Some of the Pharisees’ biggest contributions to Judaism were:
- Emphasizing the “oral tradition” (which they argued was equal to the written tradition of the Torah)
- Extending Jewish practices into life outside the temple
- Instilling greater piety in “the common people”
- Promoting belief in the afterlife
Despite their influence on rabbinic Judaism and their prominence in the New Testament, the Pharisees are a notoriously difficult group to define. No ancient Jewish group referred to themselves as Pharisees. The label originated with people who didn’t belong to this group.
While they’ve been described many different ways over the centuries—religious sect, political group, social movement, school of thought—none of these descriptions give us a holistic picture of the Pharisees.
Modern Christians tend to see the Pharisees in a negative light—mostly because the New Testament authors portray the Pharisees as legalistic and hypocritical. While that might describe their confrontations with Jesus and early Christians, it hardly tells the whole story of this important Jewish group.
By preserving and advocating for the importance of oral tradition, which was believed to have been handed from God to Moses along with the Torah, the Pharisees played an integral role in giving us both the Talmud (the written record of the oral tradition) and the Masoretic Text (the original Hebrew Bible, which relied on oral tradition to correctly identify and pronounce ambiguous words).
So at least in part, Christians can thank the Pharisees for ensuring the Old Testament was so carefully preserved. But beyond emphasizing oral tradition, the Pharisees also helped Judaism prepare for life after the Romans destroyed Herod’s temple, and they helped Jews apply and obey the Mosaic Law in everyday Jewish life.
Due to the lack of texts describing them, many modern scholars believe the Pharisees were not as prominent or numerous as people have assumed. Josephus, a first century Jewish-Roman historian, wrote numerous books on Jewish life and history, but he only mentions the Pharisees 20 times (usually briefly) and he spends more time describing contemporary Jewish groups. And since the New Testament presents them as speaking on behalf of the public, that’s made it appear as though they were the face of first-century Judaism.
In this guide, we’re going to look at what we know about the Pharisees as a whole, as well as explore their portrayal in the Bible. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Who were the Pharisees?
- Origins of the Pharisees
- The Pharisees in the Bible
- The Pharisees vs. the Sadducees
Let’s get started.
Who were the Pharisees?
The three main sources we have to learn about the Pharisees are the New Testament, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, and rabbinic literature (a collection of ancient Jewish writings based on oral tradition). Each source views the Pharisees through a different lens, which makes it difficult for historians to determine exactly who they were, and the true scope of their activity.
The closer you look (at what little is there), the harder it is to pin down exactly who or what this group was.
Josephus mostly approaches them from a Hellenistic (or Greek) point of view and treats them as a school of thought. (Some scholars also theorize that Josephus was a Pharisee, and exaggerated their significance.)
The New Testament mostly portrays the Pharisees as a major religious sect, and at times suggests they have quite a bit of political influence.
And rabbinic literature rarely uses the label “Pharisee,” but it gives us a more clear picture of their particular religious beliefs, and it collects the sayings of the group’s most well-known teacher, Hillel.
In Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Anthony J. Saldarini, a scholar of the Late Second Temple Period and Rabbinic Judaism, notes how difficult it is for historians to create a complete picture of the Pharisees:
“In most historical reconstructions of Jewish society the categories used to describe these groups, such as sect, school, upper class, lay leadership, etc. are ill defined or misused and not integrated into an understanding of the overall structure and functioning of society. . . . The proliferation of hypotheses about the Pharisees shows how poorly they are understood.”
While no single label truly captures who the Pharisees were, each helps us understand aspects of this group (according to our limited sources). Let’s take a closer look at the main theories about the Pharisees.
A religious sect
The Pharisees are most commonly identified as a religious sect. In the New Testament, they often appear to represent mainstream Judaism, but historians believe ancient Judaism was more diverse than initially thought—especially since the discovery of The Dead Sea Scrolls.
In any case, the Pharisees were an undeniably important precursor to Rabbinic Judaism, which has been the mainstream form of Judaism for well over a millennia. While the New Testament portrays their emphasis on oral tradition as legalistic and hypocritical, many Jews found it helpful in following the Torah in their everyday, contemporary lives.
“The purity rules, which seem so arcane to modern westerners, regularized life and separated that which was normal and life-giving from that which was abnormal or ambiguous, and so was a threat to normal life.” —Professor Anthony J. Saldarini, Boston College
At the same time, some argue, the Pharisees’ reliance on (and promotion of) oral tradition encouraged Jews to worship and practice more Judaic rituals outside the temple, which became essential when the temple was destroyed in 70 AD.
