The term "Pharisee" comes from a Hebrew word that means "separated one." It is not clear whether the Pharisees gave themselves this title, indicating that they, voluntarily had separated themselves from "the people of the land"-the ordinary folk who were not as rigorously religious, or whether they eventually had adopted as their own a derogatory title used by the Sadducces. In either case, the title soon became widely accepted and identifies one of the most important groups in Jewish history.
Scholars generally agree that the Pharisees developed from a group of Jewish religious patriots called the Hasidim who lived in the second century B. C. It was a time when the Seleucid rulers of Palestine were actively introducing Hellenism as a required way of life. Jews who had learned in the Babylonian Exile to resist pagan ways and cherish the Mosaic Law found the policy of Hellenization totally unacceptable. The Seleucids took drastic measures to enforce their policy, including the desecration of the temple, and massacred hundreds of patriotic Jews who resisted. The religious Jews would have preferred to retreat to the desert to practice their religion without interference, but the extravagant actions of the Seleucids forced them to ally themselves with the Maccabee family in fighting for political independence.
One group of the Hasidim believed there was no hope to be found in any earthly system; they looked only for a cataclysmic "Day of the Lord" to set things right. They split away from the main body, went into seclusion in the desert into communities similar to the one that was dramatically discovered a few decades ago in Qumran by the Dead Sea. Although this group had continued to attract attention over the years, it had effectively removed itself from the mainstream of Jewish life. The other group of Hasidim-soon to be more widely known as Pharisees-tried to win the common people to their view that keeping the Law was the heart of religion.
Generally, the Pharisees prospered under Hasmonean rule and eventually came to hold a dominant place in the Sanhedrin. The Romans and the Herods, however, preferred the Sadducees, who were far more politically minded and, therefore, more pliable. The Pharisees generally opposed Jewish movements for political independence during the Roman times. They- actually petitioned the emperor for direct Roman rule to quash political turbulence and allow them to carry on their way of life in peace. Consequently, after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Emperor Vespasian permitted a leading Pharisee to establish a rabbinic school at Jamnia in Galilee. By this time the Sadducees were defunct and the Zealots were defeated-they disappeared completely at the final defeat of the Jews at Masada in A.D. 135. The Pharisees, led by Rabbi Hillel, became the dominant and sole surviving party. By A. D. 200 normative Judaism and Pharisaic teaching were one and the same thing.
The most important element in Pharisaic teaching was the centrality of the Mosaic Law. in analyzing the reasons for the Exile, the Pharisees concluded that the Jews were taken away into captivity because they failed to keep the Law. For the Pharisees, keeping the Law became an individual responsibility as well as a national obligation. The Law, however, came to be defined as far more than merely the written words of Moses. It included the interpretations and applications of those words to changing circumstances. From an analysis of the growing compendium of oral and written tradition about the meaning and application of the Law, it became possible for a legal specialist (called a "scribe" or "lawyer") to determine God's will in any particular situation, even though no one had settled the point earlier. When the majority of scribes agreed on a new finding, it in turn became part of the binding tradition that would guide future scribes in generations to come.
The scribes first defined the specific commandments that Moses set forth. They listed 248 positive commandments and 365 negative ones, 613 in all. Then they started to build a "hedge" around those commandments by supplementing them in detail so that the pious person could not break any of Moses' commandments out of ignorance or by accident. For example, Moses commanded the people not to work on the Sabbath. The scribes listed thirty-nine kinds of work that were prohibited, though not specifically mentioned by Moses. Then oral traditions expanded on each of these thirty-nine prohibitions to ensure that the Law was honored. These traditions of the elders became as authoritative and as binding for the Pharisees as was the original Mosaic Law-in fact, the Pharisees viewed them as identical.
The Pharisees believed in the unity and holiness of God, in God's choice of Israel as his special people, and in the authority of the Law in every facet of life. Based on these primary theological concepts, Pharisees concentrated more on practical ethics than on speculative theology or temple ritual. Most people would have considered them "good people" who were sincere about living a "good life."
The Sadducees controlled the priesthood and the temple rituals and finances, while the Pharisees lived out in the towns of Palestine. They controlled the synagogues and, therefore, the education of the average Jewish family. The Pharisees, who came mainly from the lower middle and artisan classes, were more in touch with the people than were the Sadducees, who primarily came from the landed aristocracy. Because they knew about "real life," the Pharisees tried to make the Law something the common person could follow if he so chose.
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, was himself a priest and a Pharisee. His account of the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees understandably is biased. He pointed out that the Pharisees believed in the soul, life after death, eternal rewards and punishments, and angels and demons. The Sadducees denied all these things. The Sadducces believed the Law was fulfilled in temple worship-which they controlled. The Pharisees believed that ritual worship was only a small part of the Law. More important to them was a personal obedience to the spirit of the Law, as well as to the letter of the Law that was embodied in the traditions.
Some Pharisees supported Jesus, such as Nicodemus and probably Joseph of Arimathea. others, however,. rigorously opposed him. His teachings and his claim to be the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets countered everything they valued and lived for. Although the Pharisees were ethically better than most of their contemporaries, Jesus denounced them for ignoring the spirit and purpose of the Law, and for making their own traditions of more importance. The Pharisees had several fierce encounters with him, and eventually took the initiative in plotting his death. They participated in the Sanhedrin trial that condemned him, and they mocked him at Golgotha as he hung on the cross.