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Literally, separatists. One of the three parties in Palestine during the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.E. Most of Rabbinic law as it exists today originated with the Pharisees, who prized the study of Jewish law as it developed through the generations. They were opposed by the Sadducees, literalists who allowed no interpretation of the law beyond the letter of the Biblical text.

It is believed that the majority of the Jewish people supported the Pharisees. They instituted centers of learning and synagogues for worship. The Pharisees emphasized the importance of prayer independent of the Temple services. Through teachings that strengthened the Jewish religion and morality, the Pharisees prepared Jews to withstand the hardships that followed the destruction of the Temple and subsequent dispersion.

The Pharisees came into conflict with two of the rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty: Johanan Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus. They were dissatisfied with Hyrcanus’s preoccupation with wars of conquest and with the religious practices of Alexander Jannaeus. Their opposition led these kings, especially Jannaeus, to persecute the Pharisees, many of whom fled the country to escape his heavy hand.

In the New Testament the Pharisees are mentioned unfavorably. Apparently, a few Pharisees pursued their own selfish ends under the guise of piety. There is no doubt, however, that the majority of them were true to the high ideals of their great spiritual leaders.

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