{fair' - i - seez}

General Information

The Pharisees were a major Jewish sect from the 2d century BC to the 2d century AD. The seeds of Pharisaism were planted during the Babylonian Captivity (587 - 536 BC), and a clearly defined party emerged during the revolt of the Maccabees (167 - 165 BC) against the Seleucid rulers of Syria - Palestine. The origin of the name Pharisees is uncertain; one suggestion renders it as "those separated," meaning separation from impurity and defilement. The name first appeared during the reign of John Hyrcanus (135 - 105 BC), whom the Pharisees opposed because of his assumption of both the royal and high - priestly titles and because of the general secularism of the court.

The Pharisees' chief rival sect was the Sadducees. Whereas the Sadducees were drawn mainly from the conservative and aristocratic priestly class, the Pharisees tended to be middle class and open to religious innovation. In the interpretation of the law the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees in their use of oral legal tradition to supplement the Torah, although their interpretations, once given, were scrupulously adhered to. Pharisaic emphasis on divine providence led to a marked fatalism, and they adopted a belief in resurrection and an elaborate angelology, all of which was rejected by the Sadducees. The struggle for power between the two groups led to rancor and, in some cases, violence.

BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
In the New Testament the Pharisees appear as Jesus' most vocal critics. Their insistence on ritual observance of the letter rather than the spirit of the law evoked strong denunciation by Jesus; he called them "white washed tombs" (Matt. 23:27) and self - righteous lovers of display (Matt. 6:1 - 6, 16 - 18). The Pharisees are portrayed as plotting to destroy Jesus (Matt. 12:14), although they do not figure in the accounts of his arrest and trial. Despite Jesus' attacks on the Pharisees - which were possibly on unrepresentative members of the sect - he shared many beliefs with them, including the resurrection of the dead.

The Pharisees held the Jews together after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The sect continued into the 2d century, working on the redaction of the Talmud and looking for the restoration of Israel through divine intervention.

Douglas Ezell

I Abrahams, Studies in Pharisees and the Gospels (1917 - 24); A Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (1964); L Finkelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith (1962); D S Russell, Between the Testaments (1960).


Advanced Information

The Pharisees were an important Jewish group which flourished in Palestine from the late second century B.C. to the late first century A.D.


Virtually all our knowledge about the Pharisees is derived from three sets of sources: the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War (ca. A.D. 75), The Antiquities of the Jews (ca. A.D. 94), and Life (ca. A.D. 101); the various compilations of the rabbis (ca. A.D. 200 and later); and the NT. Other works, parts of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, may also contain information concerning the Pharisees. But since the Pharisees are never explicitly mentioned in these works, their use in constructing a picture of the Pharisees is heavily dependent on prior assumptions which are at best speculative.

It should be noted, however, that even the use of the explicit sources is problematical. Most of the NT is written from a point of view that is antagonistic to the tenets of Pharisaism. The rabbinic traditions about the Pharisees are also shaped by polemical forces and are often anachronistic. The value of Josephus's information (traditionally regarded as the most helpful) is diminished by recent studies which suggest that Josephus was not a Pharisee before A.D. 70 and that his eventual conversion was motivated more by political realities than by careful study of the different Jewish sects. It certainly cannot be denied that Josephus's descriptions of the Pharisees are superficial. In short, therefore, our sources provide neither a complete nor a straightforward picture of the Pharisees.


Various etymologies have been proposed for the name "Pharisee." The only one to receive general approval is that which derives the name from the Aramaic passive participle peris, perisayya, meaning "separated." The consensus is that the Pharisees regarded themselves, or were regarded, as the "separated ones." From what or whom they were separated is not as clear. The Hasmonean rulers, the Gentiles, the common people, and non-Pharisaic Jews in general have all been suggested as possibilities. Present evidence seems to favor the last two options.

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 Elias Bickerman's dictum: "Judaism of the post-Maccabean period is Pharisaic."

