The Pharisees were a Biblical Jewish religious party typified in modern times as Christian white-wash, conservative legalism and exclusivism. Actually it was the Sadducees that were conservative, and recognized only the law of the Old Testament. The Pharisees, who were more progressive, recognized the authority of oral tradition and religious speculation as supplementing the law. The Pharisees were in fact a radical party of reformers in Israel that made Torah and the faithful life the center of religion and the primary locus where people encountered their God as a living reality. Josephus describes the Pharisees as a "body of Jews who profess to be more religious than the rest, and to explain the laws more precisely." This was the most powerful movement in Israel, and after the destruction of the temple and the waning of apocalypticism, they represented the sole spiritual force in Judaism. Rabbinical Judaism is derived from the Pharisees.

The true Pharisee made love of God and love of the neighbor the chief commandments, the sum and substance of the Torah from which all else flowed. He recognized no other sovereignty but the kingdom of God, no other rule but that prescribed by the divine commandments. They were strict observers of external rites and ceremonies beyond the requirements of the law, placing the traditions of the elders on an equal footing with the written oracles. They abjured Greek culture, literature, and commerce.

The word Pharisee itself was derived from the Hebrew Parush, separated, because they affected very great sanctity. Separated from what? In essence from all uncleanness of soul and body. The Pharisees (Perushim, separatists) were so named by the Sadducees as meaning that they separated themselves from those who contracted religious impurity by neglecting the requirements of ritual cleanliness. They were a continuation of the Chasidim, or Devotees, of the Maccabean age, who had upheld the strictest application of the Law.

The churches conflict with the Synagogue was, therefore, mainly with the heirs of the Pharisees, and it was for these polemical reasons that the early Christian writers projected onto the Pharisees the various corrupting religious trends Jesus had denounced in his preaching, it had a tragic consequence for the image of Judaism.

The people are blind when they misinterpret divine election as a guarantee that they are superior to others, have an elevated place in history, and are destined to triumph over their enemies. This misinterpretation prevents them from being aware of the actual danger in which they live and of their own infidelity to the divine promises; a privileged status which grants them power over the destiny of others. This deafness leaves the religious community vulnerable, Jewish or Christian, for it is no longer able to listen to God's word, nor is it open to conversion and renewal. The people then regard themselves as a holy community, and their ministers as a holy priesthood. Their basic concern has become the protection of their privileges and tradition. The Pharisees falsify their self-understanding and do not see the games of power and the structures of domination at work in their community. This attitude easily gives rise to an exaggerated belief in divine guidance and hence to a false consciousness.

It is not a stretch to compare the Pharisees with the Babylonian church of today. Arising from the scribes or doctors of the law, the Pharisees were hypocritical sticklers for external observances; they wished a strict separation between themselves and the common people, the Jews and the Gentiles; they held tradition as well as scriptures, the immortality of the soul, eternal punishment, the resurrection of the good, but they overrated interference of God in human affairs, thus lessening the freedom of man's will, they formed a religious rather than political party and the bulk of the people were with them. This sect was hostile to the idea of spiritual regeneration since their religion consisted of outward rules and self-made holiness.

The Pharisees were the "cream of Judaism" at the time of Jesus. The ordinary people looked up to them as their religious leaders. Every Pharisee was one of the scribes, that is, a man especially trained as a expert in the Torah. They were ardent nationalists, anxious to preserve their faith intact in the faith in the face of strong pressure to conform to Hellenistic and Roman culture. For them the Jewish Torah was the wall that protected Israel from corruption from pagan influences. Exact and perfect obedience to the Law of Moses in all its details was the only road to actuating the kingdom of God.

It was easy for many of the Pharisees to embrace Christianity. For them the salvation was merely the matter of adding the idea that Jesus was the Messiah to what they already believed. Thus they were inclined to feel that Christianity was nothing more than a new party formed inside Judaism, that it in no way canceled the Jewish customs. It was from these "converted" Pharisees that the circumcision party (Judaizers) arose.

There are a number of indications of Jesus' sympathy with the Pharisees. He often ate in their homes. He defended their authority. At the same time, Jesus' approach showed striking differences from that of the Pharisees. In regard to the Torah, the Pharisees based their faith and practice not only on the Pentateuch written Law, the scriptures, prophets and sacred writings, but an authoritative oral tradition had come down through the centuries as well, which they regarded as the true interpretation of the Scriptures. Jesus, on the contrary, rejected this approach. Pharisees believed in their creed with pathetic tenacity and disbelieved in Jesus with hopeless obstinacy, and the reason of their faith and their unbelief was the same. It was their utter and unqualified worldliness; They believed in a kingdom where its citizens strove for the chief seats in the synagogues and the highest rooms at feasts; "How can you believe.. which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only" said Jesus. They detected the universal note in Jesus' teaching, they resented His unguarded charity. the Pharisees judged with much correctness that the teaching of Jesus and the privileges of Judaism were inconsistent. If a publican was a son of God, what advantage had a Pharisee?

Jesus often condemned the ostentatious piety of the Pharisees. They believed that men would be allowed to enter the Lord's kingdom only if they had proven their devotion by obeying every one of the hundreds of religious laws that had accumulated over the centuries. Yet they also represented the most liberal trend of Judaism. The majority of Pharisees were simple, uneducated men. It was their extreme piety rather than their wisdom that set them apart from others, and they often went to great lengths to demonstrate that piety. Jesus was not entirely friendless in high places, nor among the Pharisees. For many of the Pharisees, particularly the rich and the elderly, were intrigued by the prospect of not only living on in this Kingdom of Heaven, but also descending again onto earth. Were it not for the liberal Pharisee leadership, Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus would have been in chains long before His ministry was actually over.

Despite their faults, the Pharisees were the hope of Israel, the Puritans of Palestine, with the deplorable legalism of Puritanism which Jesus condemned, but with its sturdy virtues too, its convinced faith, stubborn conscientiousness, devout loyalty. Of all the parties in Israel Jesus was closest to them. While the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace; the Pharisees had the multitude on their side. They were not simply quibblers over legalistic trivialities, they were fighting for a cause they willingly would die for.

In general, the Pharisees were the middle class. The mass of the people were ordinary Jews, more or less devout, more or less ritually observant, disliking the Sadducees, revering the Pharisees. They were for the most part laymen: they dominated the synagogues which were to be found in every town and village. There may have been only 6000 Pharisees altogether, according to Josephus. They kept aloof from all that was not Jewish and which, for that reason, was also irreligious and impure, since for Judaism, religion, and legal purity were, practically speaking, inseparable concepts. The Sadducees stood for Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice - the pre-Prophetic concept of Judaism. The Pharisees stood for Synagogue, Rabbi, and prayer - the post-Prophetic concept. The Pharisees had no political ambitions. They had a belief which combined fate and free will. They believed that all things were in the hand of God and yet they believed that man was responsible for his actions.

These Pharisees and teachers of the law were not essentially bad men. In their original and essential purpose they were good men. They were bent on preserving what they believed to be the authorized commandments and codes for religious speech and conduct. The trouble was that they had lost imagination, and so had become insensitive to the new ideas which are necessary to creative hope and faith. Theirs was a personal as well as a national religion, for they showed a sense of sin, recognized the need for repentance, and made much of the grace and forgiveness of God. They did not like the Romans much but did not have the heart for taking up arms in what they were shrewd enough to know would be a hopeless struggle. So they waited for God's kingly intervention at the time of his choosing, when the Romans would be thrown out and holy men of God (themselves) would govern the divine kingdom.
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