Pharisees
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The religious fundamentalists, the ultra-orthodox cult, of first-century Judaism noted for their strict observance of rites and ceremonies of the written law, and for insistence on the validity of the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees differed from the Sadducees in traditionalism and in their teachings concerning the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, future retribution and a coming Messiah.

According to Josephus the Pharisees numbered somewhat above 6,000 in Herodian times (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. XIII, ch. x, sect. 6 and bk. XVII, ch. ii, sect. 4). They resisted Hellenism, albeit influenced by it, and rejected any accommodation with the pagan world. As lay teachers of the Torah, the Pharisees drew mainly from the middle and lower classes. Albeit relatively small, the Pharisee movement, with its political-religious overtones and aggressive efforts at imposing its righteousness based upon rules and rigor upon the Jewish public, became known as the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5 KJV, NKJV; Acts 26:5 KJV, NKJV), or the Pharisees’ party (Acts 23:9 KJV, RSV).

Seemingly the most pious people in the land, for in daily life their observance of their religious precepts was of paramount importance, the Pharisees were not particularly popular with the Judean public although Josephus, a Pharisee himself, wanted his readers to believe they were. Their reputation was as "the strictest sect" of the Jews (Acts 26:5). The general public tended to hold them in awe but as a rule did not join in their religious fervor.

The New Testament writers provided the Pharisees with a more prominent role in the gospels than other Jewish sects due to the continuing tension and conflict between the two groups. The teachings of Jesus and his followers consistently clashed with those of the Pharisees—their halakah. The amount of space devoted to the Pharisees does not suggest that they were a dominant force in Judea but only that they openly opposed Jesus and the apostles.

Many readers of the gospels assume falsely that the halakah of the Pharisees describes the religious practice of the Jewish public in the homeland. Beyond matters of ritual purity it did not. The gospels only provide part of the story, that focused on the fundamental conflict between Jesus’ teachings—his rejection of the halakah of the Pharisees—and the teachings of the Pharisees. The accounts of the conflict between the two opposing movements record the activity of relatively small groups. The general population of first-century Palestine did not live as Pharisees, nor as Sadducees, nor as Essenes.


Page last edited: 02/02/06 08:35 PM


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