Jewish Sects (II): Proselytes and Traditions

Fred A. Shewmaker
Evansville, Indiana

The Pharisees were by far the largest sect among the Jews. They are mentioned in the New Testament more times than any of the other Jewish sects.

The origin of this sect is somewhat obscure. Peloubet wrote, "They were founded in the period before the Maccabean war, as a protest against the Hellenistic influence that was becoming very strong."1 Charles F. Pfeiffer, writing of the Assideans, tells us the date of their origin is uncertain but probably third or fourth century B.C. He writes that the name was first used "when the members joined the Maccabean revolt against the Syrians in the second century, B.C."2 He also gives the information that the Assideans have been linked with the Essenes, but scholarly consensus places them as the spiritual forerunners of the Pharisees."3 Thus if we trace the Pharisees back through the Assideans, we find them to have originated well after the return from Babylon and shortly after, the close of the Old Testament writings.

J.E.H. Thomson wrote, "The earliest instance of the Pharisees intervening in history is that referred to in Jos (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  Hyreanus -- was no true son of Aaron, but the bastard of some nameless heathen to whom his mother had surrendered herself."4 F. F. Bruce wrote concerning this incident, "This marks the emergence of the Pharisaic party as an opposition group to the Hasmonaean dynasty -- a position they retained for half a century."5 They "emerged as a distinct religious and political party shortly after the Maccabean revolt 165 - 160 B.C."6

Concerning the name we find "Pharisee is the Greek form of the Hebrew Parush -- to separate and properly denotes one who is separated."7 "Although some have suggested that the separation was from the common people, it is more probable that the Pharisees were so named because of their zeal for the law which involved separation from the influence of Hellenism."8 "Under John Hyreanus the Pharisees were expelled from membership in the Sanhedrin and branded with the name Perushim, 'the expelled ones.' This was meant as a taunt but its alternant Hebrew significance is 'exponents' which made the name acceptable to them."9

The organization of the Pharisees is somewhat of a mystery. There is apparently no reliable account of their organization. It seems to me that the Pharisees were bound together more by what they believed than by organizational structure.

The Pharisees proselyted extensively. Jesus said, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte" (Matt. 23:15). "Each candidate was required to promise in the presence of three members that  (i) He would set apart all the sacred tithes on the produce of the land, and refrain from eating anything which had not been tithed, or about the tithing of which there was any doubt; and (ii) He would scrupulously observe the most essential laws of purity which so materially affected the eating of food and all family affairs."10 The effect of the first promise can be seen in the "woe" Jesus pronounced in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters, of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone." The worth of tithing in the mind of the Pharisees can also be seen in the story Jesus told in Luke 18:10-14 about the two men going up to the temple to pray. "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself ... I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all I possess." The attitude of the Pharisees toward the second promise is to be -seen in Mark 7:1-5. "And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables." Geikie informs us, "A special initiation, training, and time trial was required for each grade, from thirty days for the lowest, to twelve months for the highest."11

Contrary to what may be the popular conception, the Pharisees were not the conservative party but were the liberals of their day. "Their principle being so to develop and modify the Mosaic Law as to adapt it to the requirements of the time."12 As we progress with this study I believe that the reader will easily see that the Pharisees were, indeed, the liberals of New Testament times. Josephus wrote, "The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers who are not written in the Law of Moses."13 The Pharisees believed that their traditions were given Moses to the elders of his day and by them passed on orally through the years. According to Geikie, the written law was written in a language no longer spoken by the people, "so that it was left up to the Rabbis to explain and apply it."14 We might note just here that the term Rabbi is equal to teacher (John 3:2). Thus the Rabbis of the Pharisees were the scribes, lawyers and doctors of the law. Now notice the freedom, or liberal attitude, with which the law was to be interpreted. "The commandments of the Law were to be interpreted in conformity with the standard of the teachers of each generation, and made to harmonize with advanced ideas. When a precept was out grown it was given a more acceptable meaning, so that it would harmonize with the truth resulting from God given reason. When the letter of the law seemed to oppose conscience, it was to be taken, according to the primary authority of the teacher, in its spirit.15 "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 that they suspended, mountains from hairs."16

In Matthew 15 it can be seen that the Pharisees actually held their traditions to be greater than the written law. But Jesus put tradition in its proper place when he asked these scribes and Pharisees in verse 3, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" Notice also verse 9 and compare this incident with Mark's account in Mark 7:1-13.


1. F. N. Peloubet, Bible Dictionary, (Athens, Ala.: 1947), p. 597.

2. Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical World, (Grand Rapids: 1966) p. 324.

3. Ibid.

4. "Thomson," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: 1957), Vol. IV, p. 2362.

5. F. F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 171.

6. Pfeiffer, Ibid.

7. McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, (Grand Rapids: 1970), Vol. VIII, p. 68.

8. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 112.

9. Pfeiffer, Biblical World, p. 325.

10. McClintock & Strong, Ibid, p. 69.

It. Cunningham Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ, New York & London: 1920), Vol. 1, p. 239.

12. McClintock & Strong, Vol. IX, p. 235.

13. F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (London: 1842), p. 360 (B. XIII, Ch. X, Sec. 6.

14. Geikie, Ibid., p. 71.

15. Pfeiffer, Ibid.

16. I.S.B.E., p. 2363.

December 16, 1971