Who were the Pharisees?

Dear Maggie,

Who were the Pharisees?


Dear Wondering,

Oh, the famous Pharisees!  Twas a group that often sparred with Jesus and yet it was a group to which Jesus could easily have been lumped.  In the Judaism of the New Testament times there were three major groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. 

The Pharisees were a group of Jews deeply educated in the Torah.  They organized schools, developed councils, and worked to live fully into the teachings of God’s law.  They believed that the authority they had was born from their knowledge of the Torah (what we know as the first five books of the Old Testament) and the strict adherence to its laws in every aspect of their lives.  They believed that God would bring redemption if only God’s people would follow every aspect of God’s law.

The Pharisees had also interpreted Jewish tradition to accept some ideas that were not always present in Jewish thought, namely, a belief in the resurrection of the dead and in the work of angels.  Jesus, it is clear, believed in the resurrection and angels, placing him in the camp of the Pharisees on those issues.

The Sadducees on the other hand were the priestly class.  In fact their name comes from Zadock, a famous priestly family.  This group was in charge of running the temple and they believed their authority came from being a part of the priestly class—rooted in nature more than in action.  Because they were the elites they also tended to compromise a bit more to hold onto power.  They tended to bend where needed in order to keep the temple running under various occupying forces.  They were also more conservative, theologically, meaning that they rejected revolutionary ideas like resurrection.

The Essenes were a bit more like the Pharisees, but they believed that the world would end soon and it was best to go live a faithful life in the desert.  Their groups were mostly made up of celibate men and their separatist leanings made their pure life in the wilderness inaccessible to most.  Their famous and helpful contribution to us now is the Dead Sea Scrolls, a major archeological discovery of Essene literature including the oldest copies we have of many books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Finally, there are the Zealots.  These were the radical terrorists of their day.  The Zealots sought to liberate God’s people by violent rebellion against occupying forces.  They would attack Roman soldiers and eventually succeeded in leading a major rebellion which the Romans crushed in 70 C.E.
It was into these groups that Jesus came and offered what was in many ways of a fifth alternative for Judaism that would soon open up access to God’s people to anyone, Jew or Gentile.

I hope that answers yer question Wondering.  It certainly does help in understanding so much of what Jesus says and so many of the debates Jesus carries on with the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels.

Peace be with ya!