Who were the Pharisees?

One dictionary definition of the word “Pharisee” is “a sanctimonious, self-righteous or hypocritical person.” This definition is rooted in Christian tradition and the role the Pharisees played as opponents and betrayers of Jesus in the Gospels. The reality of who the Pharisees were, however, is far more complex.
In Jewish tradition, the Pharisees are forerunners of the rabbis in theology and practice. This group of scribes and teachers established the foundation of Judaism for two millennia and are heroes in Jewish history.
The Christian caricature of the Pharisees as intolerant legalists concerned only with ritual and lacking ethics and a soul betrays ignorance of who these scribes and teachers really were. The reality is that the grand concept at the heart of Pharisaic Judaism—the Oral Law—enabled the Pharisees to have wide latitude in interpretation of Jewish law and Hebrew Scripture.
The concept of an Oral Law given to Moses in addition to the Written Law gave the Pharisees the ability to transcend a literalism that could be crippling in any attempt to interpret Jewish law.
The idea of an Oral Law provided them with the authority to interpret Hebrew Scripture more creatively than was done by their literalist opponents, the priests and aristocrats of the Sadducees. For example, the Pharisees did not interpret the biblical concept of “an eye for an eye” literally. Rather, using the Oral Law as a device to interpret Hebrew Scripture, the Pharisees interpreted this command as demanding monetary compensation for the injury rather than the literal meaning of the text.
This is one case in many that Pharisaic interpretation reveals compassion and latitude in an understanding of Jewish law. The Oral Law is the foundation of rabbinic Judaism and has granted rabbis the authority to reach heights of great creativity in interpretation of Jewish law.
The Pharisees were the forerunners of the rabbis in introducing this critical concept that has been the groundwork of rabbinic Judaism for 2000 years. In opposition to the Christian concept of Law as being constricting and limiting, Rabbinic Judaism—the heir to the Pharisees--has proven many times that Law can be liberating.
While the Gospels often present Pharisees and Sadducees working together to undermine Jesus, the reality is that these two groups were radically different. The priestly and aristocratic Sadducees were literalists, did not believe in immortality of the soul and an afterlife, and did not believe in Messianic redemption.
The Pharisees defied the Sadducees in this theology and, if ancient Jewish historian Josephus is to be believed, these scribes and teachers were endowed with great respect by the Jews in Judea. After the great revolt against Rome in 66-70, the Pharisees remained the only group among the diverse sects in Judea to survive the crushing of the rebellion. But this is not simply an example of process of elimination and the Pharisees being the last men standing.
The Oral Law, belief in immortality of the soul and an afterlife, and the hope of Messianic redemption were liberating concepts that created the groundwork for the survival and continuity of Jewish life without the Temple in Jerusalem as a central unifying force. The Pharisees and their rabbinic heirs provided Jews with a way of life that has endured for centuries and has proven relevant and cogent for millennia.