Who Were the Pharisees?

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Name and General Character

[far’-i-sez (perushim; Pharisaioi)] 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 THE BOOKS OF MACCABEES: The HasidaeansWho Were the Maccabees. 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.

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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 an 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.

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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 Rom 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 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, 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.

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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 Acts 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.

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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; Mt 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.”

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(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.

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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.

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The 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.

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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.”

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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 Rom 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.

by J. E. H. Thomson

Baker Bible Encyclopedia

The Pharisees was a religious sect active in Palestine during the NT period. The Pharisees are consistently depicted in the Gospels as Jesus’ antagonists. It is commonly held that the Pharisees represented mainstream Judaism early in the 1st century and that they were characterized by a variety of morally objectionable features. Accordingly, most Bible dictionaries and similar works of reference depict the Pharisees as greedy, hypocritical, lacking in a sense of justice, overly concerned with fulfilling the literal details of the Law, and insensitive to the spiritual significance of the OT. These and other characteristics are furthermore viewed as giving shape to Judaism more generally.

There are several problems with this common perception of Pharisaic Judaism. In the first place, the Gospels themselves give some important information that appears inconsistent with this view. Second, the primary documents of rabbinic Judaism (such as the Mishna, the Talmud, and the Midrashim) are positive and praiseworthy. Third, it has become increasingly clear, especially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that prior to ad 70 the Pharisees constituted only a small movement in a highly diversified society; whatever their popularity and influence, they can hardly be taken as representative of Judaism in general.

These three factors, especially in the context of contemporary ecumenical efforts between Christians and Jews, have led many to play down the negative picture of the Pharisees that we find in the Gospels. Conservative Christians, understandably, wonder whether these developments undermine the authority of the Scriptures and more particularly the teachings of Jesus. A reliable description of the Pharisees requires that our Lord’s assessment of these Jewish leaders be taken with utmost seriousness; after all, the distinctive elements of the doctrine of salvation in the Gospels is formulated in conscious opposition to Pharisaic practice. On the other hand, we cannot assume that the church’s traditional view of the Pharisees is necessarily correct at every point; a genuine effort must be made to understand whatever evidence is available to us.

Origin. The origins of the Pharisees are obscure. According to Jewish tradition, Pharisaic (= rabbinic) Judaism can be traced back to Ezra and the beginnings of the scribal movement in the 5th century bc. At the opposite extreme, a few scholars argue that, since there are no explicit references to the Pharisees in historical documents prior to the 2nd century bc, Pharisaism appeared suddenly after the Maccabean revolt (167 bc). Many specialists take the position that perhaps as early as the 3rd century bc (e.g., The Wisdom of Joshua ben Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus) one can find evidence of an incipient form of Pharisaism. It may well be, moreover, that the intellectual pursuits associated with the work of the scribes did have something to do with the development of the Pharisees. It is also probable that prior to the Maccabean revolt some distinctive Pharisaic concerns appeared in connection with the development of the Hasidim (“the faithful ones,” traditionalists who opposed Greek influence in Jewish society). According to a popular and reasonable interpretation, the Hasidim became disillusioned with the Maccabean rulers, whose conduct violated Jewish sensibilities in several respects. Some of the Hasidim separated themselves from the nation and developed into nonconformist sects, such as that of the Essenes. Those who remained tried to exert their influence on Jewish life and developed into the sect of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees no doubt played a significant role in Jewish affairs during the next century, even though at times they had little political clout. By NT times they were widely recognized as religious leaders. Josephus, who tells us that he belonged to this sect, wrote toward the end of the 1st century that the Pharisees were “extremely influential among the townsfolk; and all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their exposition. This is the great tribute that the inhabitants of the cities, by practising the highest ideal both in their way of living and in their discourse, have paid to the excellence of the Pharisees” (Antiq. 18.15). We cannot determine whether this description applies to the period before ad 70, but the evidence of the Gospels themselves confirms it to some extent. For example, the parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Lk 18:9–14), while it condemns the Pharisee, makes sense only if we appreciate the role reversal it announces: the wicked publican, not the one generally regarded as righteous, goes home justified.

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If the Pharisees were “the slaves of lust, and avarice, and pride,” as one Bible dictionary puts it, one could not very well account for the fact that large portions of the population viewed them as great moral examples. It is true, of course, that some of our Lord’s criticisms (particularly in Mt 23) call into question the integrity and moral standards of the scribes and Pharisees. We should keep in mind, however, that the main thrust of Jesus’ condemnation lies in a different direction. Moreover, we must recognize that not all Pharisees were alike. Jesus himself commended one wise Pharisee (Mk 12:34; cf. also Nicodemus’ actions, Jn 7:50, 51), while the rabbinic literature warns against the pride and ostentation of some Pharisees. It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ criticisms were not intended to describe all (perhaps not even most) Pharisees; rather, they were informal generalizations that served as warnings. After all, self-importance was a temptation to which Pharisees, because of their standing, were particularly susceptible.

Basic Characteristics. It cannot be possible to give an accurate characterization of the Pharisees, since scholars disagree sharply concerning their fundamental distinctiveness. Some stress the notion of “separateness,” partly on the basis of the supposed etymology of the name (from Hebrew parush, “separated one,” though other suggestions have been made). A more carefully nuanced viewpoint calls attention to the Pharisees’ concern with ritual purity (cf. Mk 7:1–4); some of the evidence indicates that the Pharisees wished to apply the priestly rituals to the people generally (this factor may help to explain the relative ease with which the Pharisees adapted to the absence of the temple and its sacrifices after ad 70). Still another position sees the Pharisees as the scholar class: the close connection between them and the scribes (experts in the Law) gives credence to this view, as does the fact that much of the later rabbinic literature reflects an intellectual pursuit, particularly in its detailed logical argumentations regarding the meaning and application of the Torah.

These various approaches are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, there appears to be widespread agreement about one theological conviction that was foundational to Pharisaism, namely, their commitment to the notion of a twofold law, the Written Torah (the OT, principally the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah (the traditions handed down through many generations of rabbis). This is certainly one feature that distinguished them from the Sadducees (cf. Josephus, Antiq. 13.297–98). The latter accepted only the authority of the books of Moses and argued strongly that the importance which the Pharisees attached to oral traditions represented an unjustifiable innovation. These traditions, which sought to regulate the lives of the people before God, became more and more detailed over the course of time and were eventually brought together and written down as a single document, the Mishna (dated c. ad 210). Somewhere in its development the view arose that the Oral Law itself had been given by God to Moses and thus shared divine authority with the Scriptures.

A careful look at the NT helps in understanding that this feature more than anything else explains the nature of the conflict between the Pharisaic viewpoint and the message of the gospel. The apostle Paul, for example, stresses the distinctiveness of his apostolic preaching by contrasting it to “the traditions of the fathers” which he zealously pursued in his youth (Gal 1:14). Especially instructive is the key passage in Mark 7, where it is written that the Pharisees complained to Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” (v 5). Christ’s reply counters their criticism with a serious indictment: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.… Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (vv 8, 13; cf. Mt 15:1–6).

The importance the Pharisees attributed to their interpretations of the Law compromised the authority of God’s own revelation. To make matters worse, the genius of those interpretations was to distort the doctrine of grace by relaxing the divine standards. The very example used by Jesus in Mark 7:10–12 indicates that a rabbinic regulation—the Corban—made it possible for people to ignore the fifth commandment and feel justified in so doing. Though we often think of the Pharisees as very strict and “legalistic,” in an important sense their legal enactments made it easier for people to “obey” the Law. A prominent Jewish scholar believes that the Pharisees, in contrast to the idealistic prophets of the OT, appreciated the weaknesses of human nature and adjusted the impossibly high standards of the Law so as to take into account the realities of life. This insight is what made it possible for Pharisaic Judaism to survive the catastrophes of ad 70.

The Pharisaic regulations were numerous and aggravating, but at least they could be fulfilled. Those who followed scrupulously the rabbinic traditions were in danger of concluding that their conduct satisfied God’s demands (cf. Paul’s description of his own preconversion attitude, Phil 3:6). And a muted sense of one’s sin goes hand in hand with a false sense of spiritual security; the need to depend on God’s mercy no longer appears crucial. This is of course the point of the parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Lk 18:9–14). In contrast, Jesus calls for a much higher righteousness than that of the Pharisees: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:20, 48).

See Sadducees; Talmud; Judaism; Jew; Torah; Tradition; Tradition, Oral; Essenes.

Bibliography. I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels; L. Baeck, The Pharisees; J. Bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ; J. Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees; W.D. Davies, Introduction to Pharisaism; J. Finkelstein, The Pharisees, 2 vols; M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, 2 vols; J. Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism; M. Simon, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus; R.T. Travers Herford, The Pharisees; Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Pharisees,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1670–1672.

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