The Pharisees

By Mike Willis

In reading the New Testament, one sees repeated references to the Pharisees. The word appears 100 times in 95 verses. The word does not appear in the Old Testament. Consequently, one may correctly deduce that the Pharisees are a sect of the Jews that developed during the inter-testament period. But who were they? Most of us think we have a pretty good understanding of who they are, but as this article will demonstrate, that understanding may be flawed.

The word “Pharisee” is translated from the Greek word pharisaios. It is used to describe a group of Jews who were designated as the Pharush (#$w@rp@f). The word #$rp@ has as its basic definition “to separate.” The My#$iw@rp; were the “separatists” or “sectarians” (TDNT IX:13). The “separation” which they maintained must be understood in its historical context. 

Historical Origins

Some trace the origin of the Pharisees all the way back to Ezra and Nehemiah when these two leaders called on the Jews to separate themselves from their heathen and Samaritan neighbors. Intermarriage threatened the spiritual purity of the people of that generation and separation from their religious neighbors was necessary. However, there is insufficient evidence to convince one that this is the origin of the Pharisees.

The earliest historical reference to the Pharisees occurs in Josephus (Antiquities XIII:x.5). During the days of John Hyrcanus (High Priest from 135 to 105 B.C.), one of the Pharisees committed a personal offense against him by encouraging him to give up the priesthood because his mother had been a captive under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Pharisees had great power over the multitude at the time, but this offense caused Hyrcanus to leave the Pharisee party. Josephus identifies the Pharisees as a group who “have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses” (which tradition the Sadducees rejected). He added that the Sadducees had influence over the richer people whereas the Pharisees had more influence over the populace. Later, Josephus relates the position that the Pharisees held about fate and free will, the immortality of the soul and resurrection (Antiquities XVIII:i.2; cf. He said, “They also believe that souls have an immortal vigour in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards and punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in  this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but the former shall have power to revive and live again” (ibid.). During the reign of Alexandra Jannaeus, the Pharisees virtually administered the civil government (Wars I:v.2).

From these references, we begin to understand what being a Pharisee meant. It was a separatist movement in response to the Hellenization that was occurring during the inter-testament period. There were Jews who were becoming like their Hellenist rulers. 1 Maccabees records, 

In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow. So this device pleased them well. Then certain of the people were so forward herein that they went to the king, who gave them license to do after the ordinances of the heathen: whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen: and made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief (1:11-15).

The group that wanted to separate themselves from those among them who were Hellenizing became known as the Pharisees. 

Later in the development of the Pharisee movement, their emphasis on the oral law led to a separation  between those Jews who kept the strict observance of the Law (defined to mean, those who observed the “oral law” tradition that the Pharisees developed) and the common people (‘am ha’aretz, the “people of the land,” i.e., the common people). A conscientious Pharisee could not stay in the home of an ‘am ha’aretz (Mishna: Demai 2:2), could not buy or sell to him (Demai 2:3). Demai 2:3 is typical of the Pharisees’ attitude toward the ‘am ha’aretz: “One who undertakes to be a 44rb’xa (one of the group who observes all of the Pharisees’ oral traditions, mw) may not sell to an ‘am ha’aretz, either wet or dry produce, and may not buy from him wet produce, and may not stay as guest with an ‘am ha’aretz, and may not have him as guest in his garments.” One can see how Jesus’ association with publicans and sinners was an affrontal to the very essence of what it meant to be a Pharisee.

The separation that occurred between the Pharisees and the ‘am ha’aretz (“the people of the land”) was related to the oral laws developed by the Pharisees. The oral laws eventually became known as the halakhah.1 To understand the Jewish attitude toward oral law, consider the following. Chagigah 1:8 says that “the rules about the Sabbath, Festival Offerings, and sacrilegious misappro-   ­priation of sanctified property are as mountains suspended by a hair (i.e., there is little direct Scriptural substantiation for them), because Scripture is meagre and the rules are many; laws of cases between man and man, rules of the Services, laws of the clean, and the unclean and the laws of incest, these have bases for support and they are the essentials of the Law (i.e., the laws enjoined by the Sages are to be accepted as of equal importance and equally binding as those founded on the Torah)” (the comments in parentheses are from Blackmon’s notations on the Mishnah). In Sanhedrin 11:3, the Mishnah says, “Disregard of the enactments of the Scribes is more severely dealt with than disregard of the injunctions of the Law.” This is followed by an example to illustrate the point with reference to phylacteries. Elazar ben Enoch was excommunicated “because he disputed [the Rabbinic regulations] concerning the cleanness of the hands; and when he died the court sent and laid a stone upon his coffin” (Eduyoth 5:6).

