An Introduction to the Pharisees

Returning to the Gospel of Matthew, another theme in this book is the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees are featured in chapters 12, 15, 16, 19, 22 and 23 of the Gospel. Before looking at these accounts, we should clarify what role the Pharisees played in Jewish society.

After the reconstruction of the Second Temple, two classes of religious leaders emerged. The priestly class, or Zadokites, were known in Jesus’ time as Sadducees (a linguistic corruption of “Zadokite”). The Sadducees were the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it is not clear that all of them are direct descendants of the Zadokites of the sixth century BCE. In either case, the Saducees also represented a political faction in Israel. Their first goal was to ensure the continuity of Temple worship, free of taint from foreign interference. The price of this religious freedom was that the Sadducees endorsed political detente with the Greek, and later the Roman empire.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were not bound by Temple worship as they were not priests per se.  The Pharisees were scriptural scholars that taught (hence, “rabbi”) and maintained an oral tradition of Scripture.  Their interpretation of the Torah would have varied from rabbi to rabbi.  For instance, they did not universally interpret the biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” literally.   The only Pharisee mentioned by name in the New Testament is Rabbi Gamaliel, teacher of St. Paul.  (Acts 22:3)

Because the Pharisees were not tied to Temple worship, they were free to rhetorically attack the occupation of Israel by foreigners. The reputation of the Pharisees was secured during the Jewish revolt of 175-135 BCE. This revolt was precipitated by the introduction of the “Abomination of Desolation” – a statue to Zeus or Jupiter – into the Temple of Jerusalem by King Antiochus IV.     The successful Jewish insurrection against Antiochus, recorded in the Book of Maccabees I and II,  was actively supported by the Pharisee class.  The timing of the revolt was fortuitous, as the declining Seleucid Empire could no longer control its local populations by 168 BCE.

By the early first century AD, the Pharisees also appear to have developed a clerical mentality.   In the Gospels, Jesus reserves his sharpest public criticism for the Pharisees. He argues that the Pharisees tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the people’s shoulders. (Mt 23:4). However, it is not fair to conclude that Jesus thought the Pharisees no better than the Sadducees. Christ was very circumspect about directly attacking political power – since that is not the core message of his ministry.  Though the Sanhedrin was a legal body that included, theoretically, both Sadducees and Pharisees, the Gospels leave the impression that the Temple High Priest had enormous influence over the assembly in Jerusalem.   Rather than criticize the Roman occupation, or directly attack the Sanhedrin, Jesus criticized the Pharisees, whose duties were more pastoral than political in nature.

The Pharisees are the forerunners of modern rabbinic Judaism.  They established the tradition of teaching the Torah via an oral tradition – a tradition preserved to this day in Synagogues.  Some Jews regard the modern term “pharisee” or “phariseeism” to be anti-Semitic, since the rabbinic tradition is at the heart of modern Jewish worship.

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