Try out the new BibleStudyTools.com. Click here!

Chapter 15

by Alfred Edersheim
1876

Chapter 15
Relation of the Pharisees
to the Sadducees and Essenes,
and to the Gospel of Christ

On taking a retrospective view of Pharisaism, as we have described it, there is a saying of our Lord which at first sight seems almost unaccountable. Yet it is clear and emphatic. "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do" (Matt 23:3). But if the early disciples were not to break at once and for ever with the Jewish community, such a direction was absolutely needful. For, though the Pharisees were only "an order," Pharisaism, like modern Ultramontanism, had not only become the leading direction of theological thought, but its principles were solemnly proclaimed, and universally acted upon— the latter, even by their opponents the Sadducees. A Sadducee in the Temple or on the seat of judgment would be obliged to act and decide precisely like a Pharisee. Not that the party had not attempted to give dominance to their peculiar views. But they were fairly vanquished, and it is said that they themselves destroyed the book of Sadducean ordinances, which they had at one time drawn up. And the Pharisees celebrated each dogmatic victory by a feast! What is perhaps the oldest post-Biblical Hebrew book— "Megillath Taanith," or roll of fasts— chiefly a Pharisaic calendar of self-glorification, in which dogmatic victories are made days when fasting, and sometimes even mourning, is prohibited. Whatever, therefore, the dogmatic views of the Sadducees were, and however they might, where possible, indulge personal bias, yet in office both parties acted as Pharisees. They were well matched indeed. When a Sadducean high-priest, on the Feast of Tabernacles, poured out the water on the ground instead of into the silver funnel of the altar, Maccabean king though he was, he scarce escaped with his life, and ever afterwards the shout resounded from all parts of the Temple, "Hold up thy hand," as the priest yearly performed this part of the service. The Sadducees held, that on the Day of Atonement the high-priest should light the incense before he actually entered the Most Holy Place. As this was contrary to the views of the Pharisees, they took care to bind him by an oath to observe their ritual customs before allowing him to officiate at all. It was in vain that the Sadducees argued, that the daily sacrifices should not be defrayed from the public treasury, but from special contributions. They had to submit, and besides to join in the kind of half-holiday which the jubilant majority inscribed in their calendar to perpetuate the memory of the decision. The Pharisees held, that the time between Easter and Pentecost should be counted from the second day of the feast; the Sadducees insisted that it should commence with the literal "Sabbath" after the festive day. But, despite argument, the Sadducees had to join when the solemn procession went on the afternoon of the feast to cut down the "first sheaf," and to reckon Pentecost as did their opponents.

We have here referred to only a few of the differences in ritual between the views of the Sadducees and those of the Pharisees. The essential principle of them lay in this, that the Sadducees would hold by the simple letter of the law— neither more nor less, whether the consequences were to make decisions more severe or more easy. The same principle they applied in their juridical and also in their doctrinal views. It would take us too much into detail to explain the former. But the reader will understand how this literality would, as a rule, make their judicial decisions (or rather such as they had proposed) far more strict than those of the Pharisees, by a rigidly literal application of the principle, "an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth." The same holds true in regard to the laws of purification, and to those which regulated inheritance. The doctrinal views of the Sadducees are sufficiently known from the New Testament. It is quite true that, in opposition to Sadducean views as to the non-existence of another world and the resurrection, the Pharisees altered the former Temple-formula into "Blessed be God from world to world" (from generation to generation; or, "world without end"), to show that after the present there was another life of blessing and punishment, of joy and sorrow. But the Talmud expressly states that the real principle of the Sadducees was not, that there was no resurrection, but only that it could not be proved from the Thorah, or Law. From this there was, of course, but a short step to the entire denial of the doctrine; and no doubt it was taken by the vast majority of the party. But here also it was again their principle of strict literality, which underlay even the most extreme of their errors.

This principle was indeed absolutely necessary to their very existence. We have traced the Pharisees not only to a definite period, but to a special event; and we have been able perfectly to explain their name as "the separated." Not that we presume they gave it to themselves, for no sect or party ever takes a name; they all pretend to require no distinctive title, because they alone genuinely and faithfully represent the truth itself. But when they were called Pharisees, the "Chaberim," no doubt, took kindly to the popular designation. It was to them— use an illustration— the name "Puritans" was to a far different and opposite party in the Church. But the name "Sadducee" is involved in quite as much obscurity as the origin of the party. Let us try to cast some fresh light upon both— premising that the common derivations of their name, whether from the high-priest Zadok, or from a Rabbi called Zadok, whose fundamental principle of not seeking reward in religion they were thought to have misunderstood and misapplied, or from the Hebrew word "zaddikim"— righteous— all unsatisfactory, and yet may all contain elements of truth.