In discussing the concept of the oral law, people usually refer to the statement in the Mishnah about the oral laws being a “fence about the law.” The statement is taken from Avoth 1:1 which says,

Moses received the Law from Sinai and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets handed it down to the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence round the Law.

Avoth 3:13 says, “Tradition is a fence to the Law; tithes are a fence to riches; vows are a fence to abstinence; a fence to wisdom is silence.” This is usually interpreted to mean that the Oral Tradition arose as very conservative interpreters bound their personal scruples into human law, similar to one binding his judgment about how “long” one’s hair must be to prevent the violation of 1 Corinthians 11. That is not the case. The oral law was more nearly like the councils of the Roman Catholic Church that made pronouncements about eating meat on Friday or saying the Mass in Latin, both of which are encroachments on the all-sufficiency of Scripture by the presumptive act of enacting laws.

The Pharisees Were Liberals, Not Conservatives

Scholars are rather generally agreed that the oral traditions of the Pharisees represent something far different from a “conservative” reaction to the Law. The Oral Law demonstrates that the Pharisees were the progressives, the liberals of that day. Here are some scholarly comments to document this assessment:

The New Jewish Encyclopedia: “The Pharisees were ‘separatists’ in that they emphasized observance of such practices as ritual purity and tithing, which kept them apart from the less observant Jews. They were ‘expounders,’ encouraging a liberal interpretation of the Scriptures and the adaptation of its laws to the changing conditions of life. This contrasts with the Sadducees who adhered strictly to the letter of the Law” (376).

Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Everett Feguson): “. . . one of two courses could be followed with regard to the law. The traditional code might be expanded to meet new circumstances and be reinterpreted in accord with new beliefs; or these experiences could be left outside the scope of its authority and new ideas be left unrecognized. Those who accepted the first policy became the Pharisees, and those who adopted the second became the Sadducees. . . . Moreover, the Pharisees felt that if the applications of the law were to be binding, they had to have the force of the Torah itself. The means to achieve this was the idea of oral law (“tradition of the elders”; Mark 7:3, 5), equally authoritative with the written law (481, 482). Ferguson concluded by saying “the Pharisees were not ‘Pharisaical’” (483).

Judaism and Christianity:2 This book describes the Pharisees as “the source of the Law, its legislators. . . . the legal authorities, the lawmakers” (xx). Note these quotations:

The latter (Sadducees, mw) believed in the exact letter of the law, the Pharisees held that the spirit should prevail and that the law should be adapted to changed circumstances, not that it should be abolished. Yet the Sadducees represent a type of religious conservatism which it is easy to misrepresent as callous and wooden. They were ready to yield to scriptural warrant, and for this reason the Pharisees were sometimes driven to casuistry, in order to meet their opponents on their own ground and so win their adherence (Herbert Lowe, “Pharisaism,” I:143).

The Pharisee believed in bringing religion into daily life, because he stood for the principle of progressive revelation. By this, he meant that the spirit of the Torah contained the power of inspiring changed circumstances, not that the Torah required supplementing from without. It could expand (Ibid. I:153).

The Pharisees did not hesitate to adapt the law to changed conditions: they employed the principle of legal fiction, in order to safeguard principles while relaxing hard conditions (II:52).

. . . If that were so, then it would follow that the divine revelation was not confined to the written text of the Torah. There must be an unwritten Torah, not as the rival or even the commentary on the text, but as completing it; so that the written and unwritten together made up the Torah as it essentially was. This new idea appeared and began to be acted on somewhere about the year 170 B.C. . . . 

