Who were the Pharisees? Most scholars seem to locate their beginnings between the return from the Babylonian exile and the uprising (c. 165 B. C.). There seems to be a link between them and the Hasidim or “pious men” of the intertestamental period:
· the Hasidim regarded themselves as being the orthodox Jew
· they held strict religious views based on the Mosaical covenant
· they maintained a zealous commitment to ancient Judaism and its ways
· political and national aspirations were of little interest.
· they were devoted to preserving the old paths against cultural changes and a changing world
By the time of Israel’s political independence under Maccabee (140 B. C.) the Pharisees appear to be a recognizable group already entrenched in their infamous conflict with the Sadducees. During the next one hundred years they would go in and out of the favor of the rulers, but grew more and more in their popular standing.
Two of the most famous and influential of the Pharisees before the time of Christ were Hillel and Shammai. Hillel’s House more popular…his followers led in the formation of the academy at Jamnia after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. Paul was a student of Gamaliel who in turn was of Hillel’s teaching.
The name “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.” It may mean that they separated themselves from the masses of the people or that they separated themselves to the study and interpretation of the law. The Pharisee’s desire was to obey that which their forefathers had neglected.
Indeed it was out of this intense concern to follow the law scrupulously that the Pharisees developed their unique characteristics:
- In order to keep from any deviation or transgression from the Torah they developed specific regulations and guidelines in the application of the sacred law.
- These stipulations in turn became the oral tradition which in time the Pharisees held in equality with the written commands of God.
True religion in God’s kingdom is not a question of ritual, of philosophy, of location, or of military might—but of right attitude toward God and toward other people. The Lord summed it up in the words “I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).
When the Pharisees with whom Jesus was having lunch were bothered that He did not ceremonially wash His hands before eating, Jesus said, “Now you Pharisees have the habit of cleaning the outside of your cups and dishes, but inside you yourselves are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the One who made the outside make the inside too? But dedicate once for all your inner self, and at once you will have everything clean” (Luke 11:39-41, Williams). That was His message for every sect of Judaism.
Although the precise origin of the Pharisees is unknown, they appeared sometime before the middle of the second century b.c. Numbering perhaps as many as six thousand, many of them were also scribes, authorities in Jewish law both scriptural and traditional. As has been noted many times in this study of Matthew the Pharisees were by far the dominant religious group in Israel in Jesus’ day and the most popular with the masses.
The other major party the Sadducees, were largely in charge of the Temple, but their driving concern was not for religion but for money and power. As their name suggests, the Herodians were a political party loyal to the Herod family.
The Essenes, which are not mentioned in Scripture, were a reclusive sect who devoted much of their efforts to copying the Scriptures, and the Zealots were radical nationalists who sought to overthrow Rome militarily.
Like the Sadducees, the Herodians’ and Zealots’ interest in religion was motivated primarily by desire for personal and political gain. Consequently it was to the scribes and the Pharisees that the people looked for religious guidance and authority, a role those leaders greatly cherished.
The common Christian stereotype of the Pharisee is “the hypocritical enemy of Jesus.” The basis for that stereotype is the fact that the gospels frequently present the Pharisees in the role of Jesus’ antagonists.
Early in Jesus ministry, they became His opponents. They grew increasingly hostile as His popularity and influence grew among the Jewish populace.
Matthew’s first reference to the Pharisees records John the Baptizer castigating the Pharisees and Sadducees who visited him in the desert as “offspring of vipers.”‘ (Matt. 3:7).
Matthew records numerous encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees:
- The Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
- They claimed His power to heal came from the prince of demons.
They accused His disciples of violating the Sabbath when they stripped ripened grain from stalks along the path.
- They conferred among themselves seeking a way to destroy Him.
- They asked Him for a sign which would prove His relationship with God.
- They asked why His disciples did not keep the authoritative traditional
By using a controversial divorce question, they tried to trap Him in His teachings.
- They wanted to arrest Him
- They sent people to “respectfully” ask Him a trick question concerning taxes in a de-liberate plan to “ensnare” Him in His teachings.”
Luke adds considerable additional information about their antagonistic feelings:
- When Jesus forgave the palsied man of his sins, the Pharisees began reasoning that Jesus had blasphemed
- Once they tried to frighten Him away from Jerusalem by warning Him that Herod Antipas wished to kill Him
- Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to eat with him, and Jesus accepted Jesus accepted another Pharisee’s invitation to breakfast. On this occasion Jesus shocked him by not ceremonially washing His hands before eating.
The gospels clearly portray other segments of Jewish society as being equally hostile toward Jesus and His teachings. Among the other antagonists were the chief priests, the scribes, the Jewish elders, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the lawyers. (we’ll look at each of these groups during this study).
The Basic Concern. There is broad agreement concerning the basic concern of Pharisaism.
· A dire threat to the survival of Judaism began with the Babylonian captivity (597 BC).
· From its beginnings, Judaism was designed to be a national religion of a settled, localized people.
· They would have one center of sacrificial Worship.
· Attendance to national religious festivals would be within ability of all and compulsory for all the men
· A priesthood would be accessible to the populace and capable of meeting their religious needs
The Babylonian captivity created a dilemma with which Judaism was not designed to cope. That dilemma threatened to destroy the Jewish people as a distinctive society and Judaism as a religion:
· the temple was in ruins and its site far away
· sacrificial worship as originally instituted was impossible
· with no temple in which to serve, the priests could not function in their ancient role
· religious festivals and pilgrimages as they had been observed in Palestine were impossible
The end result was new serial circumstances, new religious questions about life and existence, new ways of living, new moral dilemmas, new ethical questions, new aspects of human needs, and differing religious demands.
At some point in this period, Pharisaism evolved. It derived its impetus from two basic concerns:
1. The desire to preserve and to maintain Judaism’ old paths and ancient ways.
If the ancient ways were to survive, Judaism had to answer effectively these new moral and ethical questions and meet the real needs of the daily life situation.
2. The desire to answer the questions and issues of the day by making the spirit and the intent of the Torah relevant to the problems and needs of daily life.
Ineffective, irrelevant “pat answers” from a world and society which no longer existed would have doomed Judaism to becoming a dead religion. Teachings of the Torah had to harmonize with the realities of the existing world The true spirit of the Torah and God’s intent in the Torah had to be applicable to all life’s realities in that present age.