Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Pharisees

Of the three "sects" that Josephus lists, Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees,1 the Pharisees appealed to him the most. He had great respect for the Essenes with whom he lived for three years; but he joined the Pharisees. He had little respect for the Sadducees. Trying to determine the nature of these three groups is a very difficult task, for the literature about them is incomplete and at times confusing.

The New Testament refers to the Pharisees frequently and usually always with regard to their faults. Consequently, in dictionaries Pharisees have almost always been defined as hypocrites and misguided zealots; Christendom has largely disparaged them.2 But now the tendency in scholarship is to take the view that the Pharisees have been misrepresented in at least some degree in the Gospels, especially in Matthew and John, which, we are told, reflect the growing antagonism between Christianity and Judaism after 70 A.D.; moreover, it is now commonly held that the Pharisees had no part in the death of Jesus, but in fact Jesus may have been a Pharisee Himself.3 Of course, it is one thing to say that the Gospel writers selected cases that best illustrated the Jewish opposition to Jesus; but it is quite another to say that they misrepresented the facts or invented the stories.

It is not only the New Testament that presents a negative view of the Pharisees; Rabbinic literature in general is critical of the them. The Talmud lists seven categories of Pharisees, and only the seventh is laudable: there is the shouldering Pharisee, who parades good deeds; there is the delaying Pharisee, who lets business wait in order to do a good deed; there is the bruised Pharisee, who walks into a wall to keep from looking at a woman; there is the pestle Pharisee, who with false humility walks with his head down like a pestle on a mortar; there is the ever-reckoning Pharisee, who asks what good deeds he might do that would be reckoned as canceling out his neglects; there is the fearful Pharisee, who is in terror of God; and there is the loving Pharisee, who like Abraham loves God--he is admirable.4 Two other expressions are used in the Mishnah to describe the Pharisees: "destroyers of the world" and "Pharisaic plagues," which certainly portray them very critically.5 So we must note here as well that the earliest rabbinic sages (called tannites) did not identify themselves as Pharisees.6

But this is what makes the study of the Pharisees a more acute problem than the study of other groups. Judaism in a real sense arose from and found its directing guidelines from Pharisaism--so there is lineal descent.7 Although Rabbinic writers do not call themselves Pharisees (they use the term hakamim, "sages") the lines are there. Sandmel suggests that there may have been at some point a subtle but perceptible shift from the use of Pharisees to sages. He says that the original movement disappeared in time, but the impulse behind the movement endured. The Pharisees were committed to the validity of the Scriptures as well as the oral torah. They were progressive, open to reasonable change. Rabbinic Judaism is what Pharisaism developed into; there was the ascendancy of a non-political academy, and the rule shifted from Sanhedrin to the sages.8 But Judaism is not the same as Pharisaism; there were many other components that contributed to the formation of Rabbinic Judaism. Any discussion of the Pharisees, then, becomes a dangerous area of debate in theology and biblical criticism.

The Name "Pharisee"

Both the New Testament and Josephus refer to the sect of the Pharisees (Acts15: 5; 26:5).9 The name seems clearly related to the word paras, "to divide, separate." This would yield two possible interpretations: "separated ones" and "interpreters"(those who would divide Scripture and thus interpret).10 The difficulty with this last view is that the form of the word in Hebrew is a passive participle which does not lend itself to the active sense required for "interpreter"; hence, "separated ones" is probably the meaning of the name.11

But from whom did they separate? The general consensus is that they separated from the "people of the land," the 'am ha'ares. This was a designation of the illiterate and the unrefined people of the land, the peasants, whose illiteracy impeded any careful fidelity to the religious duties such as concerned tithes and cleanness.12

The Mishnah preserves some of these ideas. We read how the people of the land could not be pious (Ab. 2:5); only the hasid could.13 This name hasid is placed as an antonym of the 'am ha'ares in Chagigah 2:7. And furthermore, the reliable (i.e., the religious--Pharisees) could not even stay in their houses as guests (Dem. 2:2).

In the New Testament the ruling Pharisees describe these common people as ignorant and cursed (Jn. 7:49). On one occasion a Pharisee asked Jesus why he ate with them (Mt. 9:11). In fact, the statement that Jesus was untaught would be taken as a critical slur (Jn. 7:15).

