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Who Were the Pharisees? PDF Print
Written by Hegomen Antonious Henein   
Tuesday, 18 September 2007
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Who Were the Pharisees?
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The Pharisees were one of the three sects of Judaism in the time of our Lord, the other two being the Sadducees and the Essenes. It was, according to St. Paul's testimony, "the most straightest sect" (Acts 26:5.)

This sect is mentioned frequently in the Gospels, almost entirely as extremely hostile to our Lord. The Gospel writers often mention them together with the chief priests (Sadducees), scribes and lawyers (two names for the same group), all of whom were hostile to Jesus. These writers make no careful distinction in attributing remarks to one group or to the other or to all together. Their opposition to the Gospel, after the foundation of the Christian Church, continued as eager as before. Although they are seldomly mentioned by name in the Book of Acts, their opposition is frequently mentioned when the "council" is mentioned (Acts 5:15, 5:27, 6:12, 22:30; 23:6.) That "council" is the Sanhedrin and the seventy-two doctors of which it was composed. The more influential part of the Sanhedrin apparently consisted of the Pharisees.

Their Name

The name "phariseos" is the Greek form of the Hebrew "parush," which has uncertain meaning, but possibly means "separated." The name is defined as "one who separated himself from Levitical impurity and unclean food," which necessarily implies separation from those who were defiled by Levitically impure objects.

It must be observed that the name Pharisees is given to them in the Mishna, which is the name given to the first constituent part of the Jewish book, the Talmud, by their opponents, the Sadducees.

Their Origin

The historian Flavius Josephus, as well as some allusions in the Talmud, are the only sources of information on the Pharisees outside of the New Testament. They are usually considered as essentially the same with Hassideans (also known as "Chasidim," which means "godly or saintly men,") mentioned in 1 Macc. 11:42, 7:13-17, and 2 Macc. 14:6. Some find allusions to the Hassideans in Psalms 129:2, 97:10, 132:9, 16, and 149.9, where chasidim is translated "saints."

Their immediate origin may be traced to the period before the Maccabean war, in a reaction against the Hellenizing spirit that appeared among the Jews, and manifested itself in the readiness of a part of the people to adopt Greek customs. Those who regarded these practices with abhorrence and alarm were urged onto a strict and open conformity with Mosaic (Jewish) law. They were drawn even more closely together by the fierce persecution which Antiochus Epiphanes, 175-163 B.C., directe dagainst the Israelites who would not abandon Judaism and accept Greek religion. "And when [the messengers of the king] had rent in peices the Books of the Law which they found, they burnt them with fire. And wheresoever was found with any of the Books of the Testament, the king's commandment was that they should put him to death (1 Macc. 56-57.) The Hassideans, who were the mighty men of Israel, even all such as were voluntarily devoted to the Law (1 Macc. 11:42; c.f. 1:62-63), participated in the Maccabean revolt as a distinct party. When the war ceased to be a struggle for religious liberty and became a contest for political supremacy, they ceased to take an active interest in it.

The Pharisees appear under their own name in the time of John Hyrcanus, 134-103 B.C., from the Maccabean family. He was their disciple, but left them to join the Sadducees (Antiquity 13:10, 5-6.) John's son and successor, Alexander Jannaeus, endeavored to exterminate them by the sword, but they attained to almost supreme power under his wife and successor, Queen Alexandra, 76-67 B.C., and obtained seats in the Sanhedrin. Pharisaism was, after the return from Babylonian captivity, and is to the present day, the national faith of Orthodox Jews.

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