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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Pharisees » Pharisees in Josephus

Pharisees in Josephus

It is important not to take Josephus at face value in his descriptions of the Pharisees. Nonetheless, his descriptions are some of the best information we have. Josephus is prone to the following in these descriptions: (1) to describe Jewish sects in terms understandable by his Roman audience, such as calling them “philosophies,” (2) exaggerating the influence and political power of the Pharisees, the party he aligned with and which still had a strong purpose after the war (unlike Essenes and Sadducees, whose reason to be faded). E.P. Sanders says of Josephus’ bias that he “assigns so much power to the Pharisees, more than they had” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 409).

The Pharisees simplify their standard of living, making no concession to luxury. They follow the guidance of that which their doctrine has selected and transmitted as good, attaching the chief importance to the observance of those commandments which it has seen fit to dictate to them. They show respect and deference to their elders, nor do they rashly presume to contradict their proposals.

Though they postulate that everything is brought about by fate, they still do not deprive the human will of the pursuit of what is in man’s power, since it was God’s pleasure that there should be a fusion and that the will of man with his virtue and vice should be admitted into the chamber of fate. They believe that souls have the power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth for those who have led lives of virtue or vice: eternal imprisonment is the lot of evil souls, while the good souls receive an easy passage to a new life.

Because of these views they are, as a matter of fact, extremely influential among the townsfolk; and all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their exposition. This is the great tribute that the inhabitants of the cities, by practicing the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse, have paid to the excellence of the Pharisees.
–Antiquities 18:12-15, c. 90 CE.

Notes: References to “their doctrine” which was “transmitted” and their “deference to their elders” is Josephus’ way of describing the “traditions of the elders,” the rulings about how to keep the commandments of Torah that passed down from teachers to students and were memorized. The notion that the chief priests and Sadducees ran the Temple according to the rulings of the Pharisees is something many historians refute, especially Sanders.

For the present I wish merely to explain that the Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the laws of Moses, for which reason they are rejected by the Sadducean group, who that only those regulations should be considered valid which were written down (in scripture), and that those which were handed down by former generations need not be observed. And concerning these matters the two parties came to have controversies an serious differences, the Sadducees having the confidence of the wealthy alone but no following among the populace, while the Pharisees have the support of the masses.
–Antiquities 13:297-298.

See also Jewish War 2:162-163 about the Pharisees and their view of fate and free will. Josephus says they were considered the most accurate interpreters of the law.

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