and debating the Law. We first hear of Pharisees in the mid-second century BC, as a religious group heavily involved in politics. (At this time, Israel was an independent kingdom under the Hasmonean kings.) Pharisees continued to be involved in politics until the Jewish revolt of 66-70, which was brutally suppressed by the Romans. Pharisees lived and worked all over Israel, and quite likely beyond. (St. Paul, who came from Tarsus in modern Southern Turkey, declares in a speech in Acts (23:6) that he is ‘a Pharisee and son of Pharisees’.) Wherever they lived, Pharisees were local experts in the Law. Along with the written Law, they were known for being interested in oral tradition, which they regarded as having great authority. They were also known for their devotion to keeping the Law themselves, especially the purity laws. Pharisees held some distinctive theological beliefs. They believed that the soul survived death and would be resurrected and judged at the end of time. They believed in divine providence and in a complex system of spirits and angels. Jesus sometimes encounters Pharisees in synagogues, but we do not know whether Pharisees were attached to a particular synagogue, as Rabbis are now. All four gospel writers present them (along with scribes, priests and
Sadducees) in a very negative light, but their criticisms of Jesus are usually very moderate. They object, for instance, to Jesus’ picking grain on the Sabbath when he doesn’t need to, or healing a man with a long-term disability on the Sabbath instead of waiting till the next day. The great majority of Jews at the time would probably have felt they were right. The word ‘rabbi’ means ‘teacher’ in Hebrew; Jesus is several times called ‘Rabbi’ in the gospels. By New Testament times, Rabbis probably existed wherever there were communities of Jews, but they may not have been attached to a particular synagogue as they often are now. In the first century, it is not clear what the difference was between...
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