Much of what is known about the Pharisees arguably comes from Biblical sources, specifically from the Christian tradition. There were many instances in the Gospels when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees and vice versa. For the Pharisees, the “meticulous observance of the Torah and its commandments … reflects the highest form of divine service.”1 From this perspective the self-righteous stance of the Pharisees is very much evident and it is contrasted with the humility exhibited by the common people of that era.2
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The Pharisees are hated and reviled by those who condemn a narrow-minded approach to applying traditions. But a close examination of their history and belief system will reveal that they are not evil people and that they have many things in common with religious conservatives of today.
There are those who may read the Christian Bible and make the conclusion that the Pharisees were the top religious party when it comes to Judaism but there are those who argue that this group were simply one of the several sects “each of limited membership, competing for the attention of the unaffiliated majority.”3
Nevertheless, a conservative assessment of the extent of their power and influence had to give way to the realization that the Pharisees were “the largest and ultimately most influential of all the sects present during the 1st century.4 Nevertheless, the group’s rise to prominence was due in part to the spirit of the times when the masses wanted to break free from the oppression of the Roman Empire and the lack of satisfaction they felt with their religion.
Furthermore, scholars like Smith pointed out the necessity of entrusting the Jewish population to the control of the Pharisees after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD also explains their rise to power even after the time of Christ.5
Thus, it can be argued that the religious and political party of the Sadducees was established first. Afterwards the Pharisees came into the picture in the hopes of instituting reforms in Jewish society. They strengthened their position so that they were able to overshadow the Sadducees in later years so much so that “the active period of Pharasaism, the most influential movement in the development of Orthodox Judaism, extended well into the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.6
But during time of Christ the Pharisees were on equal footing with the Sadducees. If the politics of 1st century Jewish society can be reduced to two dominant parties then the Sadducees and the Pharisees takes the top two positions.
Before going any further it is important to pinpoint the early beginnings of Pharisaism and the emergence of the Pharisees. There are scholars who believe that the rise of the Pharisees can be traced back to the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon.7 It was during this period when the Pentateuch was canonized.8 The breakaway group was steadily formed when certain Jews lament the fact that not all the laws practiced by before the Babylonian captivity were included in the Pentateuch.
The Sadducees – the political party of the high priesthood – cannot accept any teaching or rule that cannot be found in the Pentateuch or the written law.9 It is easy to understand why the Sadducees would not give in because in their mind, traditions and the written code are the basis for any action or decision-making process.
There is stability to traditions and there is a level of certainty when one adheres to something that has been in use for hundreds of years. In other words the Sadducees founded their belief system on the written law while the Pharisees wanted to expand the scope to include both written and oral laws.
The Sadducees are in a formidable position because they can point to Moses as the giver of laws. Furthermore, the written law that they have covers a broad spectrum of social, religious and moral issues. The Pharisees, however, insisted that the oral laws are as important as the written laws because the oral laws clearly explain the spirit of the law. The Pharisees did not conjure these ideas out of thin air; using the written law they were able to prove that indeed oral laws must be used side-by-side with the written law. Consider the following examples:
In the book of Jeremiah it is stated that when the prophet bought a field from Hanamel he wrote a deed in the presence of witnesses who affixed their signatures. There is no mention in the Pentateuch of the requirement of a deed and witness in the transfer of a real property.
In the book of II Kings we learn that if a man did not pay his debts his creditors had the right to take him into servitude. If he died and left the debt unpaid the creditor could enslave his children … it is stated in the book of Haggai that God told the prophet to examine the priests on the laws of sanctity and impurity. These two laws are not found in the Pentateuch.10
The examples given provide a clear overview as to why the Pharisees insisted on the importance of the oral laws and to be respected as having equal importance as the written law. If the oral laws that were found in the book of Jeremiah, II Kings and Haggai are indeed part of a collection of oral laws that was intentionally lost after the canonization of the Pentateuch, then there is good reason for the emergence of the Pharisees. The examples given cover social and religious aspects of Jewish life.
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Therefore it can be argued that without the aid of oral laws the Jews would then have to contend with their present situation using laws that are antiquated because these were established during the time of Moses and several centuries removed from the circumstances surrounding 1st century Judaism.
It does not mean that the written law was not able to resolve many of the problems of Jewish contemporary society but a close examination of the oral laws mentioned earlier reveals the importance of oral laws when it comes to providing information to correctly interpret the Pentateuch and helps in the application of the written law. Consider for instance the circumstances surrounding Judea during the time of Christ.
It was vastly different from the circumstances that surrounded Moses and his mission to rescue slaves from Egypt and bring them to their ultimate destination. In the first century AD the Jews had to contend with an occupying force that threatened to transform their religion and culture with an equally powerful force which was the Greco-Roman culture.
Based on the historical background provided it is now easier to understand why the Pharisees had to form another religious party to oppose the Sadducees. In a time of national crisis, it was imperative to have a clear and full understanding of the law. The Pharisees believed that it can only be achieved if the Jews study both the written and oral laws. In other words the Sadducees view the Pentateuch as a core foundation that every legal and moral statute can be hinged on.
The Pharisees on the other hand sees it differently, in their opinion it is an incomplete set of laws and without the balancing effect of the second part (oral laws) they can never be assured that they are truly obedient to the laws of God.
The Pharisees’ insistence for Jews to observe oral laws goes beyond the need to deal with the contemporary society. In the book of Haggai and oral law regarding purification and impurity was mentioned. If one only values the Pentateuch then it is easy to forget the statute embedded in the book of Haggai because it is not found in the written law.
However, the issue mentioned there is of grave importance to the Pharisees because it talks about purity. In other words the Pharisees could never feel the assurance that they have carefully observed the laws of God if they will only rely on the written law. They needed both.
For many people the Pharisees are nothing more than religious fanatics. Their many confrontations with Jesus Christ revealed the dark side of this particular religious party. But upon closer examination of the historical data, one tends to agree that the Pharisees simply wanted to obey the laws of God.
Their insistence to observe both the written and oral law is not based on the desire to create something new. They contended that contemporary society has to be guided by oral laws and the written law. The oral laws provide insight into the application of written law. But more importantly the Pharisees believed that Jews cannot have the assurance that they have carefully observed the laws of God if they neglect the oral laws.
Cadbury, Henry. “Review: Christianity’s Treatment of the Pharisees.” The Journal of Religion 9 no. 2 (1929): 299-302.
Goodblatt, D. “The Place of the Pharisees in First Century Judaism: The State of the Debate.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 20 no. 1 (2004): 12-30.
Skeel Jr., David. “What were Jesus and the Pharisees Talking About when they talked about the Law?” Journal of Law and Religion 23 no.1 (2007): 141-146.
Pharisee, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pharisee
Zeitlin, Solomon. “The Pharisees: A Historical Study.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 52 no.2 (1961): 97-129.
1 David Skeel, Jr., “What were Jesus and the Pharisees Talking About when they talked about the Law?” Journal of Law and Religion 23 no.1 (2007): 141.
2 Henry Cadbury, “Review: Christianity’s Treatment of the Pharisees,” The Journal of Religion 9 no. 2 (1929): 300.
3 D. Goodblatt, “The Place of the Pharisees in First Century Judaism: The State of the Debate,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 20 no. 1 (2004): 13.
4 Goodblatt, 13
6 “Pharisee,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011
8 Solomon Zeitlin, “The Pharisees: A Historical Study,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 52 no.2 (1961): 100
10 Zeitlin, 100