Just who were the Pharisees and where did their religious doctrines originate? In the Old Testament? If so, why did Jesus Christ so strenuously oppose their ideas? Is the Bible, both Old and New Testament, a house divided? An examination of the period “between the Testaments” shows that while man may be divided, the bible is not!
Much of the professing Christian world today suffers from the mistaken notion that Jesus Christ came to do away with His Father’s religion – the religion of the Old Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth! Christ Himself said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill (fill to the brim)” (Matt. 5:17).
Jesus plainly said that He did not come to do away with His Father’s religion but to complete God’s revelation. Then why are so many confused on this point? Why do some mistakenly preach that the Law was “done away”?
One of the major assumptions in this connection is that most theologians assume that the Pharisees and the other religionists of Jesus’ day were the representatives and the exponents of the revelation given to Moses – God’s Old Testament religion. But the Bible shows that the One who later became Jesus Christ was the Lord of the Old Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him: and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3; see Eph. 3:9 and Heb. 1:2). Just where and when did the Pharisees get their practices which Jesus condemned?
Chronologically speaking, the last three authors of the Old Testament are Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi. These three men all worked among the Jewish community that had returned to Judaea after the Babylonian captivity. They were largely successful in bringing to the people an awareness of God’s true religion. A body of priests (Aaron’s descendants whom God had ordained to be the religious leaders) was set up to guide the people in matters of religion. This company of men was known in history as the “Great Assembly” or “Synagogue” (Knesset Hagedolah). Due to the work of this body throughout the period of Persian dominance the Jews were living, for the most part, in accordance with God’s law (Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews, Jewish Publication Society, vol. I, pp. 406-407).
Because of this, God granted them special protection and privileges by a series of miracles, at the coming of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. This is described in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. XI, Chapter X, parts 5-6.
At his death, Alexander’s empire was divided into four parts (Dan. 8:22). Judaea first passed under the rule of the Ptolemies of Egypt and, later, the Seleucidae of Syria. Both of these were Macedonian (Greek) dynasties and were great exponents of the pagan, gentile way of life known as “Hellenism.” The basic philosophy behind Hellenism was this: Every man had the right to think for himself on any matter as long as there was not a real departure from the customs that were essentially Greek.
This philosophy – freedom of thought or individualism - which is seemingly altruistic in principle, resulted in myriads of confusing and contradictory beliefs among the Greeks in every phase of life. Every man was allowed his own ideas about the sciences, the arts, law and about religion. So varied were the opinions among the Greek scholars in the various fields of study that individuals took pride in contending with one another over who could present the greatest “wisdom” and “knowledge” on any particular subject.
With the encouragement of the rulers, Hellenism spread rapidly in the Ptolemaic Empire. Judaea was by no means exempt.
Within a score of years, after the coming of the Greeks, the Great Assembly disappears from history as an organized body having religious control over the Jewish people. It is not known how the Greeks dismissed this authoritative religious body from its official capacity as teachers of the Law. But it is obvious that the authority of the Great Assembly was eroded and the Greek leaders forbade them to teach.
Without the religious guidance of the Great Assembly, many Jews began to imbibe the Greek customs and ideas which were inundating the land.
“With the change from Persian to Greek rule, (the Ptolemies were Greeks), Hellenism made its influence felt, and came pouring like a flood into a country which had known nothing of it. There was no escape from its influence. It was present everywhere, in the streets and market places, in the everyday life and all the phases of social intercourse” (R. Travers Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
Much of this Hellenistic influence came from the numerous Greek cities which were established under the Ptolemies. Most of these were on the Mediterranean seacoast or on the east side of Jordan.
With the Great Assembly removed from the scene and this new culture substituted for the Law of God, the Jews began to absorb many elements of Hellenism. The Jews had no one to guide them in understanding the Law except a few isolated teachers here and there who lacked the official authority of the Great Assembly.
After a few years of this influence, the people literally came to a state of religious confusion. Some endeavored to keep a form of the Scriptural teachings, but with Hellenism everywhere, it became almost impossible to adhere to the true form of the Law of Moses. Almost everything the Greeks brought to the Jews was antagonistic to the laws of God, and without the religious guidance of the Great Assembly, many of them began to tolerate these innovations and even, as time progressed, to take up many of the Greek ideas and customs themselves.
After a series of battles with the Syrians, Ptolemy I, the Greek king of Egypt, took firm control of Judaea in 301 B.C. His descendants retained that control for over 100 years, until 198 B.C. The 100 year period of Greek-Egyptian domination is very important in the religious history of the Jews. This is the period in which many great and significant changes first began to take place in Jewish religious life.
“During the comparatively quiet rule of the Ptolemies, Greek ideas, customs and morality had been making peaceful conquests in Palestine” (Charles F. Kent, History of the Jewish People, p. 320).
