The Pharisees are, for many people, one of the most intriguing groups of the New Testament. They play a prevalent role in the accounts of the ministry of our Lord and a central role in his crucifixion; but there is no record of such a group of people in the Old Testament. Therefore, it behooves us to consider where this mysterious group of people originated and for what purpose they existed.
The Pharisees are first mentioned by name during the time between the Old and New Testaments, during the reign of John Hyrcanus in the late second century B.C. Therefore, by ancient standards, they were a relatively new group at the time of Jesus and the apostles, having only been in existence for a little more than an hundred years.
The name “Pharisee” means “separated ones.” Although there is much discussion over the issue of that from which they were intended to be separated, there is one reason which seemingly stands above the rest. At the time the Pharisees began, there was a great cultural battle occurring in Jewish society between those who were seeking to hold to the Old Law completely, and those who were seeking to incorporate aspects of Greek life (otherwise known as Hellenism) into the culture of the Jewish people. Because of this battle, two distinct groups formed: the Sadducees (who sought to incorporate the cultures of Hellenism into Jewish society), and the Pharisees (who fought to retain the integrity of the teachings and lifestyle of Judaism). Because of their categorically opposite views, these two groups despised each other, and even fought each other physically in the years leading up to the time of Christ. It is for this reason that the Jewish Council (made up half of Pharisees and half of Sadducees) began to fight verbally in the presence of Paul in Acts 23:1-10. Therefore, the indication seems to be that the Pharisees were seeking to be separate from the Hellenistic teachings of many among their people.
It is because of their desperate fight in this regard that other problems occurred for the Pharisees. In their zealous adherence to the Law of Moses they also took as being absolute law all of the traditions of the elders. By doing so they were binding where God had not bound and had added to the Law in their zeal. Though they are described accurately by Paul as “the straightest sect” of the Jews (Acts 26:5), they were still incorrect about their approach to Judaism. Jesus would condemn them with these words, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mat. 15:8-9).
By the time of the preaching of Christ, the Pharisees had also become a very powerful political party. The acquiring of that power also brought a love and desire for more power and prestige among the Jews. It is because of this mind-set that many of the Pharisees turned against Jesus, for they said, “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (John 11:48). Their love for power and prestige brought them to their final decision to murder our Lord and Savior.
The Pharisees are a very interesting group to study, and one which we need to understand so that we do not make the same mistakes they did. Their devotion to the Law is admirable, but their willingness to pile their own laws upon God’s caused great problems to their relationship with God. There is a great deal to respect about the Pharisees, but there is also a strong warning to Christians; we must ever be cautious that, in our zeal for God’s Word, we do not become like the Pharisees and begin making our own laws and ideas equal to the laws of God.