This article was originally published in August 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.
The common perception of Biblical Pharisees is that they are a bunch of hypocrites. They taught others to follow Jewish halakhah (law) closely and interpreted detailed rules from the scriptures, but their own practice was showy and meaningless—or at least that’s what the New Testament (especially Matthew’s gospel) would lead us to believe. Josephus, too, and even some rabbinic traditions portray the Pharisees in a negative light, according to Biblical scholar Roland Deines of the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom).
And yet, Deines says, the Biblical Pharisees were popular in the first century; they were the people’s party. Why would the people follow a bunch of hypocrites?
As Roland Deines explains in a recent BAR column, the New Testament and Josephus include polemical texts against the Pharisees rather than objective descriptions. In fact, it was the Pharisees’ take on Jewish halakhah that made them so popular.
The strict (and extensive) purity laws of Jewish halakhah made it both costly and time-consuming to follow—putting the Biblical instructions out of reach for most common people. For example, if impurity touched the outside of a pottery vessel, it needed to be broken and the contents thrown away. Instead, the Pharisees interpreted these laws in a way that made purity accessible to more people. According to the Pharisaic interpretation, the inside of the aforementioned vessel remained pure and the contents could still be used.
Although this sort of legalistic interpretation may seem like nit-picking to some, the Pharisees made purity attainable for all of Israel, not just the elite.
For more of Roland Deines’s explanation about the popularity of the Biblical Pharisees and their take on Jewish halakhah, see Roland Deines, Biblical Views: “The Pharisees—Good Guys with Bad Press” in the July/August 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Read more about the Pharisees in “Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period” by Lawrence H. Schiffman in Bible History Daily.