Cultic Piety and Pharisaism before 70 AD

Jacob Neusner, “‘The Glory of God Is Intelligence’: A Theology of Torah Learning in Judaism,” in The Glory of God Is Intelligence: Four Lectures on the Role of Intellect in Judaism(Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 13–28.

The theology of Torah learning, so important in Judaism from the end of ancient times to our own day, emerges in the pages of the Babylonian Talmud and certainly speaks for the rabbis of the late second through the seventh centuries and beyond. But at what point in the history of Judaism does the ideal of Torah learning enter the theological arena of Judaism? Under whose auspices do we find that ideal shaped into the important component of normative Judaic theology? The answers to these questions are assumed in nearly all accounts of the history of Judaism to be as follows: the rabbis of the Talmud are the heirs and continuators of the Pharisees of the period before 70. Since the ideal of Torah learning is central to the theology of the talmudic rabbis, it surely derives from, and wholly characterizes, the Pharisees. And, it follows, wherever we find references, in connection with the Pharisees, to a corpus of “traditions of the fathers,” what we have is none other than those Torah traditions, now found in Mishnah and called “Oral Torah,” traditions which are the focus of the activity of Torah learning. It follows that the Pharisees are represented as a group formed around the ideal of Torah learning, and that their principal interest lay in the interpretation of scriptures and their application to contemporary affairs.

In my view, that picture is not correct. My argument now unfolds in two parts. In the present lecture, I shall discuss what it is that the sources do tell us about the Pharisees. The next then will deal with the beginnings of the ideal of Torah learning and with the context in which the ideal takes shape as a theological norm, which in my view, is the period after 70. So let us first ask, Are the Pharisees represented as a sect devoted to the preservation and mastery of Torah traditions? What, in fact, do the sources describe as the center of Pharisaic piety?


Information on the Pharisees before 70 comes from three sources, all of which reached their present state after that date: first, allusions to the Pharisees in the works of Josephus; second, references to relationships between the Pharisees and Jesus occurring in the Gospels produced by Christian communities between 70 and 100; third, laws and sayings attributed to, and stories told about, the Pharisees by the rabbis from the period following 70 and contained in the Mishnah and Tosefta, ca. 200, and later collections. These three sources are different in character. The first are found in a systematic, coherent historical narrative. The second are in collections of stories and sayings, whose polemical tendency vis a vis the Pharisees is readily discernible. The third consists chiefly of laws and stories arranged according to legal categories in codes and in commentaries on those codes over a period of four hundred years and more after 70. The purpose of Josephus is to explain that Rome was not at fault for the destruction of the Temple and that the Jews were misled in fighting Rome. The Gospels’ interest is in the life and teaching of Jesus. The rabbinical legislators promulgated laws of the administration of the Jewish community. To none were the historical character and doctrines of the Pharisees of primary concern. Much that we are told about them anachronistically reflects the situation and interests of the writers, not of the historical Pharisees. Pharisaic theology before 70 is particularly difficult to recover, because the later rabbinical documents do not distinguish the ideas of the Pharisees before that date from those of second- and third-century rabbis, but assume that everyone from ancient times was a “rabbi” and an adherent of the so-called Torah shebe al peh, the orally formulated and orally transmitted Torah allegedly revealed to Moses “our rabbi” alongside the written one and preserved from his time to the present by the “rabbis” of one generation after another.

For pharisaism before 70 our sources of information tell little of theological interest. A number of books in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament are attributed by modern scholars to pharisaic writers, but none of these documents identifies its author as a Pharisee. We may reliably attribute a work only when a peculiar characteristic of the possible author can be shown to be an essential element in the structure of the whole work. No reliance can be placed on elements which appear in only one or another episode, or which appear in several episodes but are secondary and detachable details. These may be accretions. Above all, motifs which are not certainly peculiar to one sect cannot prove that that sect was the source. No available assignment of an apocryphal or pseudepigraphical book to a pharisaic author can pass these tests. Most such attributions were made by scholars who thought that all Palestinian Jews before 70 were either Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, members of the “Fourth Philosophy,” or Zealots, and therefore felt obliged to attribute all supposedly Palestinian Jewish works produced before that date to one of these groups. That supposition is untenable. We therefore omit reference to apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature. Perhaps when scholarly progress in the study of that literature permits, we may expand our conceptions about pharisaism before 70.


