Contents | Index | Previous | Next

The Pharisees

THE PHARISEES jesus00000019.gif

Closely linked with the scribes were the Pharisees. The name of the Pharisees literally means 'separated ones'. Their roots go back to the movement of 'the pious' (Hebrew Hasidim) who with the Maccabees, opposed attempts to introduce Greek elements into Jewish culture in the second century BC. Later they opposed the Maccabees when they combined secular and religious offices. They becamea group of laymen who had chosen to live in strictest adherence to scribal tradition and law. Although there were many scribes among the Pharisees who were leaders in their communities, the majority of Pharisees were simple, uneducated men. It was their extreme piety rather than their wisdom that set them apart from others, and they often went to great lengths to demonstrate that piety.


In Jerusalem the Pharisees lived in several communities. Membership was limited to men who had showed an ability to follow scribal teachings. Each community had a leader and followed a stringent set of rules. Members were required to fast twice a week, to observe fixed daily hours of prayer and to take part in a weekly communal meal. The Pharisees saw themselves as practicing the ideal way of life and were convinced that their communities would form the core of the community of the righteous in the Messiah's kingdom. They were often very critical of the people who did not live as they did. The people, on the other hand, looked up to them as models of perfect religious devotion.

The Pharisees are first mentioned as a distinct group under the high priest Jonathan. Unlike the Essenes, who looked for a kingdom of the new age, the Pharisees were willing to make compromises in order to survive as a distinct group. For this they were branded 'hypocrites' by the Essenes. On the other hand, as the Pharisees firmly believed in the resurrection, they clashed with the Sadducees. They held that 'he that says there is no resurrection of the dead has no share in the world to come'. The Sadducees were mainly priests, concerned with the temple worship practices; the Pharisees were primarily scribes, who interpreted the scriptures according to the oral law, which they held was as ancient as the written Law.

Their concern in interpreting the Law (the Torah) was first of all to apply the eternal Law to the changing circumstances of their day, by means of elaborate arguments. Secondly, they sought to 'make a hedge about the Law', that is, to take added precautions to prevent the breaking of the Law. For example, if the Law said that a task must be completed by morning, the rabbis went a step further and said that it should be completed by the previous midnight. A tailor should not place a needle in his clothes on Friday for fear he carry it with him and break the Sabbath law. It was this punctilious zeal for the letter of the Law which was condemned by Jesus as hypocrisy.

Not all Pharisees were hypocrites, however. In the generation before Jesus, Hillel, a famous rabbi who was originally from Babylonia, said: 'Do not do to others that which is hateful to you.' Hillel's grandson, Gamaliel, was the most famous rabbi of his day. The apostle Paul studied under him, and was until his conversion to Christianity a zealously sincere Pharisee. The Pharisees were also opposed to the revolutionary policy of the Zealots. The Pharisee leader Johanan ben Zakkai secured permission from the Emperor Vespasian to open a rabbinical school at Jamnia (Jabneh) near Jaffa, which enabled Pharisaism to survive the Jewish-Roman War.

THE PHARISEES according to Josephus

The Pharisees were of more recent origin and were really the popular party. The term Pharisee means "separated,'' probably because they believed that one should separate himself from whatever contaminates religious purity before God. They originally appeared in the time of John Hyrcanus who was High Priest (134-104 BC), and were probably very encouraged by his great faithfulness to the Law. A feud broke out when they began to suspect him of temporal ambitions at the cost of his religion.

The Pharisees were regarded as exemplifying the religious ideal, and therefore were accepted as spiritual leaders, and as patriots par excellence. You can be sure that they represented as a whole the highest conceptions of religion to be found in the world at that time. A letter written in that time period declares:

"Regarding discussions and explanations of the Law they possessed great aptitude. They struck just the right balance, for they discarded the hard literalness of the letter, and were modest with regard to their own wisdom, and were ready to hold argument, to listen to the opinions of others, and to consider thoroughly every question that might be raised."

However much they are to be held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, it is only fair to say that they acted not from mere perversity, but from genuine conviction and with a good conscience. In their view, the State should be ruled by a priestly ruler who was prepared to enforce the ful1 observance of the Mosaic Law.

The "tradition of the elders" was simply the whole system of explanations, and these were examined on each case with the aid of an extraordinary method of reasoning. The question at issue when the disciples walked through the cornfield and plucked and ate the ears on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-) was not that of stealing corn, but that rubbing the grain to remove the chaff constituted a case of threshing the corn, threshing being prohibited on the Sabbath. If the disciples had plucked the corn and eaten it without rubbing it between their hands, there would have been no reason for a dispute.

Josephus says that the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees and the Essenes on the question of the freedom of the will. As the Essenes were fatalists, and the Sadducees skeptics, the Pharisees declared that God foresaw everything, and yet that man could choose between good and evil. In the same passage (" The Jewish Wars " 2:8, 14), Josephus says that the Pharisees believed that the souls of good men come back to life again but in other bodies, whereas the bad are subject to eternal punishment under the earth. In regard to their customs, we learn that they lived simply without indulging in delicacies of diet, but tried to follow the direction of reason. They respected old people and their opinions. They offered prayers, performed sacrifices, and observed divine worship as prescribed in the Law, and Josephus does not hesitate to describe their conduct as entirely virtuous. Much can be said in their favor, and the more one reads of them the harder it is to be so condemning as is the norm. But the one obvious thing is that they lacked a sense of the inwardness of religion. With all the stress which they placed on externals, they missed the living heart, their religion was too much tradition and conformity to rules

1995-1996 The Bible Knowledge Accelerator ( Registered )