There was little resistance to these in-roads. Dr. J. Lauterbach, a learned Jewish scholar, tells us that Jewish tradition knows of no religious teacher who taught any form of religion from the death of Simon the Just (270 B.C.) until about the year 190 B.C. “This would have been impossible,” Dr. Lauterbach says, “if there had been any official activity of the teachers in those years.”
But there was none. In fact, whole generations came and went, offering no great resistance to the new customs which were encouraged by the commercial and educational intercourse taking place between the Jews, Greeks and Hellenistic Egyptians. In fact, thousands of Jews migrated to Egypt during this period. By the end of the Ptolemaic period, there were over a million Jews in Egypt, out of a total population of about seven million.
A prime example of Hellenistic influence is the pagan concept of the immortality of the soul. This doctrine was widely published in the writings of the pagan Greek philosopher Plato.
In 198 B.C. the Seleucid kingdom of Syria conquered Judaea and drove out the Egyptians. Like the Ptolemies, the Seleucids were also of Greek origin and equally Hellenistic in culture and outlook. At first, conditions in Judaea were pretty much what they had been under the Ptolemies. The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus II, was favorably inclined toward the Jews.
Conditions rapidly changed, however, with the coming to the throne in 175 B.C. of Antiochus Epiphanes.
Shortly after he ascended the throne, there was a contention among several of the priests in Jerusalem for the office of High Priest. Jason, the brother of the reigning High Priest, persuaded Antiochus to transfer the office to him, by offering a large sum of money to the King.
Jason was Hellenistically inclined and was followed in this by many of the people. “A passion for Greek costumes, Greek customs, and Greek names (Jason’s Hebrew name was Joshua) seized the people. Large numbers were enrolled as citizens of Antioch (the capital of Syria). Many even endeavored to conceal the fact that they had been circumcised. To demonstrate that he had left all the traditions of his race behind, Jason sent a rich present for sacrifices in connection with the great festival at Tyre in honor of the god Hercules” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 324-325).
Not everyone in Judaea went this far, but by and large; most people are inclined to follow their human leaders, at least to a certain extent.
About three years after Jason assumed office, Menelaus (Hebrew name Onias), a man most believe to have been of the tribe of Benjamin (not a descendant of Aaron and therefore not truly a priest) offered Antiochus a larger bribe than Jason, and he was named High Priest instead. Because of this, Jason fled beyond Jordan to the Ammonites for refuge. (See McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. I pp. 271-272; and II Maccabees, chapter 4).
Many of the Jews thought Jason had been unjustly deprived of becoming High Priest. Many of the people began to take sides, some for Jason, and some for Menelaus. Fighting broke out between the two groups, both of whom were led by outright Hellenists.
Jason’s forces won out and Menelaus fled to Antioch. There Antiochus became infuriated to learn that many of the Jews had taken sides against his appointed official, or, in effect, against his government itself!
At that time Antiochus was planning to conquer Egypt. When that failed, due to the intervention of the Romans, he decided to take out his anger on the rebellious Jews at Jerusalem. He planned not only to subdue the Jews but to put an end to their religion once and for all.
Antiochus, feigning peace, proceeded to take the city. He polluted the Temple by burning swine’s flesh on its altar, and erected a statue of Jupiter Olympus in the Holy Place. This had been prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 11:29-31). He plundered the Temple of all objects of value and then issued a decree forbidding the Jews to worship God or in any way to exercise their religion. (This is a type of an event yet to take place in Jerusalem).
Despite the severity of this decree, there were many Hellenistically inclined Jews who nonetheless accepted it without protest. Many of these Hellenists were priests and Levites.
On the other hand, for many other Jews, the majority of whom may have been only slightly interested in religion previously, this decree forbidding such basic practices as circumcision and requiring idol worship was simply too much.
In the small village of Modi’in, the head of a priestly family, Mattathias, and his five sons, stood up to oppose Antiochus and his decree. “If anyone be zealous for the laws of this country and for the worship of God, let him follow me,” he proclaimed (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk XII, chapter VI, Part 2).
Thousands flocked to his banner and a full revolt was under way.
Just before his death, Mattathias made his third son, Judah (called Maccabee), a general of their army. After a long series of battles with his forces greatly outnumbered, Judah defeated the Syrians and their Samaritan allies. In 165 B.C. he went up to Jerusalem and purified the Temple, restoring the true ritual of God.
Judah was killed in a later battle. Finally Simon, the last survivor of Mattathias’ sons, was able to proclaim an independent nation with himself as High Priest.
The nation was now, at last free of foreign domination. But the years of religious anarchy and Hellenistic influence had taken their toll. Dr. Lauterbach states: “During the seventy or eighty years of religious anarchy, many new practices had been gradually adopted by the people”(Lauterbach, p. 205).
The British scholar Travers Herford adds: “In the absence of authoritative guidance, the people had gone their own way; new customs had found a place among old religious usages. New ideas had been formed under the influence of Hellenism which had permeated the land for more than a century, and there had been no one to point out the danger which thereby threatened the religious life of the people” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, pp. 64-65).
We are now at the point where the Pharisees first make their appearance in history, some time after the Maccabean wars. But before we note this, we need to examine briefly the rise of the Sanhedrin, the body which they dominated during much of its existence.
While some sources would lead us to believe that the Sanhedrin was the direct successor to the Great Assembly, this was not the case. It was not until about 196 B.C. after a hiatus of some 80 years that the Sanhedrin was first established. This is shown by an ancient manuscript found today in a text called “Fragments of a Zadokite Work.” This text points to 196 B.C. as the year the Sanhedrin first met. This body is said to consist of “men of understanding from Aaron” (that is, priests), and “from Israel wise teachers” (that is, non-priestly teachers). (Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays, p. 203).
This is significant! The writer mentions there were both priests and lay teachers in the new Sanhedrin. This was an innovation! Until this time only the priests, with their assistants, the Levites, were considered to have the authority to teach religion to the people.
This would not have been permitted while the Great Assembly, the successor of Ezra, was in authority. This is clearly shown from the writings of Malachi, who was contemporary with Ezra, Nehemiah and the early days of the Great Assembly. “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he (the priests) is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts” (Mal. 2:7). The Law of Moses, which God had directly commanded him, clearly enjoined that the priests and Levites were to perform the functions of teachers, not just any layman who would presume to do so. (Deut. 18:1-7; 33:10 and Ezk. 44:23).
Why this radical change? Again we must briefly go back to the period of religious anarchy when the Egyptian Ptolemies ruled Judaea.
Both the Ptolemies and the later Seleucid rulers looked upon the High Priest as the head of the Jewish nation. In turn, it was the High Priest, with his assistants (other priests) who dealt with the Hellenist rulers on behalf of the nation.
Outstanding among these were Joseph, the son of Tobias, and his son Hyrcanus. In order to be successful diplomats at the Hellenistic court in Alexandria, they felt it necessary to adopt Greek ways. And these they brought back with them to Judaea. Thus, it was the priests, the ones who should have been teaching the people God’s law, who became the chief proponents of the Hellenism.
From 206 to 196 B.C. a series of battles between the rival Hellenistic kings of Syria and Egypt devastated many parts of Judaea. Some blamed Hellenism for this trouble and began to seek to return to the laws of their fathers. But to whom could they turn?
The priests as a whole had become thoroughly Hellenized. In fact, different priests were taking sides in the wars and were even raising up armies to help either the Syrians or the Egyptians. The only ones who had studied God’s Word and remained committed to it in any form were a few laymen and some minor priests. These sat in the new Sanhedrin.
Prior to and during the Maccabean revolt, the outwardly Hellenistic priests and their followers supported Antiochus Epiphanes. The lay teachers and the Sanhedrin as a whole supported the Maccabees. Religiously speaking, the major result of the Maccabean victory was the total discrediting of Hellenism in Judaea. The High Priesthood was given to the Hasmonean (Maccabean) family itself, which descended from minor priests. No one was an outright Hellenist any longer. Many were desirous of following God’s way. But whatever religious unity there might have been was short-lived.
The question basically was one of determining just what was God’s way. There was, of course, the written Bible (the Old Testament).But how were the people to apply its teachings to the various problems and events that arise in daily life? The Jews, remember, had just emerged from a period where the teaching and practice of God’s law had been forbidden. And this had been preceded by an era of some 80 years during which Hellenism had made great inroads into the daily lives of the people; and all this while there had been no organized body directing religious life.
Hundreds of years before, Ezra and those priests and Levites assisting him had “read in the book in the Law of God distinctly, and (had given) the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Through the ages, God’s servants have been responsible to show the people (with His guidance) how His Law applied in various situations in their lives. This was never a prerogative of anyone to choose “the ministry,” “the priesthood” or “the rabbinate” for a vocation, but only those whom God specifically chose. And in ancient Israel, under the Old Covenant, God chose the priest, primarily, with the Levites to assist them, for this purpose of teaching.
Following the Maccabean victory there were many priests who were ready and willing to resume their ancient, God-given role as teachers and expounding of the Law. But there were also the lay teachers who had come to sit in the Sanhedrin and had made a notable contribution to the Maccabean cause at the time when many priests were outright Hellenists and supporters of Antiochus Epiphanes.
Lauterbach says that the lay teachers “refused to recognize the authority of the priests as a class, and, inasmuch as many of the priests had proven unfaithful guardians of the Law, they would not entrust to them the regulation of the religious life of the people” (Lauterbach, p. 209). It was these lay teachers who organized themselves into the party of the Pharisees.
Although many of the priests had indeed become Hellenized, this did not necessarily give the lay teachers the right to usurp the priests’ God-given authority. But, sadly they insisted on following the way that seemed right to them (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). However, two wrongs did not make a right in that day any more than they do today. (This concludes part I of Between The Old and New Testaments. This article will conclude in Part II).