To be a good Jew is to have a vision and goal to achieve the ultimate level of holiness in the eyes of God. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, and during his lifetime there emerged many different groups whose ultimate goal was to follow and put into practice what God expected of his people. Among these, there stood three major groups known as the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. In attempt to be a conscientious first century Jew, in comparison to the other groups, I feel as though the Pharisees hold the most appealing position in terms of living a genuine and legitimate religious life.
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During the time of first century Judaism, many groups conformed to his teachings however many made an attempt to challenge his judgment. Stepping into the Hasmonean period, sometime before 135 BCE, in terms of social class, the Pharisees arose as a group more applicable to a “common people” however it did consist of a few priests (Sanders, 44). Considering my place in society in the 20th Century, I believe it would be accurate to assume that in Jesus’ lifetime, I could place myself among the commoners rather than part of the elite. This minor detail plays a part in my decision of choosing the Pharisees as an appealing group to be part of. Granted the fact that they are of my social standing, they would be able to relate to my needs best therefore we would share many of the same religious and political views. In a way, during the Hasmonean Dynasty, the Pharisees could be described as religious teachers of the law. “Theologically, the Pharisees shared common Jewish orthodoxy” (Sanders 44), believing in Israel as the chosen nation, the law in which was given to Moses, and the concept of repentance and forgiveness. As these beliefs were shared among the average Jews of the time, it makes sense as to why a first century Jews, as well as myself, would turn to the Pharisees as religious teachers.
The Hebrew word for Pharisees is Perushim, meaning those who have a tendency to withdraw or to separate themselves. One could assume this name could relate to “the Pharisaic mode of life which dictated a strict separation from all impurity and unclean foods” (Isaacson 24). However it could correlate with the reality that the Pharisees do not share one uniform view on things; thus there were two groups of Pharisees, The Shammai and the Hillel. Inevitably, amongst these two groups there were disagreements. The Shammai stood on the conservative left wing side of the spectrum while The Hillel held a more liberal position. Fundamentally, the Shammai followed a more strict and zealous observance of the law. They were powerful up until 68 BCE and they educated aristocratic, wealthy families over a longer period of time. The Hillel became more widely known after 68 AD. They appealed more to the interest of those in lower classes because they demanded training and did not have such a literal understanding of the law. In my opinion it is inevitable for disputes to occur among different classes of society especially regarding similar traditions. Nevertheless the two groups of Pharisees still managed to put their differences aside and allow intermarriage. This is a prime example of something that Jesus would encourage people to do, and because the Pharisees could acknowledge this, is another reason why as a first century Jew I would find them an admirable group to comply with.
As well as being religiously linked with the middle class people of society, the Pharisees “continued the tradition of scribes and the men of Great Assembly” (Isaacson 240). Just as the Scribes did, the Pharisees believed in the authority of oral tradition as well as the Torah. They also maintained the notion of afterlife as well as believing that God would send a Messiah to create peace over the world. In spite of this, it is important to understand that the society of Judea developed over time and the Pharisees helped guide this development by creating new laws as well progressing the synagogue and temple. According to Josephus “they practiced the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse” (Sanders, 44).
The Pharisees did not fail to understand the importance of Laws already formed by their predecessors but they initiated change in the developing Judea society by adding new laws for the people as well as taking a non-literal approach to Biblical Law. They closely followed the doctrine of immortality therefore laws such as “an eye for an eye” were explained in an approach that could be more comparable to the current circumstances of the people. In their effort to create new laws for more modern day society, they formed a purity rule in regards to the Mosaic Law. This is a law in which one is required to bathe in order to remove impurities before entering the temple. The Pharisees instructed people to wash their hands before the Sabbath and holy meals, and this eventually led Jews to wash their hands before every meal in order to wash away impurities. Because of their dedication to the religiosity of the people, the Pharisees were well liked amongst Jews that populated their communities. It is said that although the Jews made special rules for them to follow, they did not force them on everyone else (Sanders 44). I can appreciate that the Pharisees were overall trying to better the Jewish community however they did not try to enforce their traditions on others.
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In the second century the Pharisees improved the Jewish Temple with the development of the synagogue as well as the enforcement of oral traditions to those who resided within their communities. The Pharisees greatly appreciated the written law however they held close to them the oral teachings of their fore fathers. As a teacher to the people, the Pharisees did not question that which was passed down to them; they simply interpreted these traditions and passed it down orally to the people. The Pharisees “wished to embrace the whole people particularly through education. It was their desire and intention that everyone in Israel achieve holiness through the study of the Torah” (The Maccabees 93). The Pharisees cared about the temple developing as a whole in a way that fit the needs of current society. Not only did the Pharisees not impede their ideas on the Jews of the time, they respected that society is always changing. With this, the Pharisees created the temple to be a place that fit into the life of a commoner. As a Jew at the time, I could turn to the Pharisaic movement to help me understand and practice my faith in a way that I could best relate to.
Along with the Pharisees, the Sadducees were among the earliest groups to form during the Hasmonean dynasty. For the most part, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were seen as opposition to each other politically and religiously. The word Sadducee is believed to have originated from Zadok, Solomon’s High Priest. This description seems justifiable given the fact that the Sadducee’s consisted of members of the aristocratic, conservative, elite standing of society. The Pharisees were more popular as they attracted the “commoners” of society, the Sadducees were a minority that held great power over Kings and embraced Hellenization, forcing Greek culture upon society. One of the biggest conflicts between these two groups involved the fact that the Sadducees rejected the doctrine of immortality. The Sadducees took a literal approach to the written law, following it word for word where as the Pharisees were open to interpretation of the Torah. The Sadducees did not believe in after life therefore not seeing the importance of the oral law. As a result, they “rejected new laws and innovations which the Pharisees introduced in response to historical necessity” (Isaacson 240). In regards to the temple, the Sadducees viewed it as untouchable, ultimately denying the Pharisaic attempt to develop and integrate new ideas into the temple. Evidentially the two groups were at constant disagreement with each other and this lead to tension within the second temple era. Eventually, a civil war broke out during the Hasmonean dynasty banishing the Sadducees as a whole leaving only the Pharisees to fully recover. Given these facts I would not have wanted to be a Sadducee due to their unwillingness to accept that society is forever changing and therefore observance of the law needed to change with it. I do not find it appealing that they were only considerate to the needs of those higher up in society and perhaps this is why they were unable to regain power afterwards.
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