The Pharisees as a group probably started sometime in the 2nd century B.C.E., either before or during the Hasmonean revolt (about 150 years before the birth of Jesus). The first time they are mentioned is during the reign of Queen Salome (Shelomtzion) Alexandra (139-67 B.C.E.; Jos. J.W. 1:110). The name ‘Pharisee’ likely comes from the Hebrew p-r-sh (as a noun perush/perushim) which means ‘to separate oneself’ or ‘to explain’ or ‘make clear’. We might say that the Pharisees were a group who were concerned primarily with the proper interpretation of the Bible and separated themselves from the things that God had told them to separate from (which are listed in the Torah [the first 5 books of the Bible]). Discussions about how one should live out the Jewish law can be seen throughout the Gospels. Therefore, we should not think of all Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees as ‘arguments’ in the same way that our modern minds understand arguments or fights. Debates among the rabbis about the way believers should live out the Torah/Law is a common feature of ancient, as well as modern, Judaism. They are not intended to cause division but to determine the way God desires his faithful to live; think Prov. 27:17: “Iron sharpens Iron.”
After the destruction of the Temple, it is primarily the Pharisaic group that is credited with carrying on the Jewish traditions that we have preserved in the literature of the Sages/Rabbis. While we cannot always draw a straight line of development from the Pharisees to the Rabbis, there are traditions and interpretations preserved there that speak to the time of Jesus, and ones which indicate that Jesus himself was, at times, in agreement with Pharisaic thought. Thus we have Jesus’ often forgotten statement regarding the Pharisee’s: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” The problem here is not teaching but practice; their teaching is correct! This, of course, should be qualified with the Gospel’s criticism of the Pharisees. Such criticism, however, should not be seen as one that encompasses all Pharisee’s, or even worse, all Torah-observant Jewish people.
Yet, another issue, which pertains to this discussion and is quite complex, is the manner in which Jesus interprets Scripture—a method, which can be deemed rabbinic, if not even, Pharisaic. This is not to say that Jesus was himself a Pharisee, as Paul was and continued to be (Acts 23:6-9), but he seems to be religiously, culturally, and philosophically closest to the Pharisaic group. Moreover, the Sadducees (sp. the priesthood) seem to be the intended group of Jesus’ greatest criticism, who were also criticized by the rabbis (t. menah 13:21; b. Pesah 57a).
While this introduction does not do justice to who the Pharisees of history were, it is intended to give students of the New Testament a historically fair depiction without entering into the complexities which form historical inquiry. Hopefully, it will serve to spark questions regarding the relationship(s) between Jesus and his contemporaries, specifically the Pharisees.