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The word Pharisees comes from the Hebrew p'rushim (singular parush, from parash, meaning "to separate"), from a root related to the Aramaic word upharsin ("and divided") in the writing on the wall in Daniel 5:25. 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 – 70 AD).

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Pharisaic sect was re-established as Rabbinic Judaism — which ultimately produced normative, traditional Judaism, the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism. The relationship between the Pharisees and Rabbinic Judaism (exemplified by the Talmud) is so close that many do not distinguish between the two. Nevertheless, the social standing and beliefs of the Pharisees changed over time, as political and social conditions in Judea changed.

More specifically, the Pharisees were one of the successor groups of the Hasidim. The first mention of the Pharisees is by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, in a description of the four "schools of thought" (that is, social groups or movements) into which the Jews were divided in the 1st century AD. The other schools were the Essenes, Zealots, and the Sadducees. However, Josephus indicates that the Pharisees received the backing and good-will of the common people.

For most of their history, Pharisees defined themselves in opposition to the Sadducees. Conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees took place in the context of much broader conflicts among Jews in the Second Temple era that followed the Babylonian captivity of Judah:

  • one conflict was class, between the wealthy and the poor.

  • another conflict was cultural, between those who favoured hellenization and those who resisted it.

  • a third was juridico-religious, between those who emphasized the importance of the Temple, and those who emphasized the importance of other Mosaic laws and prophetic values.

  • a fourth, specifically religious, involved different interpretations of the Bible, and how to apply the Torah to Jewish life.

These conflicts practically 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 were being canonized.

In general, whereas the Sadducees were conservative, aristocratic monarchists, the Pharisees were eclectic, popular, and more democratic. The Pharisaic position is exemplified by the assertion that "A learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest". (A mamzer is an outcast child born of a forbidden relationship, such as adultery or incest; the word is often, but incorrectly, translated as 'illegitimate' or 'bastard').

According to the New Testament, many Pharisees accepted Jesus as the Messiah, Lord and Saviour, "some of those who had come to trust (in Jesus) were from the party of the Pharisees" (Acts 15:5), as Paul did, "Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (Acts 23:6).