In this post we want to look at what Josephus, a 1st Century AD Jewish chronicler, has to say about the Pharisees. Josephus takes two pictures of the Pharisees, one in Bellum Judaicum (=BJ) book 2 (162-4) and one in Jewish Antiquities (=Ant), book 18 (12-15).
I’ll limit my comments here, and the goal is for us (1) to have a more accurate view of the Pharisees so we can (2) speak more intelligently and respectfully of this ancient, revered, and respectable form of Judaism.
“Jewish philosophy,” he says, “takes three forms… the first school are called Pharisees, of the second Sadducees, of the third Essenes” (BJ 2.119).
1. They are considered the “most accurate interpreters of the laws” (BJ 2.162).
2. They are the leading sect of the Jews (BJ 2.162) and “extremely influential among the townsfolk” (Ant 18.15).
3. They attribute everything to Fate and to God (BJ 2.163; Ant 18.13).
4. Proper behavior is most human responsibility but partly Fate (BJ 2.163).
5. Every soul is imperishable but the soul of the good alone passes into another body while the soul of the wicked suffer eternal punishment, and that there will be rewards or punishments in the afterlife on the basis of behavior (BJ 2.163; Ant 18.14).
6. They live simply (Ant 18.12)
7. They live according to the commandments that their doctrines teach (Ant 18.12). [No doubt a reference to their concern with teaching and unfolding what the Bible says.]
8. They are respectful of elders (Ant 18.12).
9. Their influence is great enough that prayers and rites of worship are according to their teachings (Ant 18.15).
Now, let’s put this together. According to Josephus, the Pharisees are the most influential sect of the Jews and their first characteristic is that they are devoted to the Torah (Law), to its interpretation, and to living life as closely as possible according to the Torah. They believe in a cooperation between Fate (his Greek-sounding category for God’s sovereignty) and human will, but clearly lay emphasis on human will.
A few more ideas from Josephus:
At various points in history they had more power than at others, but that they wanted to be in charge. (Neusner said they moved from “politics to piety.”) Neusner’s theory is less persuasive today, and most adhere to a more moderate position: the Pharisees had power at times, but wanted it most of the time, but never significantly withdrew from society to form table fellowship groups.
Which means their “influence” is probably overrated by Josephus: sometimes, yes; othertimes, not so much.
When it comes to Torah obedience, the Pharisees were “democratizers” in the sense that they tried to make the Torah practicable for all (by interpreting and applying it). The Sadducees focused more the priestly obligations to the Torah. The Essenes were more rigorous and sectarian in their interpretation and practice of the Torah. Which means, in pretty stereotypical and simplistic terms, the Pharisees were the “liberals,” the Sadducees the “conservatives,” and the Essenes the “radicals.”
The Pharisees passed on their teachings from generation to generation through an oral tradition. (Everyone did this; there was no other way; they didn’t codify and write these traditions down until the 3-4th Century AD, in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, and then a century or two later, in the Talmuds.) See Ant 13.297.
The followed the food laws and purity laws in the Torah, but it is unlikely they were as strict as the priests in the Temple. They washed their hands ceremoniously before they ate.
They weren’t that far from the Zealots in essential beliefs and practices. (Many have suggested that the Zealots are an extreme form of Pharisaism.)
They conflicted with the Sadducees sometimes over Temple regulations.
It is likely that they formed associations with one another; that they ate with another and followed their customs when they did; that they frowned upon eating with those who flaunted the normal eating customs of the Jews.
The best study of the Pharisees known to me is E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief.
In our next post we’ll take a quick look at what the Gospels say about the Pharisees.