In our society, the word “pharisee” is not complimentary. It usually means a self-righteous person. That definition parallels the flavor we get from the Gospels of the Pharisees being opposed to Jesus and the early church, while being overly concerned about the fine points of Jewish law.
In part, that’s correct. The Pharisees were “pious men,” which is what their name more accurately means. The Hebrew word perushim literally means “separate” and when those who later came to be called Pharisees first formed, they did so to separate themselves from secular influences. The Pharisees formed around the third century B.C. and became a strong force for traditional Jewish practices against the Hellenism of the Seleucid (successors of Alexander the Great) rulers of Judea.
During Jesus’ time, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Pharisees were part of four sects or factions in Jewish religious life. The others were the Zealots, Essenes and Sadducees. The Zealots preached revolt against Rome. (One of Jesus’ 12 Apostles was called Simon the Zealot.) The Essenes lived a monastic life in the Judean desert. (Although John the Baptist lived a lifestyle similar to the Essenes, he is not considered to have been one.) The Sadducees were, in many ways, opposites of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees and Sadducees are mentioned the most often of these four groups in the New Testament. To understand the Pharisees and Sadducees today, we might use our modern terms of “conservative” and “liberal.”
Even though they started out as traditionalists, by the time of Jesus, the Pharisees would have been considered the more liberal. They believed in following the law of Moses, as recorded in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). But they also believed in a living law, sometimes called the Oral Law and later incorporated into the Talmud, which was an interpretation of God’s law as it applied when various legal, ethical and moral questions arose. It is thanks to the Pharisees that the tradition of teaching in synagogues developed, along with the role of rabbi. They were not members of the priesthood, but came from the laity and, often, the working class.
The Sadducees belonged to the priesthood and were the traditionalists of their day, as far as religious rituals were concerned. They were focused on the rites of the Temple and would not accept anything that was not literally stated in the Torah. They did not accept a developmental aspect to Jewish teachings. However, as far as political connections, they tended to be open to Hellenistic influences and at least part of their group supported the Herodians, the rulers set up in Palestine by Rome.
Since their focus was on the Temple, the Sadducees did not survive long after its destruction in 70 A.D. It was the Pharisees, with their tradition of oral teaching, synagogue prayer and rabbinical studies, that preserved Judaism in the centuries that followed. We can see this happening in the life of St. Paul, who was trained as a Pharisee by the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and traveled outside of Jerusalem in defense of the Jewish faith before his conversion to Christianity.
When we read in the Gospels about the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, we should remember we are also hearing about tensions that developed after Jesus’ time between the Pharisees and early Christians. This was especially true after the fall of the Temple.
Anglican New Testament expert W.R.F. Browning notes, “Much that is written in the Gospels about the Pharisees reflects controversies between church and synagogue and does not accurately represent the conditions prevailing in Palestinian society before 70 CE.”
While Jesus and the Pharisees had disagreements, they also often agreed. Jesuit biblical scholar Fr. Felix Just says, “While some of the later writings of the New Testament show great hostility and nasty polemics between Jews and Christians, most of the arguments between Jesus and his contemporaries should be seen as inner-Jewish controversies.”
Those arguments got nasty, especially when certain Pharisees tried to trap Jesus over points of the law. However, what we don’t always realize is that Pharisees held many of the same beliefs as Jesus’ followers.
For example, the Pharisees believed in the existence of angels, a resurrection of the dead, divine judgment after death and the coming of a messiah who would bring about peace. They also believed God spoke both through the Scriptures and the sacred tradition. Today we would recognize that as our own belief in the sacredness of the teachings of the church’s magisterium that have grown and developed over the centuries.
What we can best learn from the Pharisees is that they preserved the teachings of Moses and developed the traditions of group prayer and the exploration of the Scriptures and their application to events in daily lives. What we can take as a warning from them is the risk of, as Jesus said of them, being overly concerned about preaching but not practicing what they preached (Mt 23:3). What any present-day “pharisee” must remember comes from Jesus’ words in that same passage: “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
Sources: A Dictionary of the Bible; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Encyclopedia Britannica; www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org; Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology; http://catholic-resources.org; The Merriam Webster Dictionary