As soon as you begin reading the New Covenant, you’re introduced a group called the Pharisees, (Matt 3:7) among others. They’re not mentioned in the Old Covenant at all, surprisingly, but they’re important nonetheless. In fact there are several religious groups mentioned in the New Covenant and it’s good to know who they were, what their purpose was and why they were so integral in the life of Jesus, His ministry and His death. We’ll learn about quite a few of them, ancient and modern, and this time around we’ll be focusing on the Pharisees.
Matthew 5:20 is the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus said,
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.”
From that we know that the Pharisees had a very, very high standard of righteousness. Surprising isn’t it?
So who were they and where did they come from, because there’s no mention of them in the Old Covenant?
Bible-history.com describes the social situation in Israel after many of the Jews returned home from Babylon and Persia, and how they’d forgotten the standards of God’s Word and how they’d intermarried with foreign wives. They’d moved so far away from God’s Word and they needed to seek godly wisdom and instruction for the sake of the nation and its future, and drastic measures were taken. (Ezra 6:21, Neh 9:2) While the name Pharisee isn’t used, it’s believe that serious and strict teachers of the law were established at that time, in order to teach the people according to a strict interpretation of the Law of God.
The article I read describes the establishment of certain religious groups or party’s this way. “Sometime during the Maccabean period, groups within Judaism had sharply contrasted with each other and two religious parties were develop from them. The Sadducean party came from the ranks of the priests, the party of the Pharisees from the Scribes. The Pharisees were more concerned with legal issues and the Sadducees with their social position.”
As time passed and Greek influence pervaded society, the Priesthood became more liberal and less focused on God’s ways, and the Pharisees became even more focused and united, the Law became even more important and they were meticulous in studying it, interpreting it and implementing it. This attitude may have grown from concern over the liberal views of the Sadducees, they may have wanted to ensure history didn’t repeat itself.
In the eyes of the people, the Sadducees were seen as being more political and seeking social influence, and it was the Pharisees who held the real spiritual authority and tenure. It was the Pharisees who made determinations regarding the Law and in instruction of the people. If someone wanted to know or understand what was and wasn’t permissible, they would invariably seek out the Pharisees and give the Sadducees a wide berth.
Remember how we talked about building fences? How the religious leaders would look at the Law and then build a fence around it, in essence, extending the Law with additional laws and rules, to make sure the original Law of God wasn’t inadvertently broken. Many of these additional laws and rules were drafted and implemented by the Pharisees.
The website for the Jewish Virtual Library describes the Pharisees as being the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. They were especially devoted to what they call the Oral Law. It’s believed that the Oral Law was given to Moses at Mt Sinai along with the Torah, which is the Written Law.
The Pharisees believed that the Oral Law was given so that Moses would know how to interpret and understand the practicalities of living out the Written Law, however the Oral Law wasn’t codified and written down until many centuries later. Today it’s called the Talmud. I did have a conversation with a lovely orthodox Jewish man in Israel who told me the Mishna is the Oral Law. It’s a bit confusing really, but the essence of the Talmud and Mishna is that they’re interpretations of the Law with practical examples of how to be obedient to it.
The Pharisees were not members of the social elite, they were very much considered the blue-collar members of the society and certainly not poor or derelict. They were held in high esteem by their communities. Part of the understanding of God’s blessing among all religious Jewish groups is that of health and prosperity and that poverty and sickness therefore, must be evidence of God’s displeasure, which we know to be Biblically incorrect.
The Pharisees were also very instrumental in developing an adaptation of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple when sacrifices were no longer possible and as such, even more rules, traditions and religious practices came into play to demonstrate levels of devotion and piety.
Next time we’ll look at some of the beliefs of the Pharisees.