The Pharisees (Matthew 5)

The Pharisees were an influential political and religious sect during the Second Temple period. During this time of increasing foreign influence, they promoted the faithful observance of Jewish law at both a national and an individual level. The exact meaning of the term Pharisee remains uncertain. The noun derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish”. The title appears to have been applied originally in a negative sense when the Pharisees were expelled from membership in the Sanhedrin under John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.), though it was later understood in a positive sense either as “those who separated themselves” from all sources of ritual uncleanness (see Mark 7:1-23, Galatians 2:12-13) or “those who interpreted the law precisely” (see Acts 22:3, 26:5, Josephus’s Antiquities 17.2.4).

The Pharisees believed that God was the sovereign Creator, who expressed His will to humanity through Scripture. Moreover, He granted humanity the gifts of responsible moral choice and reason in order to apply the Scriptures to this life in preparation for the resurrection, judgement and the life to come (Acts 23:6-8). Members of this sect carefully observed the Mosaic Law, systematically interpreting and adapting it to the conditions of their own time in order to maintain a sense of purity among the populace (Matthew 23:2-3). This system of interpretation and way of life were transmitted by generations of teachers and became known variously as the oral law, the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:3-5, Galatians 1:14), the works of the law (Romans 3:20-28, Galatians 2:16-3:10) or simply the Halakhah (from a Hebrew word meaning “walk”; Halakhah is traditional Jewish teaching that governs behaviour and religious practice).

The Pharisees saw themselves as the heirs of a cast body of interpretative tradition that enabled them to function as reliable guides for the Jewish people during a tumultuous era (Romans 2:17-20). Although some Pharisees came to believe in Jesus as the Christ (Acts 15:5, Philippians 3:4-11), the majority justified their opposition to Him on the grounds that Jesus ostensibly taught on His own authority (Matthew 7:29, John 3:1-3, 8:13), as well as on the basis of His interpretations of various issues that were of vital concern to them.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees on the grounds that, for all of their commendable observances of rules and traditions, they were fundamentally unrepentant, neither knowing God nor loving people (Matthew 23).

%d bloggers like this: