Pharisees, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.
The Pharisees derived their name from the Hebrew perushim, meaning “separate.” This designation probably refers to their self-imposed separation from ritually impure food and from the tables of the common people, later termed ‘am ha-’aretz (people of the land) in talmudic sources, who were not scrupulous regarding laws of Levitical purity and tithes. Originally, the name may have been a pejorative term used by their opponents.
Talmudic sources describe those who observed the laws of purity as haverim (associates), and groups of such people as havurot (fellowships). The haverim are contrasted with the ‘am ha-’aretz. Although most historians assume that those havurot were Pharisaic, the sources never associate the terms “Pharisee” and haver.
In rabbinic sources, the Pharisees are sometimes identified as the “sages,” an anachronism resulting from the Rabbis’ view of themselves as the inheritors of the Pharisaic tradition. Although the Pharisees’ influence grew steadily until they eventually came to dominate the religious life of the Jewish people, scholars estimate that they numbered only six thousand in Herodian times.
Who were these Pharisees and where did they come from? Because the Pharisees first appear by name in the extant sources during the reign of Jonathan, brother of Judah the Maccabee (about 150 B.C.E.), many scholars have tried to identify them with the Hasidim, the allies of Judah in the Maccabean revolt. That theory, however, cannot be substantiated, because our information about the Hasidim is very limited. It is probable that the Hasidim were not a sect or party but rather a loose association of pietists, as denoted by the term in later talmudic literature. Equally unsupported is the notion that the pre-Maccabean Hasidim gave rise to the Essenes.
Rabbinic sources trace the origins of the Pharisees back even earlier—to the Persian and early Hellenistic periods, when the Men of the Great Assembly were said to have provided Israel’s religious leadership. Some modern scholars have identified the Men of the Great Assembly with the soferim (scribes), thereby making them the forerunners of the Pharisaic movement.
Unfortunately, the historical evidence does not allow us to draw any definite conclusions here. All we know is that the Pharisees appear suddenly, as a distinct entity, in the Hasmonaean period and that Pharisaic theology and organization must have been developing somewhat earlier. How much earlier and in what form we simply cannot say.
The Pharisees appear in Hasmonaean times as part of the governing council in coalition with the Sadducees, with whom they sought to advance their vision of how the Jewish people should live and govern themselves. Under the Hasmonaean rulers John Hyrcanus (138–104 B.C.E.) and Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.E.), conditions led the Pharisees further and further into the political arena. As the Hasmonaeans became increasingly Hellenized, the Pharisees expressed greater opposition to them. Under John Hyrcanus, there was a decisive Hasmonaean tilt toward the Sadducees. By the time of Alexander Janneus, the Pharisees were in open warfare with him, and he was consequently defeated by the Seleucid king in 88 B.C.E. That rout led to a reconciliation between Alexander Janneus and the Pharisees. This entire story is recounted in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as we will see. During the reign of Salome Alexandra, the Pharisees were the dominant political element—in control of the affairs of the nation—although the extent of their influence has been exaggerated by many scholars.
The Pharisees themselves were divided over the question of how best to respond to the Hellenizers in power. Some advocated an accommodationist policy toward the government, so long as it allowed them to practice Judaism according to the Pharisaic view. Others, maintaining that no government was acceptable unless it was controlled by Pharisees, advocated revolt. This dispute, a leitmotif throughout the history of Pharisaism and continuing in rabbinic Judaism, became central in the two Jewish revolts against Rome.
By and large, the Pharisees had three major characteristics- First, they represented primarily the middle and lower classes. Second, and perhaps as a consequence of their lower social status, they really did not become Hellenized but seem to have remained primarily Near Eastern in culture. To be sure, they may have adopted Greek words or intellectual approaches, but they viewed as authoritative only what they regarded as the ancient traditions of Israel. Third, they accepted what they termed the “traditions of the fathers”—nonbiblical laws and customs believed to have been passed down through the generations. These teachings supplemented the written Torah and were part of what the Rabbis later would call the Oral Law. They are said to have been extremely scrupulous in observing the Torah and to have been expert in its interpretation.
In a number of significant teachings, the Pharisees espoused views that were later incorporated into the rabbinic tradition. Primary among these were beliefs in the immortality of the soul, reward and punishment after death, and angels, as well as the idea of divine providence. The Sadducees rejected all of these ideas. Unlike the Sadducees, who totally denied the notion of divine interference in human affairs, the Pharisees believed that God could play a role there. To the Sadducees, free will was complete and inviolable; to the Pharisees, it was circumscribed. The Essenes, in contrast, maintained a belief in predestination, as did the Dead Sea sect.
Although Josephus, our only source describing the theological disputes between these groups, dresses these various sectarian views in Greek philosophical garb, it is obvious that these disputes emerged from varying interpretations of biblical tradition. Therefore, the basic outlines of the controversy may be accepted as authentic.
How seriously should we take later rabbinic claims that the Pharisees dominated the ritual of the Jerusalem Temple? That question has sparked considerable controversy. Recently, scholars have been inclined to discount such reports as a later reshaping of history in light of post-destruction reality. We will see, however, that the Halakhic Letter, found at Qumran, proves that the views assigned to the Pharisees in a number of Mishnaic disputes are exactly those in practice in the Jerusalem Temple. Whether the dominance of the Pharisaic view was due to their political power or whether their views were indeed widely held in the Hasmonaean period cannot be determined with certainty.
Repeatedly, Josephus stresses the popularity of the Pharisees among the people. Given his firsthand knowledge of the last years of the Second Temple period, we should credit this view, although we also need to acknowledge Josephus’s definitely pro-Pharisaic prejudices. The Pharisees’ popularity, together with their unique approach to Jewish law, laid the groundwork for their eventual ascendancy in Jewish political and religious life. The Oral Law concept that grew from the Pharisaic “traditions of the fathers” allowed Judaism to adapt to the new and varied circumstances it would face in talmudic times and later. In time, Pharisaism would become rabbinic Judaism—the basis for all subsequent Jewish life and civilization.