The origin of the name Pharisees is uncertain; one suggestion renders it as “those separated,” meaning separation from impurity and defilement.
In New Testament times, the Pharisees were characterized by a rigid adherence to ritual observance of the letter of the law (rather than the spirit of the law which was encouraged by Jesus). Because of their rigidity and insistence upon the inflexibility of the law, Jesus called them “whited sepulchers” or white-washed tombs. Today, we would say that they put the letter of the law before the heart, or justice before mercy.
They did share many of the same beliefs as Jesus, including the resurrection of the dead and a coming day of judgment followed by reward or punishment. They believed in angels and developed a complex angelology. Their lives revolved around the study of the Torah, both written and oral versions, and their strict observance of every rule and law was meant to elevate the spiritual character of the Jewish people to help them draw nearer to God. They taught that God loved his people and called them to a life of obedience, which they had the power to choose or refuse. The Pharisees believed that everyone had the power to choose good or evil, and that the Torah was their guide to telling one from the other.
In common parlance, “Pharisee” has come to mean someone who espouses a rigid, judgmental interpretation of religion that is based on following the rules (obedience) but devoid of life and spirit at the center – white-washed (in other words, self-righteous and acting holier than thou) but without a compassionate spirit within. It also is often used to characterize someone who insists upon the transcendent power of the written scriptures and oral teachings, when followed literally, as the essential guide to salvation on Judgment Day.