At the time of Christ, the end of the second Temple period, there were a lot of divergent types of Israelites. You had Samaritans who claimed to be the descendants of the northern tribes. You had the Judeans - the descendants of those who had returned from exile in Babylon. You had lots of people who were also Judean who had never bothered to return from exile in Babylon. The community of Judeans in Babylon was led by someone called the exilarch, a descendant of King David! You had the priestly families, who eventually comprised the Sadducees. Since there was no king, the priests dominated Judean civil and religious life during the period of Persian rule.
There was a problem, however. The temple in Jerusalem was a bit suspect. It had been established under foreign rule and besides, there was no ark of the covenant in the shabby Hasmonean version of the Temple. The concept of the synagogue had probably already developed in Babylon. It was a way to follow the religion of Israel without a temple. The Temple in Jerusalem had ceased to be the only and perhaps even the primary expression of Israelite religious practice. The synagogue created alternatives. Remember that the prayer life of the exiled Judean community had been standardized and made communal by the great assembly in Babylon.
In the times of the first Temple you prayed when and how you wanted, when necessary you brought your lamb or bull or pigeons to the court of the men in the temple, handed them to a member of the tribe of Levi who slaughtered them while you waited down the steps that marked off the court of the priests into which you couldn’t go unless you were a descendant of Levi, son of Jacob/Israel. Things were different now. You prayed certain prayers everyday as the sages of the law and the scribes had taught in the exile. Many, if not most, Jews lived outside northern Judea. Galilee was a three-day walk to the north. People might try to go up to Jerusalem for the big festivals, but couldn’t go to the Jerusalem Temple regularly. However, they could meet at the synagogue for morning, afternoon and evening prayers and maybe a little kibitzing followed by a light nosh. On Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbos, (Friday Evening and Saturday,) a weekly Torah portion was read publicly in the synagogues, prayers were said and the holidays were celebrated.
Priests ran the Temple, but scribes and sages, soon called rabbis, controlled study of the Torah. They also taught that there was an oral Torah that originated on Mount Sinai and had been given by God to Moses and the elders of Israel whose inheritors they claimed to be. These sages were not priests. They were not part of the Temple apparatus. They were scholars of the Torah and this new day to day life of prayer and ritual that could be practiced by any Israelite anywhere. Religion ceased to the property of the priests who formed the Sadducee party. So it was that the synagogue became and remains the focus of Jewish communal prayer. The Temple was no longer the only institution for Jewish religious life. Outside of Judea, the synagogue became the only possible focus.
When Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East in 332 BC, an imperceptible crack appeared between scholars and the priests; Hellenism, or as I have called it Greek-ification. Some of the priests seemed a bit collaborationist, some did not. Jerusalem was liberated from the Syria Greeks in 165 BC and the Temple was restored. In 141 BC an assembly of priests and others affirmed Simon Maccabeus of the Hasmonean family as high priest and leader, in effect establishing the Hasmonean dynasty and that dynasty was sucked into Greco-Roman and its politics. Priests became indistinguishable from politicians as has happened so commonly in Judeo-Christian history, but that could never happen now (he said sarcastically.) The Hasmonean Maccabee priest kings expanded the temple platform! They took over the monarchy and the high priesthood and had the right to neither! A segment of the priestly class seems to have rejected the temple, and formed the party of the Essenes and the other puritanical baptizing sects out in the desert. There they awaited the messiah who would straighten out all this mess by cleansing the Temple, the priesthood and the monarchy...at least that’s one theory. But one group took the middle ground.
Enter the Pharisees, a name that probably meant separate, or pure. They weren’t going to go along in with the Hellenists if they could avoid it. They just didn’t want any trouble. Like your bubbe says, “You just shouldn’t mix in!” They probably emerged from the already mentioned scribes and sages. They were a theological and political faction which was clearly a force to be reckoned with from about 150 BC until the second destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The Pharisees were different from the Sadducees in more than just separateness from Greeks who were the cool kids at that period of western history. Sadducees were priests maintained a strict ritual purity that most of the community did not, such things as no wool and linen together and two separate sets of dishes, one meat and one milk etc. etc... But when the Sadducees were off-duty things Greco-Roman were just fine. The Pharisees held that all Jews should observe the purity laws even outside the Temple.
The Pharisees were the experts of Jewish law of whom there were never more than about 7,000 or 8,000 at once. Amazingly, they were actually very popular among the common people because they created a way for the common man to participate more fully in the religion of Israel. The attitude of the aristocratic priestly Pharisees was, “Don’t try this at home!” The Pharisees made the religion of Israel a domestic religion that could and should be practiced in the home and in the synagogue. According to the Pharisees, a learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest. Look up mamzer on your own. I’m not gonna tell!
Next week: What has all this to do with me and Jesus anyway?