In Jacob Neusner’s fine little book Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity he provides some valuable insights for those wanting to discuss the historical movement known as the Pharisees. He notes that we have three primary sources: the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, the Christian Gospels telling the stories of Jesus, and “the law and sayings attributed to pre-70 C.E. Pharisees by their successors and heirs, the rabbis of the late first- and second- century Palestine.” (p. 46)
Neusner notes that, “The historical questions we bring to the sources would have been remote and incomprehensible to all three.” (p. 47) Why does he say this? First, “Josephus’ narrative requires interpretation in the light of his own life in Roman politics after 70 C.E.” Therefore, Josephus’ reasoning for discussing the Pharisees will not have anything to do with describing them for the sake of mere explanation, but rather because, “Josephus was engaged in explaining to the Jewish world of his day that Rome was not at fault for the destruction of the Temple, and in telling the Roman world that the Jewish people had been misled, and therefore were not to be held responsible for the terrible war.” (p. 46) Josephus saw his task as doing an apologetic revisionist history in hopes of making this new, post-apocalyptic world of Roman destruction livable for the Jewish people.
The Gospels are not objective sources either. These writings are the most influential on modern verbiage related to the Pharisees, but they “show little interest in the Pharisees, except as a convenient basis for polemic or narrative.” (p. 46) The Gospels depictions of the Pharisees as the primary opponents of Jesus likely have a lot to do with the reality that it was the teachings of the Pharisees which were most influential on Jews after the fall of the Temple. As Christians fought for converts among the Jews and Gentiles they made sure to depict the Pharisees negatively. This is not to say that Jesus and the Pharisees were free of conflict. It is likely that they did have tensions, but they are magnified for literary purposes. Neusner writes, “The interest of the Gospels is not in the history of the Jewish people, but in the life and teachings of Jesus, to which that history supplies the background.” (p. 47)
Finally, “The rabbinical traditions about the Pharisees prove most complex of all.” (p. 46) Whatever materials post-70 C.E. Judaism used they were being reshaped for a world foreign to that of Hillel, Gamaliel, Simeon, et al. Neusner concludes, “The rabbinical legislators show no keen interest in narrative, biography, or historical problems, but take as their task the promulgation of laws for the government and administration of the Jewish community.” (p. 47)
We may not be able to “recover” the historical Pharisees. What we have available to us is how they were framed in relation to the literary objectives of particular authors. Josephus’ assimilation into the Roman world influenced his account. The Gospels missionary movement in favor of Jesus influenced theirs. The rabbinical accounts are an effort to draw authority from pre-70 C.E. Judaism for the community of the strange new world of post-70 C.E. Judaism. These are the various “Pharisees” that we’ve been given.