It is possible that the Pharisees took this name to themselves. In presenting this view Moore notes that the Sifra on Leviticus 11:44 which says, "as I am separate (parush), so be ye also separate (perushim ),"14 makes separateness synonymous with holiness. But Bronner correctly asks if this were the meaning, why would they have preferred the word to Hasidim which has the similar meaning?15

A better view is that the name was given to them by their opponents, perhaps the Sadducees, and was at first derogatory.16 In this case it may have the significance of separation from certain ruling bodies. Zeitlin compares the use of the word Protestant in Christianity; it was first a derogatory term used by the Catholics but later came to be the proper and acceptable designation.17 In support of this view there are a few references in the Rabbinic literature where the Sadducees used the term. There is a story recorded about Jannaeus' change of parties; in it a Sadducee tells him the "Pharisees" are not loyal to him. After the report, the text calls them "sages" and not Pharisees.18 The point is that they did not call themselves Pharisees.19 In Maccoth 1:6 those who oppose the Sadducees are called "sages." What probably happened is that in time others used the term and it became an acceptable name.

But the consideration of the meaning of the name maybe helped by a review of the early references to the Pharisees.

The Origin of the Pharisees

The Pharisees developed as a group out of the larger Hasidim, the early "faithful" Jews who opposed Hellenization. So from the Hasidim derived the Essenes, who withdrew entirely over illegitimate priests, and the Pharisees, who stayed into argue their case.20 They probably were willing to accept the leadership of the Hasmoneans for they would be giving guidance to a regime founded on the defense of the Law.21

One of the earliest references concerns an Eleazar who told Hyrcanus (who had been a disciple of the Pharisees) that he ought to lay aside the priesthood for his mother had been a captive in Antiochus Epiphanes' day--meaning that Hyrcanus might be the child of a rape. The king resented this, of course; but he also was angered by the Pharisees' suggestion that Eleazar be punished lightly. So Hyrcanus shifted to the Sadducean party and persecuted the Pharisees by abrogating the laws they had established.22

Under Jannaeus (104-78) the Pharisees were kept from influence on the crown. In fact, Jannaeus had great contempt for them and their ritual laws, and this contempt led to that outbreak in which 800 Pharisees were put to death (although Josephus does not say they were Pharisees) after the throats of their wives and children were cut. When Alexandra Salome succeeded, the Pharisees used their power to demand the death for those responsible for the killing of the 800. This counter-slaughter only serves to bring together a good deal of opposition to the Pharisees. Sandmel astutely observes that the "seizure of power, and the capacity to use it cruelly, was an objective of both the Pharisees and Sadducees of that time. The religious distinction, if remembered at all, was clearly secondary to the political."23 When Herod came to power and ended the Hasmonean rule, both parties diminished in unity and power.

The Nature of the Pharisees

Many ideas have been expressed concerning the nature of the Pharisees in the days of Jesus. Saldarini presents these plausible descriptions:24The Pharisees were one small group among many in Israel, and so they competed with Jesus and with other groups for the influence of the people. There was no dominant group or view. But, according to Josephus, the Pharisees were like a political interest group; they had their goals for society and sought to achieve them; they were always thereto gain access to power and influence society to a new communal commitment to a strict Jewish way of life.25 They were a long-lasting and well-connected organization; and although separatists, they entered into many mutual relationships to accomplish their aims. They could even join with Sadducees for some purpose, but not for a long relationship.

Saldarini also describes their position in society: They were higher than the peasants, but lower than the ruling class. Most of them would be subordinate officials in government, bureaucrats, judges, and educators. In short, they were retainers who were literate servants of the governing class. Thus, they were interwoven throughout society, and not a unified withdrawn community. They were bound together by certain beliefs and practices and endeavors to influence change. All their rulings were necessary for the Jews trying to live against the Roman influence. Saldarini classifies them as a reformist sect, one that seeks gradual, divinely revealed alterations in the world (p. 286); but they may have had introversionist tendencies to withdraw as well (like Qumran).

They were not completely unified in their views. Within the group there were factions, notably of Hillel and Shammai, two figures who dominated Pharisaical Judaism in the time of Herod. Shammai was known more for his strictness and severity; Hillel for humaneness and leniency.26 Of their disciples, known as the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, the school of Hillel usually prevailed.

Saldarini also notes the problem of references to Pharisees in Galilee (p. 291). Josephus and John put the Pharisees in Jerusalem and associate them with the governing class; but the synoptic Gospels place Pharisees in Galilee. One modern view is that the Pharisees were added to the stories, that is, the early church put the Pharisees in all the Galilean disputes or moved the disputes with Pharisees in them to Galilee.

Saldarini rightly rejects this idea as lacking cogency; they would not have placed the Pharisees there if that was contrary to first century tradition. The fact that there is no reference to Galilean Pharisees in Josephus does not mean that they were not there, for he focuses on Jerusalem and the government. So Pharisees were likely present in Galilee; they were not in charge, but may have served some functions in government. The opposition they formed in their dispute with Jesus was somewhat different from the stronger opposition in Judea.

