Their History

The Pharisees - Jewish Leaders in the First Century AD.

Brief History of the Pharisees

As previously mentioned there is no way to know for certain exactly how the Pharisees had originated but the roots of the Pharisees can be traced to the "Hasidim" of the 2nd century B.C. The Hasidim were those devout and "pious men" of Israel who were pressed to resist the increasing pressure toward. Hellenization because of their loyalty to Yahweh and His Law.

When the Maccabees resisted the tyrannical policies of Antiochus Epiphanes (167 B.C. and following) the Hasidim were in full support of the resistance. Once the Temple was re-dedicated in 164 B.C. and the triumph of religious freedom in 162 B.C., the Hasidim, who were mainly concerned with religious and political affairs, became increasingly separate from the political scheming of the Hasmoneans.

The Hasidim gave birth to many sects and among them were the Pharisees, who may be regarded as the direct continuation of Hasidism into the New Testament period. The earliest historical reference to the Pharisees is found in Josephus (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. v. 9 ), who introduces them along with the Sadducees and Essenes as representatives of differing doctrinal viewpoints held at the time his narrative describes (about 145 B.C.).

The next mention of the Pharisees in ancient literature is also from Josephus (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. x. 5; also see BT, Kidd., 66a for a similar account). Josephus tells of John Hyrcanus (son of Simon Maccabeus) who was the high priest under whom political independence was finally achieved (128 B.C.), and who was also a disciple of the Pharisees. Hyrcanus had invited some Pharisees to a great dinner, and during the course of the festivities had shared with them his desire to attain righteousness and to please God, signifying that he would be gladly hear their advice for his own self-improvement. They had all agreed that he was already a righteous man. A man named Eleazar (a perverse individual according to Josephus) suggested that Hyrcanus really ought to give up the high priesthood and be content with the civil government alone, since rumor had it that Hyrcanus' mother had been a captive of the Seleucids before his birth. The implication was that the real father, and thus the priestly lineage, of Hyrcanus was questionable. Hyrcannus took offense, and a Sadducee named Jonathan, insisted that such was the view of all Pharisees. When Hyrcanus saw that the Pharisees did nothing to Eleazar regarding his insult he withdrew from them, at Jonathan’s advice, and began to oppose their activities with much hostility.

This is the earliest fiber of historical information which records the breach between the Pharisees and the rulers, and the rulers from now on tended to promote the Sadducean viewpoint. The rift that began here and continued to grow proved to be of huge importance, since the Pharisees, according to Josephus (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. x. 5 ), held very great influence with the masses. This event itself is apparently at the root of the quarrel between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees.

But, according to history, there were many other reasons for this major division within Judaism. The Hasmonean house seemed to be absorbed in their political position. Take for example the adoption of the royal diadem by Aristobulus I (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xi. 1; War I. iii. 1), which was at conflict with the completely religious orientation of the Pharisees.

During the reigns of Aristobulus I and Alexander Jannaeus, the breach between the two factions continued, with the Pharisees enjoying incredible popularity among the people.

When Alexander Jannaeus was defeated by the Nabataean Arabs, the people took advantage of the situation and instigated a rebellion against Jannaeus that lasted nearly six years (94-88 B.C.). No doubt the Pharisees played a major role in this rebellion (even though Josephus neglects to mention their involvement, Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xiii. 5; XIV. 2; War I. iv. 6), and would have been no doubt been among the eight hundred Jews crucified as victims of Jannaeus' vengeance.

Josephus does have Jannaeus refer to the Pharisees on his deathbed (76 B.C.) and characterizes his conflict with the nation to his harsh treatment of the Pharisees (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xv. 5).

Josephus also mentions that Jannaeus counseled his wife Alexandra concerning the power of the Pharisees with the people and "to yield a certain amount of power" to them (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xv. 5). Queen Alexandra, whose brother Simon ben Shetach was leader of the Pharisees, found this advice agreeable, and during her reign the power of the Pharisees grew considerably, so much so that Josephus says they possessed the royal authority whereas Alexandra had only its burdens (Josephus, War I. v. 2) .

The Pharisees thrived under Simon as long as Alexandra lived. When she died (67 B.C.) a struggle for the throne took place between her two sons, Hyrcanus II, the rightful heir who also possessed the support of the Pharisees, and his younger brother Aristobulus II who was supported by the Sadducees. Aristobulus proved stronger than his brother. Hyrcanus soon gave in to him and the political power of the Pharisees declined.

But this political adversity had a reverse effect because it caused the Pharisees to be even more zealous in their religious commitment. Soon Hyrcanus regained the high priesthood, no doubt through Antipater’s efforts. This division within Judaism had proved to be a major factor in the collapse of the Hasmoneans and the related subservience to Rome.

The Pharisees continued to maintain an incredible influence among the people throughout all of these conflicts, so that even Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet, was careful not to offend them. He had no regard for their religious teachings but was well aware of the power they had with the people and the threat they posed to the stability of his kingdom if he were to attack them.

At this time, Josephus records that there were "above six thousand" strict Pharisees (Josephus, Antiq. XVII. ii. 4) and some believe that nearly 5% of all of the total population could be counted among the Pharisees. They also held an important place in the Sanhedrin through this period on into New Testament times. They most likely did not control the Sanhedrin as the Talmud suggests.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees seem to be the main enemies of Jesus, probably because He had won a deeper influence among the people which they formerly possessed. It was the Pharisees who were known as the "experts" in the Law and so they took it upon themselves to scrutinize and ultimately condemn the very words of Jesus, and attributed his miracles to Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.

More than once the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians had joined themselves together to attempt to destroy Jesus (see Matt 22:15f.; Mark 3:6; 12 :13). These passages reveal just how politically powerful the Pharisees really were and the position that they held in the governing body of the Sanhedrin. More than once the politically powerful Sadducees yielded to the opinion of the Pharisees.

According to Josephus, the Sadducees had to repeatedly submit to the dictates of the Pharisees "since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them" (Josephus, Antiq. XVIII. i. 4; remember the Sanhedrin's acceptance of Gamaliel's recommendation in Acts 5: 34ff.).

The great Jewish revolt leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. owed its vitality to the Zealots rather than to the Pharisees. In fact the Pharisees seemed to be opposed to the revolt and were among the first to make peace with the Romans. According to the Talmud, even before the destruction was concluded, Johanan ben Zakkai asked for and received permission from the Roman authorities to establish a school at Jamnia (Jabneh).

Later on, at Tiberias, a succession of famous rabbis, such as Gamaliel II, Akiba, Ishmael, and Meir, carried on the endeavor of maintaining and perpetuating the essence of Judaism.

Without its marvelous Temple, the Jewish religion was forced to take on a new character, and after the final Jewish rebellion (132 A.D.) all hope of rebuilding the Temple was lost, and the work of these rabbis took a different direction.

The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah (200 A.D.), which is the final work of these rabbis, began a final work in the history of Jewish scholarship. It is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of Pharisaism, which now is compiled into the Talmud which has become synonymous with Judaism.