By April 8, 2008 Read More →

Lee I. Levine. “The Age of Hellenism: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom.” Part IV

Wadi Qumran and the RuinsExcerpted from Ancient Israel From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Others

Aside from the Temple, the various sects served as the other major religious frameworks in this period. The term “sect” or “sectarian” requires some comment, however. In Christian terminology, a sect is a group that has severed itself from a mother church because of dissent from policies, personalities or ideologies regnant in a given society. The Essenes were the only Jewish group of this period that seems to fit this definition. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Hasidim and others, however, were associations that operated within the framework of Jewish society and its institutions, accepting the basic premises and parameters of the society while competing for religious and political preeminence. 64 Nevertheless, we will use this term in reference to all religious associations and affiliations during this period.

The growth of such groups was a direct result of the religious revolution introduced by Ezra. With the demise of prophecy and the establishment of the written Torah as the basis of Jewish life, Judaism attained a greater degree of democratization. The word of God was no longer confined to a charismatic personality; now anyone could offer an interpretation of the Torah, and if he commanded a following his group constituted de facto a sect within Jewish society. 65

Whether this or that particular group sustained itself in the course of time and developed a unique and appealing ideology and halakhah (religious law) was a matter of history. No authoritative body made such a decision. Our
sources are completely silent about what kinds of sects, if any, developed in the centuries immediately following Ezra. However, with the rise of the Hasmoneans this situation changed dramatically.

The three sects mentioned specifically by Josephus—the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes—appear to have originated and crystallized in the mid-second century B.C.E. All extant sources, literary and archaeological, attest to this dating. The earliest remains of the Dead Sea sect at Qumran are from about 140 to 130 B.C.E. According to rabbinic sources, the earliest Pharisaic sages known by name flourished in the 160s and 150s B.C.E., and these sources likewise claim that the Sadducees emerged some time in the mid-second century B.C.E. 66

Similarly, Josephus’s first reference to these sects is in connection with events at the time of Jonathan the Hasmonean, 67 in about 150 B.C.E.

While some scholars have tried to find earlier traces of these groups—in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E.—their conclusions are largely speculative and unconvincing. Not only do all available sources point to the second century as the time of these sects’ origins, but historical circumstances tend to support such a date. The political upheavals of this period—the transformation of Jerusalem into a polis, Antiochus’s persecutions, the Maccabean revolt and, finally, the establishment of an independent state— undoubtedly affected the religious life of the society in a profound way. The sects we have mentioned were in large measure a reaction and response to these developments.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees offer a clear example of this phenomenon. With the usurpation of the high priesthood by Jason, Menelaus and, ultimately, the Hasmoneans, the sons of Zadok divided into three separate groups. Around 150 B.C.E., one branch of this family, the adherents of Onias IV, erected a temple in Leontopolis in Egypt under Ptolemaic auspices to rival the Jerusalem Temple then under Hasmonean control. 68

Another branch of the family withdrew to the Judean wilderness and was central in the formation of the Essene sect, as we shall see in more detail below. A third segment remained in Jerusalem, forming an alliance with the Hasmonean ruling power and becoming an integral part of that society for the next two centuries. These were the Sadducees g and they were largely, if not exclusively, a priestly aristocratic party commanding significant wealth and political prominence. Rabbinic literature 69 and Josephus 70 make this point patently clear. One might have expected that the priestly sons of Zadok regarded themselves as the sole legitimate bearers of the priestly tradition and that they therefore arrayed themselves as implacable enemies of the Hasmoneans. This indeed happened with the first two branches of the family described above, those in Egypt and those who retreated to Qumran. With the third branch, however, pragmatism proved decisive; by working closely with the Hasmonean rulers, the Sadducees even succeeded in ousting their rivals, the Pharisees, from all positions of power toward the end of the reign of John Hyrcanus (c. 110 B.C.E.). Sadducean political ascendancy maintained itself right through the era of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.E.), and only in the reign of Jannaeus’s wife, Salome (76–67 B.C.E.), did the Pharisees again rise to power and remove their opponents from all positions of authority.

Undoubtedly, the basis for Sadducean power lay in their claim to priestly status. As such, they were recognized as the official religious authorities of the people, as servants of the God of Israel in his holy sanctuary and as guardians of the Torah tradition. Josephus claims that the Sadducees found their most loyal adherents among the wealthy, and not the populace. 71

Moreover, members of the priestly class served not only as diplomats but as military leaders. 72

We are at a distinct disadvantage in our effort to understand the Sadducees, however, because they have left us no written documents. Whatever information we have originated in circles distinctly hostile to them. Rabbinic and New Testament material preserves many traditions about the Sadducees; the Dead Sea Scrolls provide some information and Josephus mentions this group on rare occasion. Each of these sources is openly critical of Sadducean ideology and conduct. 73

What the Sadducees might have said about themselves would have certainly been significantly different. Contrary to popular belief, no consistent halakhic (religious-legal matters) or ideological pattern can be discerned in our sources regarding their positions in disputes with the Pharisees regarding religious law. 74

At times, the Sadducees were more lenient than the Pharisees; at other times, they were more rigorous. Sometimes they adopted a strict constructionist approach toward the biblical text, sometimes they did not. In several disputes, they clearly took positions reflective of their wealthy, aristocratic background; in others, this dimension is not at all evident.

