My 2006 Paper (for a Class) about the Pharisees

There is talk within the blogosphere about the Pharisees (see here and here), so I decided to post here a paper that I wrote for a class back in 2006.  The paper is about scholarly debates regarding the Pharisees.  The debates are broader than I presented in the paper, as I learned when I later read John Meier’s Marginal Jew (years after writing the paper).  Still, I think that my paper has useful information.  Moreover, I don’t plan to submit this paper for publication in any scholarly journal.  I’m just putting it here, for your information and edification.

The Pharisees: Three Questions, Scholarly Responses


The Pharisees are a prominent topic of interest in biblical and Judaic scholarship, for they were the predecessors of rabbinic Judaism and the antagonists of early Christianity.  Scholars rely on at least four sources to reconstruct the first century Pharisees:[1] Josephus, who wrote Jewish War in 79 C.E. and Jewish Antiquities about a decade later;[2] the New Testament, which contains pre-70 C.E. material (Paul) and Gospels that possibly post-date 70;[3] the Dead Sea Scrolls, which has documents from the Hasmonean (152-63 B.C.E.)and Roman (63 B.C.E.-68 C.E.) periods;[4] and Tannaitic literature, such as the Mishnah (ca. 200 C.E.) and Tosefta (ca. 300 C.E.).[5]  There are three questions that scholars have addressed in their use of the sources.  The first question, which I call Question One, concerns the Pharisees’ power in Judea from 67 B.C.E.-70 C.E.[6]  Prior to 1956, the scholarly consensus was that the Pharisees dominated first century Judea,[7] meaning that the vast majority of Judean Jews looked to the Pharisees as the Jewish leaders.[8]  Such a view is now debated, so there is a question: Did the Pharisees really dominate Judea from 67 B.C.E.-70 C.E.? The second question, Question Two, asks about the Pharisees’ characteristics.  Such a question encompasses their features as a religious group, their socio-economic status, and the extent of their political involvement from 67 B.C.E.-70 C.E.  The third question, Question Three, concerns the utility of Tannaitic sources for the reconstruction of first century Pharisaism.  Since Tannaitic sources emerge after 70 C.E., is their portrait of the pre-70 Pharisees reliable?  Such a question has been posed by Jacob Neusner.[9]  My goal is to discuss and evaluate how scholars approach theirsources to answer these questions.   


Josephus is relevant to Question One, which concerns the Pharisees’ influence in 67 B.C.E.-70 C.E.  Beginning with Morton Smith in 1956, a number of scholars, such as Jacob Neusner, E.P. Sanders, Lester Grabbe, and Anthony Saldarini, have questioned the once scholarly consensus that Pharisaic Judaism was normative and dominant in the first century C.E.[10]  Smith, for example, argues that Josephus’s portrait of the Pharisees differs in his two works.[11]  According to Smith, Josephus in Antiquities asserts that the Pharisees held great influence over the masses (Ant. 13.10.5; 17.2.5; 18.1.2).[12]  In Jewish Wars, by contrast, Josephus does not mention their alleged influence, and he focuses more on the Essenes in his discussions of Jewish religion.[13]  For Smith, Josephus in Antiquities wants to persuade Roman authorities to entrust the Pharisees with the leadership of post-70 Judea.[14]  Smith assumes that Josephus would have referred to the Pharisees more often in Jewish Wars if they truly were dominant in their influence, and he attributes the emphasis on them in Antiquities to an ideological motivation.

On the basis of Josephus, Smith’s heirs advance other reasons that the Pharisees were not dominant in 67 B.C.E.-70 C.E.  E.P. Sanders, for example, notes that Josephus’s own accounts have the Pharisees waging unsuccessful uprisings against Herod and Rome.[15]  If the Pharisees were so powerful, Sanders asks, why did they launch revolts, and unsuccessful ones at that?[16]  Sanders also questions Josephus’s claim that the widely popular Pharisees dictated to the priests the content of the temple service (Ant. 18.1.3).  According to Sanders, Josephus only mentions one high priest whom he deems incompetent (JW 4.3.8), indicating that the priests in general were not ignorant bumpkins needing Pharisaic guidance.[17]  Like Sanders, Lester Grabbe also refers to contradictions between Josephus’s actual history and his characterization of the Pharisees as widely influential.  Josephus says, for instance, that the Sadducees contain men of the highest standing, yet they accomplish nothing without the Pharisees’ help (Ant. 18.1.4).  Grabbe wonders how men who accomplish nothing can have high standing.[18]  Moreover, Grabbe points to Sadducees in Josephus’s narrative who succeed without Pharisaic approval (John Hyrcanus, Ananus), and he states that Josephus’s emphasison priestly leadership in temple worship undermines his claim that the Pharisees dictated the liturgy to priests.[19]  Because Josephus tries to portray the Pharisees as widely influential among the masses, Sanders and Grabbe treat any contrary details in his narrative as historical.  

Other scholars, such as Daniel Schwartz and Steve Mason, have challenged the view of Smith and his successors.  Schwartz, for example, denies that Antiquities 13.10.5 (288) is propaganda by Josephus for the Pharisees’ leadership, while he asserts that Josephus had an ideological reason to suppress their influence in Jewish Wars.[20]  According to Schwartz, Antiquities 13.10.5 (288) did not originate with Josephus but rather with Nicolaus, the scribe of Herod, who disliked the Pharisees for inciting revolts against him.[21]  Essentially, Schwartz now has within Antiquities a source outside of Josephus that acknowledges significant Pharisaic influence, and the source is anti-Pharisee at that.[22]  Therefore, in Schwartz’s reasoning, the portrait of the Pharisees as influential is not propaganda on their behalf.  On the other hand, Schwartz does see an ideological motivation behind their rare appearance in Jewish Wars, for Josephus wants to disassociate them from the Judean rebels soon after the 70 C.E. revolt; consequently, “[a]ll of [the] damagingpieces of information which connect Pharisees with rebels come out only in Josephus’ later works.”[23]  Unlike Smith and company, Schwartz views the Pharisees’ prominence in Antiquities as historically reliable, while he believes their less visible role in Jewish Wars is designed to protect them from charges ofsubversion.  Schwartz also disputes the notion that Jewish Wars downplays Pharisaic religious influence.  Accordingto Schwartz, Jewish Wars 2.8.14 (162)mentions thePharisees first in its discussion of the sects, indicating their importance, and it says that they are considered the most skillful interpreters of the laws.[24]

Like Schwartz, Mason does not believe that the Pharisees’ widespread influence in Antiquities reflects Josephus’s desire to promote them for leadership.  Mason argues that Antiquities 13.15.5-13.16 (400-432) presents disastrous consequences of Pharisaic authority during Alexandra Salome’s reign.[25]  According to Mason, Josephus in that passage criticizes Alexandra for siding with the Pharisees to preserve her power, rather than turning the kingdom over to her younger son, Aristobulus.[26]  For Mason’s Josephus, Aristobulus realized that the Pharisees supported his incompetent brother, Hyrcanus II, to succeed Salome.[27]  Therefore, Aristobulus had a duty to seize the kingdom for himself, a task he pursued alongside those unhappy with persecution from the Pharisees.[28]  For Mason, Josephus in Antiquities blames the collapse of the Hasmoneans on the Pharisees, who prevented Aristobulus’ssuccession and instigated the strife that ended the dynasty.[29]  Consequently, he was not promoting them for leadership.

Josephus also applies to Question Two, which relates to the Pharisees’ characteristics.[30]  According to Josephus, they maintain a belief in an immortal soul and try to reconcile fate with free will (Ant. 18.1.3).[31]  They also hold to ancestral customs that supplement the written law of Moses (Ant. 13.10.6), are lenient in their views on punishment (Ant. 13.10.6), and are in a socio-economic class separate from the rich and eminent (Ant. 13.10.5).[32]  Moreover, they seem to be politically involved in the sense that they oppose Herod (Ant. 13..10.5; 17.2.4).  Most scholars seem to accept Josephus’s statements about the Pharisees’ beliefs and adherence to ancestral customs,[33] on the basis of his own Pharisaic heritage (Life 2) and New Testament parallels.[34]  Paul, a former Pharisee (Phillipians 3:5), refers to ancestral customs he once followed (Galatians 1:14) and mirrors Josephus’s description of the Pharisees on immortality and fate (II Corinthians 5:1-10; Romans 9-11).[35]  E.P. Sanders views Acts 5 as an appropriate parallel to Josephus on Pharisaic leniency, for there the Pharisee Gamaliel asks the court to free Peter and John.[36]  Since no source presents the Pharisees as rich aristocrats, scholars agree that they were not part of this class, yet they differ on what the Pharisees did vocationally.[37] 

There is disagreement on the extent of their political involvement during the first century C.E., about a generation after their power in the Hasmonean era.  Some argue that they remained intensely involved, since Rome deemed them qualified for political leadership after 70 C.E.[38]  Neusner says that they left politics to focus on religion, while Sanders tempers this claim by asserting that they picked their battles (e.g., the oath they refuse to take to Herod in Antiquities 17.2.4).[39]  Ellis Rivkin actually denies that the anti-Herod pharisaoi of Antiquities 17.2.4 (41-45) were the Pharisees.  On the basis of etymology, he argues that pharisaoi can refer to any separatistsor abstainers, and he also points out apparent differences between the pharisaoi in Antiquities 17.2.4 and the Pharisees elsewhere in Josephus.[40]  For example, unlike the pharisaoi, the Pharisees Pollion and Samaias support Herod (Ant. 15.1.1).[41]  While scholars conclude that the Pharisees were a religious group that maintained ancestral customs, whether theycontinued their intense interest in politics after the Hasmoneanera is not entirely clear.[42]  

The New Testament

Most scholars dismiss the Gospels’ negative portrayal of the Pharisees (e.g., Matthew 23) as Christian propaganda,[43] and there is some question as to whether sources after 70 C.E. reflect the historical Pharisees or rather post-70 Jewish-Christian conflict.[44]  Prominent scholars have, however, treated the New Testament as a witness that can address the three questions.  For Question One, first century Pharisaic influence, the Gospels in some places regard the Pharisees as a powerful group.  In Matthew 23:2, Jesus tells his disciples to obey the Pharisees because they sit in a seat of authority.  In John 9 and 12:42, they have the power to cast people out of the Jewish community.  12:42, interestingly, says that even the leaders feared the Pharisees, a statement Shaye Cohen asserts “resembles the view of Josephus that the Sadducees are unable to accomplish anything because they must perforce obey the dictates of the Pharisees.”[45]  E.P. Sanders, however, finds examples that imply the Pharisees were not dominant and powerful.  In Jesus’s trial, the chief priests are the principal actors, not the Pharisees.[46]  According to Sanders, a reader of Josephus and the New Testament can find only one incident in which a Pharisee influences a leader to change his position: Gamaliel persuades the council not to kill Peter and John (Acts 5:33-42); still, Steven and James (both Christians) are killed later in Acts.[47]  In the Gospels, Jesus and his disciples suffer no punishment when they disobey Pharisaic Sabbath laws, and people flock to Jesus unafraid of the Pharisees.[48]   

For Question Two, the Phariseescharacteristics, Neusner and Sanders find fuel in the New Testament for their positions.  Neusner believes that the Pharisees focused on ritual purity within an exclusive table fellowship, a view that seems consistent with passages like Mark 7 (the Pharisees rebuke Jesus’s disciples for not washing their hands before a meal) and Mark 2:15-16 (they criticize Jesus for eating with sinners).[49]  Incidentally, Neusner relates the Gospels’ portrayal to Question Three, for it helps him confirm the pre-70 status of certain rabbinic material on the Pharisees, material that, for him, largely focuses on ritual purity for meals.[50]  For Neusner, the historical picture of the Pharisees that he derives from rabbinic sources is also attested in an independent source, the Gospels.  Sanders disagrees with the view that the Pharisees were exclusivists who shunned non-Pharisees for fear of defilement.[51]  Matthew 23, after all, says that they move about in the marketplace and travel the world in search of converts, who are initially not Pharisees (Matthew 23:7, 15).[52]  Neusner and Sanders believe that the New Testament provides some reliable details on the Pharisees, so they use it to buttress their characterizations.[53]

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Pharisees are not explicitly identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but many scholars believe that they are labeled with code names, such as “Ephraim” and “seekers after smooth things.”[54]  Scholars seek the Pharisees in the Scrolls using parallel sources, such as Josephus and rabbinic literature.  For example, many commentators have connected details in Pesher Nahum with Josephus’s narrative about the Hasmonean period in Antiquities 13 (379-415).[55]  For them, the seekers of smooth things, or Ephraim, appear to be opponents of the Judean ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.), and they gained political and religious influence under his successor, Alexandra Salome.[56]  In Josephus, such a characterization applies to the Pharisees.  Similarly, Lawrence Schiffman identifies similarities between elements of rabbinic literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ descriptions of certain people.  For example, Qumran’s Halakhic Letter (4QMMT) argues against halakhic positions that the Mishnah attributes to the Pharisees (Mishnah Yadaim 4).[57]  In addition, the Damascus Document 4:19-24 refers to builders of the wall who practice polygamy.  According to Schiffman, the rabbis (whom he deems the Pharisees’ successors) built a fence (or wall) around the law with their regulations (M. Avot 1.1), and they permitted polygamy along with remarriage after divorce.[58]  The Dead Sea Scrolls also denounce doreshe halaqot (“those who expound false laws”) and the talmud (literally “study”) of Ephraim, and darash and talmud are prominent words in rabbinic literature.[59]  For Schiffman, the Dead Sea Scrolls engage the Pharisees, who were the predecessors to the rabbis. 

Schiffman’s conclusions are relevant to Questions Two and Three.  For Question Two, the Pharisees’ characteristics, they are shown to be a group with halakhic tendencies that differed from those of Qumran, perhaps because they had laws outside of the written Torah.[60]  For Question Three, Schiffman points to the congruence between rabbinic literature and the halakah criticized in the Dead Sea Scrolls, contending that the rabbis offer more reliable information on the Pharisees than Jacob Neusner may think; rabbinic oral tradition appears trustworthy, since as late as 200 C.E. the Mishnah accurately reflects the Pharisees’ beliefs during the Hasmonean era.[61]  Schiffman does not really apply the Dead Sea Scrolls to Question One (Pharisaic influence in the first century C.E.), for he believes that the documents he cites date to the Hasmonean period, which even Neusner and Sanders see as a time of Pharisaic dominance (at least during Alexandra Salome’s reign).[62]  For Schiffman, the Qumran community consisted of priests who left Jerusalem because they disliked the temple’s practice of Pharisaic halakah.[63]  The departing priests thought the Pharisees were defiling the temple, Schiffman argues, because they had the wrong purity rules.[64]

Tannaitic Literature (Mishnah and Tosefta)

The Mishnah (200 C.E.) purports to offer information about the Pharisees, first century C.E. sages, and first century C.E. laws.[65]  For Question One, Pharisaic influence in the first century, Jacob Neusner and Ellis Rivkin differ in their interpretation of the Mishnah.  According to Neusner, the Mishnaic laws and stories of the first century C.E. “may be characterized as self-centered: the internal records of a party concerning its own life, its own laws, and its own partisan conflicts.”[66]  He also observes that Pharisaic laws do not deal with political issues, such as laws of governance, Rome, or the Messiah, but rather with table fellowship and religious observance; moreover, the “rabbis never claim the Pharisees did run pre-70 Palestine[.]”[67]  Rather than viewing the Pharisees as a group with religious or political power, Neusner portrays them as an introverted sect that did not care about the outside world.

Rivkin, however, disputes that the Pharisees were an exclusive and introverted sect, but he believes that they were the dominant religious legislators of the first century C.E., whose halakah the majority of Jews followed.[68]  He appeals to Mishnah Yadaim, in which the Pharisees say that touching Holy Scripture defiles the hands (6:3).[69]  Earlier, in 3:2, this principle is cited as prevailing halakah and the words of the scribes (soferim), whose authority is not challengeable from Scripture: “We do not deduce the words of the Torah from the words of the Soferim; nor the words of the Soferim from the words of the Torah; nor the words of the Soferim from the words of the Soferim.”[70]  According to Rivkin, “Their teachings need not be logically justified, nor need they have any logical connection [:] The words of the Soferim are law!”[71]  He also cites Mishnah Yoma 1:1, in which the Bet Din could compel the high priest to swear that he would not deviate from the halakah for Yom Kippur.[72]  For Rivkin, this shows “that the Pharisees not only held power but did not hesitate to use it, going so far as to regulate the ritual calendar and the mode of the High Priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies, his exclusive turf, on Yom Kippur.”[73] 

Rivkin acknowledges that there are Mishnaic passages that seem to portray the Pharisees as exclusivists.  For example, Mishnah Hagigah 2:7 says that the “garments of the am ha-aretz are a source of midras  uncleanness to the perushim,” the Pharisees.[74]  As with the Greek term pharisaoi, however, Rivkin argues that perushim can refer to separatists or abstainers, not always the Pharisees.[75]  He cites examples in Tannaitic literature in which perushim are actually set at odds with the Hahamim and halakah (e.g., B. Pes. 70b; T. Ber. 3:25).[76]  For Rivkin, scholars can derive information about the Pharisees from Tannaitic literature by considering passages that juxtapose them with the Sadducees.[77]  Rivkin states that the Sadducees threw at the Soferim the label of perushim, or separatists, to undermine their authority.[78]  Although this point concedes division within first century Judaism, Rivkin on the whole asserts that the Pharisees were dominant in that time.  For him, the Pharisees did not separate themselves from the am ha-aretz, for the am ha-aretz obeyed Pharisaic law.[79]

