deals with theological issues; it asserts that three kinds of people will have no share in "the world to come:" those who deny the resurrection of the dead, those who deny the divinity of the Torah, and Epicureans (who deny divine supervision of human affairs). Another passage suggests a different set of core principles: normally, a Jew may violate any law to save a life, but in Sanhedrin 74a, a ruling orders Jews to accept martyrdom rather than violate the laws against idolatry, murder, or adultery. (Judah haNasi, however, said that Jews must "be meticulous in small religious duties as well as large ones, because you do not know what sort of reward is coming for any of the religious duties," suggesting that all laws are of equal importance). In comparison with Christianity, the Rabbis were not especially concerned with the messiah or claims about the messiah.
Fundamentally, the Pharisees continued a form of Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to mundane activities in order to sanctify the every-day world. This was a more participatory (or "democratic") form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively; whose leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement. In general, the Pharisees emphasized a commitment to social justice, belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and a faith in the redemption of the Jewish nation and, ultimately, humanity. Moreover, they believed that these ends would be achieved through halakha ("the way," or "the way things are done"), a corpus of laws derived from a close reading of sacred texts. This belief entailed both a commitment to relate religion to ordinary concerns and daily life, and a commitment to study and scholarly debate.
The commitment to relate religion to daily life through the law has led some to infer that the Pharisees were more legalistic than other sects in the Second Temple Era. This is not true — the Saducees were committed to obeying the commandments of the Torah, and the Essenes governed themselves through elaborate rules and regulations (Josephus does claim that the Pharisees were the "strictest" observers of the law, but he likely meant "most accurate"). It is more accurate to say they were legalistic in a different way. In some cases Pharisaic values led to an extension of the law — for example, the Torah requires priests to bathe themselves before entering the Temple. The Pharisees washed themselves before Sabbath and festival meals (in effect, making these holidays "temples in time"), and, eventually, before all meals. Although this seems burdensome compared to the practices of other sects, in other cases, Pharisaic law was less strict. For example, Biblical law prohibits Jews from carrying objects from a private domain ("reshut ha-yachid") to a public domain ("reshut ha-rabim") on the Sabbath. This law could have prevented Jews from carrying cooked dishes to the homes of friends for Sabbath meals. The Pharisees ruled that adjacent houses connected by lintels or fences could become connected by a legal procedure creating a partnership among homeowners; thereby, clarifying the status of those common areas as a private domain relative to the members of the partnership. In that manner people could carry objects from building to building.
Just as important as (if not more important than) any particular law was the value the rabbis placed on legal study and debate. The sages of the Talmud believed that when they taught the Oral Torah to their students, they were imitating Moses, who taught the law to the children of Israel. Moreover, the rabbis believed that "the heavenly court studies Torah precisely as does the earthly one, even arguing about the same questions" (Neusner 1998: 8). Thus, in debating and disagreeing over the meaning of the Torah or how best to put it into practice, no rabbi felt that he (or his opponent) were in some way rejecting God or threatening Judaism; on the contrary, it was precisely through such arguments that the rabbis imitated and honored God.
One sign of the Pharisaic emphasis on debate and differences of opinion is that the Mishnah and Talmud mark different generations of scholars in terms of different pairs of contending schools. Around the time the Romans conquered Judea, for example, the two major Pharisaic schools were those of Hillel and Shammai. After Hillel died in 20 CE, Shammai assumed the office of president of the Sanhedrin until he died in 30 CE. Followers of these two sages dominated scholarly debate over the following decades (although the Talmud records the arguments and positions of the school of Shammai, the teachings of the school of Hillel were ultimately taken as authoritative).
Pharisaic wisdom was compiled in one book of the Mishna, Pirke Avot. The Pharisaic attitude is perhaps best exemplified by a story about Hillel the Elder, who lived at the end of the 1st century BCE. A man once challenged the sage to explain the law while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."
"Pharisees" and Christianity
In the 4th century CE, Christians canonized a "New Testament" consisting of texts written between 60 CE and about 150 CE, which spell out a New Covenant and provides the case for its basis in the Bible. In the "New Testament" the ruling Pharisees of his time (the house of Shammai) are often represented as being the ideological foes of Jesus.
An important binary in the New Testament is the opposition between law and love. Accordingly, the New Testament presents the Pharisees as obsessed with man-made rules (especially concerning purity) whereas Jesus is more concerned with God’s love; the Pharisees scorn sinners whereas Jesus seeks them out. Because of the New Testament's frequent depictions of Pharisees as self-righteous rule-followers, the word "pharisee" (and its derivatives: "pharisaical", etc.) has come into semi-common usage in English to describe a hypocritical and arrogant person who places the letter of the law above its spirit. Jews today (who ascribe to Pharisaic Judaism) typically find this insulting if not anti-Semitic.
Many non-Christians object that the four Gospels, which were canonized after Christianity had separated from Judaism (and after Pharisaism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism), are likely a very biased source concerning the conduct of the Pharisees. Some have argued that Jesus was himself a Pharisee (for example see E. P. Sanders), and that his arguments with Pharisees is a sign of inclusion rather than fundamental conflict (disputation is the dominant narrative mode in the Talmud). Jesus' emphasis on loving one's neighbor, for example, echoes the teaching of the school of Hillel (Jesus' views of divorce, however, are closer to those of the school of Shammai, another Pharisee). Others have argued that the portrait of the Pharisees in the New Testament is an anachronistic caricature. For example, when Jesus declares the sins of a paralytic man forgiven, the New Testament has the Pharisees criticizing Jesus' blasphemy. But Jewish sources from the time commonly associate illness with sin and healing with forgiveness, and there is no actual Rabbinic source that questions or criticizes this practice. Although the New Testament presents the Pharisees as obsessed with avoiding impurity, Rabbinic texts reveal that the Pharisees were concerned merely with offering means for removing impurities, so that a person could again participate in the community. According to the New Testament, Pharisees wanted to punish Jesus for healing a man's withered hand on the Sabbath, but there is no Rabbinic rule according to which Jesus had violated the Sabbath. According to the New Testament the Pharisees objected to Jesus's mission to outcast groups such as beggars and tax-collectors, but Rabbinic texts actually emphasize the availability of forgiveness to all. Indeed, much of Jesus' teaching, for example the Sermon on the Mount, is consistent with that of the Pharisees.
Some scholars believe that those passages of the New Testament that present a caricature of the Pharisees were not written during Jesus' lifetime but rather sometime after the destruction of Herod's Temple in 70 CE, at a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah. At this time Christians sought most new converts from among the gentiles. They thus presented a story of Jesus that was more sympathetic to Romans than to Jews. Moreover, it was only after 70 CE that Phariseeism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism. For Christian leaders at this time to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Old Testament Covenant, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism.
The Apostle Paul of Tarsus, who authored much of the New Testament, spoke positively of being a Pharisee. Acts 23:6 records Paul on trial in the Temple Courts. He apologized for speaking against a priest without knowing who he insulted, and then claimed his belief in the resurrection was based on his doctrinal beliefs as a Pharisee. Paul emphasized the disagreements between Pharisees and Saducees for his own benefit, resulting in his release. As F.F. Bruce notes in a commentary on Acts, "A Sadducee could not become a Christian without abandoning a distinctive theological tenant of his party; a Pharisee could become a Christian and remain a Pharisee--in the apostolic age, at least." (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, p. 428). The author of Acts indicates that Paul remained faithful to the rituals and practices of a Pharisee even after becoming a Christian (Acts 26:4-6). However, in the event known as the Council of Jerusalem, Paul argued strenuously that the ritual requirements of Judaism do not apply to Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-29). In his writings to the church in Philippi, Paul referred to his strict Jewish credentials as a cause for boasting (Philippians 3:4-6), but then stated his belief in Christ Jesus was more glorious.
- Boccaccini, Gabriele 2002 Roots of Rabbinic Judaism ISBN 0-802-84361-1
- Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
- Cohen, Shaye J.D. 1988 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah ISBN 0-664-25017-3
- Fredriksen, Paula 1988 From Jesus to Christ ISBN 0-300-04864-5
- Neusner, Jacob Torah From our Sages: Pirke Avot ISBN 0-940-64605-6
- Neusner, Jacob Invitation to the Talmud: a Teaching Book (1998) ISBN 1-59244-1556
- Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism 1987 ISBN 0800620615
- Roth, Cecil A History of the Jews: From Earliest Times Through the Six Day War 1970 ISBN 0805200096
- Schwartz, Leo, ed. Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People ISBN 0-394-60413-X
- Resources > Second Temple and Talmudic Era > Jewish Sects The Jewish History Resource Center - Project of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Pharisees