History has been rather unfair to the Pharisees, and our view of them has been coloured by the way they are presented in the Gospels. Most of the evidence we have from New Testament times outside of the bible does suggest that the Pharisees on the whole did live as they taught, and that they were holy, compassionate and righteous men.
Flavius Josephus, a first century Jewish writer in the Roman court, describes the Pharisees as “affectionate to each other” and people who “cultivate harmonious relations with the community.” (Josephus, Jewish War book 2, with references to the Pharisees at 9-10, 122, 137–42, 152–53, 162–66). He has a positive appreciation of their function—and particularly contrasts them with the priestly Sadducees, whom he saw as boorish and elitist (as, indeed, many of his contemporaries might well also have thought).
It was not uncommon for the laws to be interpreted in various ways. The Pharisees had one interpretation, Jesus had another. This was normal Jewish behaviour. The Pharisees participated actively in this process through the roles that they had in towns and villages. Indeed, in later Jewish writings (such as the Mishnah and then the Talmud), there are many examples of one rabbi disputing with another in very vigorous ways. This was par for the course for the Pharisees and their successors, the rabbis.
Christianity has inherited a tradition of regarding the Pharisees as ‘legalistic’ or ‘hard-hearted’ (and many other stereotyped names in common use in the church). This tradition does not take into account the context in which the Gospels were written, and the tense relationship that existed between the early Christians and the various Jewish factions from which many of their numbers came. Originally, these early groups considered themselves as part of Judaism, which was a many-faceted faith. Many problems faced the early Christian communities, who were often persecuted by both gentile and Jewish authorities.
To understand the Pharisees, we need to understand that the central story of the people of Israel—the Exodus from Egypt—revolves around the holiness of God. Moses encountered God on holy ground (Exod 3:1–6); after he led the people through the parted waters, Miriam sang in praise of God’s holiness (Exod 15:11) and Moses then brokered the establishment of a covenant which recognised Israel as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5-6).
The various books of law which follow next in the Torah state that, just as God is holy, so the people of Israel are to be holy people (Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; Num 15:40-41; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19; 28:9). One of these, the book of Leviticus, provides many specific details regarding what it means to live in accord with the Holiness Code of Israel (Lev 17—26). Many of these chapters detail the requirements necessary to ensure holiness at table, in eating food in accordance with the regulations provided; this was to be a regular and consistent sign of the holiness of Israel at each and every meal (Lev 11).
Central to this code was the building of a Temple to worship God; it was in the Holy of Holies within this Temple that God was believed to reside (Exod 26:31–37; Lev 16:1–2) and all activities associated with the Temple required preparation that ensured that the holiness of the place would not be breached. The prophet Isaiah, whilst in the Temple, experienced a vision of God: “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:3), and the Psalms often assert the holiness of God in his temple (Ps 11:4; 24:3–4; 48:1; 99:1–5,9).
Those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and regular activities (Exod 28—29; Lev 8—9). Another way in which a commitment to holiness was regularly demonstrated by the people of Israel was in the practice of Sabbath rest—a practice uncommon in other societies of the day. The seventh day was to be a day of rest in remembrance of God’s rest after six days of creation (Exod 20:8–11); it was a holy day (Exod 31:12–17; Lev 23:1–3).
The scribal Pharisees specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people. The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7).
Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew. Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.
Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes—literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled. Their task was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Over time, the Pharisees and scribes developed particular methods for interpreting the Torah; many of these methods are reflected within the New Testament, as it seems that Paul, each of the Gospel writers, and even Jesus himself, were familiar with such methods of interpretation. Associated with this, the Pharisees and scribes devoted much time to verbal discussion of the written texts of Torah. Later written accounts of these oral debates reflect the intensity of fervent debate that apparently took place; so, too, do many accounts of Jesus in debate with the scribes and Pharisees (see especially Luke 11:37–54; Matt 23:1–36).
Thus, the accumulated body of these oral discussions and debates was accorded a certain authority in its own right. Eventually, the claim was made that the oral teachings were of similar importance to the written text; the Pharisees were said to have had an “oral Torah” alongside the written Torah. Debate over this matter is reflected in texts such as Mark 7 and Matt 15.
Remember, it is unfair to continue the stereotype found in both older academic Christian scholarship and in popular Christian tradition—the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus. This stereotype was particularly developed by German scholars in the midst of the growing antisemitism in 19th and early 20th century Germany, culminating in the Shoah or Holocaust.
This stereotype has been heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion. This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts.