The name is usually thought to mean "those who are separated"
(separatists) and seems to date from only about 120 years before Jesus'
times. The Pharisees were "separated" from ritual defilement and
irreligion. Scholars generally think that they were descended as a party
of the Jewish religion from the Hasidim - a group which fiercely
resisted pressures to adopt Greek culture.
They were in no sense priests or ministers, but laymen banded together
for a more exacting observance of the Jewish Law or Torah. Their
rules are sometimes called the "oral Torah", the spoken law which was a
development of the original written codes so important to the Jews. The
spoken law was designed to ensure the fuller observance of the written law
by making rules for detailed observations, settling disputes around
interpretation and reconciling apparent inconsistencies.
By Jesus' time the body of spoken law had become considerable and is
described here as the "tradition" or the "customs" of the elders or
ancestors. It was the work of learned men known as rabbis or scribes to
formulate and discuss the spoken law. In an age when literacy was
comparatively rare, debates about the spoken law were usually in public.
Of course, the issue here is not hygiene but ritual cleansing. Most
people thought that touching or being touched by certain things or animals
would make them "unclean" and therefore unable to approach God properly.
Unclean people were to be avoided socially. In effect, as long as they
remained unclean, they were outcasts.
The evidence of Jewish scholars is that at the time of Jesus the ritual
washing of hands before eating was in fact obligatory only for priests.
The ordinary layman would not have worried about this unless he was about
to enter the Temple to make a sacrifice.
It was not until about 100 AD that ritual washing became obligatory to
everyone. We can only suppose that for some time before this there was
already a strong religious movement in this direction.
We have to be a little cautious about the New testament presentation of
the "Separatists" because we know that the very early Christians probably
conflicted with the Pharisees. The latter are routinely criticised in the
gospels and the general picture of the conflict is confirmed by the Jewish
historian Josephus and by the Rabbinic traditions dating back to the first
It seems that Jesus and his followers didn't follow the Pharisaical
line - but then nor did many contemporary Jews, so that in itself wasn't
particularly unusual. What is unusual is that Jesus gave no credit to the
idea of ritual contamination, a belief almost universal in his time.
Without this idea, it's likely that much of every religion of the time
would have collapsed.
Jesus was striking at the very heart of a system which regulated and
controlled access to God and gave added status to some individuals and
groups in the eyes of "good" people.