The Pharisees, who tend to be seen as bad guys by unsophisticated readers of the New Testament, are the people who made rabbinical Judaism possible.

They were the populist, anti-elitist campaigners for a Judaism that could be practiced at home and on the street, not just at the Temple. And when the Temple was destroyed, they compiled a Talmudic approach that made the continuation of Jewish observance and culture possible in exile.

Not bad for a bunch of guys who were afflicted with Elderly Male Rabbi syndrome.

It is remarkable to see how Webster 1913 allows itself to be swept by misconceptions and ignorance and present a completely twisted image of historical facts based on shallow christiano-centrism.

To describe the Pharisee as elitists who sought to separate themselves from other Jews by "pretensions to superior sanctity" shows nothing but debilitating ignorance or perhaps malicious libel.

The Pharisee were one of the two major parties in the jewish Sanhedrin, the high religious court that constituted during the days of the Maccabaei kings a sort of parliament. The other major party (the Sadducee party) represented mainly the nobility, the priests and levites of the temple, whereas the Pharisee party were mostly of humble upbringing, and much of the social edicts of the Mishnah and the Talmud were passed thanks to the Pharisee.

Anyone who's ever read anything written by a Pharisee should be able to see how there was nothing farther from their minds than being separated from anything, or to consider themselves holier than most.

The Pharisee were the ones who disregarded ritual as such, and were most lenient in their interpretations of halachic laws, starting with Old Rabbi Hillel (earlier, really) and ending with Rabbi Akiva.

The Pharisee resisted adamantly most of the expansionist tendencies of the Maccabaei kings, Alexander-Yanai in particular, and demanded the sumpremecy of the Sanhedrin and its law over the kings.

They resisted the forcible conversion to Judaism that Alexander-Yanai performed in Edom, and were the main jewish opposition movement to Herod.

They were also among the sternest opponents to early Christianity (and for that, probably, they owe their disrepute), considering any religion whose god can be human and can die, pagan, and any religion that does not admit the absolute unity and oneness of god (and faith in the Holy Trinity was not considered so), polytheist, and therefore they considered Christians heretics, (this is largely still the perspective of many Orthodox jews in regard to christianity).

The name 'Pharisee' itself ('Prushim' in Hebrew) was almost never used by them. Rather they usually refered to themselves as The Brothers ('HaAkhim') or The Brotherhood ('HaAkhvah'). Another common name for them was 'The Writers' (HaSofrim).

One might also note that Pharisean Judaism evolved in later time to Rabbinical Judaism, which is the most important (almost exclusive) form of Judaism today.

{Jewish Sects and Orders}

In opposition to the "mingling" of the Sadducees, arose the brotherhood of the "Distinct" or "Separatists" (perushim, whence comes the Greek form of the word "Pharisees." The name which they themselves assumed was Chaberim, or "Associates"). When or how the fraternity assumed its shape, we cannot accurately tell. The word "Pharisee" is not found in the Old Testament. Its earliest occurrence being in Josephus, in the annals of Jonathan the high priest (144 B.C.), and of John Hyrcanus (109 B.C.), when the body was already powerful and of great repute (Josephus, Ant. xiii. 5, secs. 9 and 10, 5.)

Two points were held by the Pharisees as of high importance, and on each of them a pledge was exacted as a condition of entrance into the community. One was the obligation to pay all tithes before the use or sale of any commodity, nothing being allowed to be eaten with regard to the tithing of which there was any doubt. The other point related to the avoidance of all uncleanness, in regard to which a multitude of rules were laid down, many of which were minute and puerile. To these two characteristics of Pharisaism Jesus alludes (Matthew 23:23,25). But the chief point of distinction lay in the regard paid by the Pharisees to the oral law, a series of unwritten interpretations of the Divine oracles handed down from doctor to doctor, and forming an elaborate system extending to every detail of worship and of life. The "traditions of the elders" thus spun around God's Word a web of intricate refinement; and while purporting to "fence the Law," or to lessen the risk of breaking it, these traditions became in the multiplicity of subtle distinctions and vexatious rules an oppression to the conscience. Formalism was substituted for spiritual religion, and the "separateness" of this fraternity, as evinced by their long robes with fringe and tassels, their broad phylacteries, their long prayers publicly recited by the highways at the customary hours, as well as by the casuistry of their teachings and the inconsistency of their lives, proved their piety to be in great measure an affectation. Very terrible is the indictment brought against the Pharisees by Jesus, as reported in Matthew 23; Mark 7; Luke 11. They were in fact the principal obstacle to the reception of Christ and His Gospel. It was impossible for them to accept the spirituality of His doctrines, or to descend to the humility of those who would follow Him. Their spirit was that of self-sufficiency and pride. When John the Baptist preached the baptism of repentance in the wilderness, the Pharisees for the most part (Luke 7:30), although not entirely (Matthew 3:7) held aloof. They thanked God that they were not "like other people" (Luke 18:11); yet while exalting themselves in their own esteem to heaven, they became "a son of hell" (Matthew 23:15).

Undoubtedly there was another side to the Pharisaic character. They held certain great doctrines, as that of a resurrection and future life, with a tenacity unknown to the people at large; while their strictness on points of religious observance served as an antidote to prevailing laxity. The Apostle Paul regarded it as a distinction among the professors of Judaism to be a Pharisee, the son of a Phariss (Acts 23:6; cf. Philippians 3:5). The best and the worst of the people were Pharisees; but in the best there was a narrowness and fanaticism, from which the inevitable reaction was shown in the worst.

Politically, the Pharisees were the national party, steadfastly maintaining the separateness and independence of the Jewish people, against all efforts to reduce them to Roman allegiance. They "considered themselves the guardians of the Divine Law and the ancestral customs, trusting implicitly that He who selected them to be His peculiar people, would protect and shield them and theirs from all outward dangers which threatened the state. They were firmly penetrated by the conviction that as long as they were faithful to their God, no power on Earth, however formidable, would be permitted successfully to ravish His holy heritage." Hence on the accession of Herod six thousand Pharisees refused to take the oath of allegiance, but "were put down with a strong hand"; and, so far as they dared, they remained opponents to the Roman rule. In this respect they contrasted favorably with the time-serving Sadducees, and were diametrically opposed to the Romanizing Herodians. That all three parties were united in their enmity to Christ shows effectively how the most diverse groups will converge in their opposition to a perceived threat.

The number of Pharisees was but small considering their great influence with the people. After the destruction of Jerusalem they disappear as a distinct sect, but their teachings and spirit have given the tone to modern Judaism.

Phar"i*see (?), n. [L. Pharisaeus, Gr. , from Heb. parash to separate.]

One of a sect or party among the Jews, noted for a strict and formal observance of rites and ceremonies and of the traditions of the elders, and whose pretensions to superior sanctity led them to separate themselves from the other Jews.


© Webster 1913.

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