In the third of his four-volume work on the historical Jesus, John Meier surveys the competing voices which make up part of Jesus' context (largely devoted to the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes). A clipping out of his comments on the Pharisees says, "The struggle between Jesus (or early Christians) and the Pharisees over questions of law reflects a wider struggle raging in Israel around the turn of the era over the proper interpretation of the Mosaic Law" (315). It has been established well (not least in this series of posts) that the issue with Pharisees comes down to Torah interpretation and resulting practice. Meier goes on to assert the two greatest unifying and divisive symbols in Second Temple Judaism to be Temple and Torah (315), and a picture of the Pharisaic sect would be incomplete without hovering over this notion for a brief moment.
Before that, however, I do wish to address the notion that the four gospel narratives contain more retrojected debate-points than actual historical conflict. Meier assumes this, along with many other who are closer to 'mainline' scholarship, but has failed to provide any solid reasons why this must be the case. While appreciate the breadth of his work, this appears to be a major overstep in the process - it is assumed rather than addressed - something which should be inserted if it is deemed a major piece of his argument. The problem that I have with such notions is that it makes the early Christian community appear more concerned with winning debates than preserving the salvation story. All while proclaiming and suffering and dying for a story which
The issues of Temple and Torah is case-in-point, but here Meier prefers to handle the issue rather than relegate it to a later debate. Jesus and the Pharisees not only differed on Torah interpretation but also on their understanding of Temple (here we would do well to defer to NTW's JVG). Temple refers not simply to a building, but rather to the Jewish covenant as a whole in practice. The debates of Pharisee, Sadducee, and everyone else comes down to the current state of the covenant, not some abstract ideology or theology. Temple and Torah thus work hand in hand to bring about the covenant blessings of God. Fitting Jesus into this is somewhat different than commonly assumed - his challenge was to the leadership of Israel, who directed the covenant story away from its intended goal.
To round out Meier's take: "In my view, what made the Pharisees distinctive was that they openly admitted that some of their legal views and practices were not to be found as such in the written Mosaic Law, that such practices were instead venerable 'traditions' that had been handed down by the 'fathers' or the 'elders,' and that such practices nevertheless were God's will for all Israel" (315).