Of the various religious Jewish groups or sects that came to be at the time of the New Testament, the Pharisees were arguably the most separated and distinct from the rest. In fact, the word “Pharisee” itself is thought to be from the Hebrew “perushim” meaning separatists, as many Pharisees were known to detach themselves from many such as those who interpreted the Law differently than they, as well as from Gentiles or Jews who embraced the Hellenistic culture or other foreign influences invading Judaism (Strauss, 132).
Thought to be descendants of the Hasidic Movement, the Pharisees emerged sometime after the Maccabean revolt (Strauss, 132). While the Sadducees possessed great political power, the Pharisees had a great support among the people who were primarily middle-class merchants and craftsman quite involved in synagogues. They believed in resurrection of the dead, the prophesied coming of the Messiah, as well as the afterlife.
Their extremely devout and strict attitude and approach they had to the to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) is another main characteristic of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were experts on the Law, believing that the gift for interpreting the law, also known as oral law, had been given by God Himself along with the written law to Moses on Mount Sinai. According to the Pharisees, the written law could not be understood without the oral, and therefore the oral law was more important. This approach to the laws made holiness or sanctification possible outside of the temple through following the law.
In fear of infringing on any of these rules they found so important, the Jewish leaders would build a “fence around the law” by developing a system of rules and interpretations that would keep people as far from sin as possible (Strauss, 132). For example, if the law said not to work on the Sabbath day, they would make up volumes of rules that indicated exactly what actions constituted work.
While the New Testament paints a fairly negative picture of the hypocritical and legalistic nature of the Pharisees, this was not their intention. The Pharisees’ main goal was to live a life of “purity and obedience to God’s law” (Strauss, 133). However, they fell short in understanding the true beauty and promise of the Gospels and the love of God. Jesus’ main criticism with the Pharisees was not that they fought to uphold the Law, but that they failed to live out their beliefs in front of a watching world.