Jewish Sects (III) Pharisees -- Influence and Doctrines

Fred A. Shewmaker
Evansville, Indiana

As would be expected, leaving the teacher as the primary authority to interpret the law "in its spirit" led through the years to a mass of conflicting opinions. No one should miss the lesson so plainly illustrated by this reliance upon mere men to explain the commandments of God. When men are accepted as authorities, and they do not agree, the result will be confusion every time. In the matter of Pharisaical interpretations of the law Geikie has well written, "The 'hedge' round the Law had proved one of thorns, for Rabbis and people alike."1

"During the first century before Christ, two influential Pharisaic teachers gave their names to the two historic schools of legal thought among the Pharisees. Hillel was the more moderate of the two in his legal interpretations... Shammi, on the other hand, was more strict in his interpretation, and was bitterly opposed to the Romans."2 About the end of the 2nd century A. D. the Jewish traditions were written and that writing is called the Talmud. "The Talmud preserves the record of 316 controversies between the schools of Hillel and Shammi."3 The reader should be able to see the folly of adding to the written word of God.

In that the Pharisees put tradition on a par with, and even above, the written law, it should be no surprise when we notice that their doctrines were at variance with the teachings of Christ and their practices were condemned by him.

The influence of the Pharisees during New Testament times was far reaching. Geikie wrote, "The influence of the Pharisees was so overwhelming that even the high priests were glad to respect their opinions, to secure public favor."4 This influence is observable in John 12:42. "Among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him test they should be put out of the synagogue." This verse also well illustrates the observation of J. E. H. Thomson, "They had a tendency to despise those who did not agree with them."5 This observation is also well illustrated in John 9:34.

The fear of being "put out of the synagogue" by the "chief rulers" for confessing belief in Christ was due to the relationship the Pharisees sustained to the synagogue. "In that they believed God was everywhere, they fostered the synagogue as a place of worship and raised it to a central and important status in the fife of the people which rivaled the Temple."6 "The particular domain of the Pharisees in the pre-Christian Judaism was the synagogue."7

Even though the "status" of the synagogue may have, as Pfeiffer puts it, "rivaled the Temple," we must remember that it had not been substituted for the 'worship required by God to be offered in the temple. Certainly our Lord would not have taken part in that which was being substituted for the thing God required. Yet we often find him in a synagogue participating in the activities there carried on.

That the Pharisees held the doctrine that says babies are born in sin is to be seen in John 9:34. They said to the man Jesus had healed of blindness, 'Thou wast altogether born in sins." This was in direct violation of the commandment of God found in Ezekiel 18:1-3, 20. But men obsessed with an overestimate of the worth of their own opinions are apt to have little concern for the inspired word of God.

Pfeiffer wrote that they "believed in a combination of free will and pr destination."8 Josephus put it, "When they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit."9 But he also wrote, "These ascribe all to fate (or Providence) and to God, and yet allow that to act what is right or the contrary is principally in the power of men, although fate does cooperate in every action."10 This should shed some light on the advice given by Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-39. Notice another quotation that may have bearing on Gamaliel's advice. "They reject the appeal to force and violence, believing that God was in control of history and that every true Jew should live in accordance with the Torah." I I However, this view of things did not always restrain them from applying force and engaging in violence. See Mark 3:6; Luke 23:10, 13, 18, 21 and 23.

"As a matter of doctrine they believed in the resurrection of the dead on the day of Judgment, reward and retribution in the life after death, the coming of the Messiah, and the existence of angels and also Divine foreknowledge along with man's free choice of, and therefore responsibility for, his deeds."12 Probably it is the belief of the Pharisees in the resurrection that has been the most familiar of their doctrines with the readers of this article. "They also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments."13

The Pharisaic belief in angels and spirits seems to be closely connected with their concept of the "providence" of God. The "scribes of the Pharisees" (Acts 23:9) attribute the action of Paul to the possibility that "a spirit or an angel hath spoken unto him." It appears to me that this passage should give us an insight into the belief of the Pharisees regarding angels and spirits. That they did not believe the truth regarding them should be obvious. All too often brethren have taken Acts 23 and suggested, or implied, that the Pharisees held the truth regarding angels and spirits. They did not. They did not merely believe in their existence but they also believed that they were active in the affairs of men. In their thinking angels and spirits were constantly intervening in the affairs of men. This is exactly what they suggested in Acts 23:9. The truth of the matter is that angels and spirits did intervene in the affairs of men back then; however, such intervention was only upon momentous occasions and not a common occurrence. I am persuaded that it was this erroneous concept the Pharisees held regarding angels and spirits with which the Sadducees took issue.


1. Cunningham Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ, (New York & London: 1920), Vol. II, p. 61.

2. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 113.

3. Ibid., p. 114.

4. Geikie, Ibid., Vol. I, p. 66.

5. "Thomson," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: 1957), Vol. IV, p. 2364.

6. Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical World, (Grand Rapids: 1966), p. 326.

7. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, p. 113.

8. Pfeiffer, Biblical World, p. 324.

9. F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (London: 1842), p. 484 (B. XVIII, Ch. I, Sec. 3.

10. F. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, (London: 1842), p. 617 (B. II, Ch. VIII, Sec. 14

11. Pfeiffer, Ibid., p. 326.

12. Ibid, p. 325

13. Josephus, Antiquities, Ibid.

December 23, 1971