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10 Historical Words That Don't Mean What You Think

This 1842 engraving shows Jesus discoursing with the Pharisees. © Corbis
This 1842 engraving shows Jesus discoursing with the Pharisees. © Corbis

Those sanctimonious Pharisees! At least that's how many people believe they're depicted in the Bible, which is why the term "pharisee" today is used to mean someone who is self-righteous and hypocritical. But this isn't really an accurate definition. The Pharisees — the name means "separate ones" or "separatists" — were an ancient Jewish sect that believed in strict adherence to Jewish traditions and religious practices. They interpreted scriptures literally. While some of their contemporaries raised an eyebrow over their zealousness toward Jewish law, they were respected by many because they were commoners who wanted to help people of all classes study Moses' law. (Their rivals, the Sadducees, were mainly aristocrats and priests.) The Pharisees also didn't bow down to the hated Roman authorities [sources: Johnson, American Heritage Dictionary].

But were they self-righteous? In biblical Book of Luke, the Pharisees were angry with Jesus for healing a man with a paralyzed hand on the Sabbath. Yet looked at another way, the Pharisees were following their true beliefs, and felt strict adherence to the law was what God desired. Also, the biblical portrayal of Pharisees is more nuanced than might seem at first glance. For instance, a respected Pharisee named Gamaliel intervenes to save two of the apostles during a trial, in the Book of Acts. And the Talmud, the legal commentary on the Torah which was written by the Pharisees, also condemned hypocrisy [source: Abrami]. The Pharisees were the only Jewish sect which survived the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and so formed the basis of modern Judaism.

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