The Pharisees were at various times a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought in the Holy Land during the Second Temple period. Pharisaic beliefs became the liturgical and ritualistic basis for Rabbinic Judaism (commonly known as simply Judaism).
The Pharisees were behind much of the opposition Jesus faced, and, sometimes, were the “in-your-face” source of opposition. It’s sad they didn’t realize they had much more in common with Jesus than any of the other religious groups of Jesus’ day. Jesus shared two of the Pharisees’ most important theological doctrines; a bodily resurrection, and a deep devotion to the Torah (the Jewish Law laid out in the first 5 books of the Old Testament).
But, there was a deep chasm between the Pharisees and Jesus. Why?
The Pharisees had become so zealous for correctly interpreting and holding people to the law, they turned it into a power thing. They were legalists. They were so concerned about the letter of the law, they missed the spirit of the law… and, thereby, missed the point of the law. Whether Jesus helped people or not was not nearly as important to them as how and when He did it.
They held themselves up above the people… and vigorously opposed anyone who represented a threat to their power and influence; we see this in their opposition to John the Baptizer, and then to Jesus.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, himself a Pharisee, estimated the total Pharisee population prior to the fall of the Second Temple to be around 6,000. The Pharisees seem to have received the backing and goodwill of the common people, apparently in contrast to the more elite Sadducees. Pharisees claimed Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Jewish Laws, while Sadducees represented the authority of the priestly privileges and prerogatives established since the days of Solomon, when Zadok, their ancestor, officiated as High Priest.
Some of the Pharisees mentioned in the NT were Nicodemus, Simon, Joseph of Arimathea, Gamaliel, and Saul (who would become Paul).
The word “pharisee” (and its derivatives: “pharisaical”, etc.) originally referred to ‘one who is separate/detached’ or ‘one who interprets’; it has come to describe a hypocritical and arrogant person who places the letter of the law above its spirit.
Modern-day Pharisees in churches today are not hard to find. There are still those who put process above all else. There are still those who are threatened if they sense their power is slipping away. There are still those who try to draw a circle around themselves and then point accusing fingers at those who aren’t in their circles.
But Jesus came to show Pharisees – then and now – a better way. The way of love and grace.
You can read of the Pharisees in secular history; and also in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and the book of Acts.