Josephus notes several doctrines associated with the Sadducees- They denied the notion of immortality of the soul, rejected any concept of future reward and punishment, and espoused a doctrine of unlimited free will. 75

Perhaps the most significant tenet differentiating them from the Pharisees was their clear-cut distinction between the Torah of Moses, which they regarded as divine, and all other laws and regulations, which they considered man-made and thus religiously unauthoritative. These nonbiblical laws and regulations were of an ad hoc nature and carried no imperative for later generations. For the Sadducees, all laws and regulations, aside from the Torah, merely had the status of decrees, valid for specific times and places, and no more. 76

The Pharisees

The Pharisees, perhaps the best known of the sects at the time and the one destined ultimately to shape Jewish life to our own day, also crystallized in this period and, as noted, played a central role in Hasmonean political and religious life.

The name “Pharisee” appears to derive from the Hebrew parash, meaning “separate” or “stand apart.” We do not know what the first Pharisees objected to or what they stood apart from. Many suggestions have been offered- They opposed the dominant priestly class, the emerging Hasmonean dynasty and its political-military policies, those who were lax in the observance of purity and tithing laws, and those overly enamored with Hellenistic influences—or some combination of the above.

Our primary sources also reflect this same vagueness regarding the basic thrust of early Pharisaism. Josephus, for example, describes the Pharisees, along with the Sadducees and Essenes, as an essentially philosophical sect. According to him, Pharisaic beliefs and opinions were, in the final analysis, not only distinctive, but decisive. It was their views of reward and punishment after death, their synthesis of free will and determinism and their belief in the sanctity of the Oral Law that ultimately prevailed. On the other hand, rabbinic sources emphasize not the philosophical views of the sect but a plethora of halakhic matters, particularly differences between Pharisees and Sadducees. These differences ranged from holiday observances and cultic practices to civil and criminal law, as well as purity and family affairs. Josephus emphasizes the Pharisees’ involvement in Hasmonean politics; rabbinic literature, on the other hand, largely ignores this dimension, with the notable exception of the career of Simeon ben Shatah\, who lived toward the end of the Hasmonean era.

Modern theories dealing with Pharisaic origins contrast strikingly. 77 Louis Finkelstein, for example, views the Pharisees basically as an urban proletariat whose outlook was dictated by social and economic circumstances. Isaac (Fritz) Baer, on the other hand, claims that Pharisaic roots are to be found in rural, pietistic circles that, perhaps ironically, offer striking analogies with the surrounding Greek world. 78

When all is said and done, however, we have very little solid evidence regarding the Pharisees of the Hasmonean era. Josephus treated the sects only peripherally in his various historical accounts, for he did not regard them as the primary force in the nation’s political events with which he was preoccupied. Rabbinic literature, too, has preserved very little data relating to the Pharisaic sages who lived at the time; we know a great deal more about the Pharisees under Roman rule (63 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) than we do about their predecessors. The overwhelming majority of sayings attributed to the Pharisees in rabbinic literature comes from the later sages, Hillel and Shammai, and their academies (Beth Hillel and Beth Shammai). We thus have no idea how many of the anonymous references to the Pharisees actually apply to the Hasmonean period. With but rare exception, it is impossible to date such material confidently. It is no less difficult to understand why so few traditions of these early sages were preserved by the later rabbis. The relatively large time gap between the Hasmonean period and the first redaction of rabbinic sources in about 200 C.E. may in part account for this phenomenon. Perhaps the later rabbis also harbored certain reservations about the political involvements and religious priorities of their distant forebears and thus chose not to include much of their material in the rabbinic corpus. Whatever the reason, this lack of any significant quantity of reliable information about the early Pharisees is a serious obstacle to understanding their place in Hasmonean society. 79

We will thus restrict ourselves to those aspects of early Pharisaism that are relatively well attested and free of controversy. It seems clear that these early sages constituted a rather diverse group. On the one hand, they looked to the high priest Simon the Just of Zadokite stock as a forebear; on the other hand, an otherwise unknown Jewish savant, the Greek-named Antigonus of Socho, was also numbered among them. Some Pharisees dwelled in cities, others came from rural settings; they hailed from such diverse places as Jerusalem and Zereda in Judea and Arbel in the Galilee. One Pharisee was later recognized as a magician and miracle-worker (Joshua ben Perah\ia); another, Simeon Ben Shatah\ was reported to have been a relative of the royal family and part of the court entourage. The opinions of these Pharisaic sages were equally diverse, some being of an ethical nature, others cultic or narrowly ritualistic. Rarely were opinions voiced on social or political issues, with the striking exception of those expressed by Simeon Ben Shatah\. Nevertheless, the Pharisees under the Hasmoneans appear to have been highly politicized.

Both Josephus and rabbinic literature claim that the Pharisees enjoyed a significant degree of popularity among the people. 80

Their prestige as religious figures apparently won them their political prominence. Little else seems to have been working in their favor. The Sadducees, as noted, were prominent in diplomatic, military and aristocratic circles, not to speak of their central role in Temple affairs. It is difficult to pinpoint any particular Pharisaic power base, either in the political, social or economic realm. Apart from Simeon Ben Shatah\, there was no Pharisaic personality who played a major role in the affairs of state. Prominence and acceptance as religious figures were probably the Pharisees’ chief political assets.

As noted, one of the basic Pharisaic doctrines distinguishing them from the Sadducees was that they considered their sect’s Oral Law the authentic amplification of the Written Law of Moses. As such, the Written and Oral laws stood side by side, and one was incomplete without the other. The Oral Law provided the correct interpretation and application of the Written Law, although the Written Law remained the ultimate authority, the primary text and the basic parameter within which the Oral Law evolved and developed. The crowning recognition of the Oral Law as legitimate and authentic was the Pharisaic claim that it, too, was given at Sinai; God gave the Jews not only the Five Books of Moses but the Oral tradition as well. Armed with this notion, the Pharisees presented themselves to the people as the sole legitimate bearers of Mosaic tradition. This view of the Oral Law ultimately prevailed.

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