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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Phar´isees. The name denotes those who are separated, i.e. from ordinary persons, of course, by the correctness of their opinions and the holiness of their lives. They were a Jewish sect who had the dominant influence in the time of our Lord, to whose faults the overthrow of the state may be attributed, and who have to bear the awful burden of having crucified the Lord and giver of life.
The precise period when the Pharisees appeared as a sect, history does not supply us with the means of determining. That they, however, as well as their natural opponents, the Sadducees, existed in the priesthood of Jonathan—in the interval, that is, between 159 and 144 before Christ—is known from Josephus, who makes mention of them as well as of the sect of the Essenes. The terms he employs warrant the conviction that they were then no novelties, but well known, well defined, and two established religious parties. But from the time of Jonathan to that of Ezra (about 400 B.C.), there had taken place no great formative event such as could of itself cause so great a change in the Hebrew system as was the rise of these sects; whereas the influences to which the Israelites had been subject in the Medo-Persian dominions, and the necessarily somewhat new direction which things took on the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the civil and religious polity, could hardly fail, considering the distance from Moses at which these changes happened, and the great extent to which the people had lost even the knowledge of the institutions and language of their forefathers, to lead to diversities of views, interests, and aims, whence sects would spring as a natural if not inevitable result. There is therefore, good reason to refer the origin of the Pharisees to the time of the return from the Babylonish captivity, a period which constitutes a marked epoch, as dividing the Hebraism of the older and purer are from the Judaism of the later and more corrupt times. Nor, did our space allow, should we find it difficult to trace the leading features of the Pharisaic character back to those peculiar opinions and usages with which the old Israelitish type of mind had been made familiar, and at the same time corrupt, in the Persian Empire.
But as we think it more for the reader's instruction to lay before him the very words in which this sect is described, than to give a philosophical account of the rise and connection of their principles, to which of necessity our own views would impart a coloring, we shall proceed to transcribe a nearly literal translation of the most important passages in the writings of Josephus referring to the opinions and practices of this powerful sect.
'The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses, and for that reason it, is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. Hence great disputes. The Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.' 'The Pharisees are not apt to be severe in punishments' (Josephus, Antiq. xiii. 10. 5 and 6; Epiphan. Hœr. 15).
'The Pharisees live meanly and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason, and what that prescribes to them as good they do. They also pay respect to such as are in years; nor are they so bold as to contradict them in anything which they have introduced; and when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away from men the freedom of acting as they think fit since their notion is that it hath pleased God to make a constitution of things whereby what He wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously. They also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as men have lived virtuously or viciously in this life. The latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison; but the former shall have power to revive and live again: on account of which doctrine they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever is done about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, is performed according to their directions, insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct' (Josephus, Antiq. xviii. 1. 3).
'The Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact interpretation of the laws. They ascribe all to Fate (or Providence) and to God, and yet allow that to act what is right, or the contrary, is for the most part in the power of man. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, and that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord and regard for the public' (Josephus, De. Bell. Jud. ii. 8.14).
'The Pharisees are a sect of Jews which appear to be more pious than others, and to expound the laws more accurately. These Pharisees artfully insinuated themselves into her (Queen Alexandra's) favor by little and little, and became the real administrators of public affairs; they banished and restored whom they pleased; they bound and loosed at their pleasure; they had the enjoyment of the royal authority, while the expenses and the difficulties of it belonged to Alexandra. She was a sagacious woman in the management of great affairs, and became not only very powerful at home, but terrible also to foreign potentates; while she governed other people, the Pharisees governed her. She was so superstitious as to comply with their desires, and accordingly they slew whom they pleased' (Josephus, De. Bell. Jud. i. 5. 2-3).
'There was a certain sect that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favored by God, by whom this set of women were inveigled. These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were able to make great opposition to kings; a cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good will to Caesar and to the king's government, these men did not swear, being about 6000; and when the king imposed a fine upon them, Phreroras' wife paid it. In order to requite this kindness, since they were believed to have a foreknowledge of things to come by divine inspiration, they foretold how God had decreed that Herod's government should cease, and that the kingdom should come to her and Phreroras, and to their children; so the king Herod slew such of the Pharisees as were principally accused, and all who had consented to what the Pharisees had foretold' (Josephus, Antiq. xvii 2. 4).
'The Pharisees say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate; that some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate' (Josephus, Antiq. xiii. 5. 9).
'The sect of the Pharisees are supposed to excel others in the accurate knowledge of the laws of their country' (Josephus, Vita, §38).
'The Pharisees have so great a power over the multitude that when they say anything against the king or against the high-priest, they are generally believed' (Josephus, Antiq. 13:10. 5).
'The bodies of all men are mortal, and are created out of corruptible matter, but the soul is ever immortal, and is a portion of the divinity that inhabits our bodies' (De Bell. Jud. iii. 8. 5).
There is another source of our knowledge of the Pharisees—the books of the New Testament. The light in which they here appear varies, of course, with the circumstances to which its origin is due. The reader has just had before him the account of a friend and an adherent, an account which, therefore, we may believe, is conceived and set forth in the most favorable manner. The Gospels present the character of the Pharisees in a darker hue, inasmuch as here a higher standard is brought into use, a loftier morality is the judge, to pass on to the views given in the New Testament. The high repute in which the Pharisees were held, as expositors of the national laws, whether civil or religious, may be seen in;; the casuistry which they employed in expounding the Scriptures, in;;; , sq.; their excessive zeal in proselytism,; yet their concealment of light and hindrance of progress,; their inordinate regard for externals, and oppressive but self-sparing rule, , sq., 23:25; their affectation of grandeur and distinction, , sq.; their shocking hypocrisy,; , sq.; their standing on inconsiderable points, while they neglected such as were of consequence, preferring ceremonial rites to justice and charity,;;; , sq.;; the display which they affected even in works of religion, , sq.; 23:5; their pride and self-gratulation as assuredly, and before others, religious men, , sq.; their regard to tradition,;; they formed schools which had masters and disciples,;; agreeably with their general doctrines, they regarded the act rather than the motive,; , sq.; and were given to fasts, prayers, washing, paying of tithes, alms, etc.,;;; , sq.; 18:12; exhibiting themselves to the people, in order to gain their favor, as self-denying, holy men, zealous for God and the law, a kind of Jewish stoics,;;;;;; while in reality they were fond of the pleasures of sense, and were men of lax morals,;;;;;;; . At an early period they determined in the Sanhedrim to withstand and destroy Jesus, instigated doubtless by the boldness with which He taught the necessity of personal righteousness and pure worship ().
In regard to the opinions of the Pharisees, the New Testament affords only fragments of information, which are, however, in accordance with the fuller particulars furnished by Josephus. From; , we learn that they believed in the existence of higher created beings than man, doubtless the good and bad spirits of the Chaldee philosophy. The same places also instruct us that they held a resurrection of the dead (comp. , sq.).
It thus appears that the Pharisees were in general a powerful religious party, or rather the predominant influence in the Jewish state, who aspired to the control of the civil and religious institutions, affected popularity among the people, exerted influence in the councils of kings, queens, and people of rank; were the recognized teachers and guides of the national mind, proud of their orthodoxy, pluming themselves on their superior sanctity, practising austerities outwardly, but inwardly indulging their passions, and descending to unworthy and shameful acts; and withal of narrow spirit, contracted views, seeking rather their own aggrandizement than the public good, of which they used the name merely as a pretext and a cover.
We are not to suppose, however, that there were no individuals in the body free from its prevailing vices. There did not fail to be upright and pure-minded men, who united inward piety to outward correctness of conduct, and were indeed superior to the principles of their sect; such was Nicodemus (); such also Gamaliel may have been (). Of men of this kind many were led to embrace the Gospel ().
In general, however, their power was all directed against Jesus and His work. With what force they must have acted appears obvious from the preceding remarks. Nor is the reader to imagine that they were merely a few learned men, congregated together in the capital, engaged in learned pursuits or religious practices, and in consequence leaving our Lord at liberty to pursue His ordinary duties up and down the land. The capital was doubtless their head-quarters, but they pervaded the entire country in considerable numbers, and were therefore present in all parts to withstand the publication of the Gospel of that kingdom every feature of which they hated (); and as they constituted a large portion of the Sanhedrim (; , sq.), and had an almost unlimited influence with the people, great indeed was the power which they wielded in their conflict with the infant church. Perhaps there never was an instance in any social condition in which the elements of power supplied by religion, politics, high life, and humble condition were more thoroughly or more densely combined in order to oppose and destroy the young power of new ideas and lofty aims. The victory, however, was for man, because it was also of God. Darkness, indeed, prevailed for three days, covering the land, and casting a thick shadow over the world. But the sun of righteousness arose, and still shines.
Pharisaism, how compact soever might be its appearance outwardly, and as against a common enemy, had its own internal dissensions. The question of more or less of moderate or extreme views, of what on one side would be called temporizing and on the other consistency, agitated this school as it has agitated most others. In the age of our Lord there were two leading parties, that of Hillel and that of Schammai, the former representing a moderate Pharisaism, the latter 'the straitest sect,' to which Paul had probably belonged.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Pharisees'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​p/pharisees.html.