There can be no question that the "sect" of the Sadducees originated in a reaction against the Pharisees. If the latter added to the law their own glosses, interpretations, and traditions, the Sadducee took his stand upon the bare letter of the law. He would have none of their additions and supererogations; he would not be righteous overmuch. Suffice it for him to have to practise "zedakah," "righteousness." We can understand how this shibboleth of theirs became, in the mouth of the people, the byname of a party— using it ironically, some approvingly. By-and-by the party no doubt took as kindly to the name as the Pharisees did to theirs. Thus far, then, we agree with those who derive the title of Sadducees from "zaddikim." But why the grammatically-unaccountable change from "zaddikim" to "zaddukim?" May it not be that the simple but significant alteration of a letter had, after a not uncommon fashion, originated with their opponents, as if they would have said: "You are 'zaddikim?' Nay, rather, 'zaddukim'" from the Aramaean word "zadu" (wasting or desolation)—, you are not upholders but destroyers of righteousness? This origin of the name would in no way be inconsistent with the later attempts of the party to trace up their history either to the high-priest Zadok, or to one of the fathers of Jewish traditionalism, whose motto they ostentatiously adopted. History records not a few similar instances of attempts to trace up the origin of a religious party. Be this as it may, we can understand how the adherents of Sadducean opinions belonged chiefly to the rich, luxurious, and aristocratic party, including the wealthy families of priests; while, according to the testimony of Josephus, which is corroborated by the New Testament, the mass of the people, and especially the women, venerated and supported the Pharisaical party. Thus the "order" of the "Chaberim" gradually became a popular party, like the Ultramontanes. Finally, as from the nature of it Pharisaism was dependent upon traditional lore, it became not only the prevailing direction of Jewish theological study, but the "Chaber" by-and-by merged into the Rabbi, the "sage," or "disciple of the sages"; while the non-"chaber," or "am ha-aretz," became the designation for ignorance of traditional lore, and neglect of its ordinances. This was specially the case when the dissolution of the Jewish commonwealth rendered the obligations of the "fraternity" necessarily impossible. Under such altered circumstances the old historical Pharisee would often be no small plague to the leaders of the party, as is frequently the case with the original adherents and sticklers of a sect in which the irresistible progress of time has necessarily produced changes.

The course of our investigations has shown, that neither Pharisees nor Sadducees were a sect, in the sense of separating from Temple or Synagogue; and also that the Jewish people as such were not divided between Pharisees and Sadducees. The small number of professed Pharisees (six thousand) at the time of Herod, the representations of the New Testament, and even the curious circumstance that Philo never once mentions the name of Pharisee, confirm the result of our historical inquiries, that the Pharisees were first an "order," then gave the name to a party, and finally represented a direction of theological thought. The New Testament speaks of no other than these two parties. But Josephus and Philo also mention the "Essenes." It is beyond our present scope either to describe their tenets and practices, or even to discuss the complex question of the origin of their name. From the nature of it, the party exercised no great influence, and was but short-lived. They seem to have combined a kind of higher grade Pharisaism with devotional views, and even practices, derived from Eastern mysticism, and more particularly from the Medo-Persian religion. Of the former, the fact that the one object of all their institutions was a higher purity, may here be regarded as sufficient evidence. The latter is apparent from a careful study of their views, as these have been preserved to us, and from their comparison with the Zoroastrian system. And of the fact that "Palestine was surrounded by Persian influences," there are abundant indications.

