No subject has been more central to modern Jewish scholarship than the role of the Pharisees and the early Rabbis in the history of Judaism. Like “Historical Jesus” scholarship for the history of Christianity, “Historical Rabbis” scholarship has often served as a Rorschach test for modern Jewish identity.
The Pharisees, a major religious movement within Second Temple Period Judaism, were understood by the Rabbis of the late first and second centuries C.E. to have been their precursors. The traditions of the Rabbis were redacted in the Mishnah (in about 200 C.E.), the Talmuds (completed by 600 C.E.) and in other genres of Rabbinic literature. Various modern Jewish communities that have sought to modernize Jewish liturgy, beliefs and practices have embraced the Quest for the Historical Rabbis in hope of finding Jewish models that could legitimize their particular agendas. Looking over their shoulders these Jewish scholars knew that Christians were watching—among them academics and churchmen who were negatively inclined toward both the Pharisees and the Rabbis.
During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, Jewish scholars assumed absolute continuity between the Pharisees and the Rabbis, presenting them in the best possible light. The Rabbis were the spiritual and political leaders of the Jews, these scholars argued, and were well worthy of admiration. The finest statement of this approach was made by none other than a Presbyterian minister and professor at Harvard, George Foote Moore, who referred to the religion of the Rabbinic elite as “Normative Judaism.”