BiblicalTraining's mission is to lead disciples toward spiritual growth through deep biblical understanding and practice. We offer a comprehensive education covering all the basic fields of biblical and theological content at different academic levels.
Read More


PHARISEES (fâr'ĭ-sēz, Heb. perûshûn, Gr. Pharisaioi). Of the three prominent parties of Judaism at the time of Christ—Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes—the Pharisees were by far the most influential. The origin of this most strict sect of the Jews (Acts.26.5) is shrouded in some obscurity, but it is believed the organization came out of the Maccabean Revolt (165 b.c.). There was, however, a group of Jews resembling the Pharisees as far back as the Babylonian captivity.

The name “Pharisee,” which in its Semitic form means “the separated ones, separatists,” first appears during the reign of John Hyrcanus (135 b.c.). Generally, the term is in the plural rather than in the singular. They were also known as chasidim, meaning “loved of God” or “loyal to God.” They were found everywhere in Palestine, not only in Jerusalem, and even wore a distinguishing garb so as to be easily recognized. According to Josephus, their number at the zenith of their popularity was more than six thousand. Because of the significant role the Pharisees played in the life of the Lord and the apostles, knowledge of the character and teachings of this group is of great importance for the understanding of the NT. They are mentioned dozens of times, especially in the Gospels, and often form the background for the works and words of Jesus.

A concomitant and blood brother of Jewish legalism was Jewish nationalism. Continued persecution and isolation crystallized this narrow spirit. During the Captivity the Jews were a small minority in a strange nation. The fierce persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 b.c.), who made a bold attempt to Hellenize and assimilate the Jews, only drew the Jewish people closer together. The Pharisees took the occasion to cultivate a national and religious consciousness that has hardly been equaled.

A third contributing factor to Pharisaism was the development and organization of the Jewish religion itself after the Captivity and the revolt. Formulation and adaptation of Mosaic Law by scribe and rabbi, increased tradition, and a more rabid separatism from almost everything resulted in an almost new religion, much the opposite from that handed down in the covenant by the prophets. Pharisaism epitomized this spirit. Especially did they vehemently oppose all secularization of Judaism by the pagan Greek thought that penetrated Jewish life after the Alexandrian conquest. They ferreted out and sought the death of any liberal or antinomian person, especially if he was a fellow Jew. The Jewish ability to die for their “religion” made the people all the more proud of their traditions and law. This pride even developed into a feeling of superiority over the other nations and people. The extreme separatism from the Samaritans, for example (John.4.9), which went far beyond intermarriage and social intercourse, came from a superior feeling as well as religious emotion and found its most extreme expression among the Pharisees. They became a closely organized group, very loyal to the society and to each other, but separate from others, even their own people. They pledged themselves to obey all facets of the traditions to the minutest detail and were sticklers for ceremonial purity. They even vowed to pay tithes of everything they possessed in addition to the temple tax. They would not touch the carcass of a dead animal or those who had come into contact with such things. They had no association with people who had been defiled through sickness. In truth, they made life difficult for themselves and bitter for others. They despised those whom they did not consider their equals and were haughty and arrogant because they believed they were the only interpreters of God and his Word. It is only natural that ultimately such a religion became only a matter of externals and not of the heart, and that God’s grace was thought to come only from doing the Law.

The doctrines of the Pharisees included predestination, or, as some have termed it, a teaching of special divine providence. They also laid much stress on the immortality of the soul and had a fundamental belief in spirit life, teachings that usually caused much controversy when they met the Sadducees, who just as emphatically denied them (Acts.23.6-Acts.23.9). Being people of the Law, they believed in final reward for good works and that the souls of the wicked were detained forever under the earth, while those of the virtuous rose again and even migrated into other bodies (Josephus, Antiq. 18.1.3; Acts.23.8). They accepted the OT Scriptures and fostered the usual Jewish messianic hope, which they gave a material and nationalistic twist.

The picture of the Pharisees painted by the NT is almost entirely negative, but the discriminating Bible student should bear in mind that not everything about every Pharisee was bad. It is perhaps not just to say that all Pharisees were self-righteous and hypocritical. Many Pharisees actually tried to promote true piety. What we know as Pharisaism from the NT was to some degree a degeneration of Pharisaism. Jesus condemned especially the Pharisees’ ostentation, their hypocrisy, their salvation by works, their impenitence and lovelessness, but not always Pharisees as such. Some of the Pharisees were members of the Christian movement in the beginning (Acts.6.7). Some of the great men of the NT were Pharisees—Nicodemus (John.3.1), Gamaliel (Acts.5.34), and Paul (Acts.26.5; Phil.3.5). Paul does not speak the name “Pharisee” with great reproach but as a title of honor, for the Pharisees were highly respected by the masses of the Jewish people. When Paul says he was, “in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil.3.5), he did not think of himself as a hypocrite but claimed the highest degree of faithfulness to the law. In similar manner, church leaders today might say, “We are the Pharisees.” Much of modern scholarship, however, has cast the Pharisees into too favorable a light; when one reads our Lord’s heated denunciation of Pharisaism in Matt.23.1-Matt.23.39, where he specifically lists their sins, one has not only a true but also a dark picture of Pharisaism as it was at the time of Christ.

Bibliography: R. T. T. Herford, The Pharisees, 1924; J. Finkelstein, The Pharisees, 2 vols., 1938; W. D. Davies, Introduction to Pharisaism, 1967; Marcel Simon, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus, 1967; Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, 2 vols., 1974.——LMP

With the spiritual failure of the Hasmonean priest-kings, the staunch upholders of the Law divided. An influential minority withdrew from society, becoming known as the Essenes*; the majority remained in ordinary life, though separated from laxer Jews by their strict views on ritual purity and tithing-hence their name Perushim (“separated ones”). They opposed Alexander Jannai bitterly, and he avenged himself by crucifying about 800 of their leaders. His widow, Alexandra Salome (76 b.c.) entrusted the leadership of the country to her brother Shimon ben Shetah, a leading Pharisee. He enforced their views, but they lost their political role once the Romans took control and they learned under Herod that their power must be spiritual. Since the Sadducees,* their main rivals, were Temple- centered, they concentrated on the Synagogue, and through it won the support, though not necessarily imitation, of the people at large.

Their spiritual leaders were the Scribes, later called Rabbis, who continued and developed Ezra's principles. Most were ordinary “laymen,” but they were never numerous. Josephus* estimates their number in Herod's reign as something over 6,000. They formed a closely knit order into which one had to be initiated and from which one could be expelled for nonconformity. Some points of controversy between them and the Sadducees have been preserved. In most they were defending the interests of townsmen, especially in Jerusalem, against the aristocracy and richer priests. When bitter controversy broke out in their order between the followers of Shammai and of Hillel (early first century a.d.), though the former represented the richer and stricter Pharisees, the victory almost always went to the latter's accommodation of the Law to the needs of the poor. The disasters of a.d. 66-72 broke the power of the Sadducees and the influence of Essenes and Zealots.* So the Pharisaic system became normative Judaism, more especially as it was merely a stricter version of the generally accepted Diaspora outlook (see Judaism).

Much controversy has waged recently over the picture the Pharisees painted of themselves and that implied by Jesus' criticism of them. The answer lies firstly in recognizing that the criticism came from Jesus rather than the disciples or Paul. Second, it has been established that “hypocrite” meant at the time an actor rather than a deceiving pretender.

A.T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus (1920); R.T. Herford, The Pharisees (1924); G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (3 vols., 1927, 1930); L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees, the Sociological Background of their Faith (2 vols., 1938); J. Jocz, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ (1949); H.L. Ellison, “Jesus and the Pharisees,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute LXXXV (1953); J. Parkes, The Foundations of Judaism and Christianity (1960).

PHARISEES făr’ ə səz (פְּרוּשִׁים; φαρισαι̂οι). One of the most important of the Jewish sects of the late intertestamental and NT periods, determining thereafter the character of reconstituted Judaism.

Meaning of “Pharisee.”

The most widely accepted etymology is that which traces the name back to the Heb. word פָּרַשׁ, H7300, which means “to separate.” A Pharisee, according to this explanation, is a “separatist” or a separated person. Despite the obvious appropriateness of the designation “separated,” it is not entirely clear in what sense it is to be understood. Had the Pharisee separated himself from the house of the Hasmoneans, from the Gentiles and their abominations, from cultural assimilation to the Hel. way of life, or primarily from “the people of the land”—the large mass of Jewry who lived with little concern for the things of the law? Actually the Pharisee lived in separation from all of these, but it is not known which particular aspect historically, if any, was responsible for the designation פְּרוּשִׁים.