Writing toward the end of his life, ca. A.D. 100, Josephus claimed that he was a Pharisee. He says that he spent the years between age sixteen and nineteen exploring the Jewish sectarian life, successively as a Pharisee, Sadducee, and Essene. He also spent three years in the wilderness with a monk, Bannus. He therefore cannot have devoted much time to the three named sects. Entering the pharisaic order involved a long preparation. It is unlikely that Josephus completed it or actually became a Sadducee or an Essene in addition. In fact, Josephus’s earliest work, War, represents the Pharisees as a political party, active in Hasmonean politics from the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104 B.C.) to that of Alexandra Salome (76–67 B.C.), and as a philosophical sect. The pharisaic party is not alleged to have dominated the affairs of Jewish Palestine. This claim first appears in Antiquities, written some decades later.

The Pharisees of War occur first in connection with Alexandra Salome. Josephus reports that Alexander Jannaeus left the throne to his wife. The Pharisees are then introduced as a body of Jews “with the reputation of excelling the rest of their nation in the observances of religion and as exact exponents of the laws.” Alexandra Salome allowed the Pharisees to become influential in her reign: together they put their enemies to death. Second, Josephus asserts that Herod accused his wife of subsidizing the Pharisees to oppose him. Finally, Josephus states that the Pharisees are the most accurate interpreters of the laws and are the leading sect. They attributed everything to fate and God. The soul of the good man passes into another body; those of the wicked suffer eternal punishment. The Pharisees are affectionate toward one another; the Sadducees are boorish.

The foregoing account represents Josephus’s view of the Pharisees in the War, written in 75. We find no claim that the Pharisees have a massive public following, or that no one can effectively govern Palestine without their support. All we hear is their opinion on two issues, fate, or providence, and punishment of the soul after death. The Sadducees do not believe in fate or in life after death. The Essenes, who are described at far greater length (War 2:119ff.) hold that the soul is immortal, believe in reward and punishment after death, and can foretell the future. Josephus adds, “Such are the theological views of the Essenes concerning the soul, whereby they irresistibly attract all who have once tasted their philosophy.” Later he would claim that he himself was able to resist their philosophy and so joined the Pharisees. Here the Sadducees and Pharisees address themselves to identical issues, and take two extreme positions. The two parties are not very important in Josephus’s narrative. Neither one receives a significant description. The Pharisees are seen not as a political party, but as a philosophical school among other such schools. In 95, twenty years after he wrote War, Josephus greatly expanded his picture, adding important details to familiar accounts and entirely new materials as well. To understand the additions, we must recall that at the same time he wrote Antiquities, Josephus was claiming that he himself was a Pharisee.

If one reads only War without knowledge of the Life, one might suppose Josephus took a most keen interest in the Essenes and certainly sympathized with their ascetic way of life. That surmise would receive support if we knew that he spent three years of his adolescence with Bannus, whose way of living corresponded in important ways to that of the Essenes, though Josephus does not call him an Essene. So one might expect that the historian regards the Essenes as the leading Jewish “philosophical school.” But he does not. The Essenes of War are cut down to size. In Antiquities, the Pharisees are accorded a substantial description. Josephus now says that the country cannot be governed without their cooperation, and that he himself is one of them. Josephus had in fact been part of the pro-Roman priestly aristocracy before the war of 66–73. But nothing in his account suggests that he was a Pharisee, as he later claimed in his autobiography. In Antiquities, Josephus repeats that the Pharisees believed that certain events are the work of fate, but not all; as to other events “it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not.” He praises their simple way of living and keeping the commandments. “They believe that souls have 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.” Now Josephus alleges that the Pharisees are the predominant party:

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 have paid to the excellence of the Pharisees because of their practice of the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse.

What is new here is the allegation that the townsfolk follow only the Pharisees and that even the Temple is conducted according to their law.

