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THE Pharisees were 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.
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).
By Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel
 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Pharisees,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1670–1672.