As a religious sect, the Pharisees had specific beliefs which separated them from other Jewish sects, such as the Sadducees and Essenes. Professor Saldarini explains the distinctions this way:
“The rabbinic laws and stories which can be somewhat reliably dated to the 1st century show that the Pharisees had a strong interest in tithing, ritual purity, and Sabbath observance and not much of an interest in civil laws and regulations for the Temple worship. The New Testament also shows that the Pharisees had unique interpretations of these matters and sought to promote their observance and defend their validity against challenge by other establishment and reform groups, including the priests, Qumran community, and Jesus and his early followers. Serious differences in the understanding of Jewish covenant and commitment to God, people, and land separated these groups and factions within Judaism.”
But the Pharisees’ religious beliefs don’t encompass all that they were and did. So some describe them as a political group, too.
A political group
In the New Testament, the Pharisees don’t just advocate for their religious views. They attempt to influence government leaders and stir up the people to carry out their political agenda—which was directly tied to their desire to preserve Judaism and the identity of God’s people.
The Gospel of Mark emphasizes the Pharisees’ associations with (and influence on) local leaders, which was likely due to their desire to maintain their religious influence:
“Because the Pharisees in Mark have relationships with other groups in society, enter into a political alliance with the Herodians against Jesus (Mark 3:6), and put Jesus to the test with the Herodians at the instigation of the Jerusalem leaders (Mark 12:13), they appear to be a well-connected political interest group, of which the “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16) may be the Jerusalem representatives. Since their religious views are integral to the way Jews live in Palestine, they sought to control or influence the political, legal, and social factors which might determine the social practices and views of the community.” —Professor Anthony J. Saldarini, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
The Pharisees’ political power didn’t come from positions of authority like government officials or the Sadducees, who were mostly priests, but rather, it came from their influence—over the Jewish people and government leaders.
Josephus paints a rather dark picture of their influence, explaining how they manipulated Salome Alexandra (King Alexander Janneus’ wife) when she took over governing Judaea after her husband’s death:
“And now the Pharisees joined themselves to her, to assist her in the government. These are a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than others, and seem to interpret the laws more accurately. Low Alexandra hearkened to them to an extraordinary degree, as being herself a woman of great piety towards God. But these Pharisees artfully insinuated themselves into her favor by little and little, and became themselves the real administrators of the public affairs: they banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed [men] at their pleasure; and, to say all at once, they had the enjoyment of the royal authority, whilst the expenses and the difficulties of it belonged to Alexandra. . . . she governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her.” —The Jewish War
It’s important to remember though: the Pharisees weren’t some group of power hungry elite. Many of them weren’t members of “the elite” at all. Their fellow Jews (namely, the Sadducees, who also had a lot of influence) were disregarding oral tradition, which the Pharisees believed was handed down directly from God to Moses. Without the oral tradition, the Jewish people were missing key instructions on how to follow the Torah, and therefore, how to obey God.
So the Pharisees were constantly witnessing ways in which the Jewish people had been led astray by their ignorance of God’s instructions through the oral tradition. It makes sense that they would want to influence leaders to make decisions that would reinforce God’s instructions to his people—and that they would be strongly opposed to anyone who threatened their ability to elevate oral tradition. (*Cough* Jesus.)
Josephus also remarked in The Antiquities of the Jews, “These have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”
In Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Professor Anthony J. Saldarini adds that:
“The Pharisees in Josephus’ narrative function as a political interest group which had its own goals for society and constantly engaged in political activity to achieve them, even though it did not always succeed. They generally did not have direct power as a group and were not as a whole members of the governing class. They were members of a literate, corporate, voluntary association which constantly sought influence with the governing class. As such they were above the peasants and other lower classes but dependent on the governing class and ruler for their place in society. They were found in Jerusalem, and they probably fulfilled administrative or bureaucratic functions in society at certain times.”
The Pharisees’ role as a political group was, at its heart, about preserving and protecting Judaism. But it isn’t fair to define them as a political group, as their political activity was more an extension of their religious beliefs, and being a member of the Pharisees wasn’t about acquiring or using political power.
In fact, a lot of the Pharisees had no real political authority. Many scholars argue that one of the defining characteristics of the Pharisees was not that they were some group of highly educated elite or politically motivated leaders, but rather a hodgepodge that included everyone from the most well educated to the most “common people.”
So the Pharisees were somewhat of a social movement, too.