Clearly, Josephus’s picture of the Pharisees in War greatly differs from that in Antiquities. In the twenty years between writing the one and the other, he discovered that the Pharisees, who play a minor role in War, were the most influential and important party and could break any regime which opposed them. The difference between the view of War and that of Antiquities is explained as follows by Morton Smith (“Palestinian Judaism in the First Century,” in M. Davis, ed., Israel: Its Role in Civilization [N.Y., 1956], pp. 77–78):

It is almost impossible not to see in such a rewriting of history a bid to the Roman government. That government must have been faced with the problem [after A.D. 70.]: Which group of Jews shall we support? . . . To this question Josephus is volunteering an answer: The Pharisees, he says again and again, have by far the greatest influence with the people. Any government which secures their support is accepted; any government which alienates them has trouble. The Sadducees, it is true, have more following among the aristocracy . . . but they have no popular following at all, and even in the old days, when they were in power, they were forced by public opinion to follow the Pharisees’ orders. As for the other major parties, the Essenes are a philosophical curiosity, and the Zealots differ from the Pharisees only by being fanatically anti-Roman. So any Roman government which wants peace in Palestine had better support and secure the support of the Pharisees.

Josephus’s discovery of these important political facts (which he ignored when writing the Jewish War) may have been due partly to a change in his personal relationship with the Pharisees. Twenty years had now intervened since his trouble with Simeon ben Gamaliel, and Simeon was long dead. But the mere cessation of personal hostilities would hardly account for such pointed passages as Josephus added to the Antiquities. The more probable explanation is that in the meanwhile the Pharisees had become the leading candidates for Roman support in Palestine and were already negotiating for it. . . .

In the first century A.D., individual Pharisees remained active in political life. But, strikingly, Josephus makes no reference to the group’s functioning as a party within the revolutionary councils. We may conclude that Simeon and others were members of the pharisaic group, but not the group’s representatives, any more than Judah the Pharisee represented the pharisaic group in founding the Fourth Philosophy. The Pharisees, then, probably did not constitute an organized political force. Evidently the end of the pharisaic political party came with Aristobulus II, who slaughtered many of them; so far as Josephus is concerned, after this the Pharisees as a group played no important role in the politics and government of Jewish Palestine.

The Pharisees are represented as a philosophical school by Josephus, who thought of groups in Jewish society distinguished by peculiar theories and practices as different schools of the national philosophy. When they were a political party, the Pharisees probably claimed that they ought to rule because they possessed true and wise doctrines. The specific doctrines ascribed to them, however, seem quite unrelated to the political aspirations of the group. It is not clear why people who believe in fate and in the immortality of the soul should rule or would rule differently from those who did not, nor is it clear how such beliefs might shape the policies of the state. These are matters of interest to Greek readers, to be sure. But evidently what characterized the group—these particular beliefs—and what rendered their political aspirations something more than a powergrab were inextricably related, at least in the eyes of their contemporaries.

Josephus thus presents us with a party of philosophical politicians. He gives us no hint as to the origin or early history of the Pharisees. In fact we have no information on that question from any source. The Pharisees claim to have ancient traditions, but these are not described by Josephus as having been orally transmitted, or attributed to Moses at Sinai, or claimed as part of the Torah. Nor is the study of such traditions represented as important in their piety. Josephus says they were excellent lawyers, marked off from other groups by a few philosophical differences. As a party they functioned effectively for roughly the first fifty years of the first century B.C. While individuals thereafter are described as Pharisees, the group seems to end its political life as a sect before the advent of Herod.


The generally negative picture of the Pharisees given by the New Testament produced, in the later history of the West, a highly partisan caricature. “Pharisee” became a synonym for hypocrite, as in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Pharisee: One of an ancient Jewish sect distinguished by their strict observance of the traditional and written law, and by their pretensions to superior sanctity. A person of this disposition; a self-righteous person; a formalist; a hypocrite.

Historical research lacks adequate sources to verify or refute these assertions. We do not have diaries, for example, to permit us to compare what a Pharisee said publicly against what he said in private and so to ascertain whether or not he was a hypocrite. Nor are we able to assess with impartiality the claim that a Pharisee is “self-righteous.” Clearly, “pretensions to superior sanctity” are relative. If one concedes the correctness of a theological claim, then one will not regard it as “pretension.” Nor do we know of what that claim to “superior sanctity” would have consisted.

When we discount the hostile polemic, however, we do find in the New Testament a number of important assertions. The Pharisees are represented in the main, though not entirely, as a table fellowship sect. While Mark 3:6 and 12:13, for instance, represent the Pharisees as allies of the Herodians, thus as a political sect of some sort, they are characterized, particularly in sayings attributed to Jesus, as a group of people who keep the same dietary laws and therefore may eat together. Pharisaic table fellowship required keeping under all circumstances the laws of purity that normally applied only in the Jerusalem Temple, so that the Pharisees ate their private meals in the same condition of ritual purity as did the priests of the cult. The Pharisees laid further stress upon proper tithing of foods and Sabbath observance. The Gospels say much else about the Pharisees, but these are the main points that survive when we discount the polemic which informs the Gospels.

The Gospels’ stories about the Pharisees are set in the first forty years of the first century A.D. and derive from the second half of the century, between ca. 70 and ca. 100. The Evangelists assume a violently antagonistic view of the Pharisees. At the same time, the Pharisees are represented by Acts as a major force in the government of the Jewish community. One learns much in the synoptic traditions, John, and Acts about the attitudes of the early Christian community toward the Pharisees and the relationships of the Pharisees toward the Christians. Viewed as an autonomous sect, and not in relationship to the early Church, however, the Pharisees are of no great interest to New Testament writers. The first evidence on Pharisaism derives from Paul, who describes himself “as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5), and “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:14.) Acts 22:3 has Paul claim he was brought up in Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel” and that he lived as a Pharisee (Acts 26:4), which in context is joined to the belief in the resurrection of the dead. The substance of Paul’s pharisaism in Philippians and Galatians is not made clear. If one important aspect was preserving purity outside of the Temple, then Paul could not have been a Pharisee abroad, in Tarsus, for foreign territory was by definition unclean. In that case his upbringing in Jerusalem will have made possible his adherence to the party. The narrative of Acts leaves no doubt, however, that included in pharisaic doctrine was belief in the resurrection of the dead.

In the Synoptic Gospels and John we may discern five kinds of materials pertinent to pharisaism: first, those in which the Pharisees are represented as enemies of Jesus, forming part of the narrative background; second, and closely related, material in which the Pharisees criticize Jesus; third, those in which pharisaic hypocrisy is condemned in general terms; fourth, those representing Pharisees and Christians in agreement, either on general or on particular matters of doctrine; and, finally, materials in which the Pharisees are condemned for specific practices or beliefs. This last sort of material is of greatest interest, and we turn directly to it because of its attention to details of the Pharisees’ actual beliefs and practices, primarily as they pertain to conduct at meals. What the Pharisees do, and what Jesus does not do, when enjoying table fellowship, comprise the subject of important stories. In quantity and character these materials exhibit important differences from the rest. Jesus and his disciples eat with sinners and tax collectors, people who do not keep the law. (Mark 2:15–23; Matthew 9:10–17.) It is unlikely that these people observe the laws of ritual purity at meals or tithe their food. Rabbinic law explicitly excludes tax collectors from table fellowship of the haburah. (Tos. Demai 3:4.) The question of fasting is raised. The Pharisees fast, but the Christians do not. (Mark 2:15–23.) Jesus is made to explain that fact. Another issue is preparation of food on the Sabbath (Mark 2:15–28; Matthew 12:1–14): Is it permissible to harvest food on the Sabbath? The story is generated by the saying, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath,” and the Pharisees are not central to the account.

