(This post is the third in a series about the Pharisees. Read the first post here)
“What were you thinking?” That is the question I have been asking myself over the last few days. What was I thinking when I decided to follow up with a post about who the Pharisees were? This is an impossible task in a blog post. I realize that. Entire books have been written on the subject. So why am I doing this? Because I think it is important to our understanding of who Jesus is. Because I think there is a lot we can learn about how to follow Jesus obediently and live out our faith. And because I said I would.
Disclaimer – This is not intended to be an academic review, but merely a brief introduction and an opportunity for us to reflect on our beliefs.
To try to summarize who the Pharisees were in the context of the culture of the Second Temple Period is the equivalent of trying to summarize the history of Protestant movement in relation to Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Likewise, to assume that all Pharisees held the exact same beliefs would be akin to thinking that all Protestants agree on all points of doctrine.
With that in mind, this post and those to follow on this topic are going to be very brief summaries and I would encourage you to dig deeper in some of the articles and books mentioned at the end for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.
So, who are the Pharisees and how do they enter the picture of the New Testament? When examining the world of the Second Temple Period there are three primary places one can gather information. Those sources are Josephus, the New Testament, and Rabbinic literature. And when looking at the foundation of the religious sects, the NT doesn’t give us any insight. That leaves us to look to the other sources to explore the origins of the Pharisees.
In those texts we find that the Pharisees were one of four prominent sects in Judaism at the time of Jesus. These sects consisted of the Sadducees, who were the elite. They were the priestly line that cooperated with the Romans in order to maintain political and religious power. Next there were the Essenes, who appear to have become frustrated with the corruption of the Sadducees and broke off to live in isolation in the desert. Third, there were the Zealots. They hated not only the Romans, but those who cooperated with them and resorted to violence to bring about the Kingdom of God. And finally there were the Pharisees, who though not in political power, appear to be the day-to-day religious leaders of the people. (Again, this is a brief summary and a generalization)
They first appear on the scene in Israel in the time between the writing of the Old Testament and the events of the New Testament. They emerge out of a group called the Hasidim (pious ones) who helped overthrow Seleucid rule during the Maccabean revolt. Not long after the revolt, the Maccabean leaders became corrupt in the eyes of the Hasidim. The Macabbean descendents had succumbed to Hellenistic influence and had also illegitimately seized control of the office of High Priest.
It is out of this Hasidim that the Pharisees emerge. While some of the Hasidim opted to continue to battle against the Hellenistic influence and became zealots, others decided that violence would not work. They came to believe that God allowed foreign oppression because of the failure of the people to obey the Torah. This group believed one should devote oneself to complete obedience to every detail of the law and to separate themselves from all influences that might interfere with that devotion. They took the name Perishaya (seperatists, Pharisee in English).
It is this devotion to the law, both written and oral for which the Pharisees are known, respected and often criticized. In the next post we will examine what the Pharisees believed and how their devotion to obedience is sometimes misunderstood.
So what can we learn as followers of Christ from the origin of the Pharisees? Well that depends on how much effort we are willing to put into it. It takes a much deeper understanding than I have been able to give in these few paragraphs to grasp how the culture shaped the Pharisees understanding of Scripture and their beliefs. In the same way, we need to take some time to look at our faith tradition. To understand the cultural influences that led to the separation of Christianity from Judaism and then to the many divisions within Christianity.
Our interpretation of Scripture is colored by our culture, by our denominations and by the interpretations of those who have gone on before us just as it was for the Pharisees. Each sect emphasizes different aspects of what being a Christ follower looks like. For some it is faith, or more accurately intellectual assent, and nothing more. For others it is obedience or faithfulness, which can be interpreted as works. For others, those two are inseparable.
As we look back to the Pharisees, we can learn to examine our beliefs and realize that they are shaped by not only the words of Scripture, but also by the culture in which we read them. We can ask ourselves a few questions.
What do you know about the history of your faith tradition?
Do you know the details about how and why it came into existence?
How do I, and should I, separate the words of Scripture from the interpretations of the church?
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and continue the discussion in the comment area.
There are many resources available for understanding the historical context of the Pharisees. A few to get you started are:
On the web:
Jewish Virtual Library article with short definitions of the major sects of Judaism at the time
My Jewish Learning article on who the Pharisees were
Jewish Encyclopedia (first published in early 1900s) article on the pharisees (much more in depth than first link)
At the library:
Anchor Bible Dictionary
The Jews in the Time of Jesus – Wylen
Jesus the Jewish Theologian – Young