To be named a Pharisee today is to be named a legalist. To be someone who trusts in themselves and their own righteousness more than that of the righteousness which comes from the faithfulness of God.
While to be a Pharisee is almost always seen in a negative light among Christians and even non-Christians today, there is still much we can learn from studying both their faith and actions in the first century. As one of the many sects of Judaism in the Second Temple period, the Pharisees play a pivotal role in not only the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, but also in the establishment of a new form of Judaism after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
The basic New Testament evaluation of the Pharisees is that they adhere to superfluous “traditions of men” (Mark 7:5; Matt. 15:2; Gal. 1:14), that they are particularly concerned with ritual purity (purifying both Jerusalem and the temple of the pollution of the Gentiles; e.g. Matt. 12:1–14), and that they had an awareness or expectation of a Messianic figure–or even figure(s)—who would restore an earthly kingdom to Israel (Mark 12:35–37). There is, then, much in common between both early Christians and the Pharisees, even if these two groups came to different conclusions on respective tenets of religion.
Both the Pharisees and the scribes were key agents leading to the re-invention of Judaism, beginning with the rabbinical school at Jamnia (second century A.D.) and following the destruction of the Second Temple. However (it should be noted), there is little in common between late-Second Temple Judaism and the various sects of rabbinical Judaism today:
Much of the [rabbinic] literature is centuries after [AD] 70 and is unlikely to have been written by Pharisees even if the latter continued to exist after 70 . . . There is no question that the Mishnah, Tosefta, and other early rabbinic literature are post-70 and picture a situation in which there is no longer a functioning temple. —Lester L. Grabbe, An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism, p. 53
Unfortunately, we know very little about the Pharisees outside of the biblical record. The post-Christian, Jewish historian Josephus mentions the Pharisees in various writings—and even claims to have been one at some point in his life (Life 2.10–12), although this is not exactly corroborated by the rest of his work—but he does not really go into great detail on their beliefs or practices. We can discern from Josephus that the Pharisees were interpreters of ‘traditional laws’ not found in the Torah, that they were in leadership roles in Jerusalem during the early-first century B.C.—but not for an extended period of time, as this fell to the priests again by the earthly ministry of Jesus—and that they believe in doctrines such as the human soul, fate, free-will, a bodily resurrection, and either reward or punishment following a person’s death.
On the Pharisees as a whole, Grabbe concludes with three main takeaways:
First, the Pharisees:
[C]laimed to have traditions from the fathers which were not written in the Hebrew Bible. There is no evidence that they claimed this was “oral law”; it may well have been passed down in written form. —ibid. p. 54
Alongside this—and contrary to later, rabbinical claims—the Pharisees in the first century had no concept of a dual Torah (both oral and written) that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. While this became central (and necessary) for later rabbinical Judaism, there is no indication in any historical work that this was the case with the Pharisaical sect in the first century. The vast amount of written laws and rituals found at Qumran seem to verify this.
Second, the traditions of the Pharisees were aimed at extending the ritual purity of the temple beyond its physical walls. Given the fact that Jerusalem and the rest of the land of Israel was overrun with Gentiles and other foreign invaders, the existential feeling of ‘uncleanliness’ was likely unbearable for the Pharisees (and the Essenes, who fled Jerusalem for the desert—much like the Egyptian monastics of early, imperial Christianity).
Instead of eating temple sacrifices alone with ritual purity in tact, the Pharisees insisted that faithful Jews eat “ordinary food in a state of cultic purity.” Grabbe speculates that:
These [laws] all suggest a “table fellowship” sect. This fits with a lay movement attempting to imitate the priests, but it could equally apply to a priestly group trying to extend the temple regulations outside the temple to their own homes. —ibid. p. 56
Beyond this, it is important that we not read Pharisaical attitudes as mere legalism—or attempting to ‘merit’ one’s salvation by ‘works’—but rather as a concern over ritual purity. This ritual purity was for the salvation of Israel, and not merely the self-righteousness of a select few (if we approach them fairly). Incidentally, this of course has implications for how we as Christians read certain letters of the apostle Paul.
Third, the Pharisees were not nearly as influential as they wanted to be. Their actions and our historical records indicate that “they were often trying to gain political influence but not succeeding” (ibid. p. 57). The one exception to this seems to have been under Salome Alexandra (76–67 B.C.).
In summary, I must point to the words of Jesus himself (Matt. 23ff), noting that we should not desire to be as the Pharisees were. What this means, however, is not as straightforward as many would make it—that is, that they were legalistic, and we should therefore avoid being legalistic. This admonition is true, of course, but that isn’t the whole story.
In their zeal for the ritual purity of God’s people, the Pharisees became great hypocrites and ignored the most important aspects of the Torah: to love the Lord their God and to love their neighbors as themselves.
Beyond this, they were blinded by ethno-centrism, unable to see that salvation was to be for all creation through the coming Messiah. The salvation story of Israel was to be the salvation story of the whole world—both Jews and Gentiles—and this is a tension captured by Paul’s letters to both the Romans and the Galatians, where even Paul and Peter come into direct conflict over such.
The first Sunday of the Lenten Triodion features the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Our desire as Christians is to be as the Publican, recognizing that our ‘ritual purity’ can come only through humility, and not through xenophobia or other pseudo-works of the Law. Rather than a false dichotomy between faith and works, this parable—and the Pharisees in general—teach us that salvation is of the Lord. He alone is holy, and our only hope of salvation is found in humility and unity with him—whether Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” —Luke 18:13–14