The most interesting group of stories explicitly concerns ritual purity in eating. The Christian disciples do not wash their hands. The details of the ritual purity laws are unknown. Mark assumed that his reader would not understand that in general the Pharisees and all the Jews wash their hands before meals, and wash cups, pots, and bronze vessels. (Mark 7:1–13.) This is all regarded as part of the “tradition of the elders,” which the Gospels and Josephus assign to the Pharisees. But one would not have to know a great deal about Pharisaic purity rules to know that the Pharisees maintained such practices. The narrator obviously has little more to report than that simple fact. His purpose is to contrast purity rules with ethical laws, for one is claimed to be in conflict with the other. The question of ritual defilement through the eating of food also is raised. This is not merely a matter of prohibited foods, such as not eating pork or certain kinds offish, but concerns cultic purity. The moral character of the Pharisees is further criticized. While they keep the ritual purity laws, they neglect other important precepts of the Torah, and are therefore incapable of bringing men to salvation. The most important detail in the polemic against ritual tithing: Pharisees tithe their food, but neglect “the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.” (Mark 7:1–13; Matthew 15:1–20; Luke 11:37–41.) But then Jesus is made to say that there is no conflict between the one and the other.

Mark claims that Jesus annulled the pharisaic purity rite of hand washing before the common meal, declaring it the “tradition of men.” Then, as an entirely separate issue, Mark 7:14ff. has Jesus allude to the defilement of foods. Nothing which goes into a man from outside can defile him—”Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19.) Mark carefully distinguishes purity of hands from purity of food. The one is a human invention, the other is scriptural, but has not been correctly interpreted by the Pharisees. Matthew, by contrast, leaves out Mark 7:19. He follows Mark in claiming the washing of hands is not a divine commandment (Matthew 15:1–3), and separately treats the cleanness of foods. (Matthew 15:10–19.) But then, ignoring their differences—the hand washing as a Pharisaic custom, the food as a biblical injunction—Matthew links the two in a curious fusion (Matthew 15:20): “These [iniquitous deeds] are what defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” Mark was appropriately silent on the supposed connection between the customary washing of the hands and the Mosaic rules on the cleanness of foods. Matthew has confused them. By contrast, Mark has correctly kept the two matters separated: washing was never part of the Torah, but was a pharisaic custom; food laws were meant to teach a moral lesson, not to be interpreted in a literal way.

Matthew 23:25 (Luke 11:39–41) and 23:27–8 take up and develop the contrast between inside and outside. The Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside are full of extortion. Similarly, the scribes and Pharisees are like whitewashed tombs, outwardly beautiful but inwardly full of uncleanness. The contrast between impurity and iniquity, on the one side, and purity and righteousness, on the other, is commonplace. What is more interesting is the problem of the division of the parts of the cup into insides and outsides. For Jesus these serve as a metaphor for inner against outer purity. What is to be kept pure is the inside of the man, a play on the theme introduced in connection with the cleanness of foods. Later rabbinic law distinguished between the inside of the cup, which was highly susceptible to ritual impurity, and which, when unclean, rendered the whole cup unclean, and the outside, which was less susceptible and would not impart purity to the inside. But that fact is unimportant in the interpretation of Jesus’ saying. To be sure, Jesus takes the strict view that the outside had to be clean. But the whole saying is solely a metaphor for moral purity and is not built upon exact knowledge of the possibly later purity rule. If Jesus was supposed to have known the rule and to have treated it literally, he could not have told the Pharisees first to cleanse the inside of the cup. That was their rule to begin with. The figurative sense is lost if one really does clean the inside of the cup first of all.

The Gospels’ account of the pharisaic critique of Jesus focuses on three issues. First, why do Jesus’ disciples eat with tax collectors? Second, why do Jesus’ disciples not fast? Third, why does Jesus violate the Sabbath by healing on the holy day? The third theme recurs in the specific critique of the Pharisees. The general condemnation is composed of mere invective: the Pharisees are a “brood of vipers”; one should beware of the “leaven” of the Pharisees “which is hypocrisy.” Pharisees love money. Pharisees regard themselves as better than other men by reason of their religious observances. The important data derive not from the polemical narrative materials, but from the condemnation of the Pharisees for specific religious practices. The most interesting information comes from Mark 7:1–23, on ritual purity in eating and on the dietary laws, and Matthew 23:1–36, on the Pharisees’ emphasis on ritual purity of dishes and their exact tithing. These passages take for granted specific pharisaic rites, and direct criticism against them. They tell us not only that the early Christian community found itself in conflict with the pharisaic party, but that Pharisees known to the Gospel storytellers carried out important rites which are quite relevant to the doctrinal issues, important to the Christians, in the Pharisaic-Christian relationship.


