The Pharisees of Jesus' time formed the mainstream of Jewish thought. They were not so much defined by profession, rather they represented a movement or ideology within Judiasm and were people of different professions: clerics, lawyers and other prominent individuals. They were distinguished by their core beliefs that (a) the Old Testament was the revealed Word of God, (b) this word must be interpreted within a strict framework that has been understood traditionally from the beginnings of this revelation, and (c) they believed that their understanding of God through the Scriptures must influence their everyday life (and hence their insitence on the Sabbath rest, ritual cleansing and other issues over which Jesus was viewed by them with suspicion).
By this token they would be considered the Conservatives of their day. They sought to conserve the shared meanings of their past. When Jesus came around, he clearly drew a line in the sand where these teachings erred on many occasions. So he says on these occasions, "You have heard that it was written...., but I say to you...." In his debates with lawyers and clerics, his answers are always probing the essence of Pharisaic belief. The Pharisees question him about who they might consider their neighbour, and Jesus after his customary answer by asking a question, proceeds to tell a story that elevates the actions of a hated Samaritan over the understandable actions of a lawyer and a Pharisee (motivated by fear of bandits and surely by fears of being soiled through contact with the dead). Jesus goes beyond their law to ask them why they believed certain things. Another inquirer called him 'good teacher, and he responds, "Why do you call me good?" He then tells them that only God is good, but he demonstrates his divinity throughout the Gospels by his actions- miracles, forgiving sins, equating himself with the Father, projecting Himself as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophesies. He is constantly probing to get at their Conservative essence.
Was Jesus a liberal? The Pharisees surely thought so. But in general, that label was claimed by a powerful, wealthy and elite sect of the day, called the Sadducees. Although Jesus' interactions with them are minimal in the Gospels (and this is perhaps because they were fewer in number), one such interaction catches our attention. The Sadducees ask Jesus a question intended to disprove resurrection of the dead, an idea upheld by the Pharisees, which he refutes.
Little is known about the Sadducees, except that they were few in number compared to the Pharisees, wealthy, politically powerful, elite, influenced in their Judaism by external religious beliefs such as Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Jewish sriter Josephus tells us that they were boorish in social interactions. They also rejected the idea of interpreting the Old Testament by the strict framework that the Pharisees held to. They were probably puzzled by Jesus' teachings, in that he was clearly not influenced by the Hellenistic philosophies that they endorsed, but he was claiming his own ground. The Sadducees likely considered him a Conservative who was defining this movement in a new way.
I wonder what the Essenes thought of him. This group was scholarly, often monastic, arch-conservatives who were also messianic, mystic and ascetic in their lives. Many hold to the belief that John the Bapitzer may have been an Essene, judging by the austerity of his lifestyle. Perhaps the difference is also that he was clearly an outspoken messenger for Jesus, something the Essenes were not likely to have been.
The idea that emerges is that Jesus affirmed the Pharisees in their high regard for the revelatory nature of Scripture, interpretation of the Scripture according to the framework set by tradition and their insistence that this should influence their private and public lives. His efforts have always been to persuade the people to see what this should entail. The side story of the perceived threat this may have posed to the Pharisaic leadership in terms of social and political capital is not germane to our discussion, although it may be valid enough in our time as a dangerous contingency within Christianity.
These thoughts occured to me when I read through the Evangelical Manifesto, signed by many prominent Evangelical leaders, calling for civility in the public sphere, wisdom from being used by political parties as "useful idiots", respect for the right for every faith to speak freely and express itself freely in public, but rejecting both the false notions that all faiths are correct or that the public sphere must be secular in nature. I have read only mild criticisms of this important document for our times, seeking to define the Evangelical movement and dissociate it from the narrow political and social meanings it has been given by the media and the political observers. Perhaps the best critique on it I have read is from Al Mohler here and a later statement here, both of which still commend the document for its strengths. To my mind, with all its valid criticisms, this represents a magnificent effort by Christian minds to elevate our thinking beyond partisanship and the unforgiving spirit it inevitably brings. More important of all, the core Christian beliefs that bind us firmly to the unadulterated faith of the apostles are clearly affirmed here.
Although many Conservatives and Liberals alike claim Jesus as one of their own, it is important to understand our Lord's stance in a more meaningful way than simply to claim that he "came to conserve" or he "struck out on his own". He came to redeem the lost and his way was in conflict with the established powers of his day, as it is with many of our own.