The immediate result was that it became possible to define a halachah without basing it on some text of the written Torah, or even establishing some connexion with the text. The halachah, so defined, was vouched for by a tradition, assumed to have come down from the far-off past, and accepted on the authority of the teachers who declared it. And by means of this concept of the Unwritten Torah, these teachers were enabled to give a wider meaning to the precepts of the written Torah, being no longer tied down to the literal sense or the interpretation of it on the former lines. . . 

One is the famous text of the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” etc. There is a clearly stated order that in certain cases of bodily injury a savage retaliation was to be inflicted. Those who defined the halachah dealing with such cases frankly abolished the written text, and made no attempt to humanize it by any artifice of interpretation. They appointed a different procedure to be followed in such cases, viz. the payment of a money fine, depending on the amount of the injury (R. Travers Herford, “The Law and Pharisaism,”III:102, 103).

Note the statements from these quotations that emphasize the liberalism of the Pharisees:

  • “encouraging a liberal interpretation of the Scriptures and the adaptation of its laws to the changing conditions of life.”
  • “that if the applications of the law were to be binding, they had to have the force of the Torah itself.”
  • “the Pharisees were not ‘Pharisaical’” 
  • “the spirit should prevail and that the law should be adapted to changed circumstances”
  • “he stood for the principle of progressive revelation”
  • “the divine revelation was not confined to the written text of the Torah”
  • “by means of this concept of the Unwritten Torah, these teachers were enabled to give a wider meaning to the precepts of the written Torah, being no longer tied down to the literal sense or the interpretation of it on the former lines”
  •  “Those who defined the halachah dealing with such cases frankly abolished the written text”

These quotations demonstrate the liberalism of the Pharisees. Their liberalism is confirmed by the fact that the Mishnah followed the rulings of the liberal school of Hillel except in nine cases. In three cases it followed the ruling of Shammai and in six cases the ruling of neither school was followed (E. Rosenthal, II:185 note). Rather than understanding the “fence of the Law” as a conservative defense of the written word, the Pharisees “realized that new conditions created new needs which were not met in the written Torah. They therefore ruled that the needs of the times and the adjustment of human relations justified a modification and called for new regulations and rules not only to maintain but also to raise the ethical standard” (E. Rosenthal, III:175). 

This appraisal of the Pharisees is confirmed by New Testament evidence. The adherence to oral law was condemned  by Jesus as teaching for one’s doctrine the commandments of men (Matt. 15:8-9). He demonstrated how the Pharisees’ adherence to oral law was used to release men from responsibility to God’s divine law of providing for one’s father and mother (Matt. 15:4-5) as well as imposing as divine law the commandments of men in such areas as the washing of hands (Matt. 15:1-3). Writing new laws and releasing men from responsibility to divine law are the characteristics of liberals, not conservatives. Having witnessed how liberalism undermines Bible authority in every area, we can more easily understand Jesus’ warning about the leavening influence of the Pharisees’ doctrine (Matt. 16:12).

New Testament Description of Pharisees

One must include in this study the New Testament references to the Pharisees. In recent years, the New Testament evidence is generally viewed as slanted by the fact that it was written by Christians (although all of the authors were Jewish). Greater emphasis is usually given to the writings of Josephus than to the inspired New Testament documents. Inasmuch as the New Testament documents are contemporary first century documents, the same as is Josephus, this approach is flawed. But for those who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures, this approach is a fundamental mistake.

As mentioned above, the word Pharisee appears 100 times in 95 verses in the New Testament. Here are some things said about them in the Scriptures:

