Who Were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees (from the Hebrew perushim, or parash meaning "to separate" or "those separated") were, depending on the time, a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews that flourished during the Second Temple Era (536-587 B.C.). After the destruction of the Second Temple, Pharisaic Judaism came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism, and then, simply as Judaism. The social standing and beliefs of the Pharisees changed over time, as political and social conditions in Judea changed; it is thus impossible to understand the Pharisees without understanding their historical context.

For most of their history, Pharisees defined themselves in opposition to the Sadducees. Conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees took place in the context of much broader conflicts among Jews in the Second Temple era that followed the Babylonia captivity of Judah. One conflict was class, between the wealthy and the poor. Another conflict was cultural, between those who favored hellenization and those who resisted it. A third was juridico-religious, between those who emphasized the importance of the Temple, and those who emphasized the importance of other Mosaic laws and prophetic values. This conflict practically defines the Second Temple Era, a time when the Temple had tremendous authority but questionable legitimacy, and a time when the sacred literature of the Torah and Bible were being edited and canonized. Fundamentally, Sadducees and Pharisees were divided concerning the third conflict, but at different times were influenced by the other conflicts. In general, whereas the Sadducees were conservative, aristocratic monarchists, the Pharisees were eclectic, popular, and more democratic.

Nature and Influence

The fundamental issue in Pharisaic studies is the twofold question of the nature of the group and its influence within broader Judaism. Two basic positions have been taken on this question. The traditional view holds that the Pharisees were the creators and shapers of late second temple Judaism. They were not so much a sect as a dominant party within Judaism. According to the traditional view, although not all Pharisees were legal experts, Pharisaism was the ideology of the vast majority of the scribes and lawyers. Thus, as a group the Pharisees were the guardians and interpreters of the law. Jewish institutions associated with the law, such as the synagogue and the Sanhedrin, were Pharisaic institutions. While disagreeing over whether the Pharisees were primarily politically or religiously oriented, proponents of the traditional view agree that the Pharisees commanded the loyalty of the masses in both spheres. Indeed, most proponents of the traditional view would accept that,"Judaism of the post-Maccabean period is Pharisaic."

The second point of view is a relatively recent development. In essence, according to this, the Pharisees were a rather tightly knit sect organized around the observance of purity and tithing laws; on most other issues the Pharisees reflected the range of views present within Judaism. Since Josephus and the Gospels carefully distinguish between the Pharisees and the scribes, scholars of this persuasion argue that it is better not to confuse Pharisaism with the ideology of the scribes. Pharisaism must be seen as a movement which drew from all walks of life. There were Pharisees who were political and religious leaders, but their positions of influence were due to other factors besides sectarian affiliation. Judaism of Christ's day was much more dynamic and variegated than the traditional view allows and that the Pharisees were only one of several sects that influenced the development of Judaism.


The origin of the Pharisaic movement is shrouded in mystery. Whatever its origins, the Pharisaic movement seems to have undergone a two-stage development. During the reign of Salome Alexandra the Pharisees as a group were heavily involved in politics and national policy making. Sometime after this, possibly when Herod the Great rose to power (37 B.C.), the Pharisees withdrew from politics. Individual Pharisees remained politically involved, but there was no longer any official Pharisaic political agenda. This seems to have been the situation during the time of Christ.


The Pharisees were strongly committed to the daily application and observance of the law. This means they accepted the traditional elaborations of the law which made daily application possible. The Pharisees' spiritual attitudes played very little part. They believed, moreover, in the existence of spirits and angels, the resurrection, and the coming of a Messiah. They also maintained that the human will enjoyed a limited freedom within the sovereign plan of God.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that these were distinctively Pharisaic beliefs. To the best of our knowledge these beliefs were the common heritage of most Jews. To some scholars this fact is proof that the Pharisees were the dominant religious force in Judaism; to others it is only another indication that the Pharisees' distinguishing mark was nothing but the scrupulous observance of purity and tithing laws. Pharisees were also very prideful, aside of their faith, and believed to be only righteous if the public witnessed them praying, teaching, etc. The Pharisees were ardent nationalists, and they, being nationalists, were strongly opposed to any sort of foreign influence. They also believed in afterlife, and afterlife came with rewards, but punishments as well. The Pharisees' lives contradicted their teachings, which also concerned their uttermost purpose.

The Pharisees and Jesus

The Scriptures do not present a simple picture of the relationship between them, and Jesus Christ. Pharisees warn Jesus of a plot against His life (Luke 13:31); in spite of their dietary scruples they invite Him for meals (Luke 7:36-50; 14:1); some of them even believe in Jesus (John 3:1; 7:45-53; 9:13-38); later, Pharisees are instrumental in ensuring the survival of Jesus' followers (Acts 5:34; 23:6-9).

Nevertheless, Pharisaic opposition to Jesus is a persistent theme in all four Gospels.


There was much that was sound in their creed, yet their system of religion was a form and nothing more. Theirs was a very lax morality (Matt. 5:20; 15:4, 8; 23:3, 14, 23, 25; John 8:7). On the first notice of them in the New Testament (Matt. 3:7), they are ranked by Jesus a "brood of vipers." They were noted for their self-righteousness and their pride (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7: 39; 18: 11, 12). They were frequently rebuked by our Lord (Matt. 12:39; 16:1-4). From the very beginning of his ministry the Pharisees showed themselves bitter and persistent enemies of our Lord. They could not bear His doctrines, and they sought by every means to destroy His influence among the people.