Question One and Question Two apparently intersect on the issue of Pharisaic exclusivism, but one can deny that the Pharisees were exclusive without conceding their first century dominance.  E.P. Sanders, as we have seen, denies that the Pharisees represented normative Judaism before 70, yet he disputes that the Pharisees were an exclusive sect “that ate ordinary food in purity, as if they were priests in the temple.”[80]  Using Neusner’s methodology, he focuses more on the disputes between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as pre-70 sources.[81]  Regarding hand purity, Sanders argues that the Pharisees did not universally require Jews to touch ordinary food with ritually pure hands; rather, the concern of many of them was to protect the priestly portion from defilement.[82]  In Mishnah Tohorot 10.4, for example, the House of Shammai requires people’s hands to be pure when they put grapes into the winepress, whereas the House of Hillel only mandates purity of hands when the priest’s heave offering is separated.[83]  Moreover, according to Sanders, “Later rabbis debated whether or not hands should be washed before all meals (T. Berakhot 5.13, 27), on the whole regarding it as not compulsory,” which “weighs very heavily against the idea that before 70 all Pharisees had washed their hands before every meal.”[84]  Regarding exclusivism, while Sanders acknowledges on the basis of rabbinic sources that the Pharisees mostly did not “eat with people below them on the purity scale”(see Tosefta Shabbat 1.15), he denies that they believed their behavior excluded non-Pharisees from God.[85]  Not only is there no evidence that the Pharisees viewed a meal as sacred, Sanders argues, but priests and lay-people could share a sacrifice to God while eating in separate locations, without the priests thinking the lay-people were cut off from the divine; this was true even though priests were higher than lay-people on the purity scale (see Leviticus 21).[86]  Similarly, Sanders contends, the Pharisees did not believe that “the only way to experience ‘fellowship with God’ was to eat with Pharisees.”[87]

In response to Sanders, Neusner cites Mishnah Hagigah 2.5-3.3, which says that hands should be rinsed before the eating of unconsecrated food.[88]  Because Neusner generally excludes anonymous material in his search for pre-70 information, focusing instead on the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, his use of a passage that omits these sages is odd indeed.[89]  The immediately preceding paragraph does mention them, however, so he may assume that 2.5-3.3 continues the Hillel and Shammai discussion.[90]  In his monumental Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70, Neusner discusses Mishnah Tohorot 10.4, a key proof-text of Sanders that the Pharisees allowed food to be touched with unclean hands.  For Neusner, the issue is whether or not the person intends to eat the grapes.  He says, “The House of Hillel rule [is] that the moisture is not regarded as liquid capable of receiving uncleanness, since the man has no intention of using the moisture for food.”[91]  Neusner cites a similar discussion between the Houses that occurs in Mishnah Tohorot 9.5, which concerns when (not if) olives can receive uncleanness.[92]   For Neusner, the parts of Mishnah Tohorot 10.4 about the heave offering are glosses that pertain to a different issue.  Both sides would agree that one should touch the heave offering with pure hands, Neusner asserts, since the grapes might be eaten by the priests as food.[93]  For Neusner, the Pharisees believed that common food should be touched with pure hands, but they debated about when certain things constituted food.[94]

For Question Three, the value of Tannaitic literature to understand the pre-70 Pharisees,  Neusner is the main skeptic about the utility of rabbinic material.  He concludes from the Tannaitic corpus that “none of the masters prior to Gamaliel I was personally known to post-70 authorities,” indicating that “no one after 70 could claim to have heard precisely what they said.”[95]  Moreover, Neusner contends that the 70 C.E. calamity in Jerusalem disrupted the transmission of traditions, since Pharisees died and their political conditions were dramatically altered.[96]  Consequently, for Neusner, the rabbis tried to portray pre-70 Judea using the few traditions they had, and they “sometimes invented what they needed.”[97]  Neusner definitely believes that ideology played a role in the rabbinic portrayal, for there is a tendency in Tannaitic literature to elevate Hillel (whose party was dominant after 70) at the expense of Shammai, undercutting Shammai’s first century predominance in Pharisaism that the literature sometimes acknowledges.[98]  In addition, Neusner views pre-70 Pharisaic beliefs, ideas, and values as “not easily accessible,” for they have been revised by post-70 rabbinic masters with their own theological agenda: to assert that Israel can serve her creator despite the destruction of the temple.[99]  While Neusner holds that rabbinic literature contains very few pre-70 traditions, he treats the disputes between Hillel and Shammai as authentic, and he notes that the legal disputes between them are predominantly balanced rather than pro-Hillel.[100]  He states, “We may well doubt that Shammai would have been represented after 70 as an authority of equivalent importance to Hillel,” so “these materials are highly credible and may well be authentic traditions of the masters’ or of Houses’ rulings.”[101]  In this case, Neusner treats traditions that run counter to post-70 rabbinic ideology as authentic.[102]   


For Question One, pre-70 Pharisaic influence, one should consider the dates of the sources.  Josephus, Tannaitic literature, and possibly the Gospels are post-70 material, so they reflect a time when the rabbis were powerful, or at least on their way to power.  Post-70 ideology shapes Josephus’s account, in both Jewish Wars and Antiquities.  Josephus wants to present the Pharisees in a positive light, either through omission of their role in revolts (as in Jewish Wars) or through emphasis on their political influence (as in Antiquities).  His goal is to disassociate his own party from Jewish troublemakers, and later to promote it to the Romans for leadership of Judea.  Even if Mason is correct that Josephus’s portrayal of Pharisaic leadership is not always positive, Josephus still presents the Pharisees as a significant political force that an occupying power should conciliate.[103]  The Gospels could be Christian reactions to rabbinic/Pharisaic dominance after 70, and Tannaitic literature seems to project post-70 rabbinic authority onto a pre-70 time, presumably so that the rabbis do not appear as latecomers to importance.[104] 

At the same time, there may be a first century source that the Pharisees had widespread influence, if Schwartz is correct that Antiquities 13.10.5 (288) is from Nicolaus.  The passage says that the Pharisees “have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”[105]  Even if Nicolaus viewed the Pharisees this way, that does not necessarily mean they possessed widespread influence.  Nicolaus may have overestimated the Pharisees’ importance because they appeared to incite revolts.  E.P. Sanders argues, however, that many Jews would have joined any rebellion, regardless of who sponsored it; the fact that they followed the Pharisees, therefore, does not indicate that they felt beholden to that particular party.[106]  Nicolaus, therefore, may have misinterpreted the situation.  Moreover, the Pharisees could have exercised some influence without being dominant, much like the Democrats of today.[107]

