Josephus' Pharisees: Sketches by a Close Observer
2019-05-07 - 10.00
For nearly 2,000 years, the name Pharisees has been familiar to westerners, but with very different connotations. For Christians, gospel portraits of the Pharisees have made them a byword for barren but aggressive legalism and hypocrisy. For Jews, in sharp contrast, Pharisees played a major role in shaping rabbinic Judaism and its benevolent, life-affirming realisation of Torah. While post-World War II interreligious dialogue has helped foster mutual understanding, the conditions of the modern research university, especially its programmes in religious studies, have since the 1970s fostered original, publicly accessible, historical research on the Pharisees. The works of Flavius Josephus play a fundamental role here. As a Jewish author initially preserved from antiquity by Christians, he is something of a middle term. He is also unique in being the only one of our source authors, aside from the ex-Pharisee Paul, who had sustained first-hand experience with Pharisees before Jerusalem's destruction. Until recently, most scholars thought that Josephus was a Pharisee himself - or wished to be considered one in his later writings.
This paper methodically reviews Josephus' passages on the Pharisees as ingredients of his famous narratives - Judaean War, Antiquities, and autobiography-composed between the mid-70s and mid-90s of the first century CE for audiences in Flavian Rome. These passages offer disappointments but also stimulating surprises. A disappointment is that Josephus describes Pharisees' views of fate, the soul, and afterlife in vague, schematic language. The many surprises include the absence of Pharisees from the main stories (and his crowning Against Apion), his general disdain for the group's actions in society, and the possible reasons-including his own conflicts with Pharisees. Paradoxically, this proud priest and paramount scriptural exegete had reasons to be harsher toward the Pharisees than the most important New Testament account of them, which caught more of their appeal to non-elite Judaeans. Josephus' accounts add historical complexity, in other words, and undermine simple, age-old dichotomies, while giving historians a valuable 'new' perspective.