January 12, 2010 // Uncategorized

Who exactly were the Pharisees?

There were many different groups and sects at the time of Christ, most of which are mentioned in the New Testament. One of these sects were the Pharisees. M. Tenney says that, during the time of John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.), who founded the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled southern Israel from 135-36 B.C., the Pharisees emerged from the old party of the Hasidim or Hasideans. This was a group of Jews in the period of the Maccabean dynasty (167-134 B.C.) who were devoted to the law. The Pharisees were the master interpreters of the oral traditions of the rabbis. Most of them came from middle-class families of artisans, tradesmen, teachers, and shopkeepers. For example, St. Paul, who had been a Pharisee, was a tentmaker.

The Pharisees exerted a powerful influence over the peasants. The ancient historian Josephus says the Jewish people relied on the opinion of the Pharisees rather than that of the king or high priest. The trusted Pharisees were often chosen for high government positions like the Sanhedrin, or Jewish council. There were about 6,000 Pharisees at the time of Jesus.

Father John McKenzie says the Pharisees were heirs of Ezra, a priest and scribe skilled in the law of Moses, who had been a member of the Jewish community in Babylon in southern Iraq who left this land of exile and returned to Jerusalem to establish there the observance of the Mosaic law, possibly in 458 B.C. The Pharisees felt the Jewish religion was centered upon the strict and severe observance of the law. They fostered synagogue life and worship and called people back to a study of the law and its application to their own time.

The Pharisees agreed with submission to the Roman government because Rome was usually tolerant of the religions of subject peoples. The zealot party, however, wanted to overthrow the Roman government and engaged in guerrilla warfare. The Pharisees were laymen and were different from the Sadducees, the priestly party. The Pharisees were not thrilled about the ignorant common people of the land who neither knew or cared about their strict religious observances.

The Pharisees held some different beliefs from the Sadducees. The Sadducees held that only the first five books of the Old Testament imposed valid obligations on the Jews. Besides these five books of Moses, the Pharisees also accepted the oral traditions of the elders. This chain of elders went all the way back to Moses. The Pharisees believed in angels and spirits as intermediaries between God and man, in the resurrection of the dead and in the judgment of God upon man or retribution in the world to come. These beliefs were denied by the Sadducees. The Sadducees defended freedom whereas the Pharisees believed in predestination.

J. Comay says the Pharisees prescribed rules for new members, including the observance of seven hours of prayer, giving one-tenth of all possessions to the Temple, fasting twice a week on the days when Moses ascended and descended from Mount Sinai, performing ritual washings and offerings, and adhering to complicated food laws and Sabbath regulations. The Pharisees then scorned those who did not meet their rigorous standards. Contact with these sinners rendered the Pharisee unclean.

Although many of the Pharisees criticized Jesus, some Pharisees liked Jesus, such as Nicodemus who secretly met Jesus at night about the sacrament of Baptism and then helped bury Jesus, the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea who offered the crucified Jesus his new tomb hewn out of rock, the rabbi Gamaliel who publicly defended the apostles before the Sanhedrin, and Paul the great missionary who devoted his life to spreading the Gospel of Christ.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, its priesthood, and the Jewish community of Israel in A.D. 70, the Sadducees, as a group, disappeared. The Judaism that survived was that of the Pharisees and the rabbis.

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