For Question Two, the Pharisees’ characteristics, at least four issues are relevant: their exclusive table fellowship, first century political involvement, social class, and ancestral traditions.  Regarding their table fellowship, not all Pharisees believed that Jews should eat common food in a state of ritual purity, for Tosefta Berakhot 5.13, 27 presents a dispute on that issue.  Many, however, probably did, since Shammai in Mishnah Tohorot 10.4 has qualms about touching unconsecrated grapes with impure hands; consequently, Jesus, or his post-70 followers, may have conflicted with certain kinds of Pharisees.  The Pharisees also appear to have interacted with people outside of their party, and Sanders notes that they regarded non-Pharisaic Jews as observant of second tithe laws, explaining why they dealt with them (Mishnah Tevel Yom 4.5).[108] Still, even Sanders admits that the Pharisees ate with their own kind, not with those lower in purity.  Contra Rivkin, therefore, the Pharisees did acknowledge the existence of outsiders, meaning that not all of the am ha-aretz consisted of Pharisees (Mark 2:15-16; Tosefta Shabbat 1.15).[109] There is little explicit information on why the Pharisees emphasized eating with the right people, but they appear to have done so.  Regarding first century political involvement, if Antiquities 13.10.5 (288) is from Nicolaus, then there is first century confirmation that the Pharisees were politically concerned.[110]  Neusner says that rabbinic comments on the first century do not focus on politics, but that is probably because the rabbis after 70 did not see Herod as relevant, while they did feel a need to preserve some religious traditions under their new theocracy.  The Pharisees’ social class in the first century was most likely outside of the aristocracy, for no source portrays them as a rich elite.  They also had ancestral traditions, as Paul, a first century source, confirms.

For Question Three, the reliability of Tannaitic sources on first century Pharisaism, Neusner is correct to raise questions, for the rabbis’ depiction of the first century can easily reflect post-70 concerns, and later rabbis can place their ideas into the mouths of earlier teachers.  Moreover, Neusner makes a convincing case that the Houses’ disputes are authentic, for their editing would best fit a time before the Hillel school’s predominance, under which Hillel was exalted in the literature at Shammai’s expense.  Such a time would occur immediately after 70, when there were still a sufficient number of Shammaites to exert influence.  At Yavneh, the Houses’ disputes were most likely organized from pre-70 traditions, since the Hillelites and the Shammaites wanted to transmit the teachings of both schools, and they had no apparent motive to invent new ideas under both sages’ names; plus, the disputes were edited so soon after 70 that many Pharisees probably still knew the teachings of the Houses, so there was less opportunity to attribute false material to them.  Despite Neusner’s concern, Schiffman is correct to point out parallels between rabbinic information about the Pharisees and certain elements of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  While Schiffman does well to argue that the Tannaitic material with Qumran parallels is historically accurate, however, he should not assume such accuracy for all Tannaitic literature about the first century, for parts of it may reflect post-70 concerns.


The Pharisees were a Jewish religious group with ancestral traditions and halakhic ideas.  They were politically and religiously dominant under Alexandra Salome from 76-67 B.C.E., prompting certain priests to leave Jerusalem in protest.  While their power and influence were not as widespread from 67 B.C.E.-70 C.E., they continued to maintain some interest in politics.  Their main focus was religious, however, and they tended to eat with people of their own group, perhaps as a matter of ritual purity.  They were not total exclusivists, however, for they interacted with those outside their group and considered them reasonably observant of some laws, notably second tithe.  After the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., they emerged as the primary Jewish leaders of Judea, perhaps with a little help from Josephus, who promoted them to the Romans.  Most of the sources about them date to this time, and they project Pharisaic influence onto the first century.

[1]A group of sources I do not consider includes apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books attributed to Pharisaic authors.  As Neusner points out, the authors of these books do not mention Pharisees, their beliefs may be more widespread than the Pharisaic sect, and the few details that appear Pharisaic could be later accretions.  See Jacob Neusner, “Mr. Sanders’ Pharisees and Mine,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44/1 (1991) 77.  Hereafter cited as Scottish.

[2]Raymond B. Dillard, “Josephus,”  Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 983-984.  According to Dillard, the seventh book of Jewish Wars was written toward the end of the first century C.E., at the end of Domitian’s reign.

[3]For New Testament dates, please see Wayne Meeks, ed., HarperCollins Study Bible (United States: HarperCollins, 1993).  Most scholars date the Gospels after 70 because they refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.  Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, and Luke 21:6, however, say all the stones of the temple would be thrown down; since this did not happen in 70 C.E., some say the Gospels may be earlier than that date.  See Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982).  The Gospels may be using hyperbole, however, so I accept their post-70 date as a genuine possibility.

[4]Lawrence H. Schiffman, “The Sadducean Origins of the Dead Sea Sect,” Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Hershel Shanks (New York: Vintage, 1993) 38.  Hereafter cited as “Sadducean.”

[5]The Mishnah date is from Raymond P. Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People (New York: Oxford, 1998) 62.  Strack and Stemberger date the Tosefta a generation later.  H.L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. Markus Bockmuehl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 150-163.

[6]Both E.P. Sanders and Neusner acknowledge that the Pharisees were powerful under Salome Alexandra.  E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London: SCM Press, 1992) 401.  Jacob Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70, vol. 3 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971) 305.  Hereafter cited as Neusner III.  Her reign ended in 67 B.C.E., and the Pharisees became dominant after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E.

[7]Throughout this paper, “first century” will refer to the part of the first century C.E. before 70 C.E.

