Who is a Pharisee?


What is the meaning of a Pharisee

It is difficult to know the correct meaning of the term Pharisee. The most likely interpretation is that this term is derived from the Hebrew verb parash, which means "to separate" or "to divide". If this is correct, then the term "Pharisee" means something like "separated people", or "the separatists".

However, even if this is indeed what Pharisee means, it is not possible to say with exactitude to which such "separation" refers to. Some argue that it is a separation from impurities and worldly customs, others suggest that perhaps this meaning has a more historical application, such as a political position.

What does the Bible say about Pharisees?

The Pharisees were a much larger group than the scribes. They were orthodox Jews in the time of Jesus. Although very important and numerous, the Pharisees had no political pretensions, therefore, they did not dispute power with the chief priests.

The Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, angels, demons and in all other aspects of the spirit world. And that being so, in many respects his doctrine was relatively close to that of Jesus. But there was one aspect that put them in an antagonistic position to Jesus.

It so happens that the Pharisees, as strict followers of the Mosaic Law, considered themselves better than all other Jews – the parable that Jesus told in which a Pharisee looks with contempt for a tax collector reflects this circumstance well (Luke chapter 18, verses 9 to 14).

This arrogance, as well as their excessive concern for appearances, led them to hypocrisy and were much criticized by Jesus because of this (Matthew chapter 23, verses 13 to 15). And hence the ill will that the Pharisees had against Jesus.

The origin of the Pharisees is also another much-discussed point about this group. There are many theories, but none of them are considered to be entirely correct. The main suggestions for the emergence of the Pharisees group are:

The Pharisees may have emerged even in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, being those who rejected the pagan customs adopted by the Jews after the exile in Babylon.
Perhaps they arose among the scribes who proposed to continue Ezra's work in the study of the Law, and among those who dedicated themselves to its strict observance.
They may have arisen in opposition to the Hellenistic influence and the adoption of Greek customs at the time of the government of Antiochus Epiphanes.

There is a possibility that they also emerged shortly after the reconquest of the Temple, with the division among the Hasidim.
The most likely position is that the Pharisees emerged in the period that preceded the Maccabean war, with the aim of resisting and to oppose Hellenistic customs through a strict observance of the Law of Moses, which makes the Hasidim, 'pious', their forerunners.

In any case, the Pharisees appear for the first time under that name during the reign of John Hyrcanus between 135 and 105 BC. John Hyrcanus himself initially belonged to the party of the Pharisees, but later separated from them and became a follower of the Sadducees.

In a way, this triggered a kind of persecution of the Pharisees, especially during the days of Alexander Jannaeus, son of John Hyrcanus, but soon afterwards the wife of John Hyrcanus ended up favoring the Pharisees due to the great influence they exercised among the people.

The teachings of the Pharisees

The Pharisees were known for their strict observance, not just of the written Law, but of oral tradition. To them this oral Law, which they said had been preserved by the leading men of the synagogue going back to Ezra, and before him by the prophets, elders, Joshua, and finally going back to Moses, needed to be strictly observed, and so they did, honoring it even more than the written Law.

The doctrine of the Pharisees considered the sovereignty of God in divine decrees, the moral responsibility of man, the immortality of the soul, the existence of spirits and the resurrection of the body. They also believed in the doctrine of retribution, where punishments and rewards were reserved for the future life in accordance with the present life.

Furthermore, they also strongly emphasized the importance of tithing and observance of the Sabbath laws. So strict were they about keeping the Sabbath that some held that if a person had a sore throat on the Sabbath, he could swallow vinegar but not gargle, as that would be a type of work.

The Pharisees in the time of Jesus

Apparently the party of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus did not have priests among its members, and perhaps its majority were made up of scribes. The Pharisees are prominently mentioned in the New Testament, mostly in a negative light.

Jesus rebuked Pharisaism on several occasions because they externalized religion with their hypocrisy and pride, which simply translated into a type of exhibitionism and false holiness (Matthew 5:20; 16:6-12; 23:1-39; Luke 18:9-14).

Despite getting many points right in their doctrine, the Pharisees played on the people a load of religiosity that not even they were able to fulfill, this because, in fact, they had a mistaken understanding regarding justification by works. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican expresses the error of the Pharisees very well (Luke 18:9-14).

This is why Jesus called the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27), children of those who were responsible for murdering the prophets and righteous men from Abel to Zechariah (Matthew 23:29-36). For the Lord Jesus, they were the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14; 23:13-15). Even before Jesus, the prophet John the Baptist had also reproved the Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7ff).

It is also true that some Pharisees showed a certain respect by Jesus (Luke 7:36ff; 13:31ff). The best known case is that of the Pharisee Nicodemus, who probably became a follower of the Lord (John 3; 19:39). However, in general, the Pharisees took an active part in the conspiracy against the life of Jesus (Mark 3:6; John 11:47-57).

The Talmud itself classifies the Pharisees into different classes, distinguishing between those who rest on a false aspect of humility and strive to make men see their good works, and those who truly demonstrate sincerity in their love for God.

In addition to Nicodemus, the Bible points to other notable members of this party, such as Teacher Gamaliel and Paul of Tarsus himself, before being converted to Christianity (Acts 23:6; 26:5-7; Philippians 3:5). The important Jewish historian and writer, Flavius ​​Josephus, was also a Pharisee, and in his writings we find valuable information about Pharisaism.

After the revolt against Rome and the consequent fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, groups such as the Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots disappeared, and the Pharisees became the maximum expression of the Jewish religion, so that in time Pharisaism became synonymous with Judaism itself.