Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Pharisees And Sadducees.


The new kingdom acquired de jure (by treaty), must yet be fought for to be maintained de facto. The citadel of Jerusalem, as well as that key to the mountain passes, Gazara, had still to be mastered. Successful in both enterprises, Israel could enjoy some years of long needed peace. Simon furthered the religious as well as the political welfare of his country. The people could till their ground in peace and for a time at least "sit under their own vine and their own fig-tree"; though it could not yet be said "there was none to fray them away." Simon, moreover, "strengthened those who had been brought low, the Law he searched out, and he beautified the sanctuary." He used the time of quiet for building a haven at Joppa, for enlarging the boundaries and for encouraging agriculture.

The office of High Priest, maintained hitherto in a hereditary priestly family, had been gradually transferred to the Hasmonean House, and hence now devolved on Simon. By this time the people had become reconciled to the transfer. He renewed the treaty with Rome, which had taken the place of Greece in becoming the greatest power in the world and in deciding the fate of nations.

When Tryphon was slain, Antiochus turned against the Jews, but was defeated by Simon's sons. Alas, Simon's fate was not to be an exception to that of the rest of his warrior brothers. None died a peaceful death. Simon, together with two of his sons, was treacherously slain by his own son-in-law, Ptolemy, an unscrupulous man, cruelly ambitious for the throne.

Hyrcanus I

John Hyrcanus, the oldest surviving son of Simon, became the next Jewish ruler. So, imperceptibly a royal house had been created, and the princely honor came to Hyrcanus by hereditary succession. In just that way have all royal lines been created—starting with a great deliverer, like Judas Maccabee. But the title, King, came later. Hyrcanus had not only to rout the usurper Ptolemy before the rulership could become his, but had also to resist the siege of Antiochus VII., the next Syrian king, who would not yet renounce Judea without another struggle. Peace was at last reached by Hyrcanus agreeing to the payment of an indemnity and tribute for a few outlying towns.

This first repulse showed that the new kingdom was not very strong and that it owed its independence to Syrian weakness (due to the continued conflicts of rivals and pretenders), rather than to its own material power. But Syria's embarrassment was Judah's opportunity. After Antiochus had been slain in a Parthian conflict, John Hyrcanus, once secure, began a vigorous campaign to enlarge his boundaries. Very soon he had incorporated the old land of the Ten Tribes, now called Samaria. The complete conquest of the Samaritans was undertaken toward the end of his life. Their famous temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed. Idumea (Edom) was also conquered and Judaism imposed on it by force. But that kind of conversion was always against the free and tolerant spirit of Judaism and against its very genius. We shall later see that it brought its own retribution and weakened the cause of Israel.

Pharisees and Sadducees.

Let us not forget that the rise of the Hasmoneans had come about in a measure through a conflict for religious integrity between the extreme pietists on the one hand, the Chassidim, and the worldly Hellenists on the other, with varied shades of opinion in between. These religious divergences had now crystallized into two schools that acquired the names Pharisees and Sadducees. It is hard to say just when these distinctions began. Perhaps they were always there; for we meet the two groups—conservative and progressive—under different names in all creeds and in nearly all eras. The division is naturally inherent in the human temperament. It marks broadly the two grand divisions into which all men become grouped in organized society.

Now let us consider in particular the distinctions that differentiated these two parties in the Jewish State. The Sadducees were largely composed of the priestly families; but the priestly caste was not necessarily the religious class. It corresponded rather to what we would call the aristocracy—we have seen that the High Priest was also a prince. In this party, too, were largely the military. They were faithful to the Mosaic Law, the Pentateuch, which they rigorously enforced, but gave slight allegiance to the later religious injunctions that came to be developed from the Law by the Scribes; in so far they were religiously unprogressive. Still in their attitude toward life in general, they did not approve of holding aloof from the world, but encouraged a mingling with it and entering into intimate commercial and political relations with other nations. They regarded it their patriotic duty to aggrandize the nation in every way and to make it a splendid power.

The name Sadducee is derived from Zadok, of the family of Aaron, the chief priest of the time of Solomon's Temple, who thus gave his name to the priestly house, "Sons of Zadok."

The Pharisees, while interpreting Biblical law more leniently in certain respects than the Sadducees, were determined supporters of all the mass of legal minutiae that had been evolved from the Law proper and which had become a "Second Law." These rites and ceremonies that were added to the original Mosaic code (occasionally by a rather forced deduction) they considered equally binding with it. They called it the Oral Law to distinguish it from the Written Law, and the tradition was that it, too, was revealed to Moses.

