The Pharisees
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The Pharisees

Joseph Sievers, Amy-Jill Levine, Joseph Sievers, Amy-Jill Levine

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The Pharisees

Joseph Sievers, Amy-Jill Levine, Joseph Sievers, Amy-Jill Levine

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About This Book

A multidisciplinary appraisal of the Pharisees: who they were, what they taught, and how they've been understood and depicted throughout history

For centuries, Pharisees have been well known but little understood—due at least in part to their outsized role in the Christian imagination arising from select negative stereotypes based in part on the Gospels. Yet historians see Pharisees as respected teachers and forward-thinking innovators who helped make the Jewish tradition more adaptable to changing circumstances and more egalitarian in practice. Seeking to bridge this gap, the contributors to this volume provide a multidisciplinary appraisal of who the Pharisees actually were, what they believed and taught, and how they have been depicted throughout history.

The topics explored within this authoritative resource include:

  • the origins of the Pharisees
  • the meaning of the name "Pharisee"
  • Pharisaic leniency, relative to the temple priesthood, in judicial matters
  • Pharisaic concerns for the Jewish laity
  • Pharisaic purity practices and why they became popular
  • the varying depictions of Pharisaic practices and beliefs in the New Testament
  • Jesus's relationship to the Pharisees
  • the apostle Paul and his situation within the Pharisaic tradition
  • the question of continuity between the Pharisaic tradition and Rabbinic Judaism
  • the reception history of the Pharisees, including among the rabbis, the church fathers, Rashi, Maimonides, Luther, and Calvin
  • the failures of past scholarship to deal justly with the Pharisees
  • the representations, both positive and negative, of the Pharisees in art, film, passion plays, and Christian educational resources
  • how Christian leaders can and should address the Pharisees in sermons and in Bible studies

Following the exploration of these and other topics by a team of internationally renowned scholars, this volume concludes with an address by Pope Francis on correcting thenegative stereotypes of Pharisees that have led to antisemitic prejudicesand finding resources that "will positively contribute to the relationship between Jews and Christians, in view of an ever more profound and fraternal dialogue." Contributors:

Luca Angelelli, Harold W. Attridge, Vasile Babota, Shaye J. D. Cohen, Philip A. Cunningham, Deborah Forger, Paula Fredriksen, Yair Furstenburg, Massimo Grilli, Susannah Heschel, Angela La Delfa, Amy-Jill Levine, Hermut Löhr, Steve Mason, Eric M. Meyers, Craig E. Morrison, Vered Noam, Henry Pattarumadathil, Adele Reinhartz, Jens Schröter, Joseph Sievers, Matthias Skeb, Abraham Skorka, Günter Stemberger, Christian Stückl, Adela Yarbro Collins, and Randall Zachman. Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award for Best Book on the New Testament (2023)

