A Brief Look at the Pharisees

Posted on April 20, 2018

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By David Ettinger

This is the third in a short series of brief blogs on some of the “players” who had a major role in the four Gospels: the Sadducees, Pharisees, and, to a lesser degree, the Essenes. The first blog was “The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes: The Precursor”; the second was “A Brief Look at the Sadducees.”

Who They Were
phariseesThe Pharisees emerged from the Hasadim (“pious ones”), which arose during the time Antiochus Ephiphanes (175-163 B.C.) and grew during the rule of the Hasmoneans (160-63 B.C.) in Israel (see my blog, “The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes: The Precursor.”) The Pharisees (which means “separated ones”) were not a group of clergy as many Bible students believe, but a coalition of devout laymen.

A number of the Pharisees came from the scribes, who were learned men whose business was to study the Mosaic Law, transcribe it, and write commentaries on it. The Pharisees were impassioned students of the Law who took the position as teachers of the Law.

At the time of Jesus there were about 6,000 Pharisees throughout Israel.

What They Believed
To the Pharisees, verses such as Deuteronomy 8:1 were of supreme importance: “Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors.” Besides this preoccupation with the letter of the Mosaic Law, the Pharisees also believed in apocalyptic teaching, angels, and the resurrection from the dead – beliefs rejected by the Sadducees.

The Pharisees also believed that the Mosaic Law should be adapted to meet changing needs. As a result, they studied and debated extensively, developing an expansive commentary known as the “Oral Law.” The Oral Law dealt with matters the Mosaic Law did not cover; hence the Oral Law was the edict of men, not God. Sadly, the Pharisees came to give as much credence – if not more – to the Oral Law as they did the Mosaic.

Once the Oral Law became as equally accepted as the Mosaic Law, the Pharisees strove to live up to the multitude of burdensome rules they – not God – had created. Furthermore, they expected the “ordinary” citizens of Israel to do the same, and were contemptuous of those “sinners” who did not abide by their strict codes.

A Different “Purity”
torah scrollThe Pharisees scrupulously observed the Mosaic and Oral Law and distinguished themselves from the Sadducees by their views regarding purity. The Sadducees believed ritual works (animal sacrifice) was the only way to please God. The Pharisees, on the other hand, focused on ritual purity as the defining experience in Judaism in virtually every aspect of life. The Pharisees adhered to a rigid application of the laws governing the Sabbath and ritual purity. Their debates over what was “pure” and “impure” led to the development of an elaborate cleansing system.

The Pharisees wanted above all else to avoid “uncleanness”; therefore they devoted themselves to keeping each miniscule detail of every ritual and moral commandment. In the New Testament, the Pharisees challenged Jesus on matters involving the Law, including purity and Sabbath observance.

Hated Corruption
The Pharisees were not as extreme as the Essenes, who also arose out of the Hasadim. The Essenes turned their backs on the Temple and withdrew from society as they were disgusted with immoral and corrupt priests who controlled the Temple. The Pharisees shared with the Essenes their repugnance of this Temple and priestly corruption.

Important Achievement
Among their achievements, throughout the Hasmonean reign of Israel, the Pharisees were instrumental in establishing synagogues (Jewish houses of worship) throughout Israel, knowing that the majority of Jews could not on a consistent basis make the trip to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship.

nicodemus

The actors who played Jesus and Nicodemus, from the movie “Jesus of Nazareth”

The synagogue was crucial to the Pharisees in that it gave them the opportunity to spread their own concepts and teaching to the general citizenry of Israel while at the same time decreasing the influence of the Sadducees. Thanks to their efforts, by 50 B.C. there was a synagogue in just about every village with a significant Jewish population.

Jesus and the Pharisees
Jesus had many interactions with the Pharisees, most of them confrontational and filled with discord. Yet, Jesus sought them out, desired to bring truth to them, and even socialized with them (Luke 7:36). In fact, we know of at least two Pharisees – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-39) – who most likely came to faith in Jesus.

In the end, however, Jesus condemned the Pharisees (along with the teachers of the law) in some of the most powerful language to be read anywhere in Scripture. He accused them of being hypocrites – those who claimed to be of virtuous character, principles, and moral and religious beliefs, “but inside they [were] full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). Read Matthew 23:13-36 for Jesus’ full indictment of them.

The Legacy of the Pharisees
Simply put, the Pharisees should have known better. They certainly knew the Torah (the Old Testament Scriptures), and should have recognized the Jewish Messiah who was in their midst. However, hard hearts, observance of manmade laws and ritual, and exalted esteem of their own importance kept them from bowing the knee to the One who came to them offering salvation from their sins and everlasting life.

Up next: A Brief Look at the Essenes

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