As a sect the Essenes never attained a larger number than four thousand; and as they lived apart from the rest, neither mingling in their society nor in their worship, and— a general rule— from marriage, they soon became extinct. Indeed, Rabbinical writings allude to quite a number of what may probably be described as sectaries, all of them more or less distinctly belonging to the mystical and ascetic branch of Pharisaism. We here name, first, the "Vathikin," or "strong ones," who performed their prayers with the first dawn; secondly, the "Toble Shachrith," or "morning baptists," who immersed before morning prayer, so as to utter the Divine Name only in a state of purity; thirdly, the "Kehala Kadisha," or "holy congregation," who spent a third of the day in prayer, a third in study, and a third in labour; fourthly, the "Banaim," or "builders," who, besides aiming after highest purity, occupied themselves with mystical studies about God and the world; fifthly, the "Zenuim," or "secret pious," who besides kept their views and writings secret; sixthly, the "Nekije hadaath," "men of a pure mind," who were really separatists from their brethren; seventhly, the "Chashaim," or "mysterious ones"; and lastly, the "Assiim," "helpers" or "healers," who professed to possess the right pronunciation of the sacred Name of Jehovah, with all that this implied.

If in any of the towns of Judaea one had met the strange apparition of a man dressed wholly in white, whose sandals and garments perhaps bore signs of age— they might not be put away till quite worn out— who was scrupulously clean, this man was an Essene. The passers would stop short and look after him with mingled reverence and curiosity. For he was but rarely seen in town or village— community separating from the rest of the people, and inhabiting desert places, specially the neighbourhood of the Dead Sea; and the character of the "order" for asceticism and self-denial, as well as for purity, was universally known. However strictly they observed the Sabbath, it was in their own synagogues; and although they sent gifts to the altar, they attended not the Temple nor offered sacrifices, partly because they regarded their arrangements as not sufficiently Levitically clean, and partly because they came to consider their own table an altar, and their common meals a sacrifice. They formed an "order," bound by the strictest vows, taken under terrible oaths, and subject to the most rigorous disciplines. The members abstained from wine, meat, and oil, and most of them also from marriage. They had community of goods; were bound to poverty, chastity, and obedience to their superiors. Purity of morals was enjoined, especially in regard to speaking the truth. To take an oath was prohibited, as also the keeping of slaves. The order consisted of four grades; contact with one of a lower always defiling him of the higher grade. The novitiate lasted two years, though at the end of the first the candidate was taken into closer fellowship. The rule was in the hands of "elders," who had the power of admission and expulsion— latter being almost equivalent to death by starvation, as the Essene had bound himself by a terrible oath not to associate with others. Their day began with sunrise, when they went to prayer. Before that, nothing secular might be spoken. After prayer, they betook themselves to agricultural labour— they were not allowed to keep herds and flocks— else to works of charity, specially the healing of the sick. At eleven o'clock they bathed, changed their dress, and then gathered for the common meal. A priest opened and closed it with prayer. They sat according to age and dignity; the eldest engaging in serious conversation, but in so quiet a tone as not to be heard outside. The young men served. Each had bread and salt handed him, also another dish; the elders being allowed the condiment of hyssop and the luxury of warm water. After the meal they put off their clothes, and returned to work till the evening, when there was another common meal, followed by mystical hymns and dances, to symbolise the rapt, ecstatic state of mind.

It is needless to follow the subject farther. Even what has been said— of their separation from the world, their punctilious Sabbath-observance, and views on purification; their opposition to sacrifices, and notably their rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection— surely sufficient to prove that they had no connection with the origin of Christianity. Assertions of this kind are equally astonishing to the calm historical student and painful to the Christian. Yet there can be no doubt that among these mystical sects were preserved views of the Divine Being, of the Messiah and His kingdom, and of kindred doctrines, which afterwards appeared in the so-called "secret tradition" of the Synagogue, and which, as derived from the study of the prophetic writings, contain marvellous echoes of Christian truth. On this point, however, we may not here enter.

Christ and the Gospel among Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes! We can now realise the scene, and understand the mutual relations. The existing communities, the religious tendencies, the spirit of the age, assuredly offered no point of attachment— absolute and essential contrariety to the kingdom of heaven. The "preparer of the way" could appeal to neither of them; his voice only cried "in the wilderness." Far, far beyond the origin of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, he had to point back to the original Paschal consecration of Israel as that which was to be now exhibited in its reality: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." If the first great miracle of Christianity was the breaking down of the middle wall of partition, the second— we should have rather put it first, to realise the symbolism of the two miracles in Cana— that it found nothing analogous in the religious communities around, nothing sympathetic, absolutely no stem on which to graft the new plant, but was literally "as a root out of a dry ground," of which alike Pharisee, Sadducee, and Essene would say: "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him."