Although the Pharisees were not great in number (Josephus says around 6,000), they did have tremendous influence over the people. Neither the Sadducees nor the Essenes could exert the influence the Pharisees could. The Zealots could, however; the Pharisees were every bit as zealous for the Torah as the Zealots were, but they stood against violence--they wanted to trust and wait.27 The Zealots "came with the burning words of men smarting under cruelty at the hands of heathen oppressors."28

The Major Characteristics of the Pharisees

There are two major characteristics of the Pharisees, their meticulous observance of obligations under the Law for purity, tithing, and Sabbath observances; and their emphasis on oral law as equally binding to the Law.29 The New Testament witnesses to their great concern over tithing and purity in Matthew 23:23-26 and Luke 11:39-42; and the many disputes Jesus had with the Jews over the Sabbath day reflects their concern for that law as well. Rabbinic literature also preserves such descriptions of the pious Jews: In Demai 2:2-3 and Hagigah 2:5-6 the dual obligations of purity and tithing are mentioned together; and Taharoth 4:12 stresses the "cleanness of Pharisees," whereas Niddah 4:2 scorns the Sadducees as being lax with regard to purity.

The other major characteristic of the Pharisees is the value they placed on oral traditions. "Oral law" refers to traditional rules and observances that were designed to adapt the written Law to the changes of time. All the Jews, including the Sadducees, had their own interpretations; but the Sadducees rejected the Pharisees' traditions and the authority given to them.30

Josephus claims that this is the main issue between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.31 He writes that the Pharisees delivered a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the Law of Moses; the Sadducees reject them, and esteem only those observances to be obligatory that are in the written law. This description by Josephus has raised other questions about the Sadducees beliefs--which will be discussed below.

But the issue of "oral law" is critical here. Josephus stated that the Pharisees were considered the most accurate interpreters of the Law.32 Their dedication to the Law was the heart of their faith; it overshadowed and explained the contempt they had for the people of the land. In interpreting the Law they followed the guidance of their doctrine, attaching the chief importance to the observance of those commandments which such doctrine dictated to them.33 And they had reason for formulating oral law, for the Bible itself made it legitimate (Dt.17: 8-11); difficult cases required interpretation, especially when social conditions changed so much. Gowan summarizes the requirements from Scripture and the community for the validation of the rulings: they had to be in accordance with Scripture, they had to have been customary for some time, they had to be associated with some recognized authority, and they had to be accepted by the majority of the sages.34 And in the final analysis the teaching had to be in accordance with this body of ancestral laws. So great care was taken to establish the many traditions that brought the Law forward to their changing times. Paul himself was taught by Gamaliel under such strictures (Acts 22:3).

The point is that the Sadducees and the Pharisees did not disagree on the necessity of oral law—they both had it. But the Sadducees rejected the authority given by the Pharisees to their traditions.35 To the Sadducees, the "traditions of our forefathers" was not equal to "the written law." In the New Testament we catch another glimpse of this Pharisaical view of traditions: Jesus was asked why his disciples "transgressed" the traditions of the elders (Mt. 15:1-2). The legalism of the Pharisees came more with the multiplying of these rulings than with the use of Scripture.

The Mishnah records many examples of traditions that became binding. According to Sukkoth 4:9, in the morning service in the Feast of Tabernacles it was the custom of the people to shout to the priest to raise his hands when he was about to pour the water into the basin for the water libation. The reason for this was the memory of a priest who poured the water on his feet, showing contempt for the Pharisees and the rite. The ruling was not biblical and according to the Pharisees' opponents should have had no authority.36 Another example comes from Erub 3:2. It concerns travel on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 says that the people were not to leave their place on the Sabbath day. To circumvent this ruling, erub was employed—a formal merging of households into a single unit was allowed so that one could carry burdens from house to house and not transgress the Law. The Sadducees rejected this as unbiblical; they are referred to in Erub 3:2 as those who do not admit to the legality of erub. Erub 6:2 refers to a certain Sadducee who placed restrictions on the movement of other Jews. In cases like this they circumvented the plain meaning of the text by their additions.

In the process of multiplying rulings it was easy for the Pharisees to become hypocritical because in attempting to be faithful to the letter of the Law they lost the spirit of the Law. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was well known; Edersheim says that some of the sayings in the Rabbinical literature on this are more withering that those in the New Testament.37 So Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the teachings of the Pharisees (Mt. 16:12), or the leaven of the Pharisees (Lk. 12:1); He also rebuked their hypocrisy (Mt. 23).

