One of the many mistakes made by the authors of the Christian gospels is attributing the state of affairs in their own time to the time they are trying to describe. An example of this error is the way the Pharisees are portrayed. If you relied solely upon the gospels, you would think that the Pharisees were in charge of the Jewish faith and people1. I have gleaned enough information to suspect that this was not the case.

As I understand it, the Pharisees were actually in conflict with the Temple, and had little or no power1 of their own. They were highly regarded by the average person, but the Temple authorities weren't so fond of them. The reason for the anachronistic accounts from the gospel writers is apparently related to the changes caused by the loss of the Second Temple. After the destruction, the Pharisees were finally free from the scrutiny2 of the priests, and became quite influential in the process of assembling the Talmud.

How accurate is this interpretation? Is there clear evidence that the relationship between the Pharisees and the Temple priests was less than friendly? And would the Pharisees have had any official influence over Judaism and the Jewish people as a whole, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple?

1 To be clear, I am not suggesting that the priests were morally superior to the Pharisees - in fact, quite the opposite. I am well aware that in the early first century, Temple priests were appointed by the Romans on the basis of bribery and political maneuvering. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the true representatives of Judaism, and are represented today by the Rabbis. The power I am talking about is political power and control of the means of observance, which - as far as I have been led to believe - lay firmly in the hands of the priests.

2 "Scrutiny" in a self interested, egotistical sense on the part of the priests. As I understand it, the priests resented the Pharisees for challenging the status quo, which obviously threatened the priests' comfortable position of undeserved authority and high status. The Pharisees were interested in the wellbeing of the Jewish religion and people, whereas the priests were primarily interested in maintaining the status quo for their own benefit.

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    I'm pretty sure that by that time, the position of High Priest was being sold to the highest bidder, who was generally a Sadducee, something the rabbis certainly weren't fond of.
    – Scimonster
    Aug 17, 2015 at 8:24
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    If you're correct that the Pharisees "highly regarded by the average person, but the Temple authorities weren't so fond of them", that doesn't imply, as you suspect, that the Pharisees were not "in charge of the Jewish faith". The Temple priests are not (or at least not de jure) in charge of the Jewish faith.
    – msh210
    Aug 17, 2015 at 14:01
  • @msh210 - I think they would have disagreed with you. I'm not saying that they would be right, but as intermediaries between Rome and Judaism, and as the men in control of Jewish Temple observance, they were certainly powerful in a worldly and mundane sense, and much more so than the Pharisees.
    – Wad Cheber
    Aug 17, 2015 at 21:10
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    @WadCheber The priestly class was not by and large Sadducee, though some were. Often, Sadducees paid bribes to the Roman governors of Judea to acquire the office of High Priest, but even then they had to rein in public displays of Sadducee practice or risk the wrath of the public (such as the incident in Sukka 4:9, c.f. Josephus' The Jewish War, ch. 13). Regardless, priests only had a significant degree of control within their limited sphere of influence (namely, those Temple observances where a priest was necessarily involved), and not in the day to day observance outside the Temple.
    – Fred
    Aug 18, 2015 at 0:51
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    @WadCheber 1. It's important to note that the priests did not constitute a uniform or unified political bloc, and the Pharisees were not therefore opponents of the priests. In fact, a number of prominent rabbis mentioned in the Mishna were priests. 2. Temple procedures discussed in the Mishna (especially in Yoma) suggest that the rabbinic Pharisees had more influence over the priests' Temple service than vice-versa. 3. Some purification could be effected outside the Temple and didn't require sacrifices. 4. My citation to The Jewish War above should be corrected to Antiquities 13:5.
    – Fred
    Aug 18, 2015 at 1:09

1 Answer 1


"History is written by the victor," as they say. In the case of the Second Temple period, however, virtually everyone lost, so interpreting history can be a matter of dispute.

In Jewish tradition, it is, however, indisputable that the Pharisees were the "good guys" and the Sadducees were the "bad guys". As alluded to by Scimonster, towards the end of the Second Temple period, Jewish tradition states that the office of High Priest was sold (by the Roman overlords) to the highest bidder, and the Sadducees, who - to be charitable - ideologically opposed the Pharisees, were often the ones who purchased this position. It was a position of great power, and it was very difficult for anyone else to change this status quo.

A good deal has been written on this subject, a lot of it much less charitable. But your interpretation could be considered "valid", if only from the perspective of the Sadducees, who - to be charitable - disliked the rabbinic class, as represented by the Pharisees.

But from the perspective of traditional Judaism, your interpretation would be considered a warped and incorrect assessment of the period, the Pharisees, and their relationship with the Temple.

Source: Traditional Jewish education.


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