Notes on Pharisees

As you may’ve noticed, I’ve been reading the volume edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Baylor University Press, 2007). If anyone is interested in what can be known about the Pharisees, this is the book to read. I found it a much more satisfying reading experience than even the relatively recent and excellent Anthony Saldarini’s Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Eerdmans, 2001), with nearly every chapter presenting a new and more convincing reading of the data.

The first five chapters already lead to something of a consensus. Steve Mason in “Josephus’s Pharisees: The Narratives” and “Josephus’s Pharisees: The Philosophy” covers very well indeed all the mentions of the Pharisees in Josephus’ works, the two chapters dealing with narrative and with the passages wherein the Pharisees are described as one of several Judean philosophies. Martin Pickup covers “Matthew’s and Mark’s Pharisees,” Amy-Jill Levine describes “Luke’s Pharisees,” and “John’s Pharisees” are covered by Raimo Hakola and Adele Reinhartz. The indication through these (with Luke being somewhat equivocal and hard to pin down, which makes Levine’s chapter somewhat less fun, that way) is that the Pharisees were a voluntary association of some sort with a focus on religious-social law (or halakhah, to be somewhat anachronistic), who did not in themselves comprise the ruling class (though some members did belong to it), but they exerted continuing influence over the leadership due to their influence over and popularity with the general population, an influence beginning in the middle-Hasmonean period and continuing until the Great Revolt (and beyond, in the Pharisees transformation/appropriation as the forerunners of the Rabbis). Details of their organization, membership requirements and numbers, even a precis of their standard beliefs, however, are all lost to us. But we do have some very interesting remnants preserved in the rabbinic canon, particularly several pericopes in the Mishnah and Tosefta, which Jack Lightstone describes in “The Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Earliest Rabbinic Documents”, and Neusner describes in “The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 CE: An Overview”, and “The Pharisaic Agenda: Laws Attributed in the Mishnah and the Tosefta to Pre-70 Pharisees,” and “The Pre-70 Pharisees after 70 and after 140.” The potential recovery of such material is only possible with careful attention to the form of the pericopes. Where the form is unusual, this needs to be investigated. Neusner shows that this yields interesting possibilities indeed in the Pharisee/Sadducee dispute material and in the “domestic” narratives regarding Hillel’s family. In both cases, parts of the pericopes have not been “digested” by the editors of the pre-Mishnaic sources or by the editors of the Mishnah and Tosefta themselves into the standard format for such materials, so the likelihood is high that these are earlier sources incorporated into the texts as we have them. It’s unfortunate that there are so few! It’s also fascinating just how very blurred the line is between “Pharisees” on the one side and “Rabbis” or “Sages” on the other in the Tannaitic documents; there appears to be no real distinction, in fact. Additional interesting chapters include that of Bruce Chilton, “Paul and the Pharisees,” Chilton and Neusner with “Paul and Gamaliel,” James VanderKam’s “The Pharisees and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and James Strange’s “Archaeology and the Pharisees.”

There are some chapters following the above on The Pharisees in Modern Theology: Susannah Heschel’s “The German Theological Tradition,” and two by Neusner “The Anglo-American Theological Tradition” and “The Debate with E. P. Saunders since 1970.” There is then also a concluding chapter by William Scott Green, “What Do We Really Know about the Pharisees, and How Do We Know It?”

One of the most interesting and beneficial results of this book would be the attention it draws to how one particular reading of the Gospel evidence, rather than the sum of the available evidence itself, and even a more generous reading of the Gospel evidence, has generated nearly two millennia of misreadings of the other materials regarding the Pharisees, too. I’ll cover some of those misreadings here, later. In the meantime, I recommend In Quest of the Historical Pharisees to everyone interested in the subject.


    1. That’s not so. We don’t have any documents which describe the requirements for membership amongst the Pharisees, or a list of their practices like that. The closest thing are the descriptions provided by Josephus of the Pharisees, Saducees, and Essenes, but these descriptions are not objective; they are integrated into an apology for Judean philosophy directed toward elite Graeco-Roman readers.

      What you read is very likely a retrojection of recommended requirements for rabbis from the Rabbinic Jewish writings, the Mishnah, Tosefta, and/or Talmuds.

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