“Pharisee” from the Hebrew means “separated”. The Pharisees were a religious social current of the Second Temple period (temple in Jerusalem).
This was one of the three Hebrew schools of philosophy that, according to some sources arose during the Maccabean era but according to others during the time of Ezra.
The worldview of the Pharisees is the basis for Halakha (a set of laws and regulations of Judaism, which establishes the boundaries of Jewish social, family and religious life) and all movements of Orthodox Judaism.
The word “Pharisee” comes from the Greek “Pharisaios”, which, in turn, comes from either the Hebrew “parush” or from the Aramaic “prishaya”, which means “to set apart, to separate”. The name of the Pharisees is associated with two aspects. First of all, it shows a break in the religious views of the group with gentiles and non-religious Jews. Secondly, it has a political sense—complete autonomy from the elite, the ruling party of the Sadducees.
Christianity has introduced an aspect of hypocrisy into the concept of “Pharisaism”, so in the modern lexicon, this word can be used in this sense. The first mention of the Pharisees can be found in the Gospel and the Book of Acts of the Holy Apostles.
In 597 BC, the expulsion of Jews from the ancient Jewish kingdom began. Subsequently, after the conquest of Babylon by the Persians, the Jews returned to Judea, but they were not allowed to restore the Jewish monarchy. In the same period, the Sadducees—the party of the elite and priests—appeared. This caused changes in the previously established way of Jewish religion and culture. The emergence of the Pharisees was the result of opposition to the actions of the Sadducees and their temple ritual. The party of the Pharisees (“separatists”) was formed mostly from a group of scribes and sages.
Upon completion of the construction of the Second Temple, a significant proportion of the Jews did not attend services within its walls, they gathered in synagogues to read prayers and the Torah. Rabbis (teachers or masters) gave priority to the study of the Torah, including its oral version, which they believed appeared on Mount Sinai, while its interpretation was received directly from God.
After the capture of Persia by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the time of Hellenization came for the Jews. During this period, the confrontation between the sages and the priests intensified. Subsequent to the invasion of the Seleucid Empire, the Jews experienced violent Hellenization, forcing them to abstain from their own religious foundations.
The advantage of the Pharisees was that they were able to preserve Judaism from external coercive influence from Persianism and Hellenism. Solely thanks to the Pharisees, Jewish religious teaching was able to regain its former greatness, once achieved by the great Jewish prophets.
The Pharisees considered unacceptable the combination of two directions of power in unity of command—the royal power and the rank of the high priest. They explained this with the fact that the unity contradicted the traditions and the law of Moses. Historically, the status of the king has always been associated with the duties of a commander assigned to him. According to the canons of Judaism, a person who was forced to kill on duty should not lead the spiritual life of the people.
A fierce conflict between the Pharisees and the Maccabeans led to a popular uprising. As a result, there was a war that lasted six years, in which approximately fifty thousand Pharisees died.
During the reign of Herod (37-4 years BC), the party of the Pharisees lost political weight in society, and their activities began to be focused on research aimed at studying the Torah. Before the final fall of Jerusalem, there was a separation of two political parties among the Pharisees: the party of Hillel’s followers with peace-loving views and the supporters of Shamay, who called themselves Zealots. The Zealots supported the idea of a revolt of the people.
Flavius Josephus was a Hebrew military leader and historian who gave the world the greatest amount of information about the Pharisees, their philosophy, and their opponents—the Sadducees. In his writings, he illustrated that the Pharisees were popular among the people, and therefore, their authority among the people was very high.
The Pharisees were famous for their philanthropy. They were wise, knew the laws, were supportive and opposed encroachments on people by the elite. They believed that the observance of the laws of purity should be not only during the temple service, but also outside it, and the laws of the Torah should be understood in the context of the interpretations of the sages, who have authority from God for this. Loyalty to the traditions and laws of their religion was a distinctive feature of the Pharisees.
The Oral Law was one of the controversial issues between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees considered it an immutable Jewish religious rule, and the Sadducees adhered only to what was contained in the written Torah. They rejected the oral Torah, the Prophets, the Scriptures and resurrection from the dead. The phrase “An eye for an eye” is a striking example of the different interpretations of the scriptures. The Pharisees believed that for the loss of an eye the offender was obliged to pay the injured person. Whereas the Sadducees understood the meaning more literally: for the loss of the eye of a victim, the offender must lose his own eye.
There were also disagreements in the judicial-religious aspect of the life of society. The Sadducees emphasized the authority of the Second Temple, its rites and services, and the Pharisees followed the laws of Moses.
In the Gospels, the reference to the Pharisees is contradictory. Jesus Christ spoke of the need to observe the rules of the Pharisees and at the same time expressed a critical attitude to their prayers. He pointed to the Pharisees’ exaggerated condemnation of sinners and their excessive confidence in their own righteousness. In the Bible, the Pharisees, in most cases, were presented as being hostile to Jesus Christ.
The Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul, retribution for actions, and in the resurrection from the dead on the eve of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The great value of the activities of the Pharisees was that they acted to unite the people. To do this, they tried to correlate the laws of religion to the living conditions of the Jewish people, based on the interpretation of the scriptures. The Pharisees almost completely succeeded in abolishing the death penalty, as they believed that it’s the right only of God to punish crimes.
Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (head of the Sanhedrin) in 200 BC made changes to the Mishnah—the Hebrew religious and legal collection of the fundamental religious prescriptions of Judaism. Most of the spiritual sages whose quotes the Mishnah contains, lived after the destruction of the temple in 70 BC. This indicates the beginning of the transformation of Judaism from the Pharisaic to Rabbinic movement. The Mishnah was an important collection and a single authoritative text of oral interpretations and a tradition of the Pharisees, later also of the Rabbis. This contributed to the preservation of the oral tradition during the destruction of the Second Temple.
Subsequently, the Sect of the Sadducees ended its existence, and the Pharisees laid the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism. Historians see Pharisaic Judaism as the progenitor of Rabbinic Judaism. Currently, all denominations of Judaism are considered to be the successors of the Rabbinic movement, that is, the Pharisees.