  • John the Baptist described them as a generation of vipers (Matt. 3:7)
  • They were charged with hypocrisy (Matt. 23; cf. Luke 12:1) with reference to: (a) refusing to enter the kingdom and preventing those who wished to do so (Matt. 23:13); (b) devouring widow’s houses while making long prayers (Matt. 23:14); (c) compassing land and sea to make one proselyte who, when converted, is two-fold more a child of hell than before (Matt. 23:15); (d) tithing mint, anise, and cummin but leaving undone the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42); (e) cleansing the outside of the cup but not the inside (Matt. 23:25; Luke 11:39); (f) being like whited sepulchres that are beautiful on the outside but rotten on the inside (Matt. 23:27; Luke 11:44); (g) piously building tombs of prophets but being guilty of the very things that killed them (Matt. 23:29)3
  • They loved places of pre-eminence (Luke 11:43)
  • They were self-righteous (Luke 18:9-14)
  • They were separatists. They separated themselves not only from the Gentiles, but also from those common people (‘am ha’arets, “the people of the land”) who did not observe the law with the same ritual purity as they did (Matt. 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 7:36-39; 15:1-32).
  • The Pharisees were committed to observing the oral traditions relating to fasting (Matt. 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33), observing the Sabbath (Matt. 12:2; Mark 2:24; Luke 6:2, 7; 14:1-3; John 9), washing of one’s hands (Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-5; Luke 11:37-38), etc.
  • They accepted looser views on divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:3; Mark 10:1-12)

No wonder Jesus said that unless one’s righteous is superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, he could not see the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). He was concerned about the leavening influence of their doctrine (Matt. 16:12).

Distinctive Doctrines

The doctrinal beliefs that distinguished the Pharisees from the Sadducees were (a) Belief in resurrection (Acts 23:8), (b) Belief in angels (Acts 23:8), (c) Acceptance of the authority of Oral Law, (d) A doctrine of fate that still left room for free will.

Later Development of the Pharisees

What happened to the Pharisees after the close of the New Testament? The Pharisees were the ones responsible for the survival of modern Judaism. The Sadducees were so tied to the Temple that when it was destroyed, so were the Sadducees. The Pharisees were more nearly associated with the synagogue. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, the Pharisees moved their headquarters first to Jamnia and later to Tiberias. Under the leadership of Jochanan ben Zakkai, the Jewish community was rebuilt from the smallest of beginnings (see TDNT article on pharisaios).


Perhaps this survey of the Pharisees will give one a better understanding of the Jewish backgrounds in place during the ministry of Jesus. A reading of the gospels demonstrates that some of  Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for the Pharisees. An understanding of how their adherence to oral law undermined the authority of the law makes one see how serious was the leavening influence of their doctrine (Matt. 16:6).

The charge of “Pharisaism” that is made by many today toward those who adhere to the teachings of the New Testament is totally unfounded. In most cases, those who make the charge are themselves the ones guilty of manifesting the spirit of the Pharisees. They are more concerned about the “spirit of the law” than the “letter of the law.” They are more concerned about adapting the law to the changing needs of the man. This is the spirit of the Pharisees, not strict adherence to the word of God. Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for obeying the letter of the Law or demanding from others Bible authority for what they did. To charge those who adhere to the authority of Scripture for what they preach and teach as Pharisees is like charging the Pope with being an “anti.” The entire structure of Catholicism is contrary to the principles of conservativism, just as it was so with reference to the Pharisees.


  1. The Halakhah comprise the laws and ordinances of religious and civil practice in every phase of Jewish life and conduct. The Halakhah to begin with was the Oral Law, those legal decisions which were handed down orally from generation to generation. As this grew, a systematic compilation of these laws was make by Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi known as The Mishnah. The next great compilation of the Halakhot was The Talmud (The New Jewish Encyclopedia 184).
  2. Judaism and Christianity. Volume I is edited by W.O.E. Oesterley, Volume II by H. Loewe, and Volume III by Erwin I.J. Rosenthal.
  3. To believe that all Pharisees were “vipers,” hypocrites, loved places of pre-eminence, self-righteous, etc. would be to ignore part of the Bible evidence about Pharisees. One Pharisee warned Jesus of Herod’s attempt on his life (Luke 13:31), Jesus treated some of the questions of the Pharisees as having been asked from a pure motive (Luke 17:20-21), Nicodemus was a Pharisee (John 3:1), Paul described his early life as a Pharisee as living according to the strictest keeping of the Law (Acts 26:5; Phil. 3:5). 

6567 Kings Ct., Avon, Indiana 46123

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p2  May 4, 2000