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Part 1




Vasile Babota

No history of the Pharisees was written in antiquity. Nor have we any document written by a Pharisee, other than the letters of Paul. Contemporary literature offers only fragmentary records about them, but even there they are not the protagonists. Major sources that clearly speak about the Pharisees are Flavius Josephus’s works, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature.
Although the rabbis did incorporate older traditions, their texts are not histories. These texts also postdate the works of Flavius Josephus (37/38–ca. 100 CE) and the New Testament, sometimes by several centuries. Besides, these traditions, as most sources, are often tendentious.1 Already Ellis Rivkin argued that the connection between the Hebrew perushim of rabbinic texts and the Greek Φαρισαῖοι (pharisaioi) of Josephus and the New Testament is itself complex.2 Jacob Neusner, whose works redirected the search for Pharisaic origins, criticized earlier and contemporary scholars for using rabbinic literature as if “everything was … historically factual.”3 About his own 1971 three-volume work on the subject, Neusner wrote: “My Rabbinic Traditions … was to render obsolete nearly all historical scholarship on the Pharisees of the preceding two hundred years.”4 Neusner claimed to have identified some fifty Pharisees by name, mostly from the first century CE. By contrast, a closer scrutiny of all ancient sources permitted Joseph Sievers to identify a “mere dozen individual Pharisees,” some of whom are questionable.5 Therefore, rabbinic texts need to be used cautiously when writing a history, especially for the Hasmonean period.
The New Testament mentions the Pharisee(s) close to one hundred times (mostly in the gospels and Acts), but this corpus reflects a mid- to late first-century-CE context. Josephus refers to Pharisee(s) some forty-five times (except in Against Apion); roughly half of these references pertain to the BCE period. In Jewish War 1.110 (before 79 CE) he introduces the Pharisees in the context of Hasmonean succession to power following the rule of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE).6 By contrast, Ant. 13.171–173 (before 93/94 CE), introduces them as one of the three αἱρέσεις (i.e., “parties,” “schools of thought”) together with the Sadducees and Essenes.7 The implied context is the rule of the first Hasmonean high priest, Jonathan (152–143 BCE). However, only in Ant. 13.288–298 do the Pharisees appear on the stage in relation to Jonathan’s nephew, John Hyrcanus I (134–104 BCE). Any assessment of these references must reckon with the fact that Josephus claimed Hasmonean descent, had a high regard for Hyrcanus I (J.W. 1.68 // Ant. 13.299), and boasted to have practiced (for some time) the Pharisaic way of life (Life 1–12). So a certain bias in his works is to be expected.8
Following other scholars, Daniel R. Schwartz reiterated that for the BCE period the “pro-Pharisaic” Josephus made use of the works of Nicolaus of Damascus (born ca. 64 BCE), the court historian of King Herod the Great (40–4 BCE). Schwartz claims that some passages in Antiquities have been preserved more intact than in War because they reflect Nicolaus’s more negative view of the Pharisees (e.g., Ant. 13.288, 298, 401–402; 17.41–42).9 Questioning the extent to which Josephus’s sources can be established, their transmission and reliability, and Josephus’s own historical method, Steve Mason concluded that “Josephus was not, and never claimed to be a Pharisee,” that he displayed a “marked and consistent antipathy” toward the Pharisees, and that the accounts of the Pharisees—in which they are “marginally” represented—were “at least shaped by Josephus.”10 Anthony J. Saldarini adopted a compromise position: “Josephus’ attitude toward the Pharisees is fundamentally consistent whether he is using Nicolaus or not.” When compared, neither Antiquities nor War is more (or less) pro-Pharisaic than the other. Whether Josephus is pro- or anti-Pharisaic does not depend on his sources—Nicolaus or others—but on how he interprets them to fit his political agenda.11
Because of the criticisms of Neusner and Stemberger on the use of rabbinic texts,12 and in particular those of Mason on the use of Josephus’s works, interest has shifted to how Josephus and other sources portray the Pharisees and away from the question of their origins.13 My present aim is not to write a history of the origins of the Pharisees but to illuminate some methodological problems, address some questions, and in particular, show how 1 Maccabees can contribute to this discussion.


Antiquities 13.171–173 is perhaps the most cited passage in discussions about the origins of the Pharisees. Since Josephus introduces them in a narrative that deals with Jonathan, many scholars have held that the Pharisees emerged around 150 BCE.14 However, the introductory temporal formula Κατὰ δὲ τὸν χρόνον τοῦτονἦσαν (“and about that time … there were”) is vague. Besides, Josephus has nothing to say about any of these αἱρέσεις down to Hyrcanus I. It seems that Josephus himself was not sure when or how the Pharisees appeared.
Other scholars have interpreted Ant. 13.171–173 to mean that the Pharisees predated Jonathan. Since the term “Pharisee(s)” is lacking in any pre-rabbinic account connected to the period before 150 BCE, some scholars have advanced the hypothesis that the Pharisees descended from the Hasidim (ʿΑσιδαῖοι, 1 Macc 2:42; 7:13; 2 Macc 14:6). Joseph Cohen argued that the Essenes also descended from the Hasidim.15 Almost forty years later, Ferd Prat concluded that, while the origin of the Essenes from the Hasidim is questionable, that of the Pharisees “semble établie.”16 More than fifty years later, Amand Michel and Jean Le Moyne defined the affiliation of the Pharisees with the Hasidim as “fort plausible.” Even though these authors admit that the origins of the Pharisees remain “très obscures,” like Prat, both Michel and Le Moyne place the emergence of the Pharisees under Hyrcanus I. They connect the Pharisees with the development of scribal classes, who were, in their view, deeply involved in the interpretation of the Torah and the evolution of oral tradition.17
The suggestion that the Pharisees descended from the Hasidim led some scholars to look for their origins much earlier than the second century BCE. Initially, Louis Finkelstein too claimed that the “Order/Society of Pharisees” descended from the Hasidim whose origins could be traced back to Ezra. By the time of Hyrcanus I, the Pharisees became a “political party … prepared to take arms in defense of its rights.”18 Subsequently, Finkelstein argued that the identification of the Pharisees with the Hasidim “seems … unfounded” and that the two were “different groups.”19 According to his revised theory, the Pharisees flourished at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. In the end, Finkelstein implied that it was the Hasidim who were one of the “factions” of the Pharisees.20
John Kampen’s study has had a significant impact on the attempt to find connections between the Hasidim and the Pharisees. Kampen, who has shown that the meaning of Asidaioi is difficult to assess,21 hypothesized that the Hasidim were active in the third and second century BCE as temple scribes (cf. 1 Macc 7:12) and that the Pharisees therefore derived from Hasidean scribal circles.22
All we can learn about the Hasidim is contained in several verses dated to roughly 100 BCE. Josephus does not mention them in his paraphrase of 1 Maccabees. The fact that 1 Macc 7:12–13 associates them with scribes cannot mean they represented all Judean scribes, or even all temple scribes. Perhaps the crucial question is why the Pharisees would have separated from this scribal movement. While a connection between Pharisees and the Hasidim should not be ruled out, it requires more solid argumentation.23