Some have disputed that the initial use of פְּרוּשִׁים referred to the separation from groups of people or things, contending instead that the “separation” referred to was in the interpretation of Scripture, for one of the meanings of פָּרַשׁ, H7300, is “to divide” or “interpret.” Accordingly, the suggestion is that whatever “Pharisee” came to mean later, initially it meant “interpreter” and referred to the exceptional exegetical abilities of these men. This, however, seems much less likely than the former explanation.

An interesting and quite plausible alternative denies that the name derives from the verb פָּרַשׁ, H7300, and finds its origin instead in the Aram. word for “Persian” (root, פרסי). This explanation, argued forcefully by T. W. Manson, is based on the strong resemblance between various doctrines of the Pharisees and doctrines of Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia (see below). The Pharisees by their somewhat innovative teachings might well have been regarded as “Persianizers.” Whether or not this is the true etymology of “Pharisee,” the word play and its suitability can hardly have been missed, for example, by the Sadducees who regarded themselves as purists in doctrine. It may be that both etymologies were currently popular in NT times; it seems probable, however, that “Pharisee” was originally coined to reflect the separatist tendencies of these people.

Origin and history.

The roots of the Pharisees can be traced to the “Hasidim” of the 2nd cent.—those “pious men” of Israel whose loyalty to their covenant relationship with Yahweh impelled them to resist the increasing pressure toward Hellenization. The Maccabean uprising (167 b.c. and succeeding years) against the mad policies of Antiochus Epiphanes found the Hasidim in full support of the resistance. But with the rededication of the Temple in 164 b.c. and the achievement of religious freedom in 162 b.c., the Hasidim, who were concerned primarily with the religious and not the political life of the country, became increasingly separate from the political intrigues of the Hasmoneans. Among the many sects spawned by the Hasidim was that of the Pharisees, and indeed they, perhaps more than any of the other sects, may be regarded as the direct continuation of Hasidism into the NT period. The earliest historical reference to the Pharisees is found in Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. v. 9), who introduces them along with the Sadducees and Essenes as representatives of differing doctrinal viewpoints held at the time his narrative describes (about 145 b.c.).

The next piece of information concerning the history of the Pharisees is also from Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. x. 5; cf. BT, Kidd., 66a for a similar account). He tells of John Hyrcanus (son of Simon Maccabeus) who was the high priest under whom political independence was finally achieved (128 b.c.), and who was also a disciple of the Pharisees. Hyrcanus had invited Pharisees to a great dinner, and during the course of the festivities had shared with them his desire to attain righteousness and to please God, indicating that he would be glad to hear from them anything that would aid him in self-improvement. All concurred that he was already a righteous man. A certain Eleazar, however, a perverse individual according to Josephus, suggested that Hyrcanus really ought to give up the high priesthood and content himself with the civil government alone, since rumor had it that Hyrcanus’ mother had prior to his birth been a captive of the Seleucids. The implication was that the real father, and thus the priestly lineage, of Hyrcanus was questionable. The understandable offense taken by Hyrcanus was aggravated by a Sadducee named Jonathan, who insisted that such was the view of the Pharisees generally despite their loud disclaimers. When the Pharisees denied that Eleazar’s insult should require the death penalty, Hyrcanus allowed himself, by Jonathan’s urging, to be drawn away from the Pharisees, and to oppose their activities with much hostility. Thus in the earliest strand of historical information the beginnings of the breach between the Pharisees and the rulers are evident, and the rulers henceforth tended to espouse the Sadducean viewpoint. The rift that began here and continued to grow proved to be of great importance, since the Pharisees, according to Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. x. 5), held very great influence with the masses. This fact itself is seen by many to lie at the root of the quarrel between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees.

Historically, it is clear that more fundamental differences were responsible for this major division within Judaism. The increasing political orientation of the Hasmonean house, embodied, for example, in the adoption of the royal diadem by Aristobulus I (Jos Antiq. XIII. xi. 1; War I. iii. 1), was at variance with the exclusively religious orientation of the Pharisees. During the reigns of Aristobulus I and Alexander Jannaeus, the breach between the two factions continued—with the Pharisees enjoying increasing popularity among the people. When Jannaeus was defeated by the Nabataean Arabs, the malcontented population took advantage of the situation and instigated a rebellion against Jannaeus that was to last nearly six years (94-88 b.c.). Although the Pharisees are not specifically mentioned in Josephus’ account (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xiii. 5; XIV. 2; War I. iv. 6), they must have played an important part in this rebellion, and would have been well represented among the eight hundred Jews crucified as victims of Jannaeus’ vengeance. Josephus does have Jannaeus refer to the Pharisees on his deathbed (76 b.c.) and attributes his conflict with the nation to his harsh treatment of them (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xv. 5). Jannaeus is said by Josephus also to have counseled his wife Alexandra concerning the power of the Pharisees among the people and thus to have encouraged her, for very practical reasons, “to yield a certain amount of power” to them (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xv. 5). Queen Alexandra, whose brother Simon ben Shetach was leader of the Pharisees, found this advice agreeable, and during her reign the power of the Pharisees grew considerably, indeed to such extent that Josephus says they possessed the royal authority whereas Alexandra had only its burdens (War I. v. 2).

The Pharisees flourished under Simon as long as Alexandra lived. At her death (67 b.c.) a struggle for the throne took place between her two sons, Hyrcanus II, the rightful heir who also possessed the support of the Pharisees, and his younger brother Aristobulus II who was backed by the Sadducees. Aristobulus proved the stronger of the brothers. Hyrcanus soon yielded to him and the political fortunes of the Pharisees declined. For the Pharisees, however, political matters were secondary, and adversity seems only to have had the effect of deepening and strengthening their religious commitment and effectiveness. Although Hyrcanus regained the high priesthood, thanks to the efforts of the opportunist Antipater, it was only at the cost of political sovereignty. This division within Judaism thus proved itself to be a major factor in the collapse of the Hasmoneans and the concomitant subservience to Rome.

The Pharisees retained their influence with the masses through all these vicissitudes, so that even Herod, a puppet of Rome, was careful not to offend them unduly. He had no regard for their religious teachings but was well aware of the threat they posed to the stability of his kingdom. At this time, according to Josephus, the Pharisees numbered “above six thousand” (Jos. Antiq. XVII. ii. 4). This, however, quite prob. refers only to members in the fullest sense and does not include many who should also be counted among the Pharisees. (T. W. Manson estimates that as much as five percent of the total population could be counted among the Pharisees.) They also held an important, though prob. not controlling (despite Talmudic claims), representation in the Sanhedrin through this period on into NT times.

In the gospels the Pharisees appear often as the chief antagonists of Jesus. They are portrayed as the religious “experts” of the day who took it upon themselves to scrutinize and ultimately to condemn the words and works of Jesus. A number of times they are linked with the Sadducees (e.g., Matt 16:1) and even with the Herodians (e.g., Matt 22:15f.; Mark 3:6; 12:13) with whom they were by no means in agreement, but with whom they were able to unite against Jesus (Matt 22:34). These passages doubtless reflect the place that the Pharisees held in the governing body of the Sanhedrin. Indeed, the considerable influence of the Pharisees apparently made it expedient for the politically more powerful Sadducees to respect and on occasion to yield to the opinion of the Pharisees. According to Josephus, the Sadducees repeatedly had to submit, albeit unwillingly, to the dictates of the Pharisees “since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them” (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 4; cf. the Sanhedrin’s acceptance of Gamaliel’s recommendation in Acts 5:34ff.).

The great Jewish revolt leading to the collapse of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 owed its vitality to the Zealots rather than to the Pharisees. In fact, the Pharisees appear to have been in principle opposed to the revolt and were among the first to make peace with the Romans. According to the Talmud, even before the hostilities were concluded, Johanan ben Zakkai asked for and received permission from the Rom. authorities to establish a school at Jamnia (Jabneh). Here and later, at Tiberias, a succession of famous rabbis, such as Gamaliel II, Akiba, Ishmael, and Meir, carried on the process of establishing and perpetuating the essence of Judaism. Without its Temple, the Jewish religion was forced to take on a new character, and when after the last Jewish rebellion (a.d. 132) all hope of rebuilding the Temple was lost, the work of these men assumed a new importance. The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah (c. a.d. 200), which is the culminating work of these scholars—and, in turn, a new beginning in the history of Jewish scholarship—is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of Pharisaism, which henceforth became synonymous with Judaism.

Composition and organization.

By way of contrast with the Sadducees, who were drawn almost exclusively from the aristocracy, the Pharisees largely were members of the middle class. They tended to be the businessmen—the merchants and the tradesmen of their day—and this apparently accounts for the large amount of Talmudic material given over to the intricacies of commercialism. These were men earnestly concerned with following after the law and who had thus separated themselves from the great mass of the populace—the so-called “people of the land” (am ha-aretz)—by their strict adherence to the minutia of their legal tradition. The average Pharisee had no formal education in the interpretation of the law and accordingly had recourse to the professional scholar, the scribe (of which class the majority were Pharisees), in legal matters. Although the vast majority of the Pharisees were thus bourgeois laymen there appear to have been a number of Priests and Levites who were also Pharisees. They were a relatively small number within their own ranks, but they were nonetheless committed to Pharisaic ideals, seeing in them a means to raise the purity of the laity to a level approximating that of the priesthood (idealistically conceived).

The Pharisees, like other separatist groups (e.g. the Essenes), were organized into distinct and closed communities. The haburah, “community,” referred to in the Talmudic materials is prob. a Pharisaic community, and the haber, “companion” or member of the community, a Pharisee. Apparently several of these holy communities existed in the environs of Jerusalem, where their concentration heightened their effectiveness. Admission into these communities was strictly regulated. A candidate must first agree to take upon himself obedience to all the detailed legislation of the Pharisaic tradition, involving tithing and esp. ceremonial and dietary purity. He then entered a period of probation (the length of which was, according to differing viewpoints, either one month or one year) during which he was carefully observed with respect to his vow of obedience. Successful completion of this probation entitled the candidate to full membership in the community.

Each community was organized under the leadership of a scribe, who served as a professional authority in the interpretation of the law, and prob. had other officers as well. The communities not only provided opportunity for mutual scrutiny and mutual encouragement, but also had regularly scheduled meetings for worship (usually on the eve of the Sabbath). Study of the Torah and a communal meal were also a part of these gatherings. The pseudepigraphon known as the Psalms of Solomon is a document that was used in Pharisaic communities and quite possibly used liturgically in their worship services. It would have provided not only a strong anti-Sadducean polemic, and thus a reminder of the reason for the existence of the community, but also would have voiced the hopes of the Pharisaic community. The outreach and impact of the Pharisees was, of course, not limited to these closed communities. Through the activities of the synagogue, which served as the arm of the Pharisees, esp. in the teaching of Torah and in the administration of public charity, Pharisaism influenced a large segment of the populace, many of whom inclined toward the views of the Pharisees without taking upon themselves full membership in the community.

The closed communities of the Pharisees are thus parallel and closely related to the Essene separatist groups, known today particularly from the Damascus Document, and also, to a lesser extent, known through the Qumran Manual of Discipline. Without identifying the Pharisees and the Essenes, it may be readily admitted that they had much in common, in goals and methodologies as well as in the common milieu that constituted the motivating force of both movements.

Teaching in relation to other sects.

The prime distinctive of Pharisaism is not to be found in its zeal for the law, for this was a characteristic of all the religious sects among the Jews of the NT period. It is to be found instead in the peculiar importance attached to the oral law as contrasted to the written law or Torah.

Oral law.

The basic issue was the authority of the oral law. The Pharisees accepted along with the Torah, as equally inspired and authoritative, all of the explanatory and supplementary material produced by, and contained within, the oral tradition. This material apparently began to evolve during the Babylonian Exile through the new circumstances thereby brought upon the Jewish people. The Exile was seen as divine punishment for neglect of the law, and accordingly during this period there was an earnest turning to the law. Detailed exposition of the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific injunctions that were designed to “build a hedge” around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible infringement of the Torah by ignorance or accident. In addition, the new circumstances of the Exile and the post-exilic period involved matters not covered in the written Torah; consequently new legislation had to be produced by analogy to, and inference from, that which already existed. The content of this oral law continued to evolve and to grow in vol. through the intertestamental, NT, and post-NT periods, finally to achieve written form in the Mishnah (a.d. 200). For the Pharisees, the oral law came to be revered so highly that it was said to go back to Moses himself and to have been transmitted over the centuries orally, paralleling the written law that also derived from him.

Josephus refers several times to the expertise “in the interpretation of the Law for which the Pharisees had become known” (e.g., Jos. Life, 38). Of the various sects they were regarded as “the most accurate interpreters of the laws” (Jos. War II. viii. 14) and also were known for their austerity of life (Jos. Antiq. XIII. i. 3). Josephus further specifies that it was exactly this obsession with “regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses” (Jos. Antiq. XIII. x. 6) that constituted the breach between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. With this may be compared the NT reference to the Pharisaic prepossession with the “tradition of the elders” or the “tradition of men” (cf. Matt 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-23; cf. Jos. Antiq. XIII. xvi. 2). The NT abounds with allusions to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism: the tithing of herbs (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42); the wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels (Matt 23:5); the careful observance of ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7:1ff.); frequent fastings (Matt 9:14); distinctions in oaths (23:16ff.), etc.

The Mishnah offers even more striking illustration of this precise definition of the law. Here is a virtual encyclopedia of Pharisaic legalism that instructs the reader with almost incredible detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct. It is impossible to do justice to this material by attempting to describe it; one can do no better than to sample the contents of the Mishnah for himself. This legal material of the Mishnah is described as Halacha (literally “walking”), that which prescribes, as contrasted with the other basic type of material in oral tradition (esp. in the Gemaras and Midrash) known as Haggadah, or that which edifies and instructs.

Under the direction of their scribes, the Pharisees tended to proliferate Halacha. This concern for every jot and tittle of performance might give the impression that the Pharisees were excessively rigid and intolerant. That they were rigorists there can be no doubt, but it is interesting to note that in their interpretation of the written Torah they often were more liberal than the literalist Sadducees. Moreover, even among themselves there was room for disagreement. In the last decades of the 1st cent. b.c. there sprang up two rival schools of interpretation among the Pharisees. The one, led by Shammai, was stringent and unbendingly conservative; the other, led by Hillel, was liberally inclined and willing to “reconcile” the laws with the actual situations of life. The rivalry between these two schools is permanently recorded in the Mishnah where frequently the differing views are contrasted. In the gospels certain questions put to Jesus by the Pharisees seem to have as their background, if not their actual motive, disputes between these two schools of interpretation (e.g., divorce, Matt 19:3ff.). Jewish scholars often liken Jesus to Hillel and argue that in many respects he could be regarded as a disciple of Hillel. Nonetheless, on at least one point—that regarding grounds for divorce (Matt 19:9)—Jesus agreed with Shammai against Hillel. Hillel indeed anticipated Jesus’ summary of the law in his own negative formulation of the Golden Rule: “What you would not have done to thyself do not to another; that is the whole law, the rest is commentary” (BT Shabbath 31a). In the decades prior to the catastrophe of a.d. 70 it seems that the harsher attitude of the Shammaites tended to prevail among the Pharisees generally. From the following reconstruction onward it was the somewhat gentler viewpoint of the Hillelites that won out. Thus a division within the Pharisees came to an end, which could itself have been disastrous for the remaining history of Pharisaism.

The oral law of the Pharisees, however, is unquestionably impressive. This is true not only of the scope, the complexity of structure, and the inventiveness (not to say genius) of its exegesis, but also as a monumental expression of concern for righteousness. Although it is known that hypocrisy existed, there is no point in impugning the motives of these men generally. Yet there seem to be some inevitable weaknesses in a system that is devoted to the formulation of microscopic precepts. Really significant issues are too easily lost in the welter of trivial detail. Worse than that, often the very dictum of the law supposedly elucidated by the specifics of the oral tradition tends itself to fall victim to, and to be nullified by, the casuistry of the scribes. These, of course, are among the main criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees voiced by Jesus (see below).

The future life.

Among other doctrinal characteristics of the Pharisees, those having to do with the future life stand in particularly marked contrast with the views of the Sadducees. In that superb compendium of Pharisaic worship, the Psalms of Solomon, the eschatological expectations of a Messiah who would restore the fortunes of Israel are prominent. The Pharisees looked for that day when the evil regime of the present (esp. the wickedness of the Sadducees) would be dissolved and the glorious kingdom of righteousness for a righteous Israel would be inaugurated. The righteousness they themselves followed after with such zeal would, they hoped, serve as catalyst for the coming of the Messiah. It was not only here, however, that the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees with respect to the future, for the Pharisees also taught that there remained a future for the dead. According to Josephus, the Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul and in reward and retribution after death (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 3; War II. viii. 14). In the latter passage he speaks of the soul moving into “another body.” It seems more likely that Josephus was intending to thus describe the resurrection of the body to his Hel. readers than that he was attributing the doctrine of transmigration of the soul to the Pharisees. These teachings were rejected outright by the Sadducees (who held to the old notion of Sheol; cf. Matt 22:23) presumably on the contention that such teachings were not to be found in the written Torah, and therefore were foreign imports. The bitter quarrel between the Pharisees and the Sadducees on this question is humorously illustrated in the clever way that Paul was able to pit the one group against the other by referring to the question of the resurrection of the dead in his trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6ff.). The ultimate triumph of the Pharisaic view is very apparent in the strong assertion of the Mishnah that “he that says there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Law” (but the last three words are omitted in some MSS) has “no share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 10:1).

Free will and determinism.

On this difficult question, the Pharisees held to a mediating view that made it impossible for either free will or the sovereignty of God to cancel out the other. As Josephus put it, “Though they postulate that everything is brought about by fate, still they do not deprive the human will of the pursuit of what is in man’s power” (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 3; cf. Antiq. XIII. v. 9; War II. viii. 14). By the word “fate,” a term familiar in Stoicism, Josephus intended to communicate to his Hel. readers the Jewish idea of “providence.” In holding to both sides of the antinomy, the Pharisees avoided the extreme views of both the Sadducees and the Essenes. The former argued that free will was ultimately determinative of the course of history (Jos. War II. viii. 14; Antiq. XIII. v. 9), whereas the latter went to the extreme of arguing that all was determined in advance and that therefore human will was of no consequence (Jos. Antiq. XIII. v. 9; cf. Antiq. XVIII. i. 5). Again the prevalence of the Pharisaic view in later Judaism is evident from the Mishnah as can be seen for example in Akiba’s dictum “all is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given” (Aboth 2:16).


The Pharisees accepted a rather developed hierarchy of angels and demons. Although Josephus is silent on the subject, the NT (Acts 23:8) relates that the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees, arguing there is neither “angel, nor spirit.” It seems unlikely that this piece of NT evidence should be taken in an absolute sense, since there is evidence of angels already in the Books of Moses, which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative. The Sadducees would have protested, however, the proliferation of angels in the intertestamental period, and esp. the individualizing and personalizing of such beings, as well as the structuring of them into hierarchies of two opposing kingdoms, in which the Pharisees indulged. Doubtless the Pharisees were accused of adopting their angelology and demonology from Babylonian and Persian sources. In the apocrypha, and esp. in the Apoc. Lit., such angelology flourished. In the later Jewish tradition, the rabbinic concept of angels apparently remained unsettled and there are signs of a continuing debate on the subject.


The Pharisees were champions of human equality. Unlike the aristocratic Sadducees, who with their vested interests were defenders of the status quo, the Pharisees can be characterized in a number of respects as representatives of a democratic movement. The Pharisaic antagonism to the political reign of the aristocrats constitutes a major reason for the popularity of the Pharisees among the masses. Indeed, the social position of the Pharisees as plebeians and the resultant hatred for the patrician Sadducees is taken by Finkelstein to be of crucial importance in the understanding of Pharisaism. For example, Finkelstein points to the Pharisees’ hunger for equality with the aristocracy as the principal reason for their favoring the doctrines of eschatology, determinism, and angelology, with their intrinsic promises to the downtrodden. To be sure, the Pharisees looked superciliously upon the am ha-aretz, “the people of the land,” who took no heed of the Torah, but this was precisely because the Pharisees were concerned to make righteousness of life a “democratic” phenomenon by extending it beyond the priestly class. The Pharisees, indeed, possessed an admirable reverence for humanity, and along with that reverence a high regard for tolerance (cf. Gamaliel’s restraint in Acts 5:34ff.) and a great love of peace. Hillel’s famous saying recorded in the Mishnah, was “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Law” (Aboth 1:12).

In summary, it is obvious that the emphasis of their teaching fell upon the ethical side rather than the theological side. That is, they were far more concerned with orthopraxy than with orthodoxy. Beyond their fascination with legal minutia and the great mass of theology that they held in common with all other 1st-cent. Jews, there were special tenets peculiar to Pharisaism. It was claimed by the Sadducees that these distinctive teachings of the Pharisees (i.e., resurrection and the future life; angelology and demonology) had been borrowed from the Persians and Babylonians, and esp. the Zoroastrian religion. It cannot be denied that these views, which are shared also by NT Christianity, were of great importance in Babylon and Persia, and that the contact of the exiled Jews with these cultures stimulated Jewish thinking on these subjects. While allowing this, however, it is difficult to believe that the Jews who otherwise insulated themselves so effectively from pagan contamination during the Exile would have adopted ideas that were alien to their written law. It is much more likely that certain ideas that were to a degree implicit but undeveloped in the written revelation received a new impetus and a subsequent development consonant with, and not contradictory to, that revelation. The Pharisaic justification for these views thus appears to have been a valid one.

A final point that should be noted is the tension within Pharisaism, which was both a conservative and a progressive movement—a movement championing tradition but capitalizing on adaptation. Surely here is something of the genius of the Pharisaic movement. It was able to move ahead with changing times and circumstances, making itself relevant to the vast majority of the population, yet remaining true to its basic commitments.

Jesus and the Pharisees.

If the Pharisees of Jesus’ day adhered at all to what has been sketched above as the essentials of Pharisaism, how are we to account for the scathing denunciations they received from the lips of Jesus? Taken at face value Matthew 23:13-39 presents anything but an attractive picture of the Pharisees. Jesus accused them of hypocrisy and pretentiousness, and pronounced upon them a succession of woes (seven in all) culminating in the terrible, climactic exclamation: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:33). It is a tragedy that from this ch. in Matthew the word “Pharisee” has come to mean popularly a self-righteous, hypocritical prig. Unfortunately not even Christian scholarship was able over the centuries to rid itself of an unfair bias against the Pharisees. Some of this failure was, no doubt, due to an all too common anti-semitism, but much was the result of neglecting the rabbinic lit. (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, etc.) as valid historical sources. That lit.—if it was considered at all—was regarded as contradicting the picture of Pharisaism in the primary sources, Josephus and the NT. If the rabbinic sources contradicted the NT, it was argued, so much the worse for the rabbinic sources. It was never considered, however, that the contradiction might be only an apparent one and not a real one. Even if the fullest weight is given to the NT, it will do no good to shut the eyes to the positive qualities of Pharisaism as revealed in the rabbinic lit. As Jewish scholars rightly insist, and as Christian scholars have increasingly admitted, that picture of Pharisaism cannot be completely a fabrication. Although from a historical perspective the superiority of the NT documents to the Mishnah and later rabbinic compilations as sources for our knowledge of the 1st cent. cannot be doubted, yet it must be recognized that a fair amount of the latter material does provide accurate information concerning Judaism in this period.

Even more pernicious than the teaching of the Pharisees, however, was the gap between their profession and their practice. Their over-concern with externals led almost naturally to a neglect not only of the weightier parts of the law, but also of the inner man and matters of the heart. The resultant hypocrisy Jesus described in the words of Isaiah (29:13 in Mark 7:6f.), about a people who honor the Lord with their lips while their hearts are far from him. In fact, the Pharisees were intent upon cleansing the outside of the cup and plate whereas the inside remained dirty (Matt 23:25f.); they were like whitewashed tombs, disguising an inner corruption (23:27f.). Some of this may well have been the inevitable product of the Pharisaic legalism. What was not inevitable, however, was the pride of which the Pharisees were simultaneously guilty. Their motive in holding to their observances was a wrong one: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men” said Jesus (23:5). They loved the special honor that was paid to them as men who were reputedly serious about their godliness (23:6ff.), but their pride was totally without foundation—for the truth was, as Jesus summarized it, “they preach, but do not practice” (23:3).

Surprisingly, it can be demonstrated from the Talmud that hypocrisy was not unknown among the Pharisees. A famous passage denounces six types of hypocritical Pharisees (BT, Sotah, 22b), which exhibit many of the same faults pointed out by Jesus. Pretense and hypocrisy are condemned uncompromisingly in the Talmudic lit. (e.g. JT, Berakoth f. ix, 7; 13), and from this it may be concluded that in all probability these vices constituted special problems for Pharisees. The point to be noticed here is that the lit. of the Pharisaic tradition in no way sanctions hypocrisy. Indeed, it is at one with Jesus in its castigation of hypocrisy. Without denying that hypocrisy existed among the Pharisees, it can be seen that simply to equate the two is to make an unfortunate error.

To sum up, a fair examination of both the gospel records and the Talmudic lit. leads one to conclude that there is no necessity of seeing an absolute contradiction between the two views of Pharisaism. In the main, the gospel account of the Pharisees is a negative one. Two things, however, are to be noted: (1) not all of the Pharisees were bad; and (2) Pharisaism, as ideally conceived, ought to have been a good thing. The latter is precisely the reason for Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees. Nowhere does Jesus appear more like an OT prophet than in Matthew 23. He called the Pharisees back to the “weightier matters of the law” (23:23). He called them to close the gap between their profession and their performance. It is because they were so close (and yet so far) from being what they ought to have been, and yet at the same time made a great fuss over their supposed accomplishments (cf. Luke 18:11), that Jesus took them to task in such ominous tones.

It goes without saying that this criticism was exceedingly painful to the Pharisees. Nonetheless it is not here that their quarrel with Jesus lay, for they too were at least theoretically against hypocrisy (if only they could see it). Their real quarrel was much deeper: they would have nothing to do with the personal claims of Jesus and the centrality of these claims to His message. Jesus, in fact, put His own person in that central place previously held by the Torah as God’s revelation to man.

The quarrel that Jesus had with the Pharisees was also a deeper one, which necessarily remained implicit, and not explicit, at this stage in His redemptive work. The point is, that even if they had accomplished what they theoretically set out to do in successfully living according to a reformed oral tradition, they had no claim upon God. “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Merit before God on the basis of righteous works is a nonentity, and thus the whole Pharisaic outlook was vitiated by this basic deception. It was left to Paul to make this explicit in no uncertain terms.

Significance of Pharisaism.

A general preoccupation with the vices of the Pharisees has unfortunately often obscured not only the good aspects of Pharisaism but also its true character and significance. Pharisaism was admirable in its attempt, however futile, to bring every area of life into subjection to the law. Perhaps more important than the dismal failure of its legalism in this regard was the wellspring of piety that motivated the whole phenomenon known as Pharisaism. It was the longing for a righteous Israel and the hope of the coming Messianic kingdom that motivated these men. The piety and expectant tone of the Pharisaic Psalms of Solomon is virtually indistinguishable from that, so highly honored by Christians, which appears in the poetic utterances of Luke 1 and 2. God was about to do a great work for His people, and in preparation it was necessary for the people to turn to the law anew. The scribes and Pharisees accordingly made the law an influence in the lives of the masses that it had never before been. Despite excesses and failures, to the extent that it remained Biblical it accomplished much. Pharisaism was at heart, though tragically miscarried, a movement for righteousness. It was this concern for righteousness that drove the Pharisees to their legalism with such a passion. Convinced they had attained the righteousness they sought, the Pharisees became prey to their own self-satisfaction, and unknowingly they rejected their only hope of righteousness. Nevertheless this basic drive for righteousness accounts for what may be regarded as attractive and Biblical both about Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism. This later Judaism stands in continuity with Pharisaism and, as might be expected, displays some of the same vices and virtues. Not without reason did G. F. Moore write that “Judaism is the monument of the Pharisees” (II, 193). Exactly for this reas on, however, the quarrel between Jesus and the Pharisees finds its modern counterpart in that between Judaism and the Gospel.


Primary source material in addition to the NT and Josephus includes: The Mishnah (tr. H. Danby, 1933); and The Babylonian Talmud (English tr. ed. I. Epstein, 1935-1952; reprinted 1961).

Secondary material: E. Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Division II, vol. II (1890); I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (First Series, 1917; Second Series, 1924); A. T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus (1920); R. T. Herford, The Pharisees (1924); K. Kohler, “Pharisees,” Jew Enc vol. IX (new ed., 1925), 661-666; F. C. Burkitt, “Jesus and the Pharisees,” JTS, XXVIII (1927), 392-397; G. F. Moore, Judaism (3 vols., 1927-1930); Judaism and Christianity (3 vols., edited respectively by W. O. E. Oesterley, H. Loewe, and E. I. J. Rosenthal; 1937-1938); W. O. E. Oesterley, The Jews and Judaism During the Greek Period (1941); J. Z. Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays (1951); T. W. Manson, The Servant-Messiah (1953); W. D. Davies, Introduction to Pharisaism (1954; reprint 1967); A. F. J. Klijn, “Scribes, Pharisees, Highpriests and Elders in the New Testament,” Novum Testamentum, III (1959), 259-267; T. F. Glasson, “Anti-Pharisaism in St. Matthew,” JQR, LI (1960-1961), 316-320; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees (2 vols., 1962); M. Black, “Pharisees,” IDB, III (1962), 774-781; A. Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (1964); J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Eng. tr., 1969).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(perushim; Pharisaioi):

1. Name and General Character

2. Authorities--Josephus--New Testament--Talmud


1. Associated at First with Hasmoneans, but Later Abandon Them

2. Change of Name

3. Later Fortunes of the Sect

4. In New Testament Times

5. In Post-apostolic Times


1. Josephus’s Statements Colored by Greek Ideas

2. Conditional Reincarnation

3. New Testament Presentation of Pharisaic Doctrines--Angels and Spirits--Resurrection

4. Traditions Added to the Law

5. Traditional Interpretations of the Law by Pharisees (Sabbath, etc.)

6. Close Students of the Text of Scripture

(1) Messianic Hopes

(2) Almsgiving


The Chabherim--Pharisaic Brotherhoods


1. Pharisees and People of the Land

2. Arrogance toward Other Jews

3. Regulations for the Chabher

4. The New Testament Account

(1) Their Scrupulosity

(2) Their Hypocrisy

5. Talmudic Classification of the Pharisees


1. Pharisaic Attempts to Gain Christ Over

2. Reasons for Pharisaic Hatred of Christ

3. our Lord’s Denunciation of the Pharisees


1. Name and General Character:

A prominent sect of the Jews. The earliest notice of them in Josephus occurs in connection with Jonathan, the high priest. Immediately after the account of the embassy to the Lacedaemonians, there is subjoined (Josephus, Ant, XIII, v, 9) an account of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, therefore implying that then and in this connection they had been prominent, although no notice of any of these parties is to be found that confirms that view. Later (XIII, x, 5), the Pharisees are represented as envious of the success of John Hyrcanus; Eleazar, one of them, insults him at his own table. From the fact that earlier in the history the Assideans occupy a similar place to that occupied later by the Pharisees, it may be deduced that the two parties are in a measure one. See Hasidaeans; Asmoneans. It would seem that not only the Pharisees, but also the Essenes, were derived from the Assideans or chacidhim.

2. Authorities--Josephus--New Testament--Talmud:

In considering the characteristics and doctrines of the Pharisees we are in some difficulty from the nature of our authorities. The writers of the New Testament assume generally that the character and tenets of the Pharisees are well known to their readers, and only lay stress on the points in which they were in antagonism to our Lord and His followers. The evidence of Josephus, a contemporary and himself a Pharisee, is lessened in value by the fact that he modified his accounts of his people to suit the taste of his Roman masters. The Pharisees, with him, are a philosophic sect, and not an active political party. Their Messianic hopes are not so much as mentioned. Although the Talmud was written, both Mishna and Gemara, by the descendants of the Pharisees, the fact that the Gemara, from which most of our information is derived, is so late renders the evidence deduced from Talmudic statements of little value. Even the Mishna, which came into being only a century after the fall of the Jewish state, shows traces of exaggeration and modification of facts. Still, taking these deficiencies into consideration, we may make a fairly consistent picture of the sect. The name means "separatists," from parash, "to separate"--those who carefully kept themselves from any legal contamination, distinguishing themselves by their care in such matters from the common people, the `am ha’arets, who had fewer scruples. Like the Puritans in England during the 17th century, and the Presbyterians in Scotland during the same period, the Pharisees, although primarily a religious party, became ere long energetically political. They were a closely organized society, all the members of which called each other chabherim, "neighbors"; this added to the power they had through their influence with the people.

