Jewish orientation or school, sometimes referred to as a sect. The Pharisees played an important part in the religious struggles of Judaism from the middle of 2nd century BCE until 1st century CE.
Jesus in front of the Pharisees.
One of the main challenges when studying the Pharisees, is to look apart from the bias in the majority of the sources. As a group in opposition to others, they have often been condemned more than they deserve.
The Pharisees based their doctrines on both the Torah, as well as the oral traditions, contrary to their opponents, the Sadducees, who only revered the Torah. The Pharisees meant that there had to be evolution in the Law, in order to give answers to any new legal questions that would occur. Also, they meant, the law had to be adjusted to reason and conscience, and not obeyed blindly by the letter.
In their zeal for creating what they considered to be a true religion, they came to define some of the obligations for the priests, to be binding for all Jews.
Central to their learning was to resist any form of foreign influences, which at this time were powerful, like the Hellenistic. By doing this, they wanted to take care of their religion, its monotheism and its rituals.
For the Pharisees it was of utmost importance that all affairs, be it state or religion, should be governed according to the divine Law. Yet, they meant that the Temple of Jerusalem was not indispensable to Jewish law, life and rituals. By this, they defined a religion that could practiced even far away from Jerusalem, and in societies where the Jews represented a minority.
As part of the protest against the Sadducees, and their domination of the Temple, the synagogue was developed. While there was only one Temple, there was no limit to how many synagogues there could be.
Related to this, was the Pharisee teaching on rituals, where they rejected the bloody sacrifices performed in the Temple. Instead they emphasized prayer and the study of the Law.
But the Pharisees had proven not to be impregnable to Hellenistic influences: there were unusual strong elements of individualism (like the transferring of obligations from the priests to the laymen, and of making prayer and self-study the main rituals), and mysticism had also become part of their ideology.
The Pharisees consisted of scholars, laymen and scribes, and they had many supporters. It is clear that already from the 1st century BCE, the Pharisees represented a larger part of the Jewish society than the Sadducees.
The Pharisees did not represent a political party or movement, and they were loosely organized. The Pharisees could well be defined first and foremost as a philosophy with many supporters.
There were many sub-groups among the them, and most must be considered to be true and honest in their beliefs. But one sub-group developed a hypocritical approach to Judaism, and became condemned both by scholars writing in the Talmud as well as the Jewish rebel Jesus.
Christians have come to consider all Pharisees as hypocritical due to the stories in the Gospels, but this is seriously unfair to the majority of Pharisees.
Around 160 BCE: After the success of the Maccabean Revolt, the Pharisees emerge as a group, probably as a continuation of the Hasideans, and in opposition to the hereditary temple aristocracy.
Around 100: A struggle between the Pharisees and the temple aristocracy start about who should control and govern Judaism. From the temple aristocracy grows a group known as Sadducees.
70 CE: The Temple of Jerusalem is destroyed, but the learning of the Pharisees continues to exist, and their learning would represent the continuation of Judaism.