[8]See, for example, Sanders’s summary (Sanders 388-389).  Prior to 1956, scholars apparently believed that the vast majority of Judean Jews accepted Pharisaic authority in halakhic and other matters.  Consequently, under this model, the priests embraced Pharisaic halakah to appease the masses, and the Pharisees’ influence over the people granted their party political influence, since they could start a mass rebellion at will.  The Pharisaic leaders also supposedly had the power to exclude people from the Jewish community, since the people accepted them as authoritative.    

[9]Sources will be cited in my section on Tannaitic literature.

[10]D. Goodblatt, “The Place of the Pharisees in First Century Judaism: the State of the Debate,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 20/1 (1989) 12.

[11]Goodblatt 13.

[12]Goodblatt 13.

[13]Goodblatt 13.  According to the index to William Whiston’s Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), there are more references to the Essenes in Jewish War than there are to the Pharisees.

[14]Goodblatt 13.

[15]Sanders 389.

[16]Sanders 389.

[17]Sanders 396.

[18]Lester Grabbe, “The Pharisees: A Response to Steve Mason,” Judaism in Late Antiquity, Part 3, Volume 3: Where We Stand: Issues and Debates in Ancient Judaism, ed. Alan J. Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 41

[19]Grabbe 41.

[20]Daniel R. Schwartz, “Josephus and Nicolaus on the Pharisees,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 14/2 (1983) 157-171.

[21]Schwartz notes that the passage is hostile to the Pharisees, whereas Josephus was part of the group and speaks positively about them elsewhere in Antiquities.  Moreover, it states that the Pharisees are believed when they speak against “a king or high priest,” a political situation that reflects Herod’s time rather than that of the Hasmoneans or Josephus’s composition.  Under the Hasmoneans, the two offices were one.  During Josephus’s composition, they no longer existed in Judea. Schwartz also appeals to discrepancies between 288, in which the Pharisees oppose Hyrcanus, and the rest of the story in 289-292, where they love him.  For Schwartz, the most likely source for 288 is Nicolaus, for Herod disliked the Pharisees because they incited the masses against him.  Schwartz 158, 163.

[22]Schwartz 165-166.

[23]Schwartz 169.

[24]Schwartz 165.

[25]Steve Mason, “Josephus on the Pharisees Reconsidered: A Critique of Smith/Neusner,” Studies in Religion 17/4 (1988) 456.  Neusner basically acknowledges that the Pharisees were predominant under Alexandra Salome (see fn. 1).  He believes, however, that Josephus’s account of this time in Antiquities is more positive about the Pharisees than the account in JW 1.5.  In his words, “No longer do the Pharisees take advantage of the woman’s ingenuousness.  Now they are essential to her exercise of power.”  Therefore, he concludes that Josephus in Antiquities wants to portray them positively to the Romans.  Mason 461.

[26]Mason 467.

[27]Mason 466.

[28]Mason 466.  Interestingly, Ant. 13.10.6 says the Pharisees were lenient in the punishments they recommended to John Hyrcanus (who initially listened to them).

[29]Mason 467. 

[30]Ellis Rivkin actually uses Josephus in a way that bridges Questions One and Two.  According to Rivkin, Josephus presents John Hyrcanus abrogating Pharisaic law, an act that results in an insurrection (Ant. 13.10-13.16). This means, for Rivkin, that Pharisaic law must have been in place and popular with the masses for some time.   Rivkin traces the origins of Pharisaism back to the Hasmonean revolt, when they appealed to their oral law to install a Hasmonean as high priest.  In doing so, they contradicted the written law, which reserved the priesthood for descendants of Phinehas (Numbers 25).  Ellis Rivkin, “Who Were the Pharisees?” Judaism in Late Antiquity, Part 3, Volume 3: Where We Stand: Issues and Debates in Ancient Judaism, ed. Alan J. Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 21-22.

[31]Ant. 13.5.9 says, however, that they believe some actions are caused by fate but not all.

[32]See Sanders 405.

[33]Many scholars deny that the Pharisees deemed these ancestral customs as divinely-inspired and from Sinai.  Sanders, for example, says that the Pharisees (and rabbis) distinguished their own rules from those of the Bible, explaining how Hillelites and Shammaites could intermarry, notwithstanding their differences.  Sanders 471.  Moreover, Philo discusses the ancestral customs without reference to Sinai or divine inspiration (De Spec. Leg. 4.149-150); they are simply traditions.  See Martin Goodman, “A Note on Josephus, the Pharisees, and Ancestral Tradition,” Journal of Jewish Studies 1/1 (Spring 1999) 17-20.  Rivkin says the Pharisees believed their authority to legislate was from Sinai.  Rivkin 26.  They may have had to in his scenario, if they were to contradict the written Torah on who should be high priest. 

[34]Saldarini 294.

[35]Sanders 418-419.

[36]Sanders 420.

[37]Some say they were small landowners, while others present them as merchants and traders.  Sanders 404.

[38]Schwartz 166-167.

[39]Sanders 187.

[40]Rivkin 9, 32.

[41]Rivkin 32.  I have problems with Rivkin’s other distinctions.  He says that “among the distinguishing characteristics of these pharisaoi are their influence with women and their foreknowledge of things to come.  The Pharisees elsewhere in Josephus do not share these characteristics.”  They do influence Alexandra Salome in Josephus, however, plus Pollio foretells the rise of Herod (Ant. 15.1.1).  Rivkin says that “the pharisaoi who refused to take the oath of allegiance to Caesar and Herod were punished with a fine, whereas Pollion, Samaias, and their disciples were not punished at all.”  Antiquities 15.10.4 says Pollio was not punished with the rest for refusing to take the oath, since Herod revered Pollio.  Taken with Antiquities 17.2.4, this seems to say that the Pharisees in general refused to take the oath, but Pollio was the only Pharisee who was not punished, since Herod liked him.

