The Pharisees were a politico-religious sect or faction among the adherents of later Judaism, that came into existence as a class about the third century B.C. After the exile, Israel's monarchial form of government had become a thing of the past; in its place the Jews created a community which was half State, half Church. A growing sense of superiority to the heathen and idolatrous nations among whom their lot was cast came to be one of their main characteristics. They were taught insistently to separate themselves from their neighbours. "And now make confession to the Lord the God of your fathers, and do his pleasure, and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from your strange wives" (I Esd., x, 11). Intermarriage with the heathen was strictly forbidden and many such marriages previously contracted, even of priests, were dissolved in consequence of the legislation promulgated by Esdras. Such was the state of things in the third century when the newly introduced Hellenism threatened Judaism with destruction. The more zealous among the Jews drew apart calling themselves Chasidim or "pious ones", i.e., they dedicated themselves to the realization of the ideas inculcated by Esdras, the holy priest and doctor of the law. In the violent condditions incidental to the Machabean wars these "pious men", sometimes called the Jewish Puritans, became a distinct class. They were called Pharisees, meaning those who separated themselves from the heathen, and from the heathenizing forces and tendencies which constantly invaded the precincts of Judaism (I Mach., i, 11; II Mach., iv, 14 sq.; cf. Josephus Antiq., XII, v, 1).
During these persecutions of Antiochus the Pharisees became the most rigid defenders of the Jewish religion and traditions. In this cause many suffered martyrdom (I Mach., i, 41 sq.), and so devoted were they to the prescriptions of the Law that on one occasion when attacked by the Syrians on the Sabbath they refused to defend themselves (I Mach., ii, 42; ibid., v, 3 sq.). They considered it an abomination to even eat at the same board with the heathens or have any social relations with them whatsoever. Owing to their heroic devotedness their influence over the people became great and far-reaching, and in the course of time they, instead of the priests, became the sources of authority. In the time of Our Lord such was their power and prestige that they sat and taught in "Moses' seat". This prestige naturally engendered arrogance and conceit, and led to a perversion in many respects of the conservative ideals of which they had been such staunch supporters. In many passages of the Gospels, Christ is quoted as warning the multitude against them in scathing terms. "The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten in the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say and do not. For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men's shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them. And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge their fringes. And they love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues. And salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi" (Matt., xxiii, 1-8). Then follows the terrible arraignment of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, their rapacity, and their blindness (ibid., 13-36).
After the conflicts with Rome (A.D. 66-135) Pharisaism became practically synonymous with Judaism. The great Machabean wars had defined Pharisaism: another even more terrible conflict gave it a final ascendancy. The result of both wars was to create from the second century onward, in the bosom of a tenacious race, the type of Judaism known to the western world. A study of the early history of Pharisaism reveals a certain moral dignity and greatness, a marked tenacity of purpose at the service of high, patriotic, and religious ideals. As contrasted with the Sadducees, the Pharisees represented the democratic tendency; contrasted with the priesthood, they stood for both the democratic and the spiritualizing tendency. By virtue of the Law itself the priesthood was an exclusive class. No man was allowed to exercise a function in the Temple unless he was able to trace his descent from a priestly family. The Pharisees consequently found their main function in teaching and preaching. Their work was chiefly connected with the synagogues, and embraced the schooling of children and missionary efforts among the heathen tribes. Thus, in a sense, Pharisaism helped to clear the ground and prepare the way for Christianity. It was the Pharisees who made idealized nationalism, based upon the monothism of the prophets, the very essence of Judaism. To them we are indebted for the great apocalypses, Daniel and Enoch, and it was they who made common the belief in the resurrection and future reward. In a word, their pedagogical influence was an important factor in training the national will and purpose for the introduction of Christianity. This great work, however, was marred by many defects and limitations. Though standing for the spiritualizing tendency, Pharisaism developed a proud and arrogant orthodoxy and an exaggerated formalism, which insisted on ceremonial details at the expense of the more important precepts of the Law (Matt., xxiii, 23-28). The importance attached to descent from Abraham (Matt., iii, 9) obscured the deeper spiritual issues and created a narrow, exclusive nationalism incapable of understanding a universal Church destined to include Gentile as well as Jew. It was only through the revelation received on the road to Damascus, that Saul the Pharisee was enabled to comprehend a church where all are equally the "seed of Abraham", all "one in Christ Jesus" (Gal., iii, 28-9). This exclusivism, together with their over valuation of external levitical observances, caused the Pharisees to be ranged in opposition to what is known as prophetism, which in both the Old and New Testament places the main emphasis on character and the religious spirit, and thus they incurred not only the vehement reproaches of the Precursor (Matt., iii, 7 seq.), but also of the Saviour Himself (Matt., xxiii, 25 seq.).
The Pharisees are seen at their best when contrasted with the Zealots on one hand, and with the Herodians on the other. Unlike the Zealots, it was their policy to abstain from the appeal to armed force. It was their belief that the God of the nation controlled all historic destinies, and that in His own good time He would satisfy the long frustrated desires of His chosen people. Meanwhile the duty of all true Israelites consisted in whole-hearted devotion to the Law, and to the manifold observances which their numerous traditions had engrafted upon it, joined to a patient waiting for the expected manifestation of the Divine Will. The Zealots on the contrary bitterly resented the Roman domination and would have hastened with the sword the fulfilment of the Messianic hope. It is well known that during the great rebellion and the siege of Jerusalem, which ended in the destruction (A.D. 70), the fanaticism of the Zealots made them terrible opponents not only to the Romans, but also to the other factions among their own countrymen. On the other hand, the extreme faction of the Sadducees, known as the Herodians, was in sympathy with the foreign rulers and pagan culture, and even looked forward to a restoration of the national kingdom under one of the descendants of King Herod. Yet we find the Pharisees making common cause with the Herodians in their opposition to the Saviour (Mark, iii, 6; xii, 13, etc.).