Concluding Observations

Herford reminds us that if Pharisaism is viewed as a barren and unspiritual formalism, the description is entirely untrue.38 The Pharisees were preoccupied with doing the will of God; they were devout, pious believers, who looked forward in hope to God's program. They wanted to live according to the Law of Moses, but the times had changed; Rome now ruled the land. The Law of Moses could have become an ancient relic, but the Pharisees believed that one could find in the Law the principles to rule their present life. They found in halakah and haggadah39 the guidance they needed for the use of the Law in their lives. They believed that God was behind both the Law and halakah, for they were interdependent. Their method of adapting the Law to their life allowed Judaism to remain a living and growing religion.40

It seems to me that modern conservative Christians share many of the fine qualities of the Pharisees. Had they lived in that generation, they would have found their greatest agreement with them; they would not have belonged to the other groups. Like the Pharisees they are devout believers who seek to preserve the faith that they have received. They believe in the inspiration of the Scripture and the doctrines contained in them. They place top priority on the apostolic interpretations of the Old Testament Scripture which now have become part of their canon. They have a great desire to do the will of God, and among their many teachings, tithing and remaining pure receive much attention.

But they most easily exhibit the excesses and errors of Pharisaism as well. Perhaps this is simply the lot of those in any age who believe that they have the truth. They often ascribe a great deal of authority to the teachings they receive on the Bible, even to the point of elevating application to the level of interpretation, so that those who do not comply with the Word of God as they understand may be considered disobedient. Unfortunately, the self-righteous and hypocritical attitude of the Pharisees is alive and well today in our churches. We shall return to these problems in later chapters.


1 Josephus, Antiquities, 13.5.9.

2 Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978),

p. 158.

3 James D. G. Dunn, "Pharisees, Sinners, and Jesus, "in The Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism, ed. by Jacob Neusner, et. al. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 264,5.

4 b. Sotah 22b.

5 Sotah 3:4.

6 Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, A Sociological Approach (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1988), p. 8.

7 Sandmel, p. 158.

8 Ibid., pp. 161,2.

9 Jeremias argues that either the Pharisees or the Sadducees are technically sects (Greek hairesis), for they did not separate themselves from society (Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969], p. 230, n. 36).

10 Josephus says that they were known for their precise and minute interpretations (Wars, 1.5.2 and 2.8.14).

11 Leah Bronner, Sects and Separatism During the Second Jewish Commonwealth (New York: Block Publishing Co., 1967), p. 70; see also Solomon Zeitlin, "The Pharisees: A Historical Study," JQR NS 70 (1961):99.

12 Sandmel, p. 167. See also Aaron Oppenheimer, The `Am Ha-aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977).

13 With certain qualifications, the term hasid may be taken as an early designation for the Pharisee; see

F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1969), p. 71.

14 See George F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of the Tannaim (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), I:61.

15 Bronner, p. 71.

16 Zeitlin, p. 108; see also Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967 reprint), I:323.

17 Zeitlin, p. 113.

18 b. Qiddushim 66a; see also Yadayim 4:8.

19 Zeitlin, p. 111.

20 These Hasidim were the early pious Jews; they are not to be confused with the Hasidim that emerged in the 18th century in eastern Europe (Sandmel, p. 159).

21 Gowan, p. 189.

22 Sandmel, pp. 156,7.

23 Ibid., p. 159.

24 Saldarini, pp. 277-286. Saldarini criticizes the view of Rivkin that the Pharisees were a group of scholars who wanted to wrest control of Judaism from the established authorities (Ellis Rivkin, "Defining the Pharisees: The Tannaitic Sources," HUCA 40,41 [1969-70], pp. 205-249), as well as the view of Neusner that characterizes the Pharisees as a non-political sect; Saldarini says that misunderstands how religion was part of the social and political scene (Jacob Neusner, The Pharisees, Rabbinic Perspectives [NewYork:KTAVPublishingHouse,1973]). Neusner also criticizes Rivkin because the work has more interpretation than tracing of sources.

25 The community of Qumran was critical of them as too accommodating to changes in Jewish society. This is the point of the designation of them as "seekers after smooth things" in Pesher Nahum (Saldarini, p. 279).

26 Gowan, p. 190.

27 Travers R. Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period (London: The Lindsey Press, 1928), p. 77.

28 Ibid., p. 78.

29 Edersheim, Life and Times, I:311-12.

30 Moore, I:67; Edersheim, Life and Times, I:314; and Asher Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964), pp. 38-42.

31 Josephus, Antiquities, 13.10.6; 18.1.4; and 13.6.2.

32 Josephus, Wars, 2.162.

33 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.12.

34 Gowan, p. 193.

35 Bronner, p. 78.

36 Josephus, Antiquities, 13.13.5.

37 Life and Times, I:312.

38 Herford, Judaism, p. 87.

39 Halakah refers to the way of life embodied in the teachings of the written Law and the oral law; haggadah is the interpretation for edification and is not specifically for regulation of conduct.

40 Gowan, p. 194. As we shall see, they overstated the source of the oral law, claiming it came from Moses; and they overstated the penalty, claiming on occasion that greater stringency applies to the work of the scribes than the words of the Law (Ab. 3:12; Sanh. 11:3).

Related Topics: Christology