In Quest of the Historical Pharisees


Edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton

Baylor Univ. Press, 2007, 548 pp.
$39.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by John Merrill

Who were the Pharisees? The New Testament Gospels portray them as opponents of the Jesus movement, but their identity and motives are at best opaque. The Book of Acts and Paul add little concerning their beliefs or socioeconomic status.

The Dead Sea Scrolls allude metaphorically to a group called “Seekers after Smooth Things” (cf. Isaiah 11), or “Ephraim,” that scholars sometimes identify as the Pharisees; but apart from the fact that the sectarian authors of the scrolls disliked the Pharisees, little more can be gleaned about them here. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus has much to say about the Pharisees, but what he says is often ambivalent, elusive or downright contradictory, reflecting the fact that Josephus was both a self-described former member of the sect, but also a proud descendant of their bitter Hasmonean rivals.

Finally, the Mishnah and Tosefta, rabbinic musings of the third and fourth centuries C.E., although containing many references to Pharisees, are inward-looking and inscrutable and of little historical value.

The 17 contributions (by 11 authors) to the volume under review, edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton of Bard College, analyze the varying sources and different aspects of information about this ancient and enigmatic group. As if these limitations of the sources were not enough of a handicap, the contributors are further constrained by the scholarly impulse to avoid conjecture. As editor Neusner has admonished: “What we cannot show, we do not know.”

On the other hand, experience teaches that scholarly progress often requires educated guesswork—that is, the application of generalized knowledge and common sense to incomplete and often contradictory information. In short, I wish the authors had speculated more.
A few of the puzzles that call for educated speculation:

“Pharisee” seems to be derived from the term “perishim,” meaning “separatists.”

But from whom or what did the Pharisees separate themselves?

The Dead Sea Scrolls used the term “seekers after smooth things” which has a degree of self-evident meaning. The designation “Ephraim” does not. But what were these “smooth things” and why did the sectarian authors of the scrolls label their opponents “Ephraim”?

Luke tells us that the Pharisees were members of the urban elite and “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). In the Gospel of John we learn of Nicodemus who appears to be a wealthy and politically influential Pharisee. The implication is that there are others. But wealthy and influential groups do not pluck this status out of thin air. Nor is wealth the product of ritual purity. At this time wealth was acquired by some combination of money-lending, tax farming, agricultural monopolies or mercantile franchises—most of which required some form of symbiotic relationship with those in control of government. A lot could be said, one imagines, about how the Pharisees supported Herod?s overthrow of their Hasmonean antagonists, and how that support served to consolidate their position as wealthy aristocrats.

To add to the confusion, another chapter in the book tells us that the Pharisees were a “nonaristocratic group.”

I wish the learned authors had speculated more even though they lack conclusive proof. I would have liked more educated guesswork.

That said, there is still much of value in this volume. It contains a detailed inventory of everything the New Testament and the rabbinic writings have to say about the Pharisees. The materials from Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls are less comprehensive, but nevertheless a good starting point. And there is an extremely thought-provoking commentary by Bruce Chilton on the dialogue between James (the brother of Jesus), Peter and Paul on how Gentiles were to be treated within the Jesus movement. In Chilton’s view, it was James’ decision that Gentiles could be saved without converting to Judaism (and without being circumcised) that eventually outraged the Pharisees and resulted in James’ execution by stoning. An alternative interpretation, based on Eusebius, might be that James was stoned because he insisted that no one could be saved, including Jews, without believing that Jesus was their savior. Either way, James’ execution illustrates the degree of emotional power that can be unleashed by the belief that a particular group will be saved and eternally rewarded, while all others not part of that group are to be eternally damned and punished forever. Much of the world is still in the grip of such beliefs, and it is useful to remind ourselves of the context in which they originated.

John Merrill is a contributing editor of BAR.



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