Where did the Pharisees come from?
The Old Testament tells the story of “Israel”, but by the New Testament the nation is more commonly referred to as the “Jews”. However, already in the book of Esther, we can see the word yehudi (“Jew”, “Judahite”) being used for the whole of God’s people, not just those from the tribe of Judah. At the time of the Babylonian exile, tribes were important, and upon the return from exile we can see the importance of clans (Ezra 2). At some point between the Testaments clans seem to have become less important and from the second century BC we see the rise of religious groupings (often called “sects”) based more around shared values than family ties.
The largest of these were the Pharisees, who emphasised observing not only the law as it was written in the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) but the oral tradition of additional details of how this should be done. Another significant force were the Sadducees, whose name links them to the high priest Zadok (1 Chron 6:4–8). This smaller, elite group wielded political power as the priestly class in the time of Jesus.
A third group, not mentioned in the New Testament, are the Essenes. Both Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish philosopher) and Josephus (a Jewish historian) number these at around 4,000. The Essenes are associated with the ruins at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the caves nearby. In contrast with mainstream Judaism, which focussed on the temple, the community at Qumran seem to have separated themselves from the world, and within the Dead Sea Scrolls we find sectarian texts specifically supporting withdrawal from society.
Besides these Jewish sects, there were changes among the other groups that lived around Israel. Christians will be familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, whose shock factor hinges on the fierce hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews. And yet, while 2 Kings 17 tells of the origin of mixed religious practice in Samaria, in the Old Testament we do not yet see the level of antagonism found in the New Testament between Jews and Samaritans. Numerous factors led to hostility, including the destruction of the Samaritans’ temple by Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus in the late second century BC.
Meanwhile the Old Testament people of Edom moved westward into southern Judaea. Their name with a Greek ending became Idumaeans. John Hyrcanus, a Hasmonean (Maccabean) leader, forced Idumaeans to convert to Judaism, and thus Herod the Great could claim to be Jewish even though he had an Idumaean father. People from Idumaea came to listen to Jesus (Mark 3:8) and played a significant part fighting alongside the Jews against the Romans during the war that began in AD 66.