Why bother about the Pharisees?

Many people, especially the liberal, progressive, emergent etc. Christians, base their understanding of Jesus' message from their home made picture of phariseism. I.e. the Emergent Church writer Brian McLaren do - and fails his argumentation even before he has started cooking.  That's why a little look into the rabbinic ingredient jar is handy.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The Pharisees, meaning set apart, were at various times a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews during the Second Temple period beginning under the Hasmonean dynasty (14037 BCE) in the wake of the Maccabean Revolt.

 Josephus (37 c. A.D. 100), himself a Pharisee, claimed that the Pharisees received the backing and goodwill of the common people, apparently in contrast to the more elite Sadducees. Pharisees claimed prophetic or Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Jewish laws.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE Pharisaic beliefs became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism, which ultimately produced the normative traditional Judaism which is the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism except for Karaism.

The Oral Torah

The Pharisees believed that in addition to the written Torah recognized by both the Sadducees and Pharisees and believed to have been written by Moses, there exists another Torah, consisting of the corpus of oral laws and traditions transmitted by God to Moses orally, and then memorized and passed down by Moses and his successors over the generations and kept uncorrupted to their day. The Oral Torah functioned to elaborate and explicate what was written, and the Pharisees asserted that the sacred scriptures were not complete on their own terms and could therefore not be understood.

The sages of the Talmud believed that the Oral law was simultaneously revealed to Moses at Sinai, and the product of debates among rabbis. Thus, one may conceive of the "Oral Torah" not as a fixed text but as an ongoing process of analysis and argument in which God is actively involved; it was this ongoing process that was revealed at Sinai, and by participating in this ongoing process rabbis and their students are actively participating in God's ongoing act of revelation. The Oral Torah was kept pure until it was recorded in the Talmuds. In these books these pretended laws are now contained. They are exceedingly numerous and very trifling. They are, however, regarded by the Jews as more important than either Moses or the prophets. Because of this concept of the Oral Torah, the Pharisees were not bound by the letter of the biblical laws and were able to liberalize and humanize them when necessary.


Many of the extra-biblical teachings of the Pharisees were traditions of great antiquity.  They defended these popular practices, even though they admitted that there was no explicit mention of them in the Bible. The Sadducees rejected these traditions on the theoretical ground that they were not to be found in the Bible.

It would be wrong to think of the Pharisees as conservative and reactionary in comparison with the Sadducees. The truth is almost the opposite: it was the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, who were in the forefront of development and change in Judaism.  This was because, unlike the Sadducees, they were not bound by the literal meaning of the Scriptural text. Just as they could diverge from scripture by preserving customs not mentioned there, so they could introduce new customs and interpretations to cope with newproblems and circumstances.


The commitment to relate religion to daily life through the law has led some to infer that the Pharisees were more legalistic than other sects in the Second Temple Era. Jesus also taught in the Gospels, speaking harshly against the Pharisaic Law.  Josephus describes the Pharisees as "the most accurate interpreters of the laws".

In some cases Pharisaic values led to an extension of the law for example, the Torah requires priests to bathe themselves before entering the Temple. The Pharisees washed themselves before Sabbath and festival meals, and, eventually, before all meals. In other cases, Pharisaic law was less strict. For example, Biblical law prohibits Jews from carrying objects from a private domain to a public domain on the Sabbath. This law could have prevented Jews from carrying cooked dishes to the homes of friends for Sabbath meals. The Pharisees ruled that adjacent houses connected by lintels or fences could become connected by a legal procedure creating a partnership among homeowners; thereby, clarifying the status of those common areas as a private domain relative to the members of the partnership. In that manner people could carry objects from building to building.

Pharisees and Christianity

According to the New Testament the Pharisees objected to Jesus's mission to outcast groups such as beggars and tax-collectors, but Rabbinic texts actually emphasize the availability of forgiveness to all. Indeed, much of Jesus' teaching, for example the Sermon on the Mount, is consistent with that of the Pharisees and later Rabbinic thought.

Hillel and Shammai

To really understand scripture on Phariseism, we have to understand the controversies between The School of Hillel and The School of Shammai.




School of Hillel and School of Shammai

Eye for an Eye

The Woman Caught in Adultery

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