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Roman Empire: Pharisees

In Josephus’ historical account of the early Christian times, he lists four main groups within Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and another unnamed sect. Of these, the Pharisees appear to have been the most divergent of Jewish sects in existence at the time. Indeed, the term Pharisee comes from the Greek word Perisha, which means “separated one”.

The sect itself is believed to have originated in the third century B.C.E., but their period of greatest influence was during the Second Temple era, or around 536 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. They emerged out of a political context in which the pagan customs of the Greeks were asserting influence over Jewish culture. The Pharisees evolved as a reaction to this, with the aim of protecting the purity of Judaic laws and practices. The New Testament would later interpret this reaction in largely negative terms. It is indeed this legacy that has served to obscure any “true” understanding of who the Pharisees really were.

The Pharisees & the Sadducees in the Roman Era

That being said, historical accounts do provide us with some basic information regarding the beliefs of the Pharisees. Most simply, the Pharisees defined themselves in opposition with the Sadducees, as the latter did not uphold the authority of Jewish law as strictly, nor did they believe in resurrection – two central tenants of the Pharisaic sect. And although they did not represent the majority of the Jewish community, they are characterized as having enjoyed their support.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees were in conflict during much of the Second Temple era. These clashes were rooted in conflicts that were a part of the broader context of the time, and included:

  • Class: The Sadducees are often portrayed as having been more aristocratic while the Pharisees were more populist in nature.
  • Cultural: This is more specifically with regard to the process of Hellenization on behalf of the Greeks, which the Pharisees rejected and the Sadducees appropriated.
  • Religious: The Pharisees were more rigid in their application of Jewish law than the Sadducees. In particular, the Pharisees held that these laws had to be applied both inside and outside the Temple – a belief rejected by other Jewish sects, including the Sadducees.

Some schoalrs, including Shaye I.D. Cohen, have argued that the Pharisees evolved as a school of thought, whereas the Sadducees were more of a socio-political party. In any case, the evolution of both sects does appear to have been rooted in some sort of political agenda, although the Pharisees would never boast the influence of their opponents. The Pharisees’ main objective does not appear to have been the acheivement of political power, but rather to ensure that all members of the Jewish population adhere to its rituals and beliefs. They believed that all people should live a “priestly” life; in other words, all purity rituals and other customs should be practiced by the greater public, and not exclusively by the Temple priesthood.

During the period of the Roman king Herod the Great, the Pharisees appear to have enjoyed temporary favortism, although they ultimately would oppose him and – along with the greater Jewish population –fall victim to his brutality. Unlike the Sadducees or the Esseenes, however, the Pharisees would not be totally eradicated by the fall of the First Temple. Indeed, although their beliefs and customs were considered radical in their day, the Pharisaic sect would later evolve into Rabbinic Judaism, which is what would ultimately result in the contemporary forms of Judaism we know today.

Jesus of Nazareth Mary Magdalene: Mariamne Early Christianity
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