The Pharisees were a regular “order”, and had many “fraternities”. We must keep this fact in view in order to fully realize the state of religious society at the time of Jesus. The New Testament basically just transports us among different scenes and actors, and takes the then existent state of things basically for granted. The following example might seem like strange circumstances to us until we understand how the Pharisees did business. Then we can have a light cast upon us so that we can understand.
For example, there had been a long discussion in the Sanhedrim, which must have occupied a considerable part of the day. We might wonder at the fact that a party of more than 40 men could have so quickly banded together and formed a vow that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul (Acts 23: 12, 21). Still again, we might wonder about the fact that what should have been kept a profound secret by this fraternity, should have become known to Paul’s sister’s son (verse 16). Knowing the circumstances of the case will produce a sufficient explanation.
The Pharisees were a “Chabura”, or fraternity. This particular fraternity, or guild, or some of the kindred ones could have quickly furnished the people for such a quick gathering together. The vow that they took would have been nothing new or strange to them, and the talk of murder just seemed to them that they were further carrying out the principles of their order.
The wife and all the children of a fraternity were considered to belong to that fraternity. Paul’s father had been a Pharisee, so his sister and her children by virtue of birth, would have also belonged. According to the principles of the party, Paul’s sister would have automatically married into another Pharisaical family. The Pharisees were so zealous that they felt that they could justify killing any person who threatened their Jewish values and ways of life.
The day before this happened with Paul, the Sanhedrim had been engrossed in discussing how to handle the growing Christian movement that was taking place. They were afraid that they would lose all their power among the people if they accepted this new way of living for God. They finally came to the conclusion that “If a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.” (verse 9)
With night coming on and having their thoughts running wild, though, they decided that they might could defend Paul against the Sadducees, but they could not tolerate him as a member of their fraternity any longer. After all, he was basically shredding-to-bits everything that they had ever known or been taught. Finally, in a fit of rage, they came to the conclusion that he was not fit to live on the earth any longer. Remember they were very good at justifying all their ways to suit their religious convictions.
The Jerusalem Talmud furnishes the following curious illustration, which almost reads like a commentary about making vows:
“If a man makes a vow to abstain from food, Woe to him if he eateth, and, Woe to him if he does not eat! If he eateth, he sinneth against his vow; if he does not eat, he sins against his life. What then must he do? Let him go before ‘the sages’, and they will absolve him from his vow.”
It is a very curious coincidence, to say the least, that just about this same time there were three new enactments that were passed by Simeon, the son of Gamaliel (he was Paul’s teacher). These three enactments exactly met the case of Paul.
In the future, the children of a “Chaber” should not be necessarily such, but themselves require special and individual reception into the “order”.
That the previous conduct of the candidate should be considered before admitting him into the fraternity.
That any member who had left the “order”, or become a publican, should never afterwards be received back again.
There are three modern words that might help us to understand the whole state of matters as to how the Pharisees looked at things. They are connected with an ecclesiastical system which in many respects is similar to Rabbinism.
The Ultramontane is a party with a direction of religious thought. The Jesuits make up the fullest embodiment of this party. Their order consists of four degrees, which is the exact number of those in the fraternity of the Pharisees. Like that of the Jesuits, the order of the Pharisees originated in a period of great religious reaction. They themselves could trace their history up to the time of Ezra. The book of Ezra talks of the “Nivdalim”, or those who had separated themselves from the “filthiness of the heathen”. Then in Nehemiah 10:20 it says that they entered into a “solemn league and covenant” with definite vows and obligations. The Pharisees were not this Nivdalim in spirit, though. There were huge internal differences in both groups. They probably gradually through the years developed into the group that they became known of as the Pharisees.
At the time of Ezra, there was a great religious revival among those who had returned to the land of the fathers. Where before only certain people claimed to be separated, now this pursuit of holiness and being separated from the heathen peoples around them was taken up by the covenanted people as a whole. They became the “Chasidim”, or pious ones. As “Chasidim”, they resolved to be “Nivdalim”, or separated from the heathenism around them. It is interesting to notice how Paul, who had been a former “separated one”, had this view in comparing the Christian life to the life of the Pharisees in such passages as 2 Corinthians 6: 14 – 17: 1. Paul told them to “cleanse yourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
There are two points in Jewish history that claim special attention. The first is the period immediately following the rule of Alexander the Great. It had been Alexander’s plan to Grecianise the empire that he had conquered. Accordingly, there were many Grecian cities that crept up along the coast from Anthedon and Gaza in the south, to Tyre and Seleucia in the north. They also crept eastwards to Damascus, Gadara, Pella, and Philadelphia. Eventually the Grecian cities became interspersed into the whole land of Israel. Then they started to move into the interior by taking foothold in Galilee and Samaria. They started to have more and more influence and acquired vast numbers among the Israelites. It was under these circumstances that the “Chasidim” as a party came into opposition against this flood of Greeks everywhere that threatened to overwhelm their religion and nationality alike. The actual contest came soon, and with it the second grand period in the history of Judaism.
Alexander the Great had died in July 323 BC. About a century and a half later, the “Chasidim” had gathered around the Maccabees for Israel’s God and for Israel. The zeal of the Maccabees, though, soon gave place to worldly ambitions and projects. When these leaders started trying to merge high-priestly with royal dignity, the “Chasidim” got fed up, deserted them, and went into open opposition. They called on them to resign the high-priesthood, and were ready to suffer martyrdom. Many of them were actually martyred for their outspoken convictions. Those were the ones who were truly trying to be pious and devoted to the One True God and not just be part of a political machine.
The “Chasidim” party, though, had already given place to the Pharisees, or modern “Nivdalim”. These Pharisees in the time of Christ will be talked about in the next text.