Who Were the Pharisees?
During Jesus' ministry, many people followed and loved Him. However, there were also many people who disagreed with or struggled to understand His teachings. Sometimes this led to teaching opportunities, and other times it led to conflict.
One group from the New Testament that often disagreed with Jesus was the Pharisees. These men were scholars and community leaders who had significant influence over political and religious standards, especially because the laws were still rooted in Judaic religion. The Pharisees were students of both the law and the Torah, and their expertise in both made them powerful authorities over the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to call these leaders out on their hypocrisy or misinterpretations of religious principles, which sometimes disturbed the control that the Pharisees had. The social, religious, and political power dynamics created tension in Israel between multiple groups, including the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman government, and the Jews. Jesus’ presence and His popularity interrupted how things were and made those in power feel threatened. The Pharisees also believed that Jesus’ teachings were too loose and didn’t align with what they preached, which made him an enemy to the organization of the Pharisees as a whole. Though the more extreme leaders of the Pharisees often opposed Jesus, others embraced His teachings and recognized Him as the Messiah.
Who were the Pharisees? To fully understand, it’s important to address the philosophical and political context of the time, as well as the multifaceted nature of this Jewish sect. Between their rivalry with the Sadducees and their social control over the people, the Pharisees played a largely oppositional role in Jesus’ earthly mission that eventually led to his death.
Background of the Pharisees
The Pharisees weren’t just a group of men, but a social movement and a school of thought during the time of the second temple. They were most likely founded around 167 BCE and ended in 73 CE, though the principles that the Pharisees practiced at the time helped form the Rabbinic Judaism that is practiced today. Of the two main religious sects, the Pharisees were the larger group and the more conservative one compared to the Sadducees.
The name “Pharisee” literally means “separate one,” which gives scholars and historians a deeper understanding of just how removed the Pharisees were from their fellow people. Because they were most likely made up of scribes and legal experts, they were distanced from regular society to study law and sharpen their expertise. Pharisees also distanced themselves from others because they saw themselves as better than most; where others were unclean and unworthy, their strict practices made them feel superior. They avoided being around “sinners” and other people that didn’t follow the laws correctly, at least according to their expectations. This was a distinct lapse from what Jesus actually taught and wanted people to practice, which is where much of the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus stems.
However, historians typically considered the Pharisees to be devoted scholars who respected their elders and were content with a simple, studious life. They spent much of their time teaching in synagogues and interpreting the Torah. They wanted to please God and dedicated themselves to understanding and exercising spiritual morality.
The Pharisees and Rome
Rome ruled over Israel, but although there were Roman governors assigned to rule over the Jewish people, these government officials allowed religious leaders, such as the Pharisees, to monitor and oversee the practices of the people in Jerusalem. Instead of enforcing Roman philosophies, Jewish leaders were given the authority and responsibility to enforce their own religious customs. As long as the taxes were collected and Roman laws weren’t violated, the Pharisees and the Sadducees could basically govern the people according to Jewish tradition. This tenuous relationship gave the Pharisees the power to cast judgment and continue to enforce Jewish law among the people.
In some ways the Pharisees were teachers, and in others, they were enforcers of tradition and law; but, especially in the context of the time, they stood between the people and Roman ideology. Despite their sometimes imbalanced strictness, the Pharisees were generally respected in the Jewish community and sought after for spiritual guidance and observance. Though they saw themselves as better than the average Jew, they also advocated for Jewish law and culture to be protected.
What Did the Pharisees Believe?
The Pharisees helped uphold the spiritual standards of the Jews, though imperfectly. Much of what they taught aligned with principles Jesus taught, but they interpreted certain concepts incorrectly, or sometimes in such a way that would benefit them instead of teaching a true principle.
Important principles of the Pharisees
The Pharisees believed that God should be believed in and worshiped both in and outside of Jerusalem. They were dedicated to converting the Gentiles (or non-Jewish people) to Judaism.
