Who were the Pharisees according to history and the Bible?

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The first mention of the Pharisees was by the Jewish/Roman historian Flavius Josephus in describing the three sects that the Jews were divided to in 145 B.C. These three major religious schools of Judaism were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.

When the Jews were captive in Babylon, they were told by the prophets that they were overcome by their enemies because of their unfaithfulness to God. In response to that, the sect of Pharisees was originated to guard Israel from the accepting the beliefs of the surrounding pagan nations. So, this sect set up a system of strict rules to supposedly protect the nation from practicing idolatry again.

The name Pharisee in Hebrew means separatists, or the separated ones. They were also known as chasidim, which means loyal to God, or loved of God. They consisted of a conservative group of learned people who were zealous about the Scriptures and the law of God. For this reason, they were held in much higher esteem by the people than the Sadducees. And although they were a minority in the Sanhedrin they had more authority and influence in the leadership of the nation.

But the Pharisees violated the teachings of God by treating their own meaningless traditions as having equal authority as the Scriptures (Matthew 9:14; Mark 7:1-23; Luke 11:42). And their relationship with God was reduced to a dry legalistic list of rules and rituals. They relied on their own works as a means of their salvation instead of relying on the merits of the Savior and taught the people their false beliefs.

The Lord pleaded with the Pharisees, “why do you transgress the Commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3-6 RSV). Then, He addressed the people, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:11-12 RSV). And He added, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 RSV).

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their external religion, hypocrisy, and self-righteous wickedness. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27; Also Matthew 23:13, 23-24). The Lord called them to change their ways but they did not head His calls.

Sadly, most of the Pharisees let their zeal for the law overpower their love for the Lord and for their fellow men. And they rejected the Messiah and became His most bitter and deadly opponents until they finally killed Him (Matthew 27:20-22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21).

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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