What do we really know about the pharisees, and how do we know it?

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This definition from a respected and popular contemporary dictionary captures the challenges that confront critical scholars of the historical Pharisees. Though it doubtless reflects conventional use of the term "Pharisee" in literature and language, almost nothing in this definition is fact. Indeed, beyond its first nine words, all its claims are at best interpretive and at worst tendentious conjecture.2 It would be unfair, however, to assign the definition's deficiencies to the dictionary's editors. Rather, the evidence about the Pharisees in history makes this definition possible and plausible. The essays collected here, which examine both the textual and material records, suggest that there is enough hard evidence to justify a judgment that the Pharisees are indeed a fact of history but not yet enough to produce a systematic and substantive description of their nature, beliefs, and character. The schematic nature of current knowledge does not constrain speculation. So it is not surprising that scholarship on the Pharisees routinely has mixed fact with fantasy. The five earliest literary sources of evidence for the Pharisees of history are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the authentic letters of Paul, the gospels and the Book of Acts, the writings of Flavius Josephus, and the early rabbinic writings, principally the Mishnah and the Tosefta. The archaeological record from the Land of Israel constitutes a kind of contextual evidence for the literary sources. The Dead Sea Scrolls and Paul's real letters both were produced before the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, so they have pride of place in this list. In addition, because the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved but not transmitted, they have some of the "accidental" quality and character of archaeological remains. Taken together, all these five earliest sources suggest that the Pharisees (and perhaps the Sadducees as well) were active in the Land of Israel from the period of the Hasmonean dynasty until the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple- A span of nearly two centuries. Broad interest in the Pharisees, however, stems not from their antiquity longevity but rather from their depiction in the gospels as principal opponents of Jesus and/or his disciples. In popular imagination, the Pharisees emerge as perhaps the primary "not-Jesus" over and against whom Jesus and his religious teachings are defined. The picture of the Pharisees as formalists and hypocrites derives from this conception. Not surprisingly, as Susannah Heschel and Jacob Neusner demonstrate, the gospels' picture has dominated most scholarly descriptions of the Pharisees. In general, scholars have used the gospels' image as the standard either according to or against which historical descriptions of the Pharisees should be drawn. In recent decades, scholarship has worked to break the gospels' grip on the historical reconstruction of the Pharisees. This book aims to contribute to that effort. The articles collected in this volume suggest that earliest sources for the Pharisees of history neither entail nor generate one another. It seems impossible, for instance, to deduce from Josephus or the Mishnah the specific teachings and traits assigned to the Pharisees in the New Testament, or the reverse. Each of these early sources and collections must be seen primarily as independent and unconfirmed historical witnesses. The papers in this book follow this approach by treating each source about the Pharisees discretely, in terms of its own traits and aims.3 Since the time of Herodotus and Thucydides, however, it has been an axiom of critical history that isolated, singular testimony constitutes weaker evidence about the past than do multiple accounts from different sources. Corroboration enhances credibility. If so, then examining the sources chronologically for mutually reinforcing testimony can help to establish a firm evidentiary foundation for a controlled description of the historical Pharisees.4 In the best case, that testimony would be both descriptive and substantive. It would cover the traits and characteristics assigned to the group as well as its beliefs and practices. For example, it is one thing to claim that the Pharisees were "lenient." It is another thing to know precisely and concretely in what "leniency" consisted and how it was justified.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIn Quest of the Historical Pharisees
PublisherBaylor University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9781932792720
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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