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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Pharisees

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PHARISEES. A study of the four centuries before Christ supplies a striking illustration of the law that the deepest movements of history advance without the men, who in God’s plan are their agents, being clearly aware of what is going on. The answer to the question How came the Pharisees into the place of power and prestige they held in the time of our Lord? involves a clear understanding of the task of Israel after the Exile. It was to found and develop a new type of community. The Hebrew monarchy had been thrown into perpetual bankruptcy. But monarchy was the only form that the political principle could assume in the East. What should be put in its place? In solving this problem the Jews created a community which, while it was half-State, was also half-Church. The working capital of the Jews was the monotheism of the prophets, the self-revelation of God in His character of holy and creative Unity, and, inseparable from this, the belief in the perfectibility and indestructibility of the Chosen Nation (the Messianic idea). Prophecy ceased. Into the place of the prophet came the schoolmaster and the drill-master. They popularized monotheism, making it a national instinct. Necessarily, the popularization of monotheism drew along with it a growing sense of superiority to the heathen and idolatrous nations amongst whom their lot was cast. And by the same necessity the Jews were taught to separate themselves from their heathen neighbours ( Ezra 10:11 ). They must not intermarry, lest the nation he dragged down to the heathen level. This was the state of things in the 3rd cent. b.c. (see Essenes), when Hellenism began to threaten Judaism with annihilation. The deepest forces of Judaism sounded the rally. The more zealous Jews drew apart, calling themselves the ‘Holy Men’ ( Chasîdîm ), Puritans, or those self-dedicated to the realization of Ezra’s ideal. Then came the great war. The tendencies of Judaism precipitated themselves. The Jewish Puritans became a distinct class called the ‘Pharisees,’ or men who separated themselves from the heathen, and no less from the heathenizing tendencies and forces in their own nation. They abstained even from table-fellowship with the heathen as being an abominable thing ( Galatians 2:12 ff.). As years went on it became more and more clear that the heart of the nation was with them. And so it comes to pass that in our Lord’s time, to use His own words, ‘the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat’ ( Matthew 23:2 ). They, not the priests, are the source of authority.

The history of Pharisaism enables us to understand its spirit and ruling ideas, to do justice to its greatness, while emphasizing its limitations and defects. Into it went the deepest elements among the forces which built the Jewish church and nation. The Pharisees are seen at their best when contrasted with the Zealots (see Cananæan) on the one side and the Herodians (wh. see) on the other. Unlike the latter, they were deeply in earnest with their ancestral religion. Again and again at critical times they showed the vigour and temper of fearless Puritanism. Unlike the former, they held back from the appeal to force, believing that the God of the nation was in control of history, that in His own good time He would grant the nation its desire; that, meanwhile, the duty of a true Israelite was whole-hearted devotion to the Torah, joined to patient waiting on the Divine will. This nobler side of Pharisaism could find itself in Psalms 119:1-176 . The Pharisees were in a sense Churchmen rather than statesmen. And they emphasized spiritual methods. Their interests lay in the synagogue, in the schooling of children, in missionary extension amongst the heathen. They deserved the power and prestige which we find them holding in our Lord’s time. The Master Himself seems to say this when He distinguishes between their rightful authority and the spirit which they often showed in their actions ( Matthew 23:1-4 ). Hence we are not surprised when we learn that, after the conflicts with Rome (a.d. 66 135), Pharisaism became practically synonymous with Judaism. One great war (the Maccabæan) had defined Pharisaism. Another war, even more terrible, gave it the final victory. The two wars together created the Judaism known to Europeans and Americans. And this, allowing for the inevitable changes which a long and varied experience brings to pass in the most tenacious race, is in substance the Pharisaism of the 2nd century.

A wide historical study discovers moral dignity and greatness in Pharisaism. The Pharisees, as contrasted with the Sadducees (wh. see), represented the democratic tendency. As contrasted with the priesthood, they stood both for the democratic and for the spiritualizing tendency. The priesthood was a close corporation. No man who was unable to trace his descent from a priestly family could exercise any function in the Temple. But the Pharisees and the Scribes opened a great career to all the talents. Furthermore, the priesthood exhausted itself in the ritual of the Temple. But the Pharisees found their main function in teaching and preaching. So Pharisaism cleared the ground for Christianity. And when the reader goes through his NT with this point in mind, and when he notes the striking freedom of the NT from ritualistic and sacerdotal ideas, he should give credit to Pharisaism as one of the historical forces which made these supreme qualities possible.

We have not yet exhausted the claims of the Pharisees on our interest and gratitude. It was they who, for the most part, prepared the ground for Christianity by taking the Messianic idea and working it into the very texture of common consciousness. Pharisaism was inseparable from the popularization of monotheism, and the universal acceptance by the nation of its Divine election and calling. We need only consider our Lord’s task to see how much preparatory work the Pharisees did. Contrast the Saviour with Gautama (Buddha), and the greatness of His work is clearly seen. Buddha teaches men the way of peace by thinking away the political and social order of things. But our Lord took the glorified nationalism of His nation as the trunk-stock of His thought, and upon it grafted the Kingdom of God. Now, it was the Pharisees who made idealized nationalism, based upon the monotheism of the prophets, the pith and marrow of Judaism. It was they who wrote the great Apocalypses (Daniel and Enoch). It was they who made the belief in immortality and resurrection part of the common consciousness. It was they who trained the national will and purpose up to the level where the Saviour could use it.

But along with this great work went some lamentable defects and limitations. Though they stood for the spiritualizing tendencies which looked towards the existence of a Church, the Pharisees never reached the Church idea. They made an inextricable confusion between the question of the soul and the question of descent from Abraham. They developed the spirit of proud and arrogant orthodoxy, until the monotheism of the prophets became in their hands wholly incompetent to found a society where Jew and Gentile should be one (Galatians 3:28 , Colossians 3:11 ). They developed Sabbatarianism until reverence for the Sabbath became a superstition, as our Lord’s repeated clash with them goes to show. And in spite of many noble individual exceptions, the deepest tendency of Pharisaism was towards an over-valuation of external things, Levitical correctness and precision ( Matthew 23:23 ), that made their spirit strongly antagonistic to the genius of Prophetism. For Prophetism, whether of the Old or of the New Dispensation, threw the whole emphasis on character. And so, when John the Baptist, the first prophet for many centuries, came on the field, he put himself in mortal opposition to the Pharisees, no less than to the Sadducees ( Matthew 3:7 f., John 1:19 ff.). And our Lord, embodying the moral essence of Prophetism, found His most dangerous opponents, until the end of His ministry, not in the Sadducees or the Essenes or the Zealots, but in the Pharisees.

See also artt. Sadducees and Scribes.

Henry S. Nash.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Pharisees'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/p/pharisees.html. 1909.

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