[42]Another significant issue regarding Josephus is that his picture of the Pharisees differs from that of the rabbis.  According to Neusner, rabbinic literature does not mention the pre-70 Pharisees’ beliefs on predestination and the immortal soul, unlike Josephus.  Moreover, while Josephus presents the Pharisees as affectionate to one another, the Hillelites refer to Shammai’s persecution of Hillel and his followers.  See Scottish 79.  I still believe Josephus is reliable on the Pharisees’ beliefs, since there are New Testament parallels.  Tannaitic literature may not contain much on predestination and the immortal soul because its focus is halakhic disagreements among the Pharisees or rabbis, who most likely agreed on such doctrinal matters.  Moreover, the portrayal of the Pharisees’ inner-relationship by Josephus and the rabbis could be tainted with bias.  Josephus may want to portray the Pharisees as affectionate to one another to assure the Romans that Pharisaic rule will not be marked by divisions; the Hillelites possibly want to make Shammai look like a bad leader.

[43]In this paper, I do not address the question of whether or not the Pharisees were hypocrites.  I do not know how to historically verify hypocrisy.  Apparently, Christians thought the Pharisees were hypocrites, whereas the rabbis and Josephus viewed them as basically good people.  The same is true regarding evangelical Christians today–you will find people who love them and hate them, and I am sure both sides have their reasons.

[44]Anthony Saldarini, “Pharisees,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 5, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 294, 296.

[45]Shaye J.D. Cohen, “Were Pharisees and Rabbis the Leaders of Communal Prayer and Torah Study in Antiquity?,” The Echoes of Many Texts: Reflections on Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. William G. Dever and J. Edward Wright (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 109.

[46]Sanders 394.

[47]Sanders 394.

[48]Sanders 394.

[49]Neusner III 305.

[50]Neusner III 305.

[51]Sanders 428.  Sanders shows that prominent Christian scholars (e.g., Jeremias) embraced this position, and he seems to attribute it to Neusner.  I do not know if Neusner believes this, however.  The Pharisees could have contact with non-Pharisees and then wash off any defilement before their meal.

[52]Sanders 428.

[53]There is more that can be said about the New Testament’s portrayal.  Regarding the Pharisees’ social status, the New Testament does not present their vocation, unless one counts their role on the court (e.g., Gamaliel in Acts 5).  Luke says they love money (Luke 16:4), yet this may be part of his ideological attempt to present Jesus as the champion of the poor against the rich (see Saldarini 297).  As far as doctrine is concerned, Acts 23:8 mentions their belief in the resurrection of the dead.  This is historically plausible, for  Paul, a former Pharisee, also believed in the resurrection (I Corinthians 15). 

[54]Saldarini 301. “Sadducean” 44.

[55]Saldarini 301.

[56] In Pesher Nahum, the “seekers after smooth things” invite Demetrius to enter Jerusalem, Demetrius fails to conquer it, and a lion of wrath takes revenge on the seekers of smooth things by hanging men alive.  Pesher Nahum then criticizes people who lead astray kings, princes, priests, people, and strangers with their false teaching and counsel, and it predicts that these “seekers of smooth things,” or people of “Ephraim,” will perish so as to mislead the assembly no more.  Josephus, in Antiquities 13 (379-415), refers to seditious Jews who opposed the Judean ruler Alexander Jannaeus and invited the Greek king Demetrius III (95-88 B.C.E.) into Jerusalem.  Demetrius failed to conquer it, and Jannaeus crucified eight hundred men.  After Jannaeus died, the Pharisees gained power under his successor, Alexandra Salome, and sought revenge on Jannaeus’s allies who had supported the crucifixions.  Many scholars see strong parallels between Pesher Nahum and Josephus’s account, meaning that the “seekers of smooth things” and “Ephraim” refer to the Pharisees, who exercised political and religious influence under Alexandra Salome.  See Saldarini 301.

What bothers me is that Damascus Document II.1-2 says God ravaged (past tense) the seekers after smooth things, whereas the Pharisees existed longer than the Qumran sect.  This may refer to the Pharisees’ loss of power after the death of Salome Alexandra.  Pesher Nahum may acknowledge that the seekers of smooth things exist in the Roman period, for it mentions the Kittim and predicts that the seekers will perish (future).  The reference to the Kittim could be a gloss of the Roman period inserted into a Hasmonean era document, however.

[57]Lawrence Schiffman, “The Pharisees and Their Legal Traditions,” Dead Sea Discoveries 8, 3 (2001) 273-274.  Hereafter cited as Schiffman.

[58]Schiffman 271-272. Schiffman shows that the Qumran community looked down on remarriage after divorce.

[59]“Sadducean” 43.  His references are Hodayot 2:15, 32; Pesher Nahum 3-4 I 2,7; ii 2,4; iii 3, 7; Damascus Document 1:18.  See also Schiffman 268-269.

[60]Schiffman 271-272.

[61]“Sadducean” 44.

[62]“Sadducean” 42.

[63]Schiffman 273.

[64]Schiffman 273.

[65]Neusner identifies Pharisees in Tannaitic literature in the following way: “Pre-70 masters are the men named in the chains of authorities down to and including Simeon b. Gamaliel and masters referred to in pericopae of those same authorities.  The reason why these pericopae are held to refer to Pharisees and their authorities is that Gamaliel and Simeon b. Gamaliel are identified by Acts and Josephus, respectively, as Pharisees.  They occur, in Mishnah-tractate Avot and other lists of authorities, and it is therefore generally assumed that all others of these same lists or chains of authorities also were Pharisees.”  Scottish 78.

[66]Jacob Neusner, “Pre-70 C.E. Pharisaism,” CCAR Journal (Autumn, 1972) 55.  Hereafter cited as “Pre-70.”

[67]“Pre-70″ 55. Scottish 79.

[68]Rivkin 20.

[69]Rivkin 19.

[70]Rivkin 19.

[71]Rivkin 19.

[72]Rivkin 16.

[73]Rivkin 16.

[74]Rivkin 4.

[75]Rivkin 15.  This invites the question of why I believe the Pharisees were called the Pharisees.  I believe that this was their name, since they are called this in all of the literature about them, both sympathetic and unsympathetic.  They may have seen themselves as separate in the sense that they tried to maintain a level of ritual purity above and beyond that of most Jews.  See Sanders 440, which discusses how Pharisees were more concerned about midras purity than other Jews were.  That does not necessarily mean, however, that they totally excluded themselves from outsiders, as we shall see below.

