Pharisees

The common interpretation of the Pharisees comes to modern audiences through the speeches of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth in the New Testament. There they play the role of Jesus’s opponents and are almost seen in a negative light.

Their arguments with Jesus revolve around issues of religious customs, like the observance of the Sabbath day, the keeping of a special diet that is biblically approved (kosher), the physical contact with people outside their sect, and obligatory religious donations (tithing).

The overall picture that the reader makes out is that the Pharisees are not so concerned for the spiritual well-being of their devotees as for preserving their own prestige and authority.

This picture is balanced with a more objective reading of the New Testament. The Gospels portray the fact that the Pharisees are zealous for correct interpretations of the scriptures and are willing to mix with the people in order to disseminate this information.


The Pharisees therefore worked with the laypeople in a way that no other Jewish group, besides the followers of Jesus, cared to do. The Sadducees, for example, sequestered themselves in the administration of the central temple, and the monastic community called Qumran often epitomized the reclusive Essenes.

Jesus and the Pharisees share many common views about religious doctrines. This is well attested by Paul’s trial defense when he cleverly notes that he is accused of believing what the Pharisees believe. In other situations Paul tells his audience that he is a Pharisee and proud of it.

Many of the early church followers come from the ranks of Pharisees. When it comes to the passion and death of Jesus, the Bible generally does not give the decisive role to the Pharisees. Instead, the temple authorities (the Sadducees) and the Romans are the main perpetrators of the execution of Jesus.

On the other hand, a sanitized view of the Pharisees can be found in the writings of the rabbis. The rabbis, especially in later centuries, liked to trace their lineage to the Pharisees and, before them, to the biblical law givers such as Moses and Ezra. The father of the rabbinic movement, Yohanan ben Zakkai, is portrayed as the next in line to the Pharisees.

The rabbis liked to imagine that their ancestral Pharisees included the likes of the legendary sages Hillel, Shammai, and Akiba. The problem is that these rabbinic tales are compiled too long after the demise of the Pharisees and hence tell more about 150–650 c.e. than 150 b.c.e.–150 c.e.

The rabbinic sources, though, do show some of the same issues brought out in the New Testament, namely, diet, Sabbath, fraternizing with outsiders, and tithing, so it is fair to say that it refl ects some more ancient historic realities.

Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century c.e., tells the third perspective on the Pharisees. For Josephus the Pharisees are one of the three main Jewish philosophies, including the Sadducees and the Essenes.

Although Josephus admits that the Pharisees have influenced him, he is ambivalent about the Pharisees, sometimes applauding them for their influence over the people and for their moderate position between the doctrines of the other philosophies, sometimes finding fault with them due to their political meddling.

The Pharisees must be contrasted to their rivals, largely, the Sadducees and the Essenes, and likened to their later competitors, the Christians. They were in some ways a reform group who did not agree with the temple authorities, yet they did not abandon mainstream society in the form of a counterculture.

Thus, they actually reached out to the Jewish towns and villages and attempted to bring their interpretation of the biblical rules to everyday life. In effect, they decentralized and democratized Jewish religion. The home and the local synagogue became parallel centers of holiness, and this measure prepared the Jews for the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e.

The Pharisees also believed in some of the same doctrines that the followers of Jesus did, like the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, heaven and hell, and a spiritual world.

These ideas were truly innovative for the Palestinian world that otherwise would have been controlled by the status-quo Sadducees. The Pharisees rejected the Roman world order, optimistic that a new age was about to begin.