Who Were The Pharisees?

 So far in this series, we have discussed three major groups of Jews that were around in the first century. We have discussed the Essenes, who were a separatist group that placed a heavy emphasis on ceremonial cleanliness and lived in Qumran. We have also discussed the Zealots, which was a group of Jewish revolutionaries noted for their zeal for the Jewish way of life, although they were probably not formally recognized as a party until the Jewish Revolt. These two groups are similar in the fact that most of the information we have about them comes from outside of the New Testament. In the last post, we talked about the Sadducees. This was the group which held power in the Jewish Temple, accepted only the Torah as an authority, and denied the resurrection. It is an interesting fact that, while Jesus spent most of his time sparring with the Pharisees, it was the Sadducees that primarily opposed the early Church. The final group that we will be discussing is the party known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees are the Party that is most well-known from the Gospels. While Jesus dealt with the Sadducees from time to time, it was primarily the Pharisees that opposed his ministry. Because they played such a role in the New Testament Gospels, it is important that we understand who the Pharisees were. Here are five things that we should understand about the Pharisees:

1. The Pharisees may have arisen from the Hasidim.
The Hasidim were the Jewish revolutionaries who "fought with the Maccabees against the oppression of Antiochus Ephiphanes."[1] That is, they had fought for the Jewish way of life during the Maccabean Revolt. As a result, they came from a spiritual lineage that had a zeal for the Law and for the Jewish way of life. They were in some ways separatists, although not in the same ways that the Zealots were, and not to the extremes of the Essenes. This separatist attitude plays out prominently in the Gospels.

2. The Pharisees were the more popular party.
Between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Pharisees were the more popular party among the common Jewish person. The Sadducees are believed to have been the smaller party, but they had quite a bit of power. The Pharisees were more popular, but didn't have as much political power as the Sadducees. This was especially true of the Temple area. However, the synagogues that appeared throughout the known world at this time appear to be associated with the Pharisees. Either way, the Pharisees enjoyed the support of the people.

3. The Pharisees accepted the Prophets and the Writings in addition to the Torah.
Whereas the Sadducees accepted only the Torah as authoritative Scripture, the Pharisees accepted not only the Torah, but also the Prophets and the Writings, which together made up the modern Hebrew Bible. It appears that they derived the doctrine of the resurrection largely from the Prophets and the Writings, which explains why the Pharisees accepted the doctrine of the resurrection while the Sadducees rejected it. 

4. The Pharisees were obsessed with purity.
The Pharisees took the purity laws of Leviticus, which was intended for the Levitical priests, and tried to apply them to the people as a whole. Their desire for purity caused them to exclude those who were considered to be too sinful. This is what caused their clashes with Jesus. While they excluded "sinners," Jesus intentionally spent time with them and told them to repent.

5. The Pharisees were more theologically close to Jesus than we may at first think.
The Pharisees and Jesus actually agreed on quite a bit of theology. Both believed in the resurrection. Both taught holiness. Both believed in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. When Jesus clashed with the Pharisees, it was usually over their application (or lack thereof) of a particular teaching of Scripture. It was orthopraxy, not orthodoxy, that caused Jesus and the Pharisees to clash.

[1] Mark Strauss, "Four Portraits, One Jesus," p. 167


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