[76]Rivkin 17-18.

[77]Rivkin 15.

[78]Rivkin 19.

[79]Rivkin 15.

[80]Sanders 437.

[81]Scottish 77-78.

[82]Sanders 437.

[83]Sanders 432.

[84]Sander 438.

[85]Sanders 436, 441.  Tosefta Shabbat 1.5 is a Hillel/Shammai debate about whether or not a Pharisee who was impure from a genital discharge could eat with an am ha-aretz with the same impurity.  According to Sanders, this presupposes that a Pharisee would not dine with an ordinary person when he was ritually pure.  A possible reason, for Sanders, is that Pharisees wanted to avoid midras impurity whenever they could (Mishnah Hagigah 2:7).  Rivkin may question that the Hillel/Shammai discussion concerns the actual Pharisees, but why would Hillel and Shammai debate about an abstainer or separatist who is outside of their group?The Pharisees seem to have valued eating with their own kind in a state of ritual purity.  Maybe they saw the meal as a sacred occasion (Neusner), or perhaps they simply wanted to avoid ritual impurity (Sanders).

[86]Sanders 441.

[87]Sanders 441.

[88]Scottish 85.

[89]Neusner III 301.

[90]He chooses to look at this passage rather than Tohorot 2 because he says this passage mentions the Pharisees.  Scottish 85.

[91].  Jacob Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70, vol. 2 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971) 291. Hereafter cited as Neusner II.  I do not entirely know what he means by this.  Does wine not count as food, since a person drinks it?  Does the person plan to sell the wine? 

[92]Neusner II 290-291.

[93]Some of this is interpretation on my part of what he is saying.  He says both would agree the heave offering should be touched with clean hands.  Neusner III 289.

[94]For Question Two, I should probably say a word about how rabbinic literature regards the socio-economic status of the Pharisees.  According to Neusner and Sanders, the Mishnah contains many rules about tithes and agriculture, plus Hillel and Shammai discuss money in terms of small amounts.  For them, the Pharisees were probably small landowners.  Sanders 404-405. 

[95]Jacob Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70, vol. 1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971) 6.  Hereafter cited as Neusner I.

[96]Neusner I 6.

[97]Neusner I 6.

[98]Neusner I 22-23.  “Pre-70″ 84.  Neusner on Shammaite predominance in the first century C.E.: “Since the Hillelites told stories both to account for Shammaite predominance in pre-70 Pharisaism (‘sword in the school house,’ ‘Shammaites one day outnumbered Hillelites,’ ‘mob in the Temple’), and also to explain the later predominance of the Hillelites (‘heavenly echo came to Yavneh’), it stands to reason that the Shammaites predominated before 70, the Hillelites shortly afterward.  This is further suggested by the one-sided, if limited, evidence that Gamaliel II and Simeon b. Gamaliel followed Shammaite rules.”  Neusner II 4.

[99]Scottish 76-77.

[100]Neusner I 338.  Neusner III 319.  “Pre-70″ 64.  Neusner seems to identify other material as pre-70, for example, Yosi’s list in Mishnah Avot 1:4-5 (which resembles Qumran lists in form) and Yochanan the high priest’s abrogations in Mishnah Maaser Sheni 5:15.  The Houses’ disputes play a greater role in Neusner’s characterization of the pre-70 Pharisees, however, for he notes that three-fourths of the disputes relate to table fellowship.  “Pre-70″ 60.  Neusner III 318.

[101]Neusner I 338.

[102]Neusner does not seem consistent on this point.  He argues that the post-70 Yavneh community was responsible for organizing the differing Hillelite and Shammaite opinions into Houses’ disputes that would be transmitted and memorized.  According to Neusner, the Yavneh period was a time when the Houses were of “roughly equal strength,” so the “form used for the transmission of their opinions [would] give parity to both sides.”  In other words, the Hillelites were not dominant.  He acknowledges that the Hillelites eventually prevailed, however.  Perhaps he believes that the Houses’ disputes are still authentic because the two groups contributed traditions that they actually had, rather than making them up immediately after 70.  Neusner III 315-317.

[103]Why would Josephus need to convey this message to the Romans, who actually ruled first century Palestine?  Could not the Romans say, “We remember that the Pharisees were not that important”? Maybe the Romans were detached in certain respects from Judea.  They dealt with the priests, but not really with the non-authorities, so they did not necessarily know who was influential with the masses.  Josephus could be telling the Romans indirectly that such detachment was part of the problem; they should have conciliated the Pharisees!

[104]The sources do contain elements that contradict their overall portrayal of first century Pharisaic dominance, and scholars are wise to regard them as historical.  In the vast majority of cases, such elements are most likely accidentalThe Gospels, however, acknowledge the existence of conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40), as well as the priests’ prominent role in Jesus’ crucifixion; such themes are so pervasive that they are probably not accidents.  Why do the Gospels present Pharisaic dominance, even as they highlight priestly power and division within Judaism?  The Gospels preserve some memory of Jesus’s first century context, since that is the setting of their narrative.  Their authors also comment on the political situation of the first century, for they blame the destruction of Jerusalem on both the chief priests and the Pharisees (Matthew 21:43-46; 23:33-39; Luke 20:9-19), even though the Pharisees were the only ones in power when they wrote.  At the same time, they address their own post-70 context, when the Pharisees sat in Moses’s seat as legal authorities (Matthew 23:2).  The Gospels are not the only sources that discuss the time they narrate along with their present concerns.  Josephus and the rabbis do the same thing, but they generally go further than the Gospels (except John 12:42) in portraying the priests as subordinate to the Pharisees.  The Gospels acknowledge priestly power and Pharisaic dominance, however, so they preserve elements of a pre-70 setting while addressing post-70 concerns.   


[105]Whiston’s translation.

[106]Sanders 393-395.

[107]Goodblatt.  Sanders 398.

[108]Sanders 441.

[109]If this is true in the second century C.E., when the rabbis were in charge, how much more so in the first century!

[110]Schwartz argues convincingly that it is, and his opponent Goodblatt does not dispute him on this point.  See Goodblatt 19.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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