The Pharisees

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(Article from ‘Archaeological Study Bible’)

The Pharisees were an influential political and religious sect during the Second Temple period. During this time of increasing foreign influence, they promoted the faithful observance of Jewish law at both a national and an individual level. The exact meaning of the term Pharisee remains uncertain. The noun derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish.” The title appears to have been applied originally in a negative sense when the Pharisees were expelled from membership in the Sanhedrin under John Hyrcanus (135—104 B.C.), though it was later understood in a positive sense either as “those who separated themselves” from all sources of ritual uncleanness (see Mk 7:1-23; Gal 2:12-13) or “those who interpreted the law precisely” (see Ac 22:3; 26:5).

The Pharisees believed that God was the sovereign Creator, who expressed His will to humanity through Scripture. Moreover, He granted humanity the gifts of responsible moral choice and reason in order to apply the Scriptures to this life in preparation for the resurrection, judgment, and the life to come (Ac 23:6-8). Members of this sect carefully observed the Mosaic Law, systematically interpreting and adapting it to the conditions of their own time in order to maintain a sense of purity among the populace (Mt 23:2-3). This system of interpretation and way of life were transmitted by generations of teachers and became know variously as the oral law, the tradition of the elders (Mk 7:3-5; Gal 1:14), the works of the law (Ro 3:20-28; Gal 2:16-3:10) or simply the Halakhah (from a Hebrew word meaning “walk”; Halakhah is traditional Jewish teaching that governs behavior and religious practice).

The Pharisees saw themselves as the heirs of a vast body of interpretative tradition that enabled them to function as reliable guides for the Jewish people during a tumultuous era (Ro 2:17-20). Although some Pharisees came to believe in Jesus as the Christ (Ac 15:5; Php 3:4-11), the majority justified their opposition to Him on the grounds that Jesus ostensibly taught on His own authority (Mt 7:29; Jn 3:1-3; 8:13), as well as on the basis of His interpretations of various issues that were of vital concern to them.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees on the grounds that, for all their commendable observance of rules and traditions, they were fundamentally unrepentant, neither knowing God nor loving people (Mt 23).

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