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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a sect of the Jews. The earliest mention of them is by Josephus, who tells us that they were a sect of considerable weight when John Hyrcanus was high priest, B.C. 108. They were the most numerous, distinguished, and popular sect among the Jews; the time when they first appeared is not known, but it is supposed to have been not long after the institution of the Sadducees, if, indeed, the two sects did not gradually spring up together. They derived their name from the Hebrew word pharash, which signifies "separated," or "set apart;" because they separated themselves from the rest of the Jews to superior strictness in religious observances. They boasted that, from their accurate knowledge of religion, they were the favourites of Heaven; and thus, trusting in themselves that they were righteous, despised others, Luke 11:52; Luke 18:9; Luke 18:11 . Among the tenets inculcated by this sect, we may enumerate the following: namely, they ascribed all things to fate or providence; yet not so absolutely as to take away the free will of man; for fate does not cooperate in every action, Acts 5:38-39 . They also believed in the existence of angels and spirits, and in the resurrection of the dead; Acts 23:8 .

Lastly: the Pharisees contended that God stood engaged to bless the Jews, to make them all partakers of the terrestrial kingdom of the Messiah, to justify them, and make them eternally happy. The cause of their justification they derived from the merits of Abraham, from their knowledge of God, from their practising the right of circumcision, and from the sacrifices they offered. And as they conceived works to be meritorious, they had invented a great number of supererogatory ones, to which they attached greater merit than to the observance of the law itself. To this notion St. Paul has some allusions in those parts of his Epistle to the Romans, in which he combats the erroneous suppositions of the Jews, Romans 1-11.

The Pharisees were the strictest of the three principal sects that divided the Jewish nation, Acts 26:5 , and affected a singular probity of manners according to their system; which, however, was, for the most part, both lax and corrupt. Thus many things which Moses had tolerated in civil life, in order to avoid a greater evil, the Pharisees determined to be morally right: for instance, the law of divorce from a wife for any cause, Matthew 5:31 , &c; Matthew 19:3-12 . ( See DIVORCE. ) Farther: they interpreted certain of the Mosaic laws most literally, and distorted their meaning so as to favour their own selfish system. Thus, the law of loving their neighbour, they expounded solely of the love of their friends, that is, of the whole Jewish race; all other persons being considered by them as natural enemies, whom they were in no respect bound to assist, Matthew 5:43; Luke 10:31-33 . They also trifled with oaths. Dr. Lightfoot has cited a striking illustration of this from Maimonides. An oath, in which the name of God was not distinctly specified, they taught was not binding, Matthew 5:33; maintaining that a man might even swear with his lips, and at the same time annul it in his heart! And yet so rigorously did they understand the command of observing the Sabbath day, that they accounted it unlawful to pluck ears of corn, and heal the sick, &c, Matthew 12; Luke 6:6 , &c; 14. Many moral rules they accounted inferior to the ceremonial laws, to the total neglect of mercy and fidelity, Matthew 5:19; Matthew 15:4; Matthew 23:23 . Hence they accounted causeless anger and impure desires as trifles of no moment, Matthew 5:21-22; Matthew 5:27-30; they compassed sea and land to make proselytes to the Jewish religion from among the Gentiles, that they might rule over their consciences and wealth; and these proselytes, through the influence of their own scandalous examples and characters, they soon rendered more profligate and abandoned than ever they were before their conversion, Matthew 23:15 . Esteeming temporal happiness and riches as the highest good, they scrupled not to accumulate wealth by every means, legal or illegal, Matthew 5:1-12; Matthew 23:5; Luke 16:14; James 2:1-8; vain and ambitious of popular applause, they offered up long prayers in public places, but not without self-complacency in their own holiness, Matthew 6:2-5; Luke 18:11; under a sanctimonious appearance of respect for the memories of the prophets whom their ancestors had slain, they repaired and beautified their sepulchres, Matthew 23:29; and such was their idea of their own sanctity, that they thought themselves defiled if they but touched or conversed with sinners, that is, with publicans or tax-gatherers, and persons of loose and irregular lives, Luke 7:39; Luke 15:1 .

But, above all their other tenets, the Pharisees were conspicuous for their reverential observance of the traditions or decrees of the elders: these traditions, they pretended, had been handed down from Moses through every generation, but were not committed to writing; and they were not merely considered as of equal authority with the divine law, but even preferable to it. "The words of the scribes," said they, "are lovely above the words of the law; for the words of the law are weighty and light, but the words of the scribes are all weighty." Among the traditions thus sanctimoniously observed by the Pharisees, we may briefly notice the following: the washing of hands up to the wrist before and after meat, Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3; which they accounted not merely a religious duty, but considered its omission as a crime equal to fornication, and punishable by excommunication: the purification of the cups, vessels, and couches used at their meals by ablutions or washings, Mark 7:4; for which purpose the six large water pots mentioned by St. John, John 2:6 , were destined: their fasting twice a week with great appearance of austerity, Luke 18:12; Matthew 6:16; thus converting that exercise into religion which is only a help toward the performance of its hallowed duties: their punctilious payment of tithes, (temple-offerings,) even of the most trifling things, Luke 18:12; Matthew 23:23 . And their wearing broader phylacteries and larger fringes to their garments than the rest of the Jews, Matthew 23:5 . See PHYLACTERIES .

With all their pretensions to piety, the Pharisees entertained the most sovereign contempt for the people; whom, being ignorant of the law, they pronounced to be accursed, John 7:49 . Yet such was the esteem and veneration in which they were held by the populace, that they may almost be said to have given what direction they pleased to public affairs; and hence the great men dreaded their power and authority. It is unquestionable, as Mosheim has well remarked, that the religion of the Pharisees was, for the most part, founded in consummate hypocrisy; and that, at the bottom, they were generally the slaves of every vicious appetite, proud, arrogant, and avaricious, consulting only the gratification of their lusts, even at the very moment when they professed themselves to be engaged in the service of their Maker. These odious features in the character of the Pharisees caused them to be reprehended by our Saviour with the utmost severity, even more so than the Sadducees; who, although they had departed widely from the genuine principles of religion, yet did not impose on mankind by a pretended sanctity, or devote themselves with insatiate greediness to the acquisition of honours and riches. A few, and a few only, of the sect of the Pharisees, in those times, might be of better character,—men who, though self-righteous and deluded and bigoted, were not like the rest, hypocritical. Of this number was Saul of Tarsus; but as a body, their attachment to traditions, their passionate expectation of deliverance from the Roman yoke by the Messiah, and the splendour of his civil reign, their pride, and above all their vices, sufficiently account for that unconquerable unbelief which had possessed their minds as to the claims of Christ, and their resistance to the evidence of his miracles. The sect of the Pharisees was not extinguished by the ruin of the Jewish commonwealth. The greater part of the Jews are still Pharisees, being as much devoted to traditions, or the oral law, as their ancestors were.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Pharisees'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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