The Pharisees also believed in the power of resurrection. Believing in life after death and that people would be resurrected was a key belief of this group and one that set them apart from others. Similarly, the Pharisees also endorsed the more supernatural side of religion, including the power of resurrection, but also embraced ideas like hell, heaven, demons, and angels. In this respect, they took the Law of Moses literally, so if the Torah described an angel, they believed that the angel literally appeared, not conceptually or metaphorically.
The Pharisees believed in God’s law and the power of prayer. Especially compared to others, the Pharisees saw their relationship with God as more direct and personal. They believed that God gave man free will and the intellect to think for themselves.
Another notable quality of the Pharisees was their interest and belief in Oral Law. Oral law included the unwritten teachings from Moses and other prophets after Moses. Because they believed in Oral Law and modern interpretation, the Pharisees interpreted and even amended written law.
Sadducees vs. Pharisees
Even though the Romans allowed the Jews to keep to their own customs, not everyone in the Jewish faith agreed on one way to practice their religion. The two main religious sects we read about in the Bible are the Sadducees and the Pharisees. While the Pharisees taught in synagogues and were middle-class men, the Sadducees were usually wealthy, upper-class priests that worked in the temple. Certain principles and opinions set the Pharisees apart, and ultimately, the Pharisees had a direct impact on the preservation of Jewish tradition and culture.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were rivals when it came to Jewish customs. Some look at the Sadducees as more progressive and willing to adopt certain elements of Roman and Greek traditions. In an effort to maintain their wealth and authority, the Sadducee elitists worked more harmoniously with the Romans in order to maintain their position of power. Sadducees were less concerned with Jewish traditions and instead pandered to Roman authority and ideals. They concerned themselves with following the written Law of Moses, even to the point of nit-picking everything the Jews did in their day-to-day lives.
In contrast, the Pharisees were deeply loyal to the traditional elements of Judaism and strived to preserve both the written laws and the Oral Laws of their fathers. Their emphasis on oral traditions made them faithful to not only God but the practices of their unwritten principles. In some ways, this made the Pharisees more open-minded about personal understanding of doctrine. On the downside, they sometimes over-interpreted to the point of contradicting written tradition or sometimes misinterpreted the law to benefit themselves.
The major differences between the doctrinal beliefs of the Pharisees and the Saccades include topics like life after death, the more supernatural elements of their faith, and God’s role in the life of his children. The Sadducees were skeptical about heaven and hell, angels and demons, and other “supernatural” religious concepts. They didn’t believe in resurrection, even after Jesus was resurrected, or that life continued after death. Instead, the Sadducees thought that a person’s righteousness was measured by their temporal successes and riches. Sadducees also believed that God wasn’t as directly involved in human life, whereas Pharisees emphasized prayer.
Though both sects were leaders of the community and believed in the same basic principles, their beliefs varied a bit based on the intentions and priorities of each party. In general, the Sadducees were motivated by wealth and power and only depended on written laws to make decisions and discipline their fellow Jews. The Pharisees were more in-tune with the spiritual elements of Judaism and believed that our actions on Earth affected life after death.
The Conflict Between the Pharisees and Jesus
Despite their differences, it was, unfortunately, their dislike of Jesus that united the Pharisees and Sadducees. Though the Sadducees were more extreme in their conflict, both groups feared losing their power and influence over the people and worried that Jesus' teachings and miracles threatened their way of life. The two sects often worked together to persecute Jesus and attempted to nullify his teachings.
To be clear, most of the doctrine that the Pharisees preached was fairly in line with what Jesus taught. However, Jesus took issue with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and how prideful they had become at the expense of the people.
For example, the Pharisees were hypercritical of everyone and expected them to live as they lived; if others didn’t, the Pharisees had nothing to do with them. Jesus, however, spent his time with “sinners” and the sick, the disabled, and many others that society rejected. One example of this conflict is in Matthew 9. Jesus is eating with different people, including tax collectors and sinners. When a Pharisee sees this, he asks the disciples why their master is eating with sinners. Jesus overhears this and responds with: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13).
Some Pharisees didn’t persecute Jesus and even believed him, such as Nicodemus, a Pharisee that opened his mind and his heart to the teachings of Christ (John 3:1). Still, the leaders of the Pharisees didn’t like their authority challenged and considered Jesus Christ to be a blasphemer despite his miracles and divinity. It was both the Sadducees and Pharisees that not only publicly challenged Jesus, but eventually joined forces to have him arrested.
Significant Events Involving the Pharisees
Now that we’ve covered the cultural context of the time, it’s time to ask: who were the Pharisees in the Bible? These are some of the more prominent events from the Bible that discuss the Pharisees.
Jesus Corrects the Pharisees Often
As mentioned, the Pharisees highly opposed Jesus and played a role in His persecution. They would publicly oppose him, try to trick Him into saying something blasphemous, and participate in similar criticism. In Matthew 22: 15-22 they wanted to try and “trap Jesus in his words,” meaning they hoped to fault Jesus on a technicality based on the language He used. But Jesus knew what their intentions were, so instead of playing their games, he says: “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (Matthew 22:18). He quickly dispels their attempts to make him speak against the Roman reign.
That same day, a Pharisee approached Jesus, who was a great legal expert. He asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest one, likely hoping to debate the topic or make Jesus misstep. Again, Jesus knows that the Pharisee is trying to tempt him into making a mistake. He tells them that the first and greatest commandment is to love God and that the second commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Then, He fully clarifies that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” which suggests that the rest of the commandments and principles are built on the foundation of loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus also warns His disciples about the Pharisees. He tells them to obey them because they have authority, “but do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3). Throughout Matthew 23, He criticizes the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites because they “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” meaning that they were full of greed and self-indulgence. He goes on for several verses about how they fail to live by the standards they demand from others and chastises them thoroughly for their corruption and unkindness.
The Pharisees were also some of the Jewish leaders that brought an adulterous woman to Jesus, telling him that she should be stoned according to the Law of Moses. Instead of condemning her, Jesus tells them: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:3-7).
The Pharisees Plot Against Jesus
The Pharisees would try to discredit Jesus by making up excuses for his miracles. Despite Jesus healing a mute man, driving the demon out of another, and several other miracles, the Pharisees don’t want the people to follow Him. Instead, they claim that not only is Jesus not the Messiah he claims to be, but that “it is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons” (Matthew 9:34). They try to explain away His divine abilities by calling them the powers of the devil.
They tried demanding signs from him, accusing His disciples of breaking sacred laws or traditions, and continually challenging His knowledge (Matthew 16:1, Matthew 12:2, Matthew 19:3). Despite their efforts, Jesus was always able to teach the truth and continue His work and usually did so with a hearty dose of reprimand.
However, especially as Jesus became more beloved by the Jewish people, the Pharisees began plotting with the Herodians to have Jesus killed (Mark 3:6). If they labeled Him as a blasphemer, making Him appear as only a man claiming to be the Messiah, they could be rid of Him and His threat to their unrighteous power.
It was the chief priests and the Pharisees who called for Jesus’ arrest, and they were also among the Jewish leaders who arrested Jesus after His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 11:57, John 18:3). This arrest led to Jesus being brought before Pilate, who allowed the people to crucify Jesus.
See Jesus Interact with the Pharisees in The Chosen
So, who are the Pharisees, really? It’s difficult to put them in a box because not every Pharisee thought or acted one way. However, the key points are: they were religious and political leaders during the time of Jesus who preserved Jewish traditions and made a significant social and historical impact. However, they ultimately participated in Christ’s death because of their pride and hypocrisy.
If you haven’t already, check out Angel Studios’ The Chosen to view the first-ever multi-season show about the life of Jesus. This historical drama set in Judaea and Galilee in the first century CE follows Jesus and those whom He met and ministered to.