Rabbinic traditions redacted long after 70 refer to masters who lived before that time. These masters are listed, for example in Mishnah Hagigah 2:2, as patriarch (Nasi) and head of the court (Ab Bet Din). We have in addition the names of very few masters whom rabbinic traditions evidently believe to have lived before 70. We take for granted that those named in Mishnah Hagigah 2:2 and other authorities included in pericopae along with the patriarchs and heads of the court down to 70 were Pharisees. [1] We are on firm ground in making that assumption, for at least two of the names on the list, Gamaliel and Simeon b. Gamaliel, are referred to as Pharisees in nonrabbinic sources, Acts 5:34 for Gamaliel, Josephus’s Life (190, 216, 309) for Simeon, his son. The rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees consist of approximately 371 separate items—stories, sayings, or allusions—different versions of which occur in approximately 655 different pericopae, or completed units of tradition. Of these, 280 items in 462 pericopae (comprising about 75 percent of the total), pertain to Hillel and people associated with Hillel, such as Shammai and the Houses of Hillel and Shammai.

Insofar as we know it, pharisaic law comprises those legal sayings in talmudic literature attributed either to pharisaic masters before 70 or to the Houses of Shammai and Hillel. A legal saying is a statement of what one must or must not do, commonly in everyday life. It may pertain to the adjudication of civil disputes, the conduct of the Temple cult, the manner of issuing a writ of divorce, the way to say one’s prayers, to tithe food, to preserve ritual purity, or to purify something which has been defiled or made unclean. Pharisaic laws pertained to a wide range of mostly commonplace matters. Most of the nearly 700 pericopae pertaining to Pharisees before 70 concern legal matters, and the larger number of these relate to, first, agricultural tithes, offerings, and other taboos, and, second, rules of ritual purity—that is, rules of sectarian interest.

Purity predominates in the pharisaic laws. Purity was the center of sectarian controversy. The Pharisees were Jews who believed that the purity laws were to be kept outside of the Temple. Other Jews, following the plain sense of Leviticus, supposed that purity laws were to be kept only in the Temple, where the priests had to enter a state of ritual purity in order to carry out such requirements as animal sacrifice. They likewise had to eat their Temple food in a state of ritual purity, while lay people did not. To be sure, everyone who went to the Temple had to be ritually pure. But outside of the Temple the laws of ritual purity were not observed, for it was not required that noncultic activities be conducted in a state of Levitical cleanness.

But the Pharisees held that even outside of the Temple, in one’s own home, the laws of ritual purity were to be followed in the only circumstances in which they might apply, namely, at the table. Therefore, one must eat secular food (ordinary everyday meals) in a state of ritual purity as if one were a Temple priest. The Pharisees thus arrogated to themselves—and to all Jews equally—the status of the Temple priests. We assume so because they performed actions restricted to priests on account of their status, specifically by eating ordinary food in Levitical purity. The table of every Jew in his home therefore was seen as being like the table of the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple. The commandment, “You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy people” evidently was taken literally: everyone is a priest, everyone stands in the same relationship to God, and everyone must keep the priestly laws. At this time, only the Pharisees held such a viewpoint, and eating unconsecrated food as if one were a Temple priest at the Lord’s table was thus one of the two things a person had to do as a Pharisee. The other was meticulous tithing. The laws of tithing and related agricultural taboos may have been kept primarily by Pharisees. Our evidence here is less certain. Pharisees clearly regarded keeping the agricultural rules as a chief religious duty. But whether, to what degree, and how other Jews did so is not clear. But the agricultural laws and purity rules in the end affected table fellowship. They were “dietary laws.”

