These Pharisees, who formed the most numerous political party in the little Roman province of Judea, contained the dominant inner sect, earlier represented by the Levite priesthood. They made themselves the carriers of the Levitical idea in its most fanatical form, as it had found expression in Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah; they were sworn to "the strict observance of Levitical purity", says the Jewish Encyclopaedia.
As the Levites had triumphed over the Israelite remonstrants, and had succeeded in severing Judah from its neighbours, so did the Pharisees, their successors, stand ready to crush any attempt to reintegrate the Judeans in mankind. They were the guardians of the destructive idea, and the next chapter in the story of Zion was to be that of their victory; as in the case of the Levites, the background to it was to be that of Jerusalem destroyed.
Among the priests themselves, the passing generations had produced something of a revolt against the process of constant amendment of The Law, begun by the scribes of the school of Ezekiel and Ezra. These priests held that The Law was now immutable and must not be further "reinterpreted".
To this challenge (which strikes at the very root of Judaist nationalism) the Pharisees in deadly enmity opposed their reply: that they were the keepers of "the traditions" and of that oral Law, directly imparted by God to Moses, which must never be put in writing but which governed all the rest of The Law.
This claim to possess the secrets of God (or, in truth, to be God) is at the heart of the mystic awe in which so many generations of Jews hold "the elders"; it has a power to affright which even enlightened beings on the far fringes of Jewry cannot quite escape.
Nevertheless, the instinctive impulse to break free from this thrall has at all times thrown up a moderate party in Judaism, and at this period it was that of the Sadducees, which represented the bulk of the priesthood and stood for "keeping the peace of the city" and avoiding violent conflict with the Roman overlords. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were bitter foes. This internal dissension among Jews has continued for twenty-five hundred years into our time.
It is chiefly of academic interest to the rest of mankind (though it has to be recorded) because history shows that whenever the dispute for and against "seeking the peace of the city" has reached a climax, the party of segregation and destruction has always prevailed, and the Judaist ranks have closed behind it.
The present century has given the latest example to this. At its start the established Jewish communities of Germany, England and America (who may be compared with the Sadducees) were implacably hostile to the Zionists from Russia (the Pharisees), but within fifty years the extreme party had made itself the exclusive spokesman of "the Jews" with the Western governments, and had succeeded in beating down nearly all opposition among the Jewish communities of the world.
The Pharisees occupy the second place in the pedigree of the sect which has brought about such large events in our time. The line of descent is from the Levites in Babylon, through the Pharisees in Jerusalem, through the Talmudists of Spain and the rabbis of Russia, to the Zionists of today.
The name "Pharisee", according to the Judaist authorities, means "one who separates himself", or keeps away from persons or things impure in order to attain the degree of holiness and righteousness required in those who would commune with God.
The Pharisees formed a league or brotherhood of their own, admitting to their inmost councils only those who, in the presence of three members, pledged themselves to the strict observance of Levitical purity.
They were the earliest specialists in secret conspiracy, as a political science.
The experience and knowledge gained by the Pharisees may be plainly traced in the methods used by the conspiratorial parties which have emerged in Europe during the last two centuries, and particularly in those of the destructive revolution in Europe, which has been Jewish-organized and Jewish-led.
For instance, the Pharisees originally devised the basic method, resting on mutual fear and suspicion, by which in our day conspirators are held together and conspiratorial bodies made strong.
This is the system of spies-on-spies and informers-among-informers on which the Communist Party is built (and its Red Army; the official regulations of which show the "political commissar" and "informer" to be a recognized part of the military structure, from the high-command level to the platoon one).
The Pharisees first employed this device, basing it on a passage in Leviticus: "Ye shall place a guard around my guard" (quoted by the Jewish Encyclopaedia from the Hebrew original, in use among Jews).
The nature of the revolutionary machine which was set up in Europe in the Nineteenth Century cannot be understood at all unless the Talmudic knowledge and training be taken into account, which most of its organizers and leaders inherited; and the Pharisees were the first Talmudists. They claimed divine authority for any decision of their Scribes, even in case of error, and this is a ruling concept of the Talmud.
Under the domination of the Pharisees the Messianic idea first emerged, which was to have great consequences through the centuries. It was unknown to the earlier Israelite prophets; they never admitted the notion of an exclusive, master-race, and therefore they could not be aware of the later, consequential concept of a visitant who would come in person to set up the supreme kingdom of this exclusive master-race on earth.
The nature of this Messianic event is clear, in the Judaist authorities. The Jewish Encyclopaedia says the Pharisees' conception of it was that "God's kingship shall be universally recognized in the future... God's kingship excluded any other".
As Jehovah, according to the earlier Torah, "knew" only the Jews, this meant that the world would belong to the Jews. The later Talmud confirmed this, if any doubt remained, by ruling that
"the non-Jews are as such precluded from admission to a future world"
(the former Rabbi Laible).
The mass of the Judeans undoubtedly expected that "the Anointed one", when he came, would restore their national glory; in the perfect theocratic state he would be their spiritual leader, but also their temporal one who would reunite the scattered people in a supreme kingdom of this world. The Messianic idea, as it took shape under the Pharisees, was not an expectation of any kingdom of heaven unrelated to material triumph on earth, or at any rate it was not this among the mass of the people.
The Messianic expectation, indeed, must in a sense have been the logical and natural result of the sect's own teaching. The Pharisees, like the Levites whose message they carried on, claimed to know all things, from the date of the world's creation, and its purpose, to the manner of the special people's triumph.
Only one thing they never stated: the moment of that glorious consummation. The burden of observance which they laid on the people was harsh, however, and it was but natural that, like prison inmates serving a term, the people should clamour to know when they would be free.
That seems to be the origin of Messianism. The people who once had "wept" to hear the words of the New Law, now had borne its rigour for four hundred years. Spontaneously the question burst from them: When? When would the glorious consummation come, the miraculous end? They were "doing all the statutes and judgments", and the performance of them meant a heavy daily task and burden.
They were doing all this under "a covenant", which promised a specific reward. When would this reward be theirs? Their rulers were in direct communion with God, and knew God's mysteries; they must be able to answer this question, When?
This was the one question which the Pharisees could not answer. They seem to have given the most ingenious answer they could devise: though they would not say when, they would say that one day "the Messiah the Prince" would appear (Daniel), and then there would be given to him "dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him".
Thus the compressed, ghettoized Judean spirit was anaesthetized with the promise of a visitant; Messianism appeared and produced the recurrent outbreaks of frenzied anticipation, the latest of which our Twentieth Century is experiencing.
Such was the setting of the scene when, nearly two thousand years ago, the man from Galilee appeared. At that time those Judeans who remained in Judea had spent the six hundred years since their casting-off by Israel in what Dr. John Goldstein, in our day, calls "Jewish darkness", and at the end of this period had come to wait and hope for the liberating Messiah.
The visitant who then appeared claimed to point them the way to "the kingdom of heaven". He was the very opposite road from that, leading over ruined nations to a temple filled with gold, towards which the Pharisees beckoned them, crying "Observe!"
The Pharisees were strong and the foreign "governor" quailed before their menaces (the picture was very much like that of our day) and those of the people who saw in the newcomer the Messiah they awaited, despite his contempt for worldly rewards, put themselves in danger of death by saying so. They were "transgressing", and the Roman ruler, like the Persian king five hundred years earlier, was ready to enforce "the Law".
Evidently many of these people were only too ready to listen, if they were allowed, to any who could show them the way out of their darkness into the light and the community of mankind. However, victory lay with the Pharisees (as with the Levites of yore), so that, once more, many of these people had cause to weep, and the catalytic force was preserved intact.