A second methodological problem related to Ant. 13.171–173 concerns its introduction of the Pharisees together with the Sadducees and the Essenes. That connection prompted many scholars to search for the origins of the Pharisees in tandem with that of the Sadducees. Josephus does not, however, claim these αἱρέσεις originated at the same time. In Ant. 18.11, where he lists the Pharisees after the Essenes and the Sadducees, Josephus states that these existed “from very ancient times.” Earlier, in J.W. 2.161, he characterized the Pharisees as “the first” of the three αἱρέσεις. Josephus does not specify whether he meant the Pharisees emerged as “the first” or that they were more influential than the other two αἱρέσεις.
Using the Sadducees as a mirror against which to understand the origins of the Pharisees has led many scholars to another methodological flaw: to assume the antiquity not only of the Sadducees but also of the Pharisees. This is because many scholars have taken for granted that the Sadducees are to be identified with the Zadokites/sons of Zadok (bene tsadoq) of Ezek 40–48 who reportedly ran the temple affairs down to the second century BCE.24 This premise led scholars to search for the origins of the Pharisees even in the fifth century BCE.25
Alice Hunt has shown that there is no compelling evidence to justify the assumption that the sons of Zadok existed as an established priesthood in control of the temple after the exile.26 Many redaction-critical studies concluded that the Zadokite passages in Ezek 40–48 are late additions.27 The sons of Zadok appear also in Ezek 42:13 LXX, and elsewhere in Ben Sira (MS B) 51:12a–o and in seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), dated mostly to the early first century BCE. Additionally, the sons of Zadok have an ideological function in Ezekiel, whereas in the DSS they may even include nonpriests (e.g., CD-A III, 20–IV, 4; 4QDa 5 I, 16).28
According to the Torah, which was likely the only authoritative Scripture for the Sadducees, the sons of Aaron are the only legitimate priests to serve at the temple. How would the Sadducees—who, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, reportedly did not believe in the resurrection (cf. J.W. 2.165; Ant. 18.12–19; Mark 12:18 par.)—have interpreted such texts as Ezekiel 37?
The attempt to associate the Sadducees with the Zadokites/sons of Zadok of Ezek 40–48 is undermined by the latter group’s identity. Therefore, connecting the search for the origins of the Pharisees to the history of the Sadducees is methodologically tenuous.


In J.W. 1.110 the Pharisees first appear in relation to the Hasmonean succession story anchored in 76 BCE. Josephus only writes that they joined Alexandra (Salome?), the widowed wife of king and high priest Jannaeus, to assist her in governing as queen. Josephus has more to say in his later parallel version. According to Ant. 13.400–404 (cf. 13.414), Jannaeus, on his deathbed, reportedly urged his wife to entrust significant power to the Pharisees and so try to appease them in the hope they would forgive his violence against them. The queen succeeds in obtaining the Pharisees’ support and installs her elder son Hyrcanus (II) as high priest (13.405–408). The Pharisees, in turn, insist that the queen take revenge against those who had persuaded Alexander to kill “eight hundred men” (13.408–410; cf. 13.380). Josephus explains that the Pharisees themselves participated in some of these executions and adds an important link: the Pharisees also ask the queen to restore their statutes (νόμιμα), which her father-in-law had abrogated (cf. 13.296; see also b. Sotah 22b).
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