What were the characteristics of a conscientious Pharisee in the days of Jesus and Paul? Answers to this question will serve to give some impression of Paul's experience between the completion of his study at the rabbinical college at Jerusalem and the first mention of him in the book of Acts.
The Jews in exile in Babylon, far from Jerusalem where their beloved temple lay in ruins, strove to preserve, in letter and in spirit, the ancient tradition of the law of Moses, which was their major link with home. After their return to Palestine the seeds of Pharisaism, sown during the Exile, began to come to fruition.
What set Pharisees apart from the ultra-conservative, priestly Sadducees, who observed only the written law, was their emphasis on "oral tradition," or legal precedents set by the Torah in specific situations. As a rule, Pharisees tended to be more sincere, more liberal, more forward-looking, and less inclined to seek political leverage through or for their religion. However, in their zeal to preserve the teachings of law and prophecy their interpretations became more and more involved and rigid. Their respect for ancestral tradition tended to deteriorate into minute legalistic details.