Who Were The Pharisees?


The party known as the Pharisees is first mentioned by name during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104 B.C.). The influence of Hellenism (Greek culture) was particularly strong in Palestine at that time. Greek culture was considered immoral and opposed to the Law of Moses by many Jews.

When the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes tried to do away with the Jewish religion by forcing Greek culture on them the Pharisees joined the Maccabees in their revolt against him.

Later on, it’s clear that the Pharisees resented the combination of High Priest and also having civil authority also over the people as was the case with the successors of the Maccabees. Before they had always had a king, who was not a high priest. They did not think the two offices of High Priest and King should be combined.

The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated ones.’ Some have suggested that the separation was from the common people, but it is more probable that the Pharisees were so named because of their zeal for the Law which involved separation from the influences of Greek culture.

They would become the legalist of their day while the Sadducees were the liberals. The Gospels records forty confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees, usually over some legalistic matter.

Their motivation seemed noble, to protect the law of Moses. They often produced scripture that they thought justified their position. Everyone is for protecting God’s law.

However, in order to protect some particular law, they would build a fence of human laws around that law so it could not be broken. These fences became known as the

‘traditions of the fathers.’

At the time of Jesus their legalistic system contained around 6000 rules and regulations, which they felt protected the Law of Moses. They had a list of 39 rules they felt protected the Sabbath from being violated.

When analysed they failed to see the intent or purpose of the Sabbath law, rest from their six days of labour. They often criticized Jesus for what he did on the Sabbath even though He might be healing someone of some disease or caused the blind to see or a cripple to walk.

Jesus reminded them that if an animal fell in a ditch on the Sabbath they would immediately rescue the animal. Life was more important than Sabbath keeping, rest. He reminded them that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man.

With all their rules you wonder how they justified making a market place out of the Temple courts?

Jesus confronted them about this.

Mark 11:16 ‘On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’

No item of food or drink was to be purchased from a ‘sinner,’ for fear of ceremonial defilement. A Pharisee might not eat in the house of a ‘sinner,’ although he might entertain a ‘sinner’ in his own house, but he must provide the ‘sinner’ with clothes to wear, for the ‘sinner’s’ own clothes might be ceremonially impure.

The particular domain of the Pharisees in the period between the Testaments was the synagogue. They wanted to be the leaders and authorities in the synagogues. There were two influential schools of legal thought among the Pharisees. Hillel headed one school. He was the more moderate of the two in his legal interpretations.

He was known for his regard for the poor and was willing to accept Roman rule as compatible with Jewish orthodoxy. Shammai, headed the other. He was more rigid and strict in his interpretation and was bitterly opposed to the Romans occupying Palestine. His viewpoint ultimately found expression in the Zealots, whose resistance to the Romans brought on the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Leviticus 10:8-11 ‘Then the LORD said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses.’

Deuteronomy 33:8-10 ‘About Levi he said: ‘Your Thummim and Urim belong to your faithful servant. You tested him at Massah; you contended with him at the waters of Meribah. He said of his father and mother, ‘I have no regard for them.’ He did not recognise his brothers or acknowledge his own children, but he watched over your word and guarded your covenant. He teaches your precepts to Jacob and your law to Israel. He offers incense before you and whole burnt offerings on your altar.’

The priest had been responsible for teaching and interpreting the Law but between the Testament many of the people lost all respect for the priests because of the corruption in the Jerusalem priesthood. They began to look to the scribes to interpret the Law for them.

They lived pious, disciplined lives; and had been trained to become experts in the Law. It was natural then, for people to follow their teachings rather than that of corrupt priests. It’s from this group we have the beginning of the Pharisees.

To the Pharisee tradition was not just human rules. Rather tradition was raised to the level of Scripture itself. To justify this attitude, they said an ‘oral law’ was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, in addition to the written Law.

They said oral law must be observed with even greater stringency than the written Law, because oral law (traditions) affected the life of the ordinary man far more than the written Law of Moses.

Pharisaism involved little more than a concern for the minute things of the Law. Their piety had separated them from things they considered impure turning them inward to an attitude of pride in the observance of legal precepts. They loved to be called ‘Rabbi,’ (a special title) and occupied the chief seats in the synagogue so they could be seen.

They stood on the street corners and prayed long and loud prayers just to be seen of men. They wore conspicuous clothing with tassels and phylacteries. They thought this displayed piety toward God. It was not true piety.

Their only reward, was from men, not from God. Their deeds needed to be accompanied with a heart that truly loved the Lord. However, the Pharisees and their scribes enjoyed a good deal of popular support. This is surprising since they separated