🔼The name Pharisees: Summary
- Expounders, Dividers, Scientists, Persian School
- From the verb פרש (paras), to precisely declare, to split and divide.
🔼The name Pharisees in the Bible
The name Pharisees belonged to one of the two main parties of the wide spectrum of Judaisms of the second temple period — that is the period after the Jews returned from Persia and rebuilt the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem. This Temple was decreed, designed and funded by the Persian kings Darius and Cyrus (2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 6:1-3), and would later be expanded by the Idumean king Herod the Great into a splendid complex that attracted tourists from all over the world (Mark 13:1, Luke 21:5, Acts 2:5).
The other main party was that of the Sadducees (and read our article on that name for a closer look at both these movements' programs), but neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees were merely religious. Back in those days religion was not separated from science, social coding, capitalism and statecraft. The Sadducees seem to have dominated the Hasmonean era (when Judea was autonomous), but lost out against the Pharisees in the last few years of the monarchy. In 63 BC, Judea was overrun by the Romans, and since Pharisaic thought, with its belief in resurrection and inherent obedience to superior forces, was more in tune with Roman imperial theology than Sadducaic signature appreciation of self-determination and hedonism, the Romans instated a Pharisee as high priest (which basically meant chief tax collector — see our article on the name Annas).
From the sixteenth century on, the word Pharisee began to be used in the English language area to describe a generally self-righteous person, legalist or hypocrite, but that disparaging employ of the term is rather unfortunate. It's true that in the New Testament the Pharisees receive their fair share of criticism (Matthew 23), but so does pretty much everybody else. In fact, between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the latter are obviously deemed the good guys. Nicodemus, Gamaliel, Nathanael, Simon the Host (Luke 7:36), most probably Simon of Cyrene, the apostle Paul and even the historian Josephus were or had been Pharisees (for more on Josephus, see our article on Dalmanutha).
The name Pharisees occurs 101 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the Sadducaic movement came to a gurgling end. Its existence had been firmly associated to the Temple's monetary revenue and philosophically it was overwhelmed by the similar but much more sophisticated Epicureans. The Pharisees, on the other hand, strenuously endeavored to adapt to a Jewish world without a central Temple, and most probably in the fires of their debates, the gospel genre saw the light (the gospels, in case you were wondering, are literary commentaries on the period covering the last century BC to the first AD, and arguably the most complex works of literary art ever produced).
The New Testament agrees with Josephus in its grim observation that "the Jews" (or more elaborate: the liberative Zealots who were not kept in check by the Pharisaic and Sadducaic elite) caused the destruction of the Temple. The evangelists obviously associated the destruction of the Temple to the crucifixion of Jesus, and the two "murderers" who were crucified alongside him quite clearly represent the Pharisees (the contrite one, who would resurrect together with the Lord — Luke 23:43) and the Sadducees (the doomed mocker).
Allowing for some flexibility, early evangelism may very well be regarded as a hybrid offshoot of a marriage between Jewish Pharisaism and Greek Stoicism. Of course, this new Temple of YHWH was again destroyed when Constantine took its key phrases and glued these onto the smoldering skeleton of the cult of Sol Invictus. The result was deeply pagan — an inflated imperial personality cult with its cumbersome Trinitarian dogma reviving the Capitoline Triad and its parade of saints the Greco-Roman pantheon of demigods — and thrust the world into 1,500 years of intellectual darkness.
The once vast and utterly sophisticated cultures of the Phoenicians, Illyrians, Celts and countless others were steamrolled out of existence by Rome and its blasphemous legacy, but against all human odds, the Pharisees sustained the living miracle of Judaism, and its tradition of inquiry, critical thought, adaptability and lives filled with the joy of the study of creation. Avoiding attacks on all sides and mostly toiling somewhere in the background, the Pharisees safeguarded Europe's waning wisdom, catalyzed the formation of universities and when the coast was clear began to publicly excel in scientific, economic and artistic achievements. Their signature non-conformity that was so hated by every totalitarian regime in history from the Romans to the Nazi's has accelerated human progress more than the efforts of any other demographic group in history (Zechariah 8:23).
🔼Etymology of the name Pharisees
The name Pharisee(s) comes from the root group פרש (paras), which has so many nuances and internal clusters of meanings that scholars have devised a small bouquet of identical roots. Our name is generally thought to have to do with the verb פרשׁ (parash), meaning to declare with great precision or fully explain:
The roots פרס (paras) and פרש (paras) most basically speak of a sudden bursting forth in a wide spray of elements of something that was previously well concealed.
Verb פרס (paras) means to break and divide in equal shares (of bread, for instance). Noun פרס (peres) denotes a kind of unclean bird (perhaps a vulture, or perhaps a didactyl, i.e. a two-toed bird; an ostrich). Noun פרסה (parsa) means hoof (both cloven and solid ones) but may also refer to a whole animal as unit-of-the-herd (like our modern word "head"). Noun פרש (parash) means either horse or horseman as unit-of-the-army.
Verb פרש (paras) means to spread or spread out (of wings, hands, nets, and so on). Noun מפרש (mipras) refers to either a spreading out or a thing spread out.
Verb פרשׁ (parash) means to declare with precision, make wholly obvious or fully explain. Noun פרשה (parasha) refers to a precise statement. Noun פרש (peresh) means fecal matter or the exposed bowels of a sacrificial animal (and remember that to the ancients the emotional heart resided in the bowels).
Note that our modern word "science" shares a root with the word "schism," and literally describes the act of breaking and spreading out.
With their name the Pharisees saluted both the Persian Blessing that heralded in the Second Temple period, and Ezra's institution of The Explainer, which would evolve into the phenomenon of the Rabbi. In a way, the Pharisees named themselves out of a similar sense of duty as later the Quran and later still the Masoretes were named.
The gospel writers obviously took lavish liberties in weaving the whole spectrum of פרש (prs)-words into dialogues between Jesus and the Pharisees. In pun after pun, Jesus speaks of a divided kingdom that will be ruined (Matthew 12:25), a proverbially bursting forth brood of vipers (12:34), and the overflow of the heart and mouth from the things stored up inside a man (12:35).
Note that some commentators, especially online ones, appear to interpret our verb פרשׁ (parash) as meaning to separate, and dub the Pharisees "The Separatists", but this is a long shot and not very consistent with what we know of the Pharisees. Our English word "science" comes from the Greek verb σξιζω (schizo), meaning to split or divide, and the Pharisees probably thought of themselves as being The Scientists.