If the Pharisees were primarily a group for Torah study, as the Dead Sea Scrolls’ writers describe themselves, then we should have expected more rules about the school, perhaps also about scribal matters. In fact, we have only one, about sneezing in the schoolhouse. Surely other more fundamental problems ought to have presented themselves. Neither do we find much interest in defining the master-disciple relationship, including the duties of the master and the responsibilities and rights of the disciple, the way in which the disciple should learn his lessons, and similar matters of importance in later times. The exception to this rule is the sayings in the Sayings of the Fathers (Pirqe Abot). They do refer to Torah study and discipleship. Those sayings, attributed to masters before 70, are first attested in the third century. No one before that time alludes to any of them, while numerous other traditions attributed to masters who lived before 70 elicit comments from authorities from 70 to the editing of the Mishnah in ca. 200. This strongly suggests that the Torah sayings of Abot have been attributed anachronistically to the Pharisees before 70.

This brings us to a puzzling fact: nowhere in the rabbinic traditions of the Pharisees do we find a reference to gatherings for ritual meals, or table fellowship, of the pharisaic party, apart from an allusion to the meeting of several haburot (fellowship groups) in the same hall. This surely supplies a slender basis on which to prove that the pharisaic party actually conducted communion meals, especially since no pharisaic ritual meal is ever mentioned. By contrast, the Qumran laws, which make much of purity, also refer to communion meals and the right or denial of the right of access to them. The whole editorial and redactional framework of the rabbinical traditions is silent about ritual meals and table fellowship. The narrative materials say nothing on the matter. No stories are told about how the “rabbis” were eating together, when such-and-such was said. The redactional formula for pharisaic sayings never alludes to a meal as the setting for a given saying. So the laws concentrate attention on rules and regulations covering all aspects of a ritual meal. But the myth or rites of such a meal are never described or even alluded to. The pharisaic group evidently did not conduct table fellowship meals as rituals. The table fellowship laws pertained not merely to group life, but to daily life quite apart from a sectarian setting and ritual occasion. The rules applied to the home, not merely to the synagogue or Temple. While the early Christians gathered for special ritual meals which became the climax of their group life, the Pharisees apparently did not.

The very character of the Pharisees’ sectarianism therefore differs from that of the Christians. While the communion meal embodied and actualized sectarian life for the Christians, the expression of the Pharisees’ sense of self-awareness as a group apparently was not a similarly intense ritual meal. Eating was not a ritualized occasion, even though the Pharisees had liturgies to be said at the meal. No communion ceremony, no rites centered on meals, no specification of meals on holy occasions characterize pharisaic table fellowship. The one communion meal about which we find legislation characterized all sects, along with the rest of the Jews: the Passover Seder. The Pharisees may have had Seder rules separate from, and in addition to, those observed by everyone else. But these hardly prove they held a communion meal.

Pharisaic table fellowship, therefore, was a quite ordinary, everyday affair. The various fellowship rules had to be observed in wholly routine daily circumstances, without accompanying rites other than a benediction for the food. The Christians’ myths and rituals rendered table fellowship into a much heightened spiritual experience: “Do this in memory of me.” The Pharisees told no stories about purity laws, except (in later times) to account for their historical development (e.g., who had decreed which purity rule?). When they came to table, so far as we know, they told no stories about how Moses had done what they now do, and they did not “do these things in memory of Moses our rabbi.” The sect ordinarily did not gather as a group at all. All their meals required ritual purity. Pharisaic tablefellowship took place in the same circumstances as did all nonritual table fellowship. Members of the sect were engaged in workaday pursuits like everyone else. This fact made the actual purity rules and food restrictions all the more important, for keeping the law alone set the Pharisees apart from the people among whom they lived. Not in the wilderness, on festivals, or on Sabbaths alone, but on weekdays and in the towns, without telling myths, or reading holy books (Torah talk at table is attested to only later), or reenacting first things, pharisaic table fellowship depended solely on observance of the cultic law and expressed a piety formed on the analogy to that of the cult. The relevance of all this to the point at which Talmud Torah becomes the central Judaic symbol and action is negative: We cannot look to the Pharisees of the period before 70 for the source of the ideal and the motive for its serving as the center for Judaic piety.


[1] Professor Sarason comments, “Provided that the list is not a schematic homogenization of diverse names.”