In their political policy they equally diverged from the Sadducees, believing in standing somewhat apart from the peoples about them. They looked askance upon too intimate relations with the world at large; for they believed it their duty to subordinate all interests, national and commercial, to the religious, trusting the outcome rather to divine providence than to the judgment of their statesmen or the enterprise of energetic leaders.

Further, as against the priestly aristocracy, that wished to confine all ecclesiastical functions to the priestly order, the Pharisees were more democratic in that they desired to extend the privileges of priestly sanctification and holiness to all. Purifying ablutions, they claimed, were obligatory on the whole people. Their meals should also be consecrated, even as the repasts of the priests—so that all Israel should be a "Kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Hence, "Second Maccabees," the work of a Pharisee, declares, "Unto all are given the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood and the sanctuary."

The chief characteristics of the Pharisees are expressed in their name: Pharash, the Law expounders; Pharash, the separatists—though the former is probably its true derivation.

The Pharisees, it will be seen, were the more pious, the Sadducees the more worldly, though the Pharisees as a whole were not as pious as the Chassidim had been, nor the Sadducees as worldly as the Hellenists had been. The Sadducees further denied belief in bodily resurrection or in judgment after death (though not necessarily renouncing immortality), on the strength of the famous teaching of Antigonus of Socho, "Be not as servants who serve the Master for the sake of reward, but rather as those who serve the Master without thought of reward." As distinct from the Pharisees they were strong believers in free-will, that the destiny of men is in their own hands. We might call the Sadducees the rationalists and the Pharisees traditionalists.

Some Pharisees again did carry the fulfilment of rites and ceremonies too far; a few, perhaps, were even ostentatious in their piety. By strange mischance these few have transferred their dubious reputation to all Pharisees as such. Most unjustly however, for the Pharisees earned the confidence of the great bulk of the people and were on the whole identified with them. So strangely has that sinister repute persisted that "Pharisee" is to-day defined in some dictionaries as self-righteous or hypocritical (see note). How undeserved as describing those whose trust in God was absolute, without reservation or misgiving. This is but one of many instances where the world's verdict has been unjust to the Jew.


We meet also a third party nearer in sympathy to the Pharisees. The old Chassidim, the extremists, had developed into an ascetic party under the name of Essenes, with a similar meaning—pious. They lived the life of a celibate brotherhood, holding the little they allowed themselves, in common. They hardly affected the national life of Israel, because they were too few and because they slighted patriotic obligations. They practiced all the self-denial of the Nazirites of old and sought to reach from cleanliness to godliness. Another derivation of the name Essene is "bather," baptist, from their frequent ablutions. Yet another is "healer."

The Hasmonean royalty—to what party did they belong? Well, we might say that they began their career with all the religious enthusiasm of the Pharisees, they closed it with the political outlook of the Sadducees. This was something like an anti-climax.

John Hyrcanus perhaps represents the dividing line. He started on a career of conquest simply to satisfy national ambition; though he had forced Judaism on the Idumeans. In his later years, he rejected many traditional observances of the Oral Law that completed his estrangement from the Pharisees. Taking a material and external survey, Hyrcanus left the Jews at the end of his life with an independent State, that in power and extent was as great as Northern Israel in its palmy days, as great perhaps as the realm of Solomon. He could mint his own coins, on some of which, still in existence, we find inscribed, "Jochanan, High Priest of the Commonwealth of the Judeans." Yes, it was all very splendid! But surely the Jews had learned by now the insufficiency of national glory that was material and external, that that kind of splendor was apart from the Jewish ideal, "not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord." The age needed a Jeremiah again. Alas, the era of the Prophets was over!


Hasmonean:—This was the family name of Mattathias, afterwards assumed by his descendants.

Pharisees and Sadducees:—Geiger, "History of the Jews," vol. i, chapter viii, translation.

The fact that Jesus of Nazareth condemned the false Pharisees—as Micah condemned false prophets (see Matthew xxiii and Luke xi) has much to do with their general condemnation in literature.

The Talmud is also bitter against the false Pharisees, the Zebuim, the tainted ones, who do evil like Zimri and claim the goody reward like Phineas. In its severe denunciation of the false Pharisees, it divides them into six classes:

1. Those who do the will of God for earthly motives. 2. The ostentatious who go with slow steps and say "Wait for me, I have a good deed to perform." 3. Those who knock their heads against a wall because in their looking up they fear they may see a woman. 4. Those who pose as saints. 5. Those who say, "Tell me of another duty." 6. Those who are pious because of the fear of God.

"Who are the genuine Pharisees?" asks the Talmud. "Those who do the will of their Father in Heaven because they love Him."

King:—Carlyle reminds us of the derivation of "King" from Konnen—the man who "can"!

Samaritans:—See People of the Book, vol. iii, p. 244.

Theme for discussion:—Compare modern with ancient parties in Israel.