A Pharisee was a member of a party within Judaism that called on Jews of the time of Christ to follow strictly the Law as they interpreted it. In the New Testament, Jesus constantly berates them on their strict interpretation of the Law and the lack of recognition of His mission.
Traditionally, the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew פרושים prushim from פרוש parush, meaning "separated," that is, one who is separated for a life of purity. Some recent views suggest that the word "pharisee" may come from the Hebrew word parosim, meaning "specifier," that is, that they sought to specify the correct meaning of the Law of God to the people.
The Pharisees were, depending on the time, a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews that flourished during the Second Temple Era (536 BC to 70 AD). After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Pharisaic sect re-established itself as Rabbinic Judaism—which ultimately produced normative, traditional Judaism, the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism. Even the Karaites use the Rabbinic canon of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh of the post Second Temple period whereas Orthodox Christianity uses the Septuagint, the Greek translation of an earlier Hebrew Bible.
The Pharisees were one of at least four major schools of thought within the Jewish religion around the first century and were most prominent in opposition to the Sadducees. The social standing and beliefs of the Pharisees changed over time, such that the role, significance, and meaning of the Pharisees evolved as political and social conditions in Judea changed. Although the Pharisees left a major impact upon Rabbinic Judaism, few of the teachings of the Pharisees of the late Second Temple period can be identified today within the Jewish Talmud. Although the New Testament records explicit criticism by Jesus of Pharisee's teachings, none of those identified by Jesus were accepted by mainstream Judaism so as to be included in the Talmud.
The first mention of the Pharisees is by the Jewish historian Josephus, in a description of the "four schools of thought" into which the Jews were divided in the first century. The other schools were the Essenes, the revolutionaries such as the Zealots, and the Sadducees. The Essenes were generally apolitical. The revolutionary groups emerged specifically to resist the Roman Empire. Other groups emerged at this time, such as the Christians in Judea. The Pharisees and their opponents, the Sadducees, were two of the earliest groups to emerge in the Second Temple period as political factions during the Hellenist Hasmonean rule. While most Jews were non-sectarian, Josephus indicates that the Pharisees received the backing and good-will of common people. This, apparently, was in contrast to the more elite Sadducees who were associated with the ruling classes.
For most of their history, Pharisees considered themselves in opposition to the Sadducees. These conflicts took place in a context of much broader conflicts among Jews in the era. These conflicts were class, between the wealthy and the poor, cultural, between those who favored hellenization, and those who resisted it. The conflict was juridico-religious: that was between those who stressed the importance of the Temple and those who looked to the importance of other Mosaic laws and prophetic values. Another, specifically religious conflict, involved different interpretations of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and how to apply the Torah to Jewish life. The Sadducees recognized only the written letter of the Tanakh or Torah and rejected life after death, while the Pharisees held to oral Rabbinic interpretations of the Tanakh that were additional to the written texts. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and of the existence of spirit beings, like angels and beings.
These conflicts, practically speaking, define the Second Temple Era, a time when the Temple had tremendous authority but questionable legitimacy, and a time when the sacred literature of the Torah, and Bible (Tanakh) were being canonized. Fundamentally, Sadducees and Pharisees took clearly opposing positions concerning the conflicts. In general, the Sadducees were conservative, aristocratic monarchists, and embraced hellenism, whereas the Pharisees were eclectic, popular, and more democratic, had greater influence with the people. By the time of Christ, the Sadducees had lost most of their religious influence with the people, the Pharisees having taken over the role.
The Pharisees became the the religious teachers of the people while the Sadducees were concerned with their political power, notably within the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees became the lay teachers of the law in the synagogues, called in the New Testament the scribes, as well as lawyers. Thus, as Jesus began his ministry, it was in an atmosphere of teaching from Pharisees, in which there were those whose outlook was rigid and unforgiving. It was these Pharisees who became the adversaries of Christ. The New Testament makes this clear as Christ castigated the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of these scribes who also did not understand Christ's mission and message.
The New Testament makes clear that Christ's criticisms of the scribes was not against their doctrines, but of their practices. This is illustrated in the New Testament in the following: (Matt 23:1-3) Then Spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. Other than his condemnation of the hypocrisy of the scribes, the beliefs and practices of the Pharisees was consistent with Christ's teachings.
The conflicts of the scribes with Christ's teaching were not so much over doctrines and beliefs, but of a lack of understanding of Jesus' mission. The New Testament attests that not all Pharisees were adversaries of Christ. Luke 7:36, 11:37, and 14.1 relate Christ's sitting down to eat with Pharisees. In Luke 13:31, a Pharisee warns Jesus of danger.
In the end it was the Sadducees who were instrumental in the acts of arresting Christ and in his trial, leading to his crucifixion. It was the Sadducees who were to continually oppose the apostles and the early church, and, according to Josephus, were responsible for the death of the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord. Whereas, the New Testament records that there were Pharisaic Christians in the early church (Acts 15:5). Even the Apostle Paul, himself some twenty years after his conversion, who affirmed before a council of Pharisees and Sadducees that he was a Pharisee (But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. (Acts 23:6))
With the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, the sect of the Pharisees died out as rabbinic Judaism evolved and continued developing the basic tenets of the Pharisees.