The second point of view is a relatively recent development. Proponents of this position argue that when the inherent limitations and tendencies of our sources are taken into account, the Pharisees come across not as the creators and shapers of Judaism but merely as one of its many expressions. In essence, according to this view, 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. Proponents of this second view posit that the 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.

Of course, not all scholars subscribe to one of these two views; many hold mediating positions. Nevertheless, these two views constitute the foundations upon which the modern study of Pharisaism is based.


The origin of the Pharisaic movement is shrouded in mystery. According to Josephus, the Pharisees first became a significant force in Jewish affairs during the reign of Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.). In an earlier work, however, Josephus places the rise of the Pharisees much later, during the reign of Salome Alexandra (76-67 B.C.). Some scholars who view the Pharisees as the shapers of late second temple Judaism have sought to trace the beginnings of the group back to the time of Ezra and beyond. But such reconstructions are speculative at best. It is more likely that the Pharisees were one of several groups to grow out of the revival and resistance movement of the Maccabean period (ca. 166-160 B.C.).

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 divided over the issue of Roman rule. Josephus tells us that a Pharisee named Zaddok was instrumental in forming a "fourth philosophy" which was violently opposed to Roman rule. Elsewhere, however, Josephus records that at a later time certain well-placed Pharisees sought to forestall the Jews' rush toward revolt against the empire. It is impossible to tell which tendency reflected the conviction of the majority of the Pharisees.

After the Jewish revolt of A.D. 70 many scholars with Pharisaic leanings gathered at the city of Jamnia to form a school for the preservation and redefinition of Judaism. There is evidence that the Jamnia school was not exclusively Pharisaic. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that the Pharisees were the single most powerful sectarian element at Jamnia. Thus they played an important role at the beginning of the century-long process which transformed second temple Judaism into rabbinic Judaism.


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. 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.

The Pharisees and Jesus

The NT does not present a simple picture of the relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus. 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. This opposition has been explained differently by those who hold differing views on the nature and influence of the Pharisees. Those who see the Pharisees as a class of political leaders posit that Jesus came to be understood as a political liability or threat. Those who understand the Pharisees as a society of legal and religious experts suggest that Jesus became viewed as a dangerous rival, a false teacher with antinomian tendencies. To the extent that there were Pharisaic leaders and scribes, both these factors probably played a part. Yet other scholars point out that according to the Gospels the disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees centered primarily on the validity and application of purity, tithing, and sabbath laws (e.g., Matt. 12:2, 12-14; 15:1-12; Mark 2:16; Luke 11:39-42). In the light of this evidence it would seem that at least part of the Pharisaic opposition to Jesus was occasioned by the obvious disparity between Jesus' claims about himself and his disregard for observances regarded by the Pharisees as necessary marks of piety. In the end, the Pharisees could not reconcile Jesus, his actions and his claims, with their own understanding of piety and godliness.

S Taylor
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees; E. Rivkin, "Defining the Pharisees; The Tannaitic Sources," HUCA 40-41:205-49, and A Hidden Revolution; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith, 2 vols.; R. T. Herford, The Pharisees; E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ; H. D. Mantel, "The Sadducees and the Pharisees," in The World History of the Jewish People, VIII; M. Avi-Yonah and Z. Baras, eds., Society and Religion in the Second Temple Period; J. Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism.


Advanced Information

The Pharisees were separatists (Heb. persahin, from parash, "to separate"). They were probably the successors of the Assideans (i.e., the "pious"), a party that originated in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes in revolt against his heathenizing policy. The first mention of them is in a description by Josephus of the three sects or schools into which the Jews were divided (B.C. 145). The other two sects were the Essenes and the Sadducees. In the time of our Lord they were the popular party (John 7:48). They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters appertaining to the law of Moses (Matt. 9:14; 23:15; Luke 11:39; 18:12). Paul, when brought before the council of Jerusalem, professed himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-8; 26:4, 5).

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 our Lord with the Sadducees as a "generation 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.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Also, see:
Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (Advanced)

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

This page - - - - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -

Copyright Information

Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet