Who Were The Pharisees?

Stained glass artwork depicting Simon the Pharisee. Editorial credit: Jacek Wojnarowski / Shutterstock.com.
Stained glass artwork depicting Simon the Pharisee. Editorial credit: Jacek Wojnarowski / Shutterstock.com.

The word Pharisee is derived from the Greek word pharisaios, which means set apart or separated. The Pharisees are first mentioned historically in the book of acts and the four gospels in the Bible. A later mention comes from a Jewish Roman historian Josephus when he explained about the four schools of thought on how he divided the Jews in the first century AD. Their appearance in the New Testament shows them in conflict with Jesus and John the Baptist. The synoptic gospels in the New Testament portray the Pharisees leadership as one that was obsessed with the human-made laws the reason why they were in constant conflict with Jesus who adhered to the laws of God.


The Pharisees are thought to have emerged in the third century BC in the days before the Maccabean wars, and this is when there was the usefulness of some of the Jews to accept the pagan customs of the Greeks.The Pharisees rose to fight these pagan customs, which were slowly creeping into the Jewish customs. The Pharisees in the New Testament severally joined forces with the Herodians and the Sadducees to attack Jesus Christ. The attempts in the New Testament by the Pharisees show that they were powerful in the Sanhedrin because they were able to get support from the population to listen to their concerns about Jesus. Even after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, they continued to enforce their strict laws, and it is after the destruction that the transition from Pharisaic Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism.


Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and that the life of the humans were predetermined by God, and that God knew beforehand what would happen in the destiny of human beings. Josephus, who was a Pharisee, indicates that Pharisees believed that the soul is the only thing that was immortal and that the souls of all the good people would be reincarnated. The Pharisees further believed that the souls of the evil people would suffer the eternal punishment. They believed in monotheism, and this is evident in the Shema prayer, which they recited at the temple from the Torah. They believed that there was only one God, the God of Israel and the Shema prayer began by acknowledging that God is the lord and he is the only one.

Emergence of the Pharisees

The Pharisees whose name means the separated ones partly emerged from the group of the scribes and the sages. They were active from mid-second century BC until 70 AD when the temple was destroyed by the Romans. The Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, were backed by the common people while the Sadducees were backed by the social elite who occupied a higher status in the society; they were more democratic and popular. The Pharisees adhered strictly to the Jewish laws and were considered the most accurate in observance of the Jewish laws. They were insisted that the purity laws that were observed in the temple were to be observed outside the temple as well.


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