The Pharisees

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In order to gain a fully comprehensive insight into Jesus Christ, his person and his politics, one must delve deeper into the historical and social context of His time on earth. Most are aware of the general details; that he resided in the Galilee and Judea regions, that his birth determined the turn of the first century, and that he interacted with various cultural and social forces. The parties with which he was involved were depicted frequently throughout the bible – most notably the Jews, Gentiles, Sadducees, Romans, Zealots and Pharisees. What most are unaware of is that the latter, the Pharisees, have been highly questioned and criticised due to the general - and often seen as subjective- depiction of them throughout the New Testament. Scholarly examination depicts this social group in several different lights, leading to the confusion of the masses and a common consensus on the group is found left wanting. Who were these Pharisees? What did they believe in? Where did they come from? What really happened between their parties and Jesus? To attain a full appreciation of Jesus’ culture, a clearer perception of the Pharisees is required. Historians and Theologians have had several inquiries in regards to the origin of the Pharisaic community. Scholastic investigator Solomon Zeitlin uses Jewish historian Josephus’ text, Antiquities to state that “The Pharisees existed as a distinct group as early as the beginning of the 4th century BCE.” (Zeitlin: ) Indeed, “the Pharisees appear in Hasmonaean times as part of the governing council in coalition with the Sadducees.” (Schiffman, 1994: 76)This correlates with Josephus’ reference in relation to Jonathon the Hasmonaean, thereby tracing their origin as far as 444 BCE. It was this time in which a group of Jews began following the lead of Ezra. “This Ezra was a scribe who was well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given to the people of Israel.” (Ezra 7: 6). Within the Jewish culture, the word scribe – derived from the Hebrew Sopherim – denotes an equivalent to a secretary of state within a theocracy. To be put plainly, these were the readers and writers of the divine law as communicated by God and revealed by Moses. “In the Pharisaic tradition, Ezra was regarded as – after Moses – the real founder of Judaism; and his work is summed up in saying that he raised the Torah to the supreme place in Jewish life and thought.” (Landman, 1941: 474) In accordance, the Old Testament relays this theme where it states that Ezra “studied and taught the commands and decrees of the LORD to Israel.” (Ezra 7:11) The scribes of the Jews were collectively known as Men of the Great Synagogue, and were revered and followed within society. The Pharisees, Ezra’s followers, found their name from the derivative of the Greek word Pharisaios, directly translating to the Aramaic word Parisha (or Hebrew Parush), with the root meaning of ‘to separate.’ The group was given this name by an opposing group, the Zadokites, on account of their strict separation from that of the ordinary Jewish culture. Derenbourg puts forward the view that the Pharisees “substituted for the sanctity of the priesthood, which their birth denied them, a greater severity in morals and conduct”. Such severity was evident as the Pharisees adopted exceedingly strict lifestyles; mostly in regard to dietary laws, ritual purity and “as the root of all, conscious service of God Who had given the Torah.” (Landman, 1941: 474) This saw them separating themselves from the less observant portion of the population. They were believed to be “the strongest guardians of the religious vitality of the Jewish people. They had the deepest and clearest insight into the meaning of the religion which was based on the Torah, and they had the greatest influence in making that religion effective in the common life.” (Landman, 1941: 474) Another way the Pharisees provoked their ‘separation’ is through their beliefs that God...
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