1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Pharisees

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PHARISEES, a sect of the Jews first mentioned by Josephus, in his account (Ant. xiii. 5, 9) of the reign of Jonathan, the brother and successor of Judas Maccabaeus. The name, which may be translated “Separatists,” indicates their devotion to the ideal, enforced by Ezra and Nehemiah upon the reluctant Jews, of a nation separate from all other nations in virtue of its peculiar relation to Yahweh (Neh. ix.). This ideal nation consisted of all who were prepared to obey the Law of Moses, irrespective of their natural descent. Consequently the Pharisees, who seem to have been an order of religious teachers, were concerned to make converts (proselytes), and some of their greatest teachers were of non-Jewish parentage. They were also concerned to insist upon the strict observance of the Law, so far as it was compatible with the exigencies of ordinary life, and to train disciples who should set a proper example to the mass of the people.

The ideal of separation descended from the Great Synagogue (Assembly) of the time of Ezra to the Synagogue of the Hasidaeans (Assidaeons), who allied themselves with Judas Maccabaeus when his followers decided to suspend the law of the Sabbath, in order that the true Jews might preserve themselves from annihilation and survive to keep the Law as a whole. This action of the Hasidaeans is clearly the practical outcome of the principle which Josephus describes in the language of philosophy as the characteristic of the Pharisees—“some things and not all are the work of Fate” (Ant. xiii. 5, 9). Fate is the Stoic term for God, and these forerunners of the Pharisees judged that the time had come for them to take action rather than to wait passively on God. But then and always the prime concern of the Pharisees was the extension of God’s sovereignty (the Kingdom of God) throughout the world. God’s will, which all men should obey, was revealed in the Law, and though He might appoint governors over them, He remained their King, and no governor who was not a prophet—God’s mere mouthpiece—could command their unquestioning obedience. When Judas reconquered Jerusalem and re-dedicated the desecrated Temple, his work, from the Pharisees’ point of view, was done. The Temple-worship was part and parcel of the Divine plan, and a legitimate High Priest was necessary. Alanius was, therefore, welcomed by the Hasidaeans, and only his treacherous murder of sixty of their number taught them that any Syrian nominee was their enemy Later they acquiesced in the election of Simon to the high-priesthood with the condition “until there should arise a faithful prophet”, but some of them remonstrated against the combination of the sacred office with the position of political ruler in the person of John Hyrcanus as contrary to the precedent set by Moses at his death. When Alexandra came to the throne the Pharisees were the real rulers and imposed upon the people the deductions from the written Law which formed the growing body of their oral tradition. Their reign was long enough to establish this tradition in respect of ritual, and even when this golden age—as it seemed to later Scribes—was over they exercised a paramount influence upon the common people. They had learned to read God’s will in the events of history, and deduced (for example) the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead from the death of the martyrs under Antiochus Epiphanes and Alcinius. And what they learned from current history and from the ancient history of the nation recorded in Scripture they taught in the synagogues, which corresponded not merely to the parish churches but also to the schools—day schools and Sunday schools—of to-day. Apart from their control of public education, their power was enhanced by their efforts to better the position of women, and by their notorious leniency in the matter of punishments. Everything—the repeated statements of Josephus and the facts of Jewish history after a d. 70—goes to show that the Pharisees moulded the religion of the people. Attempts have been made in modern times to represent the Apocalyptlsts as opposed to the Pharisees and as occupying the position in popular estimation which Josephus ascribes to the Pharisees. But for such representations there is no solid ground. Superficially the language of apocalypses differs from that of rabbinic decisions, and where the seer takes a comprehensive view of the ages the rabbi legislates for particular cases. But even in the Talmud the reign of Alexandra is described in apocalyptic language such as is commonly applied to the future age, and if allowance be made for the symbolism proper to revelations it is clear that essentially the scribe and the seer have the same purpose and even the same doctrines. The Pharisees were occupied with the piecemeal realization of the dreams of their supposed opponents, which gain a vague glory from their being far off.

The gospels generally have left upon the minds of men an impression unfavourable to the Pharisees. They contain denunciations attributed to our Lord and assigned—with obvious injustice in some cases—to the scribes of this sect. It is to be remembered that the Pharisees were the only sect of the Jews who survived in Christian times and that the Pharisees were never a homogeneous body possessed of a definite policy or body of doctrine. Moreover it is clear that our Lord denounced not all the Pharisees but the hypocrites only, as did the rabbis whose sayings are reported in the Talmud and other Jewish books. Again the third gospel in particular betrays relations between the Pharisees and Jesus very different from those of the common Christian view, which conjures up an impossible picture of an absolute breach between the Prophet of Nazareth and the whole corporation of the Pharisees as a result of a quarrel with certain members of that dissident sect of independent thinkers. Gamaliel and his pupil St Paul are better representatives of the non-hypocritical Pharisee; and the Pauline Epistles or the writings of Philo are the best extant examples of the manner and matter of their teaching. As for the denunciations, apart from the charge of insincerity, it appears that the scribes in question are pilloried for the defects—or the excesses—of their qualities. Indeed they are corroborative evidence for the reverence with which the Pharisees were regarded by the people generally, and for the zeal with which they strove to fulfil God’s will as contained in the Law and elucidated by the Tradition.  (J. H. A. H.)