Reading Josephus’s history of the Jewish people in the century or so before the Common Era offers surprising insights into the era of Jesus and his first followers. It must for instance change our view of the factions that we think we know so well from the New Testament, groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.
From the Gospels, we know that the Jewish world was sharply divided between Sadducees and Pharisees, and that Jesus generally leaned towards the Pharisees, for instance in his belief in Resurrection. St. Paul proudly describes his own Pharisee affiliation. We usually imagine the contests between the two parties as intense and often bitter, but limited to words, whether written in tracts or spoken in public debate. Perhaps we think of the sparring between Jewish schools of thought in later times, or even fights between the followers of rival masters.
At first reading, Josephus strongly confirms this impression of philosophical disagreements over abstract issues. In a much-quoted passage (Antiquities XIII, 5), he writes
At this time [c.150 BC] there were three sects among the Jews [treis aireseis tou Ioudaion], who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essenes. Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate [Eimarmenes], and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirms, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.
This all sounds like excellent fodder for a lively seminar. (See also the more substantial discussion of the sects and their beliefs in Antiquities XVIII 1; or in Jewish War, II. For convenience here, I am using Whiston’s translation).
In reality, not only were these different sects immersed in political affairs, they acted like quite recognizable parties, and were involved in violent protests and paramilitary activities. They were even key factions in the perennial civil wars that divided the independent Jewish kingdom. That political role is inevitable given the total lack of separation between religious and secular affairs, if the concept of secular was even conceivable in this era. The princes and kings, after all, also served as high priests.
We have to be careful in using Josephus’s account of the Pharisees in particular, written long after the events described, and also written in an era when that group had achieved a hegemony within Jewish world. As Shaye Cohen notes, “After 70 [CE], the sects disappeared and the rabbinic movement, which consisted in large part of the heirs of the Pharisees, emerged. In the Jewish Antiquities, completed in 93/4 CE, Josephus emphasizes Pharisaic power, but in the Jewish War, completed ten or fifteen years earlier, he does not.” Perhaps he was responding to the conditions in this changing world. On the other hand, Cohen rightly says that Josephus was not inventing these stories out of whole cloth, but rather shifting his emphases. Also, even the Jewish War says a fair amount about Pharisee political activism.
It is possible, though not certain, that the Pharisees originated in a militant political faction, namely the Hasidim who supported the Maccabean cause in the revolt of the 160s BC. These were the “Asideans, mighty men of Israel,… such as were voluntarily devoted unto the law” (1 Macc.2.42). If that identification is right, then that tradition continued strongly in the later Hasmonean kingdom. Rulers sided with one faction or another, and when they shifted allegiance, it was a major political event. Josephus, for instance, tells the story of John Hyrcanus, who reigned as high priest and prince (not technically king) from 134 through 104 BC. Around 115, we hear that the Jews envied the king,
but they that were the worst disposed to him were the Pharisees …. These have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say any thing against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed. Now Hyrcanus was a disciple of theirs, and greatly beloved by them. And when he once invited them to a feast, and entertained them very kindly, when he saw them in a good humor, he began to say to them, that they knew he was desirous to be a righteous man, and to do all things whereby he might please God, which was the profession of the Pharisees also (Antiquities 13.10).
So what else could he do to be wholly virtuous? Oh, they replied, nothing, he was already exemplary. One man, though, named Eleazar, insisted that Hyrcanus should give up the priesthood, and confine himself to his royal rule, on the grounds that he was of low birth, his mother being a captive. Furious, the prince demanded how this sedition should be punished, and found much more sympathy amog the Sadducees than the Pharisees, who “are not apt to be severe in punishments.” This led him to defect to the Sadducees, causing a fundamental shift not just in the political balance, but in the class nature of his support. As Josephus explains,
the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.
So Alexandra, when she had taken the fortress, acted as her husband had suggested to her, and spake to the Pharisees, and put all things into their power, both as to the dead body, and as to the affairs of the kingdom, and thereby pacified their anger against Alexander, and made them bear goodwill and friendship to him; who then came among the multitude, and made speeches to them, and laid before them the actions of Alexander, and told them that they had lost a righteous king; and by the commendation they gave him, they brought them to grieve, and to be in heaviness for him, so that he had a funeral more splendid than had any of the kings before him…. [She] permitted the Pharisees to do every thing; to whom also she ordered the multitude to be obedient. She also restored again those practices which the Pharisees had introduced, according to the traditions of their forefathers, and which her father-in-law, Hyrcanus, had abrogated.
The suggestion is that the queen was not only accommodating the Pharisees but actually reigning through them, and presumably rewarding them with state patronage. She drew the line at allowing them to kill the servants of King Alexander who had carried out some notorious massacres and repressions. Even so, Pharisees undertook vigilante reprisals against some of the most notorious offenders.
Or, as Josephus says in the Jewish War (I 5):
And now the Pharisees joined themselves to her, to assist her in the government. These are a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than others, and seem to interpret the laws more accurately. Alexandra hearkened to them to an extraordinary degree, as being herself a woman of great piety towards God. But these Pharisees artfully insinuated themselves into her favor by little and little, and became themselves the real administrators of the public affairs: they banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed [men] at their pleasure; and, to say all at once, they had the enjoyment of the royal authority, whilst the expenses and the difficulties of it belonged to Alexandra.
Still the settlement would not last long. Both Pharisees and Sadducees demanded some control over fortresses and military installations, to protect their interests. Alexander’s son Aristoboulos courted the Sadducees, and used them as a foothold to challenge his brother Hyrcanus for the throne. Hyrcanus, meanwhile, favored the Pharisees. Civil wars continued through the 60s, with multiple foreign interventions on each side, and this opened the door for the Roman takeover. Ultimately, in 63 BC, the combined armies of Pompey and Hyrcanus besieged and took Jerusalem.
It sounds very much like a modern state suffering a series of coups and counter-coups, with the victims of one regime demanding retaliation against the killers and torturers of the old government. Or to take another analogy, we look at a modern country like Iraq, where politics and religion are wholly merged, and where religious parties organize their activities through mosques and religious societies, while mobilizing deadly militias.
I like this quote from Josephus – again, in Whiston’s translation – about the Pharisees in the time of Herod the Great, in the late first century BC:
For there was a certain sect of men that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favored by God, by whom this set of women were inveigled. These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief.
“In a capacity of greatly opposing kings.” That is a long way from the image of the Pharisees we get from the New Testament.
A couple of obvious books on these topics include Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001) and Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds., In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Baylor University Press, 2007). Also Günter Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus (Minneapolis, MN : Fortress Press, 1995).