Besides the New Testament, our only information about the Pharisees comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian and some allusions in the Jewish Talmud (compilation of Jewish Oral Law). Josephus mentions them as first appearing in late-second century, BC under the Maccabeans whom they initially supported. Although a small lay group of not more than about 6,000, they had a profound influence on the Jewish religion right up to the present day.
Their name comes from the Hebrew perusim meaning "the separated ones" likely because of their avoidance of Gentiles, sinners and less observant Jews, as well as the ordinary "people of the land." This haughtiness and rejection of other groups is what caused Jesus to rebuke them.
Conflict arose because Jesus spoke with authority and, to the Pharisees, Jesus seemed to disregard the Law particularly Sabbath observance and ritual purity. But Jesus' aim was to make the Law a vehicle of God's will, not to destroy the Law.
The Pharisees accepted the written Torah, the Bible's first five books, but also the oral traditions which were an interpretation of the Law and a safeguard to its observance. These were like "fences" built around the Law.
TALMUD AND MISHNA
For the Pharisees, knowledge of the Law, of its 613 prescriptions and prohibitions was a guarantee of piety. In the third century AD, these oral laws were codified in the Talmud and the Mishna.
The Pharisees were, in a sense, the liberals of their day since they were able to incorporate later beliefs because of their acceptance of the oral law. They believed in the resurrection of the body, in angels and demons, in the coming of a Messiah, in a certain human freedom and in a gathering of Israel at the end of time.
Because the Pharisees were laity who emphasized the Law, which they taught in the synagogues, they were able to re-group and function after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. They withdrew to nearby Javnia and molded a new Judaism, whose heart was the Law, its interpretation by the rabbis and its observance.
It is at Javnia that the books of their Scriptures were decided, oral traditions collected and the prayer against the Christians (Nazarenes) added to the set of Eighteen Benedictions. This is the Judaism that exists today.
A closely related group, the scribes, is frequently mentioned in the New Testament as opponents of Jesus. They were the educated experts in the Law. Scribes held important political positions in the ancient Middle East as is evident in the writings and art of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The only schools were the scribal schools.
Scribes are present in many situations in the Old Testament. Among others, they appear as members of King David's and Solomon's royal courts where they likely were given the tasks of compiling Israel's legal and religious traditions, as well as organizing the administration.
We have many examples in the New Testament of the Scribes' hostility to Jesus. They watch him closely for violations of the Sabbath and Jewish rituals of cleanliness. They accuse him of blasphemy when he forgives sin. They challenge Jesus' authority and accuse him of being in league with the devil in his exorcisms.
Jesus mentions them in his list of enemies in his predictions of his Passion.
In some ways, the debates between Jesus and these groups were somewhat like the usual debates between scholars. But, beyond that, to the Pharisees and Scribes who cherished the Jewish traditions, Jesus seemed to be a threat to the Law, which to them was the heart of Judaism.
Examples in the New Testament show that not all Pharisees nor all Scribes were hostile to Jesus. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, in John chapter 3 acknowledged Jesus as a teacher from God. And Paul was proud to declare himself an observant Pharisee.
SCRIBES DEFENDED PAUL
A Scribe questioning Jesus regarding the greatest commandment was told that he was not far from the kingdom of God (Mark 12.28-34). Regarding the resurrection of the body, Scribes defended Paul (Acts 23.9). There were probably a number of Pharisees and Scribes who became part of the early Christian communities.
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