A reader of the gospels soon encounters a group of men who have become almost synonymous with religious frauds. Jesus tangled with the Pharisees more often than any other group. The Bible does not explain who the Pharisees were. The gospels were originally written to people that knew exactly who and what the Pharisees were. Modern readers are far removed from the culture of the New Testament and may wonder who and what the Pharisees were.
The Pharisees were religious leaders who exercised great authority over the Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus records that there were 6,000 Pharisees in Israel during Jesus’ day. They were members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel. The beginning of the Pharisees can be dates to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, over 450 years before the birth of Jesus. They trace their lineage to a group of Jews who separated themselves from those who had remained in the land of Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. (Ezra 6:21) This group gained influence within the nation over the years. By the time of Jesus’ day the Pharisees were a major part of the ruling body of Israel.
The Pharisees were Old Testament scholars. They studied and debated it endlessly. They knew it minutely. They were actively involved in teaching the application of the law of Moses to the daily life of the average person. This application was made primarily through an extensive series of traditions. The Pharisees blanketed the Old Testament laws with a huge system of precise regulations addressing every area of life.
The Pharisees themselves were scrupulous to observe all the traditions. Jesus called them hypocrites because they obeyed the law and kept the traditions to impress others not because they taught a way of life they did not themselves practice. The Pharisees were extremely careful to observe all their traditions and they held in disdain all those who did not share their scrupulousness for outward religion. Jesus referred to them as ones “which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” (Luke 18:9) Even though the Pharisees were active in teaching the common people how to live they would have very little interaction with non-Pharisees. The traditions of the Pharisees placed great restrictions on all interactions with those not a part of the brotherhood of the Pharisees.
Jesus strongly denounced the Pharisees. The harshest words of Jesus were directed at the Pharisees. Matthew 23 contains a series of curses upon the Pharisees for their self-righteousness, heartlessness and elevation of their traditions over the Word of God. The Pharisees were a group of influential religious leaders in Israel who had come to believe that they were righteous because they kept an extensive series of outward laws. They gave no thought to the true condition of their sinful heart. They hated Jesus for His powerful repudiation of their false religion. They hated Jesus because he pointed out to them the wickedness of their own hearts that could never be made clean by the outward keeping of rules and regulations.