We have read about the Pharisees in the New Testament and their antagonism against Jesus and His ministry. But, who are they, and where did they originate?
If we search on the Pharisee’s origin in the Bible, we can only find few details. There were no specific definitions about the notorious men who watched Jesus’ every move. But, if we look back at the history of Judaism, we will see the importance of the Pharisees and their significant contribution to the faith and culture.
The word ‘Pharisee’ most likely comes from the Hebrew word, ‘prushim,’ which means ‘separated ones.’ It was unclear what the label truly signified. But, according to the ancient Jewish texts, no group identified themselves as Pharisees. Therefore, the name originated with the people outside the group.
Three primary sources depicted the Pharisees: Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, the New Testament, and the rabbinic literature. Josephus viewed the Pharisees from a Greek point of view and thus described them as a school of thought.
Meanwhile, the New Testament portrays them as a powerful religious sect and a political group. Their attempts to influence the government were only to preserve Judaism and not for political power.
Lastly, the rabbinic literature shows the Pharisees as a social movement, changing how the Jews lived. They teach the principle of worship beyond the temple. They believed that Jews were supposed to practice purity rituals not just inside the temple but also outside it.
Ultimately, Pharisaical practices were adopted when the temple was destroyed in the first century. If there were no Pharisees, Judaism would less likely survive because Jews believed the temple was the center of their faith. When the temple got destroyed, the Pharisees gathered the people in the synagogues to pray and teach Torah. Later on, this group of Jews became the foundation for mainstream Rabbinic Judaism.
Moreover, the Pharisees believed that the Oral Torah was equally authoritative with the written Law. Way back on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Torah, Jews thought that oral instructions were used to interpret the Torah. These were then passed down to sages and experts of the Law, including the Pharisees.
But, modern Christians view them in a negative light. Although, this is not surprising because of their overly legalistic following of the Law. And even in some cases, thwarting the original intention of the commands.
Learning from their history, we can understand why the Pharisees were vigilant and aggressive against Jesus. They were only trying to preserve Judaism as they did years past. Ryan Nelson put it this way, “So perhaps it’s better to think of the Pharisees this way: when Jesus came onto the scene, Israel needed a heart transplant, and these groups were like an overactive immune system, rejecting the very thing they needed to survive.”
Reference: Overview Bible