The Pharisees



During the Greek occupation of Palestine (323-142 BC) many priests within the Zadokite priesthood (Sadouks, Sadducees) developed Hellenized religious, social, and governmental viewpoints.  To counter this falling away from Judaism the Pharisees began to coalesce as a religious movement (approx. 200 BC).  As Levitical Reformers, Pharisees envisioned a much more traditional view of Judaism.  Antigonus of Soko, whose admonition to “let the fear of God be with you,” establishes service to God on principle, and removes material wealth as any sign of godliness.  Therefore, Pharisees did not embrace Greek culture but denounced it.

Pharisees looked to Oral Law (Talmud, Mishnah) and oral traditions as a part of their spiritual interpretation.  Telling stories and providing lesson teaching had always been a strong influence within Judaism, as it had been to all ancient peoples.  It was a convenient tool to assist in giving children moral lessons, parable study, and in the study of the prophets.  For example, Jewish mysticism had always held for a messianic figure as God’s final resolution for the Jewish people; the visionary Book of Enoch remained vibrant throughout Jewish culture; Isaiah’s prophetic voice remained central.

Sadducees did not accept the oral interpretation, but remained strict within Mosaic law, and accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch.  This practice of disallowing Oral Law allowed Sadducees to stay within a strict ‘eye for an eye’ mentality, but this restriction would also keep them from being accountable to a broader religious and cultural interpretation.  It is by this device Sadducees could continue their tainted relationships with the Greeks, the Hasmonean kings, and later the Romans.  Based on power, wealth, and strict religious rulership, the Sadducees conducted internecine war upon the Pharisees.  Regardless of later attempts at suppression by Sadducees, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt, the resurgence of the common man would account for eventual Pharisaic dominance.




In the early years, Torah scholars led Pharisaic development.   Antigonus would have taken the view of ‘service for the sake of service’ as the true intent of entering the priesthood.  In later years, and during the times of Jesus, Pharisees had made it relatively easy to enter the priesthood, and money could be used to secure such a position.  This monied approach diminished the priesthood, and would not have been in line with Antigonus’ original intention.   This corruption of the Pharisees would later become a strong point of contention with Jesus, Matt. 23.13-36, known as the ‘woes’.

During the Maccabean Revolt (167-142 BC) the Pharisees are known to make up the main part of the Hasideans, those who fought against the Greek Seleucid Empire (Syrian Greeks).  The rigorous separation of the Pharisees into a distinct sect is now accomplished.*

* “Moreover king Antiochus [Epiphanes] wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, and everyone should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king. Yea, many of the Israelites consented to his religion and sacrificed unto idols, and profaned the Sabbath,” 1Mac. 1.41

It is in the war of the Maccabees that the Hasadim form ranks, with the Maccabee family in the role of standard-bearer.*  The Maccabees and their followers were dedicated Pharisaic representatives, with the Hasadim made up of the newly organized Pharisee and Essene coalition.  Both Essene and Pharisee participate in the Maccabean revolt under the original leadership of Mattathias, and then soon after by his son, Judas, against the Syrians (the Greek Seleucid regime).  The war began in 167 BC and lasted twenty-five years before a peace treaty was actually concluded in 142 BC.

“And Mattathias cried throughout the city with a loud voice, saying, “Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me.  That certain men, who had broken the king’s commandment, were gone down into the secret places of the wilderness [southern mountain regions], they [the king’s men] pursued them in great number, and having overtaken them, and made war against them on the Sabbath day.  Because it was the Sabbath, this group of Jews essentially sacrificed themselves, as they did not fight on the Sabbath,” (1 Macc. 2.29-41).
“At that time therefore they decreed saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him [the king’s men]; neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places [mountainous reaches where the battle took place]. Then came there unto him a company of Assideans [usually denoted as Essenes], who were mighty men of Israel, even all such as were voluntarily devoted unto the law,” (1 Macc. 2.41-42).

Depicting areas conquered by the Hasmonean kings,
beginning with Judea (pink area near the Dead Sea; purple
northward is Sumeria; purple southward is Idumea).

During the war of the Maccabees, the Hasadim (mainly Pharisee adherents) were responsible for carrying the fight to the Syrian armies, with the Sadducees either neutral or lending aid to the Greek Seleucid empire.  After this long guerrilla war and the defeat of the Syrians, the Temple was restored, as was daily sacrifice.  Judaism was preserved from the religious onslaught initiated by Antiochus Epiphanes (174–165 BC), which outlawed Jewish celebrations and emphasized the worship of Zeus.

Many Jews were caught in the middle of this religious conflict.  Most of them would join the Pharisees.  There are simple reasons for this.  The Sadducees were a group of families, and to be a part of the Sadducaic priesthood would not be easy except through marriage or birth, although anyone could join the sect itself.  Sadducees were religious and governmental aristocrats, exclusive, and not populist.

However, the political and religious battle lines had been drawn.  The Pharisees perceived themselves as those who had won the war, while the Sadducees had not harkened to the call of battle.  It is not many years later that the son of Simon, John Hyrcanus, ruling from 135–105 BC, experienced success in further military exploits.  When the Syrians were distracted by the attacking Medes from northwest Iran, Hyrcanus took this opportunity to capture Shechem (twenty-five miles northeast of Jericho) and other nearby cities.  After entering Samaria he also entered Idumea and fought the Edomites.

After these exploits, the Jewish lands began to look like a true kingdom—a kingdom united under one ruler who would become a force to be reckoned with.  Judea was truly free once again!  The elder son of John, Aristobulus, then takes control (104 BC) and unites the government into a kingdom.  He produces a kingship with a line of kingly aristocracy, as opposed to religious leadership.  Temporary stability is established, however, beneath this order of government there remains turbulence, both political and religious.  After the one-year reign of Aristobulus follows another son of John Hyrcanus, Alexander Jannaeus, who formally aligns himself with the Sadducees.  It is Alexander who will not only become king but a high priest as well.  This duel designation is unusual and is preferred only under rare circumstances.


 Hasmonean Kingdom to 63 BC

This chart may be helpful in tracking the Hasmonean kings.

Judas/ Jonathon Simon/ John Eleazar
166-160 /  160-143/                143-135
J. Hyrcanus /Judas Mattathias
Antigonus Aristobulus /A. Jannaeus/ Alexandra
104/                                       104-76 /       76-69
Aristobulus II/ Hyrcanus II
69-63/                    63-40
Antigonus II


Since the Hasmonean kings were not in the Davidic line, the Pharisees objected to them, causing a tense situation to become more strained.  Needing religious support, the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) are forced to remain enjoined with the Sadducees.  At all costs, they must control the Temple, and the Sadducees will do that for them.  The Sadducees exploit the fact that the Pharisees want the Maccabean family to step down, which naturally the Maccabees are unwilling to do.  However, the military campaigns of Jannaeus (104-76 BC) are disastrous.  To maintain his kingship Jannaeus persecutes the Pharisees: “ordered eight hundred to be hung upon crosses in the midst of the city, he had the throats of their wives and children cut before their eyes; and these executions he saw as he was drinking and lying down with his concubines,” Wars, Bk. 1 4.6.  Shortly thereafter Jannaeus dies as he pursues those who flee his impiety and cruelty.

Alexandra, his wife, then comes to power in 76 BC.  She realizes that the firm conviction of Pharisaic religious authority will not be surmounted.  She formally recognizes them, and thence the Pharisees become predominant in Jewish religious life.  After Alexandra recognizes the Pharisees, Greek influences further diminish.  The Pharisees reinvigorate revenge persecution of the Sadducees.  Due to this unrest, and to counter the Greeks, Rome invades Israel, most notably by Pompey in 63 BC.  Beginning in 60 BC Antipater from Idumea is installed as governor of Judaea, and thus began the Herodian dynasty.  The Romans allowed the Hasmonean kings to maintain more limited power until the advent of Herod the Great in 37 BC.

“And now the Pharisees joined themselves to her [Alexandra], to assist her in the government.  These are a certain sect of Jews that appear more religious than others and seem to interpret the laws more accurately. Now Alexandra hearkened to them to an extraordinary degree, as being herself a woman of great piety towards God.  But these Pharisees artfully insinuated themselves into her favor by little and little, and became the real administrators of public affairs: they banished and reduced whom they pleased [probably Sadducees, and perhaps Essene]; they bound and loosed men at their pleasure [not necessarily totally under the laws]: and, to say all at once, they had the enjoyment of the royal authority, while the expenses and the difficulties of it belonged to Alexandra.  She was a sagacious woman in the management of great affairs, and intent always upon gathering soldiers together; so that she increased the army by one-half, and procured a great body of foreign troops, till her own nation became not only very powerful at home, but terrible also to foreign potentates, while she governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her,” Josephus, Wars Bk. I 5.2.



The Pharisees begin modern rabbinical schools.  There were many different sects within Pharisaic belief:  Hemerobaptists, Herodians, Gorothians, Ossaeans (also, spelled Osseaens, scribes) and other groups held basic Pharisaic views, but always with some differences.  The two schools of thought which encompassed these many divergent attitudes were Shammai and Hillel.  Shammai is defined as more strict or legalist, and the school of Hillel is viewed as more compassionate.

Zealot radicals took the view of Shammai on trade between Jews and Gentiles, that is, to not allow trade intercourse.  Hillel disagreed with this currently more popular viewpoint.  In part, Hillel’s viewpoint might be considered a Judaic outreach perspective, but certainly, trade benefited the Jews.  Under Roman taxation, any added revenues would be helpful.  At the time of Jesus’ ministry, the school of Shammai probably held more authority than Hillel.  The murder of Stephen (AD 44) and James (AD 62) would almost certainly have come at the hands of the oppressive school of Shammai.  However, in the end, the school of Hillel wins out.  The destruction of the Temple in AD 69-70 sealed the fate of Shammai.  The Sanhedrin accepted Hillel and rejected the stiff-necked Shammai, for the outlook of Shammai had brought only grief.

Some scholars associate Jesus with the school of Hillel.  Hillel is thought by some scholars to be one of the priests Jesus spoke to at the age of twelve.  The biblical reference to this conversation seems unbelievable to casual readers of scripture.  However, Jewish children learned to read as early as three years old, and were required to memorize long passages of scripture.  So, this reference to Jesus is likely accurate, though an unusual occurrence.  As to Jesus’ affiliation, many more associate Jesus with the Nazarenes.  The majority in the middle say it is not truly proven either way.  This work perceives Jesus as a Nazarene Essene priest.

The Pharisees considered religious law as the law of the land, as it was intended to be.  They also came to consider the law as the religion itself, instead of a religion that contained laws.  This attribution becomes reverential.  Jesus sees it as misguided and wholly legalistic.  The Pharisees added to Mosaic law by imposing various cleansing rituals and prayers to accompany these rituals, probably drawn from the legalistic Qumran Essene, none of which were a part of Mosaic law.  Jesus sees these rituals and the brief prayers that accompany them as superficial.  Thus within Pharisaism, the law evolves to become the pronouncement of righteousness instead of the condition of the inner man.  John and Jesus become the first prophets who directly challenge this interpretation of religion by law and ritual, as opposed to the content of a man’s character.

The Pharisaic religious development infers an attempt at holiness by a constant attentiveness to the details of daily living, but in effect, it leaves the greater issues unattended––straining at the unclean gnat on the edge of a cup (Matt. 23.24), but not attending to the true spiritual needs of the people, while “inside they [Pharisees] are full of extortion and self-indulgence (25).”  These many Pharisaic laws and prayers, which have to be observed throughout the day, become nothing more than a burden and a stumbling block to true spirituality, which Jesus refers to on a number of occasions.  Lawyered viewpoints replace more substantial spiritual viewpoints and insight, thereby stifling revelatory interpretation of scripture.

The revelatory interpretation of the Law and the Prophets is the most essential act of the Messiah.  It is Messiah who will interpret and fulfill the law, as Jesus states in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think I come to destroy the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”


God Bless!

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