I. History of the Sect.

The Assideans (chacidhim) were at first the most active supporters of Judas Maccabeus in his struggle for religious freedom. A portion of them rather than fight retired to the desert to escape the tyranny of Epiphanes (1 Macc 2:27 f). The followers of these in later days became the Essenes. When Judas Maccabeus cleansed the temple and rededicated it with many sacrifices, it is not expressly said, either in the Books of Maccabees or by Josephus, that he acted as high priest, but the probability is that he did so. This would be a shock to the Assidean purists, as Judas, though a priest, was not a Zadokite; but his actions would be tolerated at that time on account of the imminent necessity for the work of reconsecration and the eminent services of Judas himself and his family.

1. Associated at First with Hasmoneans, but Later Abandon Them:

When Bacchides appeared against Jerusalem with Alcimus in his camp, this feeling against Judas took shape in receiving the treacherous Alcimus into Jerusalem and acknowledging him as high priest, a line of action which soon showed that it was fraught with disaster, as Alcimus murdered many of the people. They had to betake themselves anew to Judas, but this desertion was the beginning of a separating gulf which deepened when he made a treaty with the idolatrous Romans. As is not infrequently the case with religious zealots, their valor was associated with a mystic fanaticism. The very idea of alliance with heathen powers was hateful to them, so when Judas began to treat with Rome they deserted him, and he sustained the crushing defeat of Eleasa. Believing themselves the saints of God and therefore His peculiar treasure, they regarded any association with the heathen as faithlessness to Yahweh. Their attitude was much that of the Fifth Monarchy men in the time of Cromwell, still more that of the Cameronians in Scotland at the Revolution of 1688 who, because William of Orange was not a "covenanted" king, would have none of him. As the later Hasmoneans became more involved in worldly politics, they became more and more alienated from the strict Assideans, yet the successors of Judas Maccabeus retained their connection with the party in a lukewarm fashion, while the Sadducean sect was gaining in influence.

About this time the change of name seems to have been effected. They began to be called Pharisees, perushim, instead of chacidhim--"separatists" instead of saints. A parallel instance is to be found in the religious history of England.

2. Change of Name:

The Puritans of the 17th century became in the 19th "Non-conformists." The earliest instance of the Pharisees’ intervening in history is that referred to in Josephus (Ant., XIII, x, 5), where Eleazar, a Pharisee, demanded that John Hyrcanus should lay down the high-priesthood because his mother had been a captive, thus insinuating that he--Hyrcanus--was no true son of Aaron, but the bastard of some nameless heathen to whom his mother had surrendered herself. This unforgivable insult to himself and to the memory of his mother led Hyrcanus to break with the Pharisaic party definitely. He seems to have left them severely alone.

3. Later Fortunes of the Sect:

The sons of Hyrcanus, especially Alexander Janneus, expressed their hostility in a more active way. Alexander crucified as many as 800 of the Pharisaic party, a proceeding that seems to intimate overt acts of hostility on their part which prompted this action. His whole policy was the aggrandizement of the Jewish state, but his ambition was greater than his military abilities. His repeated failures and defeats confirmed the Pharisees in their opposition to him on religious grounds. He scandalized them by calling himself king, although not of the Davidic line, and further still by adopting the heathen name "Alexander," and having it stamped in Greek characters on his coins. Although a high priest was forbidden to marry a widow, he married the widow of his brother. Still further, he incurred their opposition by abandoning the Pharisaic tradition as to the way in which the libation water was poured out. They retaliated by rousing his people against him and conspiring with the Syrian king. On his deathbed he advised his wife, Alexandra Salome, who succeeded him on the throne, to make peace with the Pharisees. This she did by throwing herself entirely into their hands. On her death a struggle for the possession of the throne and the high-priesthood began between her two sons, John Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The latter, the more able and energetic, had the support of the Sadducees; the former, the elder of the two brothers, had that of the Pharisees. In the first phase of the conflict, Hyrcanus was defeated and compelled to make a disadvantageous peace with his brother, but, urged by Antipater, the Idumean, he called in Aretas, who inclined the balance at once to the side of Hyrcanus. The Romans were appealed to and they also, moved partly by the astuteness of Antipater, favored Hyrcanus. All this resulted ultimately in the supremacy of the Herodians, who through their subservience to Rome became inimical to the Pharisees and rivals of the Sadducees.

4. In New Testament Times:

When the New Testament records open, the Pharisees, who have supreme influence among the people, are also strong, though not predominant, in the Sanhedrin. The Herodians and Sadducees, the one by their alliance with the Ro authorities, and the other by their inherited skill in political intrigue, held the reins of government. If we might believe the Talmudic representation, the Pharisees were in the immense majority in the Sanhedrin; the nasi’, or president, and the ’abh-beth-din, or vice-president, both were Pharisees. This, however, is to be put to the credit of Talmudic imagination, the relation of which to facts is of the most distant kind.

Recently Buchler (Das grosse Synedrion in Jerusalem) has attempted to harmonize these Talmudic fables with the aspect of things appearing in the New Testament and Josephus. He assumes that there were two Sanhedrins, one civil, having to do with matters of government, in which the Sadducees were overwhelmingly predominant, and the other scholastic, in which the Pharisees were equally predominant--the one the Senate of the nation, like the Senate of the United States, the other the Senate of a university, let us say, of Jerusalem. Although followed by Rabbi Lauterbach in the Jewish Encyclopedia, this attempt cannot be regarded as successful. There is no evidence for this dual Sanhedrin either in the New Testament or Josephus, on the one hand, or in the Talmud on the other.

Outside the Sanhedrin the Pharisees are ubiquitous, in Jerusalem, in Galilee, in Peraea and in the Decapolis, always coming in contact with Jesus. The attempts made by certain recent Jewish writers to exonerate them from the guilt of the condemnation of our Lord has no foundation; it is contradicted by the New Testament records, and the attitude of the Talmud to Jesus.

The Pharisees appear in the Book of Ac to be in a latent way favorers of the apostles as against the high-priestly party. The personal influence of Gamaliel, which seems commanding, was exercised in their favor. The anti-Christian zeal of Saul the Tarsian, though a Pharisee, may have been to some extent the result of the personal feelings which led him to perpetuate the relations of the earlier period when the two sects were united in common antagonism to the teaching of Christ. He, a Pharisee, offered himself to be employed by the Sadducean high priest (Ac 9:1,2) to carry on the work of persecution in Damascus. In this action Saul appears to have been in opposition to a large section of the Pharisaic party. The bitter disputes which he and the other younger Pharisees had carried on with Stephen had possibly influenced him.

5. In Post-apostolic Times:

When Paul, the Christian apostle, was brought before the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, the Pharisaic party were numerous in the Council, if they did not even form the majority, and they readily became his defenders against the Sadducees.

From Josephus we learn that with the outbreak of the war with the Romans the Pharisees were thrust into the background by the more fanatical Zealots, Simon ben Gioras and John of Gischala (BJ, V, i). The truth behind the Talmudic statements that Gamaliel removed the Sanhedrin to Jabneh and that Johanan ben Zakkai successfully entreated Vespasian to spare the scholars of that city is that the Pharisees in considerable numbers made peace with the Romans. In the Mishna we have the evidence of their later labors when the Sanhedrin was removed from Jabneh, ultimately to Tiberias in Galilee. There under the guidance of Jehuda ha-Qadhosh ("the Holy") the Mishna was reduced to writing. It may thus be said that Judaism became Pharisaism, and the history of the Jews became that of the Pharisees. In this later period the opposition to Christianity sprang up anew and became embittered, as may be seen in the Talmudic fables concerning Jesus.

II. Doctrines of the Pharisees.

1. Josephus’ Statements Colored by Greek Ideas:

The account given of the doctrines of the Pharisees by Josephus is clearly influenced by his desire to parallel the Jewish sects with the Greek philosophical schools. He directs especial attention to the Pharisaic opinion as to fate and free will, since on this point the Stoic and Epicurean sects differed very emphatically. He regards the Pharisaic position as mid-way between that of the Sadducees, who denied fate altogether and made human freedom absolute, and that of the Essenes that "all things are left in the hand of God." He says "The Pharisees ascribe all things to fate and God, yet allow that to do what is right or the contrary is principally in man’s own power, although fate cooperates in every action." It is to be noted that Josephus, in giving this statement of views, identifies "fate" with "God," a process that is more plausible in connection with the Latin fatum, "something decreed," than in relation to the impersonal moira, or heimarmene, of the Greeks. As Josephus wrote in Greek and used only the second of these terms, he had no philological inducement to make the identification; the reason must have been the matter of fact. In other words, he shows that the Pharisees believed in a personal God whose will was providence.

2. Conditional Reincarnation:

In connection with this was their doctrine of a future life of rewards and punishments. The phrase which Josephus uses is a peculiar one: "They think that every soul is immortal; only the souls of good men will pass into another body, but the souls of the evil shall suffer everlasting punishment" (aidia timoria kolazesthai). From this it has been deduced that the Pharisees held the transmigration of souls. In our opinion this is a mistake. We believe that really it is an attempt of Josephus to state the doctrine of the resurrection of the body in a way that would not shock Hellenic ideas. The Greek contempt for the body made the idea of the resurrection abhorrent, and in this, as in most philosophical matters, the Romans followed the Greeks. It would seem that Josephus regarded the Pharisees as maintaining that this resurrection applied only to the righteous. Still even this restriction, though certainly the natural interpretation, is not absolutely necessary. This is confirmed by the corresponding section in the Antiquities (XVIII, i, 3): "They also believe .... that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life, and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again." Josephus also declares the Pharisees to be very attentive students of the law of God: "they interpret the law with careful exactitude."

3. New Testament Presentation of Pharisaic Doctrines--Angels and Spirits--Resurrection:

Nothing in the Gospels or the Ac at all militates against any part of this representation, but there is much to fill it out. They believed in angels and spirits (Ac 23:8). From the connection it is probable that the present activity of such beings was the question in the mind of the writer. In that same sentence belief in the resurrection is ascribed to the Pharisees.

4. Traditions Added to the Law:

Another point is that to the bare letter of the Law they added traditions. While the existence of these traditions is referred to in Gospels, too little is said to enable us to grasp their nature and extent (Mt 15:2 ff; 16:5 ff; Mr 7:1-23). The evangelists only recorded these traditional glosses when they conflicted with the teaching of Christ and were therefore denounced by Him. We find them exemplified in the Mishna. The Pharisaic theory of tradition was that these additions to the written law and interpretations of it had been given by Moses to the elders and by them had been transmitted orally down through the ages. The classical passage in the Mishna is to be found in Pirqe’ Abhoth: "Moses received the (oral) Law from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the men of the great synagogue." Additions to these traditions were made by prophets by direct inspiration, or by interpretation of the words of the written Law. All this mass, as related above, was reduced to writing by Jehuda ha-Qadhosh in Tiberias, probably about the end of the 2nd century AD. Jehuda was born, it is said, 135 AD, and died somewhere about 220 AD.

The related doctrines of the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment with its consequent eternal rewards and punishments formed a portion and a valuable portion of this tradition.

5. Traditional Interpretations of the Law by Pharisees (Sabbath, etc.):

Less valuable, at times burdensome and hurtful, were the minute refinements they introduced into the Law. Sometimes the ingenuity of the Pharisaic doctors was directed to lighten the burden of the precept as in regard to the Sabbath. Thus a person was permitted to go much farther than a Sabbath day’s journey if at some time previous he had deposited, within the legal Sabbath day’s journey of the place he wished to reach, bread and water; this point was now to be regarded as the limit of his house, and consequently from this all distances were to be ceremonially reckoned (Jewish Encyclopedia, under the word "Erub"): The great defect of Pharisaism was that it made sin so purely external. An act was right or wrong according as some external condition was present or absent; thus there was a difference in bestowing alms on the Sabbath whether the beggar put his hand within the door of the donor or the donor stretched his hand beyond his own threshold, as may be seen in the first Mishna in the Tractate Shabbath. A man did not break the Sabbath rest of his ass, though he rode on it, and hence did not break the Sabbath law, but if he carried a switch with which to expedite the pace of the beast he was guilty, because he had laid a burden upon it.

6. Close Students of the Text of Scripture:

Along with these traditions and traditional interpretations, the Pharisees were close students of the sacred text. On the turn of a sentence they suspended many decisions. So much so, that it is said of them later the Text of that they suspended mountains from hairs. This is especially the case with regard to the Sabbath law with its burdensome minutiae. At the same time there was care as to the actual wording of the text of the Law; this has a bearing on textual criticism, even to the present day. A specimen of Pharisaic exegesis which Paul turns against their followers as an argumentum ad hominem may be seen in Ga 3:16: "He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ."

(1) Messianic Hopes.

It is also to be said for them, that they maintained the Messianic hopes of the nation when their rivals were ready to sacrifice everything to the Romans, in order to gain greater political influence for themselves. Their imagination ran riot in the pictures they drew of these future times, but still they aided the faith of the people who were thus in a position to listen to the claims of Christ. They were led by Rabbi Aqiba in the reign of Hadrian to accept Bar-Cochba about a century after they had rejected Jesus. They were fanatical in their obedience to the Law as they understood it, and died under untold tortures rather than transgress.

(2) Almsgiving.

They elevated almsgiving into an equivalent for righteousness. This gave poverty a very different place from what it had in Greece or among the Romans. Learning was honored, although its possessors might be very poor. The story of the early life of Hillel brings this out. He is represented as being so poor as to be unable sometimes to pay the small daily fee which admitted pupils to the rabbinic school, and when this happened, in his eagerness for the Law, he is reported to have listened on the roof to the words of the teachers. This is probably not historically true, but it exhibits the Pharisaic ideal.

III. Organization of the Pharisaic Party.

We have no distinct account of this organization, either in the Gospels, in Josephus, or in the Talmud. But the close relationship which the members of the sect sustained to each other, their habit of united action as exhibited in the narratives of the New Testament and of Josephus are thus most naturally explained. The Talmudic account of the chabherim affords confirmation of this. These were persons who primarily associated for the study of the Law and for the better observance of its precepts. No one was admitted to these chabhuroth without taking an oath of fidelity to the society and a promise of strict observance of Levitical precepts.

The Chabherim--Pharisaic Brotherhoods:

One of the elements of their promise has to be noted. The chabher promised not to pay ma`asroth, "tithe," or terumah, "heave offering," to a priest who was not a chabher. They were only permitted to take this oath when their associates in the brotherhood certified to their character. Even then the candidate had to pass through a period of probation of 30 days, according to the "house of Hillel," of a year, according to the "house of Shammai." This latter element, being quite more Talmudico, may be regarded as doubtful. Association with any not belonging to the Pharisaic society was put under numerous restrictions. It is at least not improbable that when the lawyer in Lu 10:29 demanded "Who is my neighbor?" he was minded to restrict the instances of the command in Le 19:18 to those who were, like himself, Pharisees. A society which thus had brotherhoods all over Palestine and was separated from the rest of the community would naturally wield formidable power when their claims were supported by the esteem of the people at large. It is to be observed that to be a chabher was a purely personal thing, not heritable like priesthood, and women as well as men might be members. In this the Pharisees were like the Christians. In another matter also there was a resemblance between them and the followers of Jesus; they, unlike the Sadducees, were eager to make proselytes. "Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte" (Mt 23:15). Many members of Roman society, especially women, were proselytes, as, for instance, Poppea Sabina.

IV. Character of the Pharisees.

1. Pharisees and People of the Land:

Because the ideal of the Pharisees was high, and because they reverenced learning and character above wealth and civil rank they had a tendency to despise those who did not agree with them. We see traces of this in the Gospels; thus Joh 7:49: "This multitude that knoweth not the law are accursed." The distinction between the Pharisees, the Puritans and the `am ha-’arets, "the people of the land," began with the distinction that had to be kept between the Jews and the Gentiles who had entered the land as colonists or intruders. These would, during the Babylonian captivity, almost certainly speak Western Aramaic, and would certainly be heathen and indulge in heathen practices. They were "the people of the land" whom the returning exiles found in possession of Judea.

2. Arrogance toward Other Jews:

Mingled with them were the few Jews that had neither been killed nor deported by the Babylonians, nor carried down into Egypt by Johanan, the son of Kareah. As they had conformed in a large measure to the habits of their heathen neighbors and intermarried with them, the stricter Jews, as Ezra and Nehemiah, regarded them as under the same condemnation as the heathen, and shrank from association with them. During the time of our Lord’s life on earth the name was practically restricted to the ignorant Jews whose conformity to the law was on a broader scale than that of the Pharisees. Some have, however, dated the invention of the name later in the days of the Maccabean struggle, when the ceremonial precepts of the Law could with difficulty be observed. Those who were less careful of these were regarded as `am ha-’arets.

3. Regulations for the Chabher:

The distinction as exhibited in the Talmud shows an arrogance on the part of the Pharisaic chabher that must have been galling to those who, though Jews as much as the Pharisees, were not Puritans like them. A chabher, that is a Pharisee, might not eat at the table of a man whose wife was of the `am ha-’arets, even though her husband might be a Pharisee. If he would be a full chabher, a Pharisee must not sell to any of the `am ha-’arets anything that might readily be made unclean. If a woman of the `am ha-’arets was left alone in a room, all that she could touch without moving from her place was unclean. We must, however, bear in mind that the evidence for this is Talmudic, and therefore of but limited historical value.

4. The New Testament Account;

(1) Their Scrupulosity.

We find traces of this scrupulosity in the Gospels. The special way in which the ceremonial sanctity of the Pharisees exhibited itself was in tithing, hence the reference to their tithing "mint and anise and cummin" (Mt 23:23). In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, one of the things that the Pharisee plumes himself on is that he gives tithes of all he possesses (Lu 18:12). He is an example of the Pharisaic arrogance of those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and set all others at nought." Their claiming the first seats in feasts and synagogues (Mt 23:6) was an evidence of the same spirit.

(2) Their Hypocrisy.

Closely akin to this is the hypocrisy of which the Pharisees were accused by our Lord. When we call them "hypocrites," we must go back to the primary meaning of the word. They were essentially "actors," poseurs. Good men, whose character and spiritual force have impressed themselves on their generation, have often peculiarities of manner and tone which are easily imitated. The very respect in which they are held by their disciples leads those who respect them to adopt unconsciously their mannerisms of voice and deportment. A later generation unconsciously imitates, "acts the part." In a time when religion is persecuted, as in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, or despised as it was in the Hellenizing times which preceded and succeeded, it would be the duty of religious men not to hide their convictions. The tendency to carry on this public manifestation of religious acts after it had ceased to be protest would be necessarily great. The fact that they gained credit by praying at street corners when the hour of prayer came, and would have lost credit with the people had they not done so, was not recognized by them as lessening the moral worth of the action. Those who, having lived in the period of persecution and contempt, survived in that when religion was held in respect would maintain their earlier practice without any arriere-pensee. The succeeding generation, in continuing the practice, consciously "acted." They were poseurs. Their hypocrisy was none the less real that it was reached by unconscious stages. Hypocrisy was a new sin, a sin only possible in a spiritual religion, a religion in which morality and worship were closely related. Heathenism, which lay in sacrifices and ceremonies by which the gods could be bribed, or cajoled into favors, had a purely casual connection with morality; its worship was entirely a thing of externals, of acting, "posing." Consequently, a man did not by the most careful attention to the ceremonies of religion produce any presumption in favor of his trustworthiness. There was thus no sinister motive to prompt to religion. The prophets had denounced the insincerity of worship, but even they did not denounce hypocrisy, i.e. religion used as a cloak to hide treachery or dishonesty. Religion had become more spiritual, the connection between morality and worship more intimate by reason of the persecution of the Seleucids.

5. Talmudic Classification of the Pharisees:

The Talmud to some extent confirms the representation of the Gospels. There were said to be seven classes of Pharisees:

(1) the "shoulder" Pharisee, who wears his good deeds on his shoulders and obeys the precept of the Law, not from principle, but from expediency;

(2) the "wait-a-little" Pharisee, who begs for time in order to perform a meritorious action;

(3) the "bleeding" Pharisee, who in his eagerness to avoid looking on a woman shuts his eyes and so bruises himself to bleeding by stumbling against a wall; (4) the "painted" Pharisee, who advertises his holiness lest any one should touch him so that he should be defiled;

(5) the "reckoning" Pharisee, who is always saying "What duty must I do to balance any unpalatable duty which I have neglected?";

(6) the "fearing" Pharisee, whose relation to God is one merely of trembling awe;

(7) the Pharisee from "love." In all but the last there was an element of "acting," of hypocrisy. It is to be noted that the Talmud denounces ostentation; but unconsciously that root of the error lies in the externality of their righteousness; it commands an avoidance of ostentation which involves equal "posing."

V. Our Lord’s Relationship to the Pharisees.

1. Pharisaic Attempts to Gain Christ Over:

The attitude of the Pharisees to Jesus, to begin with, was, as had been their attitude to John, critical. They sent representatives to watch His doings and His sayings and report. They seem to have regarded it as possible that He might unite Himself with them, although, as we think, His affinities rather lay with the Essenes. Gradually their criticism became opposition. This opposition grew in intensity as He disregarded their interpretations of the Sabbatic law, ridiculed their refinements of the law of tithes and the distinctions they introduced into the validity of oaths, and denounced their insincere posing. At first there seems to have been an effort to cajole Him into compliance with their plans. If some of the Pharisees tempted Him to use language which would compromise Him with the people or with the Ro authorities, others invited Him to their tables, which was going far upon the part of a Pharisee toward one not a chabher. Even when He hung on the cross, the taunt with which they greeted Him may have had something of longing, lingering hope in it: "If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him" (Mt 27:42 King James Version). If He would only give them that sign, then they would acknowledge Him to be the Messiah.

2. Reasons for Pharisaic Hatred of Christ:

The opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus was intensified by another reason. They were the democratic party; their whole power lay in the reputation they had with the people for piety. our Lord denounced them as hypocrites; moreover He had secured a deeper popularity than theirs. At length when cajolery failed to win Him and astute questioning failed to destroy His popularity, they combined with their opponents, the Sadducees, against Him as against a common enemy.

3. Our Lord’s Denunciation of the Pharisees:

On the other hand, Jesus denounced the Pharisees more than He denounced any other class of the people. This seems strange when we remember that the main body of the religious people, those who looked for the Messiah, belonged to the Pharisees, and His teaching and theirs had a strong external resemblance. It was this external resemblance, united as it was with a profound spiritual difference, which made it incumbent on Jesus to mark Himself off from them. All righteousness with them was external, it lay in meats and drinks and divers washings, in tithing of mint, anise and cummin. He placed religion on a different footing, removed it into another region. With Him it was the heart that must be right with God, not merely the external actions; not only the outside of the cup and platter was to be cleansed, but the inside first of all. It is to be noted that, as observed above, the Pharisees were less antagonistic to the apostles when their Lord had left them. The after-history of Pharisaism has justified Our Lord’s condemnation.


Histories of Israel:

Ewald, V, 365 ff, English translation; Herzfeld, III, 354 ff; Jost, I, 197 ff; Gratz, V, 91 ff; Derenbourg, 75-78, 117-44, 452-54; Holtzmann, II, 124 ff; Renan, V, 42 ff; Stanley, III, 376 ff; Cornill, 145 ff, English translation; Schurer, II, ii, 4 ff, English translation (GJV4, II. 447 ff); Kuenen, III, 233 ff. ET.

Life and Times of Christ:

Hausrath, I, 135 ff, English translation; Edersheim, I, 310 ff; Lange, I, 302 ff, English translation; Farrar, II. 494 ff; Geikie, II, 223. ff; Keim, I, 250 ff; Thomson. Books Which Influenced our Lord, 50 ff; Weiss. I, 285 ff. English translation; de Pressense, 116 ff.

Articles in Encyclopedias, Bible Dictionaries, Lexicons, etc.:

Ersch and Gruber, Allg. Eric (Daniel); Winer, Realworterbuch; Herzog, RE, edition 1 (Reuss), editions 2, 3 (Sieffert); Hamburger, Realenic.; Smith’s DB (Twisleton); Kitto’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Lit. (Ginsburg); HDB (Eaton); Encyclopedia Biblica (Cowley. Prince); Schenkel, Bibel-Lexicon (Hausrath); Jew Encyclopedia (Kohler); Temple Dict. of the Bible (Christie); Hastings, DCG (Hugh Scott, Mitchell).


Wellhausen, Montet, Geiger, Baneth, Muller, Hanne, Davaine, Herford; Weber, System der altsynagogen Palestinischen Theologie, 10 ff, 44 ff; Keil, Biblical Archaeology, II, 1680; Ryle and James, Psalms of Solomon. xliv ff; Nicolas. Doctrines religieuses des juifs, 48 ff.