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The Pharisees:

From the Beginning to Modern Influence


Donna Morley

     The Pharisees, which mean “separate ones,” 1 (and who devoted considerable effort to separating themselves from others 2) were a major religious and political party in Palestine. They were a large group with an enormous influence over the masses. 3

          One may ask, if the Pharisees had such influence, why would they separate themselves from others? Very simply, the Pharisees felt that since other Jews, as well as Gentiles, were not careful enough about keeping God’s laws, they felt it was necessary to place limits on their contacts with them. For example, they could not eat in the home of a non-Pharisee, since they could not be sure that the food had been properly tithed and kept ritually pure.

         As to the Pharisees origin? That is debatable. Some scholars will point out that by the time of John Hyrcanus (135-104 BC) the Pharisees “had a large, powerful, and dedicated following of people.” 4 Others will say that this couldn’t be so. They say the Pharisees origin started in the New Testament times. 5 Of course, with the writings of Josephus, we can certainly say that the Pharisees did originate prior to the first century A.D. Josephus clearly points out that during the time of Alexandra’s nine year reign, that the Pharisees assisted her in her government. 6 It is most certain that not only did the Pharisees originate prior to the first century A.D., but we have evidence that they first appear, by name, during the reign of Jonathan, (brother of Judah the Maccabbe, ca. 150 B.C.E.). 7 Many scholars have attempted to identify the Pharisees with, or to locate their origins in, the Hasidim who were allies of Judah in the Maccabean Revolt. Yet, according to Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, Lawrence Schiffman, this theory, cannot be substantiated. 8

         Rabbinic sources have also traced the Pharisees back to the Persian and early Hellenistic periods. Some modern scholars have associated the Soferim ("scribes") with the "Men of the Great Assembly." 9 The Soferim would then be the forerunners of the Pharisaic movement. Unfortunately, the historical evidence doesn’t give us any definite conclusions. All that can be said is that the Pharisees could not have emerged suddenly in the Hasmonean period. Reason being, their theology would have been in formation sometime earlier. How much earlier? It’s hard to say. 10

        Most scholars believe that the Pharisees got their origin either during or after the destruction of Second Temple. 11 They believe that the Second Temple destruction marked the breakup of a monolithic Judaism, which brought about various new sects of Judaism. Clearly, the destruction of the Second Temple marked a major turning in the history of Judaism. Judaism not only saw the loss of the rebuilding of the Second Temple as a considerable consequence, but there was indeed devastation in the Jewish community. 12 But, Dr. William Varner, Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s College, would argue the point that this was the end of a monolithic Judaism. He tells us the Jewish community already had other sects already in existence prior to the destruction:

Although we cannot be sure of the exact number, there can be no doubt that at the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish community comprised numerous parties, sects and brotherhoods. Recent scholarship has questioned and effectively destroyed the concept of a monolithic “Judaism” that existed during the Second Temple (516 B.C. - 70 A.D.). Furthermore, Josephus’ famous listing of the standard divisions — Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the “Fourth Philosophy” (the Zealots) — is simply not adequate in conveying the mosaic of Second Temple Judaism. The new source material (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls) which has become available in recent years, as well as a reassessment of information from the known sources (e.g. the Pseudepigrapha) have indicated a number of “hidden streams” during the period prior to the fall of the Temple. 13

         In any case, the Pharisees appeared in Hasmonean times as part of the coalition with the Sadducees and other sects of society. They were a forceful group that ordered their way of life onto the Jewish people–how they should live and govern themselves. They were ready to criticize others for not keeping the laws, and they often looked down on “sinners” who showed no interest in God’s law (Mark 2:16; Luke 7:39; 15:2; 18:11).

         Under John Hyrcanus and Alexander Janneus, conditions gave them greater political power. As the Hasmoneans became increasingly Hellenized, the Pharisees expressed their opposition towards them. It would be under Hyrcanus, that the Hasmoneans would be swayed towards the Sadducees. And during the time of Janneus, the Pharisees were in open warfare with the king, who was consequently defeated by the Seleucid Demetrius III Eukairos (96-88 B.C.E.). 14 In 89 B.C.E. this led to a reconciliation between the king and the Pharisees. During the reign of Salome Alexandra the Pharisees had political clout and controlled the affairs of the nation (the Pharisees political clout may have been exaggerated by scholars and historians, just a tad 15 ).

Rabbinic Statements About The Pharisees

         In the rabbinic literature the Pharisees admitted (to themselves, at least) that some of their own regulations were like “mountains hanging by a hair” 16 of Scripture support, or even floating in the air with no support. But still they insisted on and fought for their observances being the official ones (rather than that of the Sadducees being official). This fits Josephus’ picture. The Pharisees depended on oral tradition, but the Sadducees sought to have support of Scripture for any regulations to be officially observed.

         The rabbinic literature show great antagonism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees, who by NT times, controlled the actual practices in the temple, 17 would go out of their way to spite the Sadducees. They would intentionally violate a Sadducean understanding of the law when this was not necessary. On one occasion, they made the high priest ritually unclean, so that by Sadducean law he would not be able carry out a certain ceremony, but he could by Pharisaic law. 18 They were probably the instigators of the incident over a century earlier in which the crowd of a festival threw fruit at the high priest because he poured out a drink offering in the Sadducean manner. 19 The Pharisees even debated among themselves as to whether the Sadducees should be treated as Israelites, Samaritans or Gentiles. 20

         While it’s obvious the Pharisees sought out to humiliate the Sadducees, in general, the Pharisees are treated quite favorably in rabbinic literature. There is one passage, out of many, that does list the Pharisees in an unfavorable light. This passage lists seven kinds of Pharisees who were considered plagues upon their reputation. These descriptions are brief and obscure. Apparently one kind of Pharisee receives circumcision for ulterior motives, another exaggerates his humility, a third is so preoccupied with obeying a commandment that he collides with a wall, a fourth always has his head buried in prayer, a fifth is forever looking for new commandments that he can obey, and the sixth and seventh types are Pharisees from love of reward and fear of punishment rather than from a real desire to please God. 21 

The Pharisees Beliefs and Daily Life

         According to contemporary, Flavius Josephus, the Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul, 22 the existence of angels,