Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Who were the Pharisees?

During the Maccabean (or Hasmonean) revolt in 164 B.C.E. against the foreign rule of the Seleucids, a fascinating sect or school of thought called the Pharisees began to emerge from obscurity. They were called Perushim (“separatists, seceders, heretics”) in Hebrew, but that may originally have been a pejorative term coined by their opponents, the Sadducees. At first the Pharisees supported the Maccabees, who initially packed their new Sanhedrin with members of the sect. But the Pharisees disapproved of the way ruler John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.) attempted to secure both religious and civil authority for himself and so they withdrew their support. In general the Pharisees enjoyed the favor of the masses for their stand on political issues.

Meanwhile the new Hasmonean ruler Alexander Yannai (103-76 B.C.E.) cultivated the support of the Sadducees, who tended to be aristocratic. When the Pharisees condemned Alexander’s priestly conduct of sacred ritual as blasphemous, they paid with death or exile. But Alexander’s wife, Alexandra, brought back the Pharisees after her husband’s death, allowing them to restore both Sanhedrin and temple ritual. The Pharisees emphasized God’s love for each person and taught the resurrection of the body. They stood against the priestly aristocracy in their teaching of the individual’s personal relationship with God. After the Romans ended Hasmonean rule in 63 B.C.E., the Pharisees insisted that a separation of secular and sacred spheres would allow the Jewish people to tolerate foreign rule so long as the Romans left them their religious freedom. After 70 C.E., the Pharisees disappeared as a distinct sect or party, but much of their spirit lived on in the growth of rabbinical Judaism.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App