A social movement
While the Pharisees had their own set of religious beliefs, and sometimes used political influence to regulate and preserve the community they desired, they also had elements of a social movement. They sought to change the way Jews lived. And unlike the Sadducees, who were priests, and the Essenes, who lived in communes, the Pharisees were comprised of all sorts of people, and they practiced their form of Judaism in public—because in large part, that was the point of their movement: to extend worship beyond the temple.
“Though some Pharisees were part of the governing class, most Pharisees were subordinate officials, bureaucrats, judges, and educators. . . . It is most likely that Pharisees were active in a number of occupations and roles in society and were bound together by certain beliefs and practices and by endeavors to influence social change.” —Professor Anthony J. Saldarini, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
There may not have been a large number of Jews who formally belonged to the group which became known as the Pharisees, but their practices, theology, and teachings were out in the open, and had ramifications for everyday, ordinary Jewish life.
Josephus tells us in The Antiquities of the Jews that, “while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.”
Pharisaical beliefs and practices continued spreading throughout Judaism when the temple was destroyed in the late first century, and alternative places of worship and teaching became essential to the survival of Judaism. And so this small group of pious Jews basically became the foundation for mainstream Rabbinic Judaism.
A school of thought
In The Jewish War, Josephus refers to the Pharisees as one of three “philosophical sects” or schools of thought. This makes sense for such a broad group that acted on their shared beliefs. Their perspective on the oral tradition completely changed how they interpreted and applied the Torah to contemporary Jewish life.
But like other labels for the Pharisees, this characterization can be misleading, and doesn’t encompass everything the Pharisees were. Saldarini says, “The designation school (of thought) is appropriate as long as this expression is not understood to refer to an exclusively academic and theoretical association.”
Origin of the Pharisees
While the Pharisees weren’t mentioned until the Late Second Temple Period (the Second Temple Period lasted from 515 BC to 70 AD), their roots go all the way back to the foundation of Israel—when God allegedly gave Moses the Torah and the oral tradition, known as the Oral Torah.
The Pharisees origins are often linked to the Maccabean Revolt (167–160 BC), but the story of the Pharisees really starts much further back.
The Oral Torah
The Oral Torah wasn’t written down until the Talmud was compiled in the fourth century AD. Until then, it was passed down orally by scribes, sages, and experts on the Law (and later, by rabbis). It was essentially an authoritative commentary which helped Jews apply the Torah to everyday situations and interpret ambiguous or unclear statements.
The Babylonian captivity
During the period of Babylonian captivity (which began under King Nebuchadnezzar and lasted from around 597 BC to 539 BC), the Jewish people lived outside of Jerusalem, and there was no temple, and Jews began meeting in synagogues and designated places to pray and study.
In 539 BC, the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple, but forbade them to have a king. (Which was probably best for everyone, because the previous kings disobeyed God and rebelled against emperors, which is what led to the Babylonian captivity.)
This left the priests in charge. And then the Sadducees emerged, consolidating power under the priests and wealthy elite.
While the first temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon, following David’s directions, which came directly from God (1 Chronicles 28:11–18), the second temple was built under the supervision of a foreign king (Cyrus the Great). So around this time, there were some competing ideas of what “true Judaism” looked like, and Jewish practices had already evolved to facilitate Judaism without the temple.
The Maccabean Revolt
Fast forward to the second century BC. In 167 BC, King Antiochus IV of the Seleucids sacked the temple, stole all its money and sacred objects, then forced the Jews to adopt Greek culture and customs. This essentially robbed the Israelites of their identity and mandated that they break God’s laws.
So naturally, they revolted. By 165, the Jews had won back Jerusalem and restored the temple. Around this time, the Pharisees emerged, bringing together scribes and laymen who believed in the importance and authority of the Oral Torah, which the Sadducees and ruling class dismissed as traditions of men, rather than the wisdom of God.
(More on that conflict later.)
So that’s what we know about who the Pharisees were and where they came from.
The Pharisees in the Bible
While the Pharisees affected Judaism in many positive ways, in the New Testament, their adherence to oral tradition is often portrayed as overly legalistic, and in some cases a means of circumventing the Law (Mark 7:10–12).
The New Testament presents the Pharisees as the sort of “gatekeepers” of Judaism. They constantly test Jesus and try to trap him in a blasphemous statement or something that could be interpreted as a threat against Rome. As Jesus accumulates followers, and those followers begin embracing his interpretations of the Law, he presents a greater and greater threat to “true Judaism” and the political power they needed to normalize it.
