The Pharisees

The origin of this Jewish sect which appears so prominently in the New Testament is uncertain. Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian, first mentions them in connection with Jonathan Maccabeus war against Demetrius II and the Greeks (Ant. 13.5.9). They are later pictured in conflict with Jonathan Hyrcanus where their views regarding the oral Law are mentioned.

The Pharisees have delivered to the common people by tradition from a continuous succession of fathers’ certain legal regulations which are not written in their Law of Moses, on which account the Sadducean sort rejects them, affirming that what is written is to be regarded as law, but what comes from the tradition of the fathers is not to be observed (Ant.13.10.5f.).

Even the origin of the name ‘pharisee’ (Hebrew: perushim), itself is uncertain. The derivation of the name from the Hebrew root PRS “one who is separate or separated” is clear. But the question remains, “Separated from whom or from what?” Opinions vary regarding the appellation, with some proposing that the name was given by others to the Pharisees in a pejorative sense deriding their pretensions to religious superiority.

Yet, other scholars see the name originating from the Pharisees themselves. This view is supported by the use of the word parush in Rabbinical writings, written by the successors to Pharisaic Judaism. Commenting on Leviticus 11.44. “For I am the Lord thy God. Hallow yourselves therefore and be ye holy; for I am holy.” Sifra on 8.12 comments “As I am holy, so be ye also holy; as I am separate (prush), so be ye also separate (perushim).” In Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 19.6 “Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” it interprets the verse “Holy: holy, hallowed, separated from the peoples of the world and their detestable things.” Thus, a strong connection between the meaning of the word “holy” (kedosh) and “separate” (parush) appears to be in the mind of the commentators.

Although the historical and etymological origins of the Pharisees remain uncertain, the fact that they play a major role in the life of the Jewish people of the Second Temple Period is certain. After the death of Alexander Janneus (103-76 B.C.), with whom the Pharisees had struggled, and their reconciliation with Alexander’s successor, Queen Alexandra (76-67 B.C.), the Pharisees assume an increasing role of religious and social influence.

Josephus in his historical records notes their prominence and gives us insight into their beliefs regarding man’s free will and predestination, resurrection of the dead and recompense for this life in the next.

… the Pharisees, who are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws and hold the position of the leading sect, attribute everything to Fate and to God; they hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests, indeed, for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate cooperates. Every soul, they maintain, is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment (War II.162f).

Although the picture of the Pharisees in the New Testament is often negative, many of the teachings of Jesus are in accord with the teachings of the Pharisees. Indeed, Jesus seems to even affirm the authority of the Pharisees’ teachings (Mt. 23.2-3). For their part, the Pharisees exhibit concern for Jesus’ welfare (Lk. 13.31; 19.39). Pharisees were numbered among the early believers. The Apostle Paul, himself a Pharisee, appealed to his fellow Pharisees when on trial, because he claimed he was being tried for his belief in the resurrection (Acts 23.6-9) which the Sadducees rejected.

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