The Pharisees – A Short Reflection


‘”Judaism” today and “Pharisaism” in the time of Jesus are the same.’[i] Of course, this is a ridiculous and uneducated statement on so many levels. ‘Pharisaism,’ as the term is used today, is only partially related to the beliefs and practices of the actual Pharisees in the time of Christ. The old Catholic Encyclopaedia states ‘after the conflicts with Rome (A.D. 66-135) Pharisaism became practically synonymous with Judaism,’[ii] but this must be understood in a post-Temple context and in the light of the wars with and defeat of the Jews by Rome, and here, the term ‘Pharisaism’ is being used correctly, stating what the Pharisees indeed taught at that time, and not as the term is often used today.  And even in its modern usage, to make such a statement about ‘Judaism’ is absurd as well. How do we remedy such an attitude? Much could be said about the history of what we now call ‘the Jews,’ and it is a rich and rewarding study. But our purposes here are to examine, ever so briefly, the Pharisees themselves.

The Pharisees were an important group in the time of Christ, and have often been misunderstood. While certainly Jesus often had confrontations with them, there were also Pharisees among his followers.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”[iii] “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”[iv]

While not intending here a ‘defense’ of the Pharisees (as if they needed one) I would like to present a simple picture of them that goes beyond the use of the term today, which is probably ill founded, for in many Christian circles, the term Pharisee is used to portray a legalistic attitude, and to belittle those who would call themselves ‘religious.’ These uses, however, show a lack of understanding about who the Pharisees actually were. As N.T. Wright notes in his The New Testament and the People of God, “Their aim, so far as we can tell, was never that of simple piety for its own sake. Nor (one need scarcely add) was it a system of self-salvation so often anachronistically ascribed to them by Christians who knew little about the first century but a lot about the Pelagian controversy. Their goals were to honor Israel’s God, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel.”[v]

Beginning of the Pharisees

This religious sect came into existence as a class about the third century B.C. After the exile, there was much intermixing of the pagan and Jewish culture, to include intermixing in marriage. This was contrary to the law, and it had, of course, many negative effects on the people of Israel. As a result, many purists who wanted to stay more faithful to the covenant with the God of Israel formed sects or factions (others besides the Pharisees will be briefly discussed later). The more zealous among the Jews drew apart calling themselves Chasidim or “pious ones”, i.e., they dedicated themselves to the realization of the ideas inculcated by Esdras, the holy priest and doctor of the law.[vi]

The Pharisees emerged after the revolts of the Maccabees, led by Judas Maccabaeus and his descendants.’ In the violent conditions incidental to the Machabean wars these “pious men”, sometimes called the Jewish Puritans, became a distinct class. They were called Pharisees, meaning those who separated themselves from the heathen, and from the heathenizing forces and tendencies which constantly invaded the precincts of Judaism.’[vii]

The Pharisees, then, set themselves up as pious and zealous defenders of the traditions of Israel, and this must be seen in the light of a people whose ways were attacked by the pagans around them since the beginning. God, indeed, told His people not to intermarry the neighbouring peoples, and certainly not to worship their gods. While it is true that, ‘without knowledge, even zeal is not good,’[viii] we must recognize the good and noble purpose of the Pharisees, not only in their beginning, but even through the time of the Gospel and thereafter, rather than group them all as a bigoted, self-righteous group. To do so would be the same mistake as those who would blame ‘all Jews’ for the death of Christ with a false understanding of what the Gospel writers had meant. ‘A study of the early history of Pharisaism reveals a certain moral dignity and greatness, a marked tenacity of purpose at the service of high, patriotic, and religious ideals.’[ix]

The Hasmonean period

During the Hasmonean period, it has been argued that the Sadducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties. N.T. Wright, while not arguing that politics was the main aim of the Pharisees, certainly rejects the notion that they limited themselves to issues of personal piety.[x] Political life effects religious life, and vice versa, and this is seen most markedly in times of foreign rule. Public life and personal piety, regardless of the current trend to try and separate one’s faith from their political stance, always go together. Any integrated life will not make a wide distinction between belief and practice, nor between private and public conduct. The Pharisees sought in every way to keep the Chosen People aware of their state as a chosen people, and ‘the influence of the Pharisees over the lives of the common people was strong and their rulings on Jewish law were deemed authoritative by many.’[xi]

The Roman period

‘The Pharisees are seen at their best when contrasted with the Zealots on one hand, and with the Herodians on the other.’[xii] They seem to take a middle way, as they tend to reject violently overthrowing the Romans (a task that almost always proved unsuccessful in the short term and never successful for long), but condemned the acceptance of Roman and pagan culture as an acceptable partner in Jewish life. It was through living out the law of God faithfully (as they understood it) that they hoped to attain the freedom of Israel from its oppressors.


Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead. They also believed in a literal resurrection of the body. We see this distinction between them and the Sadducees when Jesus discusses certain issues with each, as well as when Paul, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, pits the opposing beliefs against each other.

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)[xiii]

Many of the distinctions in belief between these two groups seems to stem from the Pharisees’ acceptance of most of what Christians call the New Testament, whereas the Sadducees were reluctant to accept anything beyond the Pentateuch as revealed truth. ‘As contrasted with the Sadducees, the Pharisees represented the democratic tendency; contrasted with the priesthood, they stood for both the democratic and the spiritualizing tendency.’[xiv]

Mention must be made of a third prominent group, the Essenes, who “…emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.”[xv]


The Pharisees are an often misunderstood group, and in fact, like almost any group, one must make a few observations:

  • They must always be viewed as a whole, but also with the distinctions that are bound to exist within that whole
  • The good (or evil) ideals of a group must be contrasted with the human beings in the group that often fail to hold to that ideal
  • The group must be understood in the context of their time, the surrounding culture, and rival (or allied) groups that interact with them. The development and history of a group is especially important, so that reference to the groups working within a certain period of history may be contextually understood with what they were at that time, rather than on the basis of what they may have later become

Certainly, Jesus and the Apostles had their conflicts with ‘the Pharisees,’ but likewise, the Pharisees had positive qualities, and many of them were not enemies but friends of Christ. We must educated ourselves on who the Pharisees were in a balanced and realistic way, lest we make a similar mistake to those who think only that ‘therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him’[xvi] and forget that ‘salvation is from the Jews.’[xvii]


[iii] Matthew 23:29,30

[iv] John 3:1-2

[v] N.T. Wright,The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) 189


[vii] ibid

[viii] Proverbs 19:2


[x] See Wright, ‘NTPG’ Ch.7ff and ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’ Part I, 2.2

[xi] Wikipedia


[xiii] Acts 23:6-8


[xvi] John 5:18

[xvii] John 4:22

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