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The Pharisees


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The Pharisees are the ancient Jewish religious-political party, which played an active role in the life of the Jewish community in Palestine between 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE . The word pharisaism in American and European cultural traditions is mostly a household one and means hypocrisy or sanctimoniousness, and almost does not correspond to its original historical sense. This essay attempts to clarify the following questions: who is the historical Pharisees; how it happened that their name has received such a negative meaning in culture and what is implied by the pharisaism as a socio-cultural phenomenon.


Pharisaic movement belongs to one of the most interesting periods in the history of ancient Israel. Palestine between 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE represents a great interest for studying because the events of this era had a crucial character in the history of the Jewish people and influenced the development of world civilization. Both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism origins were found in this period. It was an epoch of religious and political ferment, which began with the revolt of the Maccabees, and the formation of the independent Hasmonean State (168-152 BCE), which culminated in a number of dramatic upheavals . The latter include the defeat of the anti-Roman Jewish revolts (66-73, 132-135 CE) and the destruction of Jerusalem, which was the center of political and spiritual life of Israel .

According to the majority of scholars, the name of the Pharisees (Hebrew word Parush or the Arramaic word Perishaya) means separated or isolated . However, there is no general consensus regarding the thing Pharisees were separated from impure population of Palestine, the Gentiles or the ruling Hasmonean dynasty, in relation to which they were in the opposition.

The origin of the Pharisees party is still a controversial issue. For the first time, it was mentioned in the description of the reign of Jonathan (152-143 BCE), the first king of the Hasmonean dynasty. Many researchers attribute the origins of the Pharisees to pious movement, which joined the Maccabean revolt (168 BCE) against Antiochus IV Epiphanes . According to the rabbinic tradition, the appearance of the Pharisees is related to the activities of the Great Assembly who led the life of Israel in the Persian period of 5th-6th centuries BCE .

Investigating the causes of the Pharisees party, it should be noted that in the period under review, Judaism was not a monolithic phenomenon. It has had many sects and social groups, which differed in lifestyles as well as the interpretation of religious laws and policies. The most important cause of separations within Judaism and the emergence of religious-political parties was the collision of the Jewish community with the process of Hellenization the spread of Greek culture throughout the Middle East after the conquests of Alexander the Great .

According to most of researchers, the appearance of Pharisees party was a response to Hellenization. Pharisees opposed erosion of national life principles to the faithfulness to Sinai Covenant and application of Torah commandments to the changed conditions of life. They were characterized by a flexible, creative approach to biblical law that resulted in the introduction of the new norms in the culture, which are not contained in the Scriptures. These extrabiblical standards formed the content of the Traditions of the Fathers, the oral tradition of the Pharisees, which later was transformed into the concept of the oral Torah, in the 2nd century CE .

Pharisees had Sadducees as opponents. The latter was the party, which represented a narrow but influential stratum of Jerusalem priests and aristocrats. They were supporters and agents of Hellenization who sought to integrate closed Jewish community of Palestine in the global world of the Hellenistic civilization. The Sadducees did not recognize the oral tradition of the Pharisees and used only a literal interpretation of Torah prescriptions . There was a constant struggle between the Sadducees and Pharisees for dominance in the Sanhedrin.

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The Pharisees movement was of the democratic character and mainly covered the urban middle layers. It included clerks, merchants, artisans, priests and the Levites. They formed the so-called fellowship whose members made a commitment to execute the laws of the Pharisees the regulations made by rabbis . The number of the Pharisees is not known exactly, but, apparently, it was small and amounted to several thousand people within half a million people of Palestine. Thus, Josephus describes that 6000 of Pharisees refused to swear allegiance to Caesar in the reign of King Herod the Great.

According to the New Testament and several Rabbinic sources, the performance of the law of tithing and maintaining ritual purity was of high importance. It was fundamentally crucial for the Pharisees to comply with the rules of purity in the everyday life prescribed by law for the priests in the Temple. Thus, the Pharisees, even if they were not the temple servants, were required to perform the ritual washing of hands before eating, which was required by the law only for the priests when they ate their priestly share. Probably, they sought to implement the idea of the sanctity of the people to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation . In this case, they opposed themselves to the other groups of the population whom they regarded as ritually unclean, especially the people of the land. The latter is a rural population, which is far from the exact fulfillment of the commandments. Pharisees should not have to buy products to be tithed in am haaretz (ignoramus) because it implemented the law of tithing grudgingly, and it was impossible to be sure that tithe from these products is paid .

An important place in the doctrine of the Pharisees, as well as other Jewish religious groups, was occupied by religious and political views about the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom . Most likely, messianic expectations of the Pharisees and the image of themselves as a kingdom of priests are related to their legislative activity and zeal to fulfill the commandments. The logic of the biblical Testament lies in the fact that adherence to the law and loyalty to the Covenant lead to the implementation of the Gods promises , which are realized in the messianic time. Violation of the law delays the arrival of the Messiah, and the fulfilling the commandments brings His coming. There is a direct connection, which is realized in the later rabbinic period: …but if Israel can keep the Sabbath commandments for two Sabbaths, they will be immediately saved . Consequently, the meaning of the Pharisaic movement up to 70 CE was not so much in traditionalism but in the active approximation of the Messiah by fulfilling the commandments.

The influence of the Pharisees party on the public and political life of Palestine varied in different historical periods. Josephus shows the Pharisees in the 1st century BCE as actively involved in politics people, which are opposed to the Hasmonean dynasty and to Herod the Great, and tried to influence the social life and to extend their understanding of the law on the whole society . The Pharisees are hardly mentioned by Josephus in the period following the reign of Herod . The New Testament shows the Pharisees in the first third of the 1st century CE as not politically active people and completely immersed in a solution of ritual questions. These data have parallels in rabbinic sources , which allows to conclude that activities of the Pharisees are gradually shifting from the socio-political to religious and ritual sphere at the time of Hillel and Shammai, at the turn of the Christian era.

Thus, the Pharisees were one of the many currents in Judaism the Second Temple period, which sought to embody the idea of a holy nation and bring the coming of the Messiah. The value of the Pharisees in the history is determined by the fact that after 70 CE, its principles formed the basis for the formation of Rabbinic Judaism.

Pharisaic movement would have remained a fact of local Jewish history, which preserved only meager data sources about it, but due to the New Testament texts, Phariseeism entered the world culture as a symbol of a certain type of religious consciousness.

It is necessary to consider the problem of the relationship of Jesus Christ and the Pharisees in order to understand the meaning of the image of Pharisees in the Gospels. Despite certain nuances and differences, they are mainly presented as a force that opposes and withstands Christ. This confrontation takes place as a part of a battle, which is led by Christ against the evil forces ruled by the devil. However, this theological concept does not diminish the historical data contained in the Gospels about the party of the Pharisees and their relationship with the founder of Christianity.

The Pharisees accused Jesus and his disciples of violation of the commandments. First of all, it was about a violation of the Sabbath (Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, and his disciples plucked the ears of corn on the Sabbath, which was interpreted by the Pharisees as the work forbidden on the Sabbath). Jesus also disobeyed Pharisees rules on the preservation of ritual purity: he did not commit the prescribed washing before the meal and shared it with ritually unclean sections of the population, publicans and sinners. Furthermore, Jesus spoke to the lower and ignorant segments of society and also allowed women among his followers, which clearly went against the Pharisaic principles, and probably caused the irritation in Pharisees. It was all important for the Pharisees, but, apparently, the root cause of rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees was the messianic self-consciousness of Jesus. He taught without relying on the tradition of the fathers and putting his authority above the Torahs one. After all, Jesus is accused of blasphemy and the use of magic to heal the sick (that he uses the power of Beelzebub to heal possessed people) .

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In turn, Jesus criticized the hypocritical movement. This criticism was in line with the prophetic tradition that rejected the soteriological significance of the temple victims and denounced the oblivion of major moral principles of the law, Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice . Jesus criticized the Pharisees and scribes because human tradition displaced the commandment of God for them (Mark 7:8) ; they scrupulously allocate tithe of herbs but bypassed the more important matters of the law justice, mercy and faithfulness ; carefully avoided ritual impurity but did not care about moral purity . According to the Gospels, the Pharisees has such negative traits as vanity, desire for popularity , hypocrisy, ostentatious righteousness , contemptuous attitude towards ordinary people that do not understand the intricacies of the law . Hypocrites is one of the most common names of the Pharisees in the New Testament texts.

Criticism of Pharisaism culminates in a lengthy diatribe of Jesus . According to the Gospel of Matthew, the speech was delivered in the temple in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus ministry, the day before his arrest and execution. In this speech, Jesus reproduced the model of behavior of the ancient Hebrew prophets, which passionately reproved spiritual illnesses of contemporaries. Jesus accused the Pharisees that they shut the door of the kingdom of heaven , that Jerusalem will lose the favor of God because of their sins , and the Temple of Jerusalem will be destroyed .

In the New Testament, Pharisaism appears not just as a party in Israel but also as certain type of religious consciousness, which may be inherent not only the Pharisees but also the disciples of Christ . The Pharisees, as they are depicted in the Gospels, see righteousness in scrupulous adherence to the requirements of religious law, but they forget the moral principles of the Torah, the more important matters of the law , designed to be translated into specific legislation. According to the Gospel, Pharisees righteousness has external and hypocritical character, generates a representation of its own exclusivity and superiority, leads to spiritual blindness and the rejection of the Messiah.

This evangelical assessment formed the basis for understanding the Pharisaism that has come into the Christian tradition. Currently, it may mean the ostentatious virtue, confidence in own righteousness, exaltation, lust for power and careerism of clergy, and other inconsistencies evangelical ethical standards hidden behind external well-being and careful observance of rituals.


Historically, Pharisees were one of Jewish movements of the Second Temple period, which were distinguished by their piety and played a significant role in the formation of Rabbinic Judaism. In the Gospels, Pharisees are presented as Jesus Christ opponents who are accused of forgetting the moral essence of the Torah. Pharisaism is conceptualized as a symbol of hypocritical righteousness and as a type of religious consciousness, and enters the Christian tradition exactly in this sense. In modern times, its notion becomes a part of the lexicon describing the elite, which proclaims the high ideals and principles but follows them only in words.

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