The existence of a Jewish sect known as Pharisees in the first centuries BCE and CE is well known to readers of the New Testament, as well as to readers of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Most historians agree that there was a close link between the Pharisees and the rabbis of the Talmud, but the connections are, at best, based on informed conjectures. Joshua Garroway explains why knowledge of this important group is so sketchy, and how its members became saddled with a reputation for hypocrisy:
The age-old association of the Pharisees with hypocrisy stems from scenes in the Gospels (for example, Matthew 23:1-39) in which Jesus denigrates the Pharisees as religious phonies who demand from others a strictness they themselves fail to observe. Many historians doubt that Jesus himself ever made such an accusation, however. More likely, the evangelists—who were vying with the Pharisees (or early rabbis claiming the mantle of the Pharisees) in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE— retrojected their own hostility onto the ministry of Jesus. Not Jesus but Matthew and Luke thought the Pharisees were hypocrites.
Were they right? The charge is hard to square with Josephus’ insistence that the Pharisees were lenient in imposing punishments and held the esteem of the masses. A Pharisee here or there may have exhibited superficial piety, but to indict them collectively on account of Matthew and Luke seems unwarranted. Much of the depiction of the Pharisees in the Gospels may derive from their similarities to the early Jesus movement and that movement’s frustration that this similar group did not accept Jesus as the messiah.