RISE OF 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 (reverence) 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 what we today know as the Tanakh (five books of Moses,* prophets, and writings [psalms]) but embraced oral traditions as well, which in their view enhanced 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 the study of the prophets (speakers). For example, Jewish mysticism had always held for a messianic figure as God’s final resolution for the Jewish people; Isaiah’s prophetic voice remained central.
*Sadducees focused only on the five books of Moses and did not recognize other writings, making them much more legalistic. As Temple Priests they essentially ran the governance of Judaism, with the High Sanhedrin overseeing all other local Sanhedrin (courts).
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 stricter 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 warfare against 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 took 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 participated in the Maccabean revolt under the leadership of Mattathias and then soon after 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 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 Pharisees but with Essene adherents) was responsible for carrying the fight to the Syrian armies, with the Sadducees either neutral or lending aid to the Greek Seleucid regime. 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 prove difficult except through marriage or birth, although within the sect itself, anyone might join. 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 was not many years later that the son of Simon, John Hyrcanus (Sadducean), 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 instead of 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 followed another son of John Hyrcanus, Alexander Jannaeus, who formally aligned 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, of which this is not one. The juxtaposition of Pharisee and Sadducee heightens.
Hasmonean Kingdom to 63 BC
This chart may help track 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
Antigonus II 40-37
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 allied 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 amid 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,” Josephus, 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 daily 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, the Idumean, Antipater, is installed as governor of Judaea and begins 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 also terrible to foreign potentates. At the same time, she governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her,” Josephus, Wars Bk. I 5.2.
PHARISEES and JESUS
The Pharisees begin modern rabbinical schools. Many different sects erupted within Pharisaic belief: Hemerobaptists, Herodians, Gorothians, Ossaeans and scribes, and other groups held basic Pharisaic views, but always with some differences. Rabbis Shammai and Hillel represented the two predominant schools of thought. 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 concerning trade between Jews and Gentiles, which was not to 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. 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 scriptural passages. 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.
Fulfilling the law does not necessarily mean agreement or unity with the Pharisees. There were Pharisees who strived after the content Jesus proposed, however. In Mark 12.32-34, we encounter a Pharisee who confirms Jesus’ message concerning loving God with all your heart and mind, thence extending to your neighbor, declaring that these attributes transcend any act of sacrifice. Nicodemus becomes a supporter, and scripture mentions Jesus eating with Pharisees (Lk. 7.36). During the ministry of Jesus, there were those Pharisees who were afraid to speak out, including those of his own family, for fear of higher Pharisaic priestly persecution.
The Pharisees considered religious law the law of the land, as it was intended to be. They also considered the law the religion instead of a religion containing laws. This attribution to the law becomes reverential. This corrupted influence, or breakdown, was a further sign of Pharisaic dissolution. Jesus sees this viewpoint as misguided and wholly legalistic. The Pharisees added to Mosaic law by imposing various cleansing rituals and prayers to accompany these rituals, few 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 (obedient) righteousness instead of the inspection of the inner man. John and Jesus became the first prophets who directly challenged this interpretation of religion by law and ritual.
Pharisaic religious development infers an attempt at holiness by a constant attentiveness to the details of daily living but leaving the substantial issues unattended—straining at the unclean gnat on the edge of a cup (Matt. 23.24), but not attending to the actual spiritual needs of the people while “inside they [Pharisees] are full of extortion and self-indulgence (25).” These many Pharisaic laws and prayers, which interweave daily life, become nothing more than a burden and a stumbling block to spirituality, which Jesus refers to on several 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 essential act of the Messiah. It is the 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.”