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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Pharisees

Although the origins of the Pharisees are not clear, their name apparently comes from a Hebrew root that means “to separate.” The Pharisees may thus have separated themselves from other Jews in order to practice particular forms of personal piety, or they may have separated themselves from the Gentiles (see 1 Macc. 1.11 ). According to Josephus, they were immersed in Hasmonean politics, first as enemies of Janneus and later as friends of his wife, Salome Alexandra. The queen promoted the Pharisees, but her action was later reversed by her son Aristobulus. The group found itself again empowered under Herod, in part because the Pharisee Pollio advised the people to accept his rule.

Under Herod the Great, the Pharisees numbered about six thousand (so Josephus). Herod apparently provided them some support, and they in turn appear to have shifted from their strongly political orientation during the reign of Alexander Janneus to a greater emphasis on inward religiosity. Their political activities did not cease, however. At the time of the First Revolt against Rome, the Pharisee Simon ben Gamaliel, along with several Pharisaic colleagues, strongly supported the rebels.

Josephus also remarks upon the Pharisees' influence with the women of the Herodian court and among the Jewish population at large. Because these comments appear in the Antiquities, written in the last decade of the first century CE, but are not recorded in his Jewish War, written at least a decade earlier, it is plausible that Josephus rewrote history to the advantage of the movement that survived the revolt. Nevertheless, the Pharisees were influential even before 70, as Christian texts also indicate. Paul, writing before the First Revolt, proclaims himself to have been a Pharisee (Phil. 3.5–6 ), and Acts 22.3 , written after, adds that Paul was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel…strictly according to our ancestral law” (see also Acts 5.34–39 on Gamaliel's view that the followers of Jesus should be tolerated). Regardless of the accuracy of the statements in Acts, their testimony to the importance of the Pharisees remains. For all the Gospels, and especially for Matthew, the Pharisees represent the standard of piety even as they present the greatest challenge to the nascent church.

From the writings of Josephus, early Christian texts, and rabbinic sources, the Pharisees' beliefs can be tentatively reconstructed. This confederation of like-minded individuals valued both the Torah and their own elaboration of its contents to fit the new questions and circumstances of the changing world. Josephus notes that they “handed down to the people certain regulations from the ancestral succession and not recorded in the laws of Moses” (Antiquities 13.10.6). This tradition of interpretation, which came to be known as the “oral law,” thus took its place alongside the “written law,” the Torah. The Pharisees extended the holiness of the Temple and its functionaries to domestic life: for them the home became a focal point for religious practice, and the household table matched the Temple altar in sanctity. Doctrinally expanding beyond scripture, the Pharisees also promoted such non-Pentateuchal concepts as the resurrection of the dead, and they coupled belief in free will with an acknowledgment of divine omnipotence.

To accomplish their extension of Torah and practice, the Pharisees engaged in ritualized eating practices, insisted that their food be tithed according to scriptural mandate, and sought to live their daily lives in conformity to the will of heaven. They apparently fasted, a practice shared by many in early Judaism (see Mark 2.18 ). Some may have practiced private prayer. Yet how specific laws and beliefs were to be interpreted and implemented differed among Pharisaic groups. Rabbinic texts suggest that by the mid-first century CE, divisions arose within the movement itself, the most famous being the “house of Hillel” and the “house of Shammai.” Hillel and Shammai themselves were teachers during the end of the first century BCE and the beginning of the first century CE. Their debates concerned such matters as Sabbath observance, table fellowship, and purity regulations. Shammai is best known today for his impatience. Hillel—whose spiritual heirs, the rabbis, are responsible for telling the stories about him and about his rival—is remembered as having told the Gentile who asked to be taught the Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn!” Despite the several rabbinic references to these figures and their schools, it is extremely difficult to peel away the layers of legend to find the real Hillel or Shammai, much as it is difficult to find the “historical Jesus” beneath the Gospel texts.

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