Last modified on June 6, 2021, at 00:12


The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus; watercolor painting by French artist James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Pharisees were liberal intellectuals at the time of Jesus, who opposed His logic and insistently twisted Biblical law to defend their authority. They rejected anything that was not based in authority, and defined themselves to be the sole authority. The modern-day equivalent to the Pharisees is adherence to hearsay based on liberal authorities.

The Pharisees opposed the priestly Sadducees who were not as great in number, but had political power. The term "Pharisees" derives from "Perisha" (the singular of "Perishaya"), which means "one who separates himself." In a religious sense it meant a group that separates itself from impure persons and things in seeking a higher level of holiness as desired by God.

At times Jesus was very critical of the Pharisees, as observed in the Gospels.


The characteristics and doctrines of the Pharisees from the existing written records depends on the nature of the authorities. The New Testament writers of the Gospels, the Acts, as well as the Apostle Paul - a former Pharisee - have assumed that the character and tenets of the Pharisees were well known to their readers, and only put emphasis on those points in which they were in antagonism to Jesus 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 as far as he was concerned 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 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. Taking these deficiencies into consideration there is created a fairly consistent picture of the sect. The name means "separatists," from parash, "to separate" - those who carefully kept themselves from any legal contamination and 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 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.


According to the apocryphal book 1 Maccabees the Assideans were the most active supporters of Judas Maccabeus in his struggle for religious freedom during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. A portion of them fled to the desert rather than fight to escape his tyranny (1 Macc 2:27 f), which in time became known as the Essenes. When Judas Maccabeus cleansed the temple and rededicated it he possibly took on the role of high priest, although this is not indicated either in Maccabees or by Josephus. To the Assideans, this would have been a shock as Judas was not of their sect, 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 the Maccabean family.

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 restore relations with 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 God. About this time the change of name seems to have taken place, and they began to call themselves Pharisees, perushim; "separatists".

The earliest instance of the Pharisees in history under that name is 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 illegitimate son of an adulterous relationship. This unforgivable insult to himself and to the memory of his mother led Hyrcanus to break with the Pharisaic party.

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 Greek 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.

New Testament Times

In the Gospels the Pharisees have a strong, but not predominant, position in the Sanhedrin. The Herodians - with their Roman alliance - and Sadducees - 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; what would be called a "president" and "prime minister" today were positions held by Pharisees in Jesus' time. This division of power, it should be noted, may have been the result of the imagination of the Talmudic writers.

Outside of the Sanhedrin the Pharisees are ubiquitous, in Jerusalem, in Galilee, in Peraea and in the Decapolis, and in the New testament they are always coming in contact with Jesus. The Pharisees appear in the Book of Acts 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 offered himself to be employed by the Sadducean high priest (Acts 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. When years later he was brought before the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem - this time as the Christian apostle Paul - the Pharisaic party were numerous in the Council and they readily became his defenders against the Sadducees, even if they did not have the majority.

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.


Josephus' statements

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 special attention to the Pharisaic opinion as to fate and free will, since on this point the Stoic and Epicurean sects differed greatly. He regards the Pharisaic position as midway between that of the Sadducees, who denied fate altogether and made human freedom absolute, and that of the Essenes, who believed 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 should 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.

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."’’ From this it has been deduced that the Pharisees believed in the transmigration of souls; however it is possible that it was 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."

New Testament presentation of Pharisaic doctrines

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

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 the Gospels, too little is said to enable the reader to grasp their nature and extent (Mt 15:2 ff; 16:5 ff; Mk 7:1-23). The evangelists only recorded these traditional glosses when they conflicted with the teaching of Christ and were therefore denounced by Him. 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 about 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 of this tradition.

Traditional interpretations of the Law by the Pharisees

Sometimes the ingenuity of the Pharisaic doctors was directed to lighten the burden of the precept as in regard to the Sabbath, i.e. 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 then to be regarded as the limit of his house, and consequently from this all distances were to be ceremonially reckoned. The great defect of Pharisaism was the minute refinements they introduced into the Law, resulting in making sin purely external and obeying the Law burdensome and hurtful. Discerning whether an act was right or wrong was subjective; if a man rode on his donkey on the Sabbath, he didn't break the law regarding the “Sabbath Day’s rest”, as he was considered “resting” on the donkey. But if he carried a switch with which to compel the donkey to move, he was considered guilty because he had laid a burden upon the animal.


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, as in John 7:49: "This multitude that knoweth not the law are accursed." The distinction between the Pharisees and the "people of the land" (am ha-'arets) 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.

Mingled with them were the few Jews who 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 regarded them as under the same condemnation as the heathen and shrank from association with them. During the time of Jesus 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.

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 - i.e. 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. It should be noted that the evidence for this is Talmudic, with limited historical value.

New Testament Account

Their Scrupulosity

Traces of their scrupulosity are found 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 (Lk 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.

Their Hypocrisy

Closely akin to this is the hypocrisy of which the Pharisees were accused by our Lord. The primary meaning of the word "hypocrite" is essentially "actors," or "poseurs", one who puts up a false front. 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 subsequent period 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 nonetheless real in 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 external 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 the performance of 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.

Talmudic classification

The Talmud to some extent confirms the representation of the Gospels. There were 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."

Jesus' Relationship to the Pharisees

Pharisaic Attempts to Gain Christ Over

The attitude of the Pharisees to Jesus - just as with John the Baptist - was critical judgment. 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 it was possible that they assumed His affinities 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 Roman authorities, others invited Him to their tables, which was going far on 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.

Reasons for Pharisaic Hatred of Christ

The opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus was intensified by another reason. They were the "Democratic Party" of their day; their whole power lay in the reputation they had with the people for piety. The Lord denounced them as hypocrites; in one of the most powerful denuciations of a religious sect, Jesus rails against them in Matthew 23, accusing them of deliberately keeping people from the Kingdom of Heaven and a relationship with God:

"But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in."
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation."
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." (Matthew 23:13-15, King James Version)

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.

Jesus' 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 who actively looked for the Messiah had 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 the Pharisees was external, it lay in meats and drinks and diverse washings, in the tithing of mint, anise and cummin; and above all in the public show. Jesus placed religion on a different footing and removed it into another region. With Him it was the heart that must be right with God and 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 written in the Acts, the Pharisees were less antagonistic to the apostles when their Lord had left them after the Resurrection.

See also

Scribes (Bible)

Lawyers, Jewish (New Testament)



This article incorporates text from the 1911 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, a work in the public domain.