“The Pharisees were the defenders of a certain kind of community and Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ vision of community by attacking their purity regulations concerning washing and food, as well as Sabbath practice. The effect of Jesus’ teaching was to widen the community boundaries and loosen the norms for membership in this community. Jesus thus created a new community outside the Pharisees’ control and quite naturally provoked their protest and hostility.” —Professor Anthony J. Saldarini, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary
Between the four gospels, Acts, and the epistles, there are numerous passages depicting the Pharisees. In most (but not all) of them, the Pharisees are in conflict with either Jesus or the early Christians.
We’re going to look at just a few of these passages, starting with a time when a well-known Pharisee was receptive to the gospel.
Jesus teaches Nicodemus (John 3:1–21)
From the moment Jesus began his earthly ministry, he demonstrated his divine power through miracles. This confounded the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the law. Miraculous powers came from God. But each Jewish sect believed their group represented the truest form of Judaism, and yet Jesus interpreted Scripture differently.
Some Pharisees chose to defend their interpretation of the Law and the authority of oral tradition at all costs and by any means. But others, like Nicodemus, saw Jesus’ power as a sign of God’s presence. John tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, presumably so he wouldn’t be seen—someone might suggest he was betraying the Pharisaical movement, and therefore, Judaism. Nicodemus tells Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2).
Jesus replies: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). Nicodemus takes this surprisingly literally, and Jesus elaborates that he’s referring to a spiritual birth. (This is where the phrase “born-again Christian” comes from.)
John never tells us whether Nicodemus understood what Jesus said, or whether he accepted Jesus as Messiah. But later in John’s gospel, Nicodemus intervenes when the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to seize Jesus illegally (John 7:50–51), and after the cross, he helped ensure Jesus received a proper burial (John 19:39–42). And each time John refers to Nicodemus, he points back to this encounter with Jesus, where Nicodemus showed he was more interested in pursuing truth than playing politics.
The Greatest Commandment
Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees unintentionally provide Jesus with opportunities to reveal his mastery of the Torah. While the Pharisees intended to use their expertise in the Law and oral tradition to entrap Jesus, it almost always backfired, and affirmed that even they couldn’t find a flaw in Jesus’ teaching.
In one such instance, a Pharisee who was considered an expert in the law asked Jesus “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
While it’s easy to assume he’s asking Jesus to pick one of the “big ten,” he’s actually referring to the Law of Moses, or the Torah. This Pharisee is effectively asking Jesus, “Of the 613 commandments in the first five books of the Old Testament, which one is most important?”
Jesus gave him two answers, neither of which are in the Ten Commandments, and suggests that together, they encompass the 611 other commandments:
“‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” —Matthew 22:37–40
Any one commandment by itself would’ve created an opportunity for the Pharisees to publicly debate Jesus’ expertise, credibility, and therefore, his authority as a teacher. But instead of schooling Jesus, the Pharisees gave him an opportunity to show his followers (and us) what God values most—and why the rest of the Law mattered. And the Pharisees didn’t disagree.
Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees
Perhaps the most well-known passage involving the Pharisees is Matthew 23:13–39, where Jesus gives his most damning criticism of how they have abused the Law (and the oral tradition).
In “the seven woes,” Jesus calls the Pharisees and teachers of the law:
- Hypocrites, six times (verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, and 29)
- Children of hell (verse 15)
- Blind (verses 16, 17, 19, 24, and 26)
- “Whitewashed tombs” (verse 27)
- A “brood of vipers” (verse 33)
He also accuses them of:
- Leading people astray (Matthew 23:15–22)
- Straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (verse 23)
- Cleaning “the outside of the cup and dish” while the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence (verse 25)
And he prophesies that they will kill the prophets and stone those God sends them, just as their ancestors did (Matthew 23:29–37). This would be fulfilled through his own death, and the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr whose death is recorded in Acts 7.
Interestingly, some scholars suggest that because the Sadducees took the Torah more literally, and the Pharisees interpreted it through the oral tradition, the Sadducees followed the letter of the Law while the Pharisees followed the spirit of the Law. But here, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of getting so granular with the Law that they missed the big picture. Through their application of the oral tradition, they tithed even their spices, but they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).
This isn’t the only time Jesus criticized the Pharisees. But this is his longest and most direct message against them. And here, it’s clear why the Pharisees were so keen to be rid of Jesus.
The Law (and their interpretation of it) was indeed a heavy burden on the Jewish people, and in the face of modern Jewish life, there were plenty of complex challenges to navigate, which the oral tradition helped with by providing specific applications of the Torah. But the Pharisees believed that:
- Their interpretations of the Torah were correct
- The oral tradition deserved just as much respect as the Law itself
- By promoting and enforcing this way of life, they were helping Israel hold up their end of their covenant with God
And in their minds, by publicly criticizing the Pharisees, Jesus was beginning to draw the Jewish people away from “true Judaism.” So, they leveraged their political influence to get rid of him—by any means necessary.
While Christians often assume the Pharisees were desperate to keep their power, they may not have actually had that much power, and as a group, the Pharisees were more desperate to steer the Jewish people back on course, into what they believed was a right relationship with God. Unfortunately, they didn’t recognize that God was standing right in front of them. (Perhaps with the exception of Nicodemus.)
Pharisees vs. Sadducees
The Pharisees and Sadducees are both ancient sects of Judaism. In the New Testament, both groups opposed Jesus and his followers and served as foils for the new movement Jesus was initiating within Judaism. And that can make it hard for modern Bible readers to understand the important distinctions between these two Jewish groups.
The Sadducees were comprised of priests and social elites, and were responsible for maintaining the temple.
The Pharisees included people of all classes and professions, and had their roots in the scribes, sages, and experts in the Law.
They both accepted the Torah as God’s instructions, handed down to Moses. And they both believed they represented the truest form of Judaism.
But there are several main differences between these groups. Their disagreements generally revolved around:
- Oral tradition
- The temple
As a result of these two disagreements, numerous theological differences emerged that affected the way each group practiced Judaism. One of the more notable theological differences was what each group believed about life after death (the Pharisees believed in a resurrection, and the Sadducees did not).
Pharisees saw the oral tradition as equal to the Torah
On Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the Torah, which Moses wrote down. But the Jews believed that from that time on, there was also an oral tradition which was never written down, but which was used to interpret the Torah. This was primarily passed down by scribes and sages who were experts in the Torah.
The Pharisees believed God gave this oral tradition to Moses along with the Torah, making its interpretations and applications as authoritative as the Torah. This is why the oral tradition is also referred to as the Oral Torah or Oral Law.
But the Sadducees believed the oral tradition originated with the scribes, sages, and experts in the law, so they saw it as humans adding to God’s commands.
This created a rift within Judaism about how to interpret the Law, with the Sadducees treating commands like taking “an eye for an eye” literally (Exodus 21:24), and the Pharisees seeing them through the lens of their oral tradition, which suggested a specific monetary compensation for various injuries.
Having their roots in the scribes and sages who studied the oral tradition, the Pharisees were seen as authorities on the Law, whereas the Sadducees derived their authority from their status as priests and their control over the temple, which was the social, economic, and religious center of Judaism.
Pharisees observed sacred rituals outside the temple, Sadducees did not
During the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people had no temple, and established synagogues and other places to gather, pray, and study the Torah. Later, the Persian King Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Once again, Jerusalem became the center of Jewish life, and since there was no king from the line of David, the temple priests (who became the Sadducees) began to fill a power void.
But the Pharisees believed Jews were supposed to practice purity rituals outside the temple, not just in it. Like the Essenes, they believed the sacredness of these practices wasn’t limited to the walls of the temple.
The Sadducees, who controlled the temple, disagreed.
And when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the Pharisees evolved into mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, while the Sadducees faded into history.
The separated ones
The Pharisees are an enigmatic group. But as we read the Bible, it’s important to remember that these people weren’t the power-hungry villains church tradition has often made them out to be. In their minds, they were the protagonists, defending Judaism against heretical beliefs and false doctrine. If you’re familiar with the New Testament epistles, you know that the early Christian church was similarly vigilant. But unlike the early Christian church, they had a formally defined canon of Scripture—and centuries of tradition to interpret it—reinforcing what they believed.
So perhaps it’s better to think of the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and experts of the Law this way: when Jesus came onto the scene, Israel needed a heart transplant, and these groups were like an overactive immune system, rejecting the very thing they needed to survive.
The Pharisees aren’t “the good guys” in the New Testament, but their emphasis on oral tradition and practicing Judaism outside the temple allowed Judaism to evolve into what it is today. And Christians have them to thank for preserving the Oral Torah, which was used to create the Masoretic Text—the document our Old Testament is based on.
Next time you read about the Pharisees in your Bible, just keep in mind: this isn’t the whole picture, and for all their faults, the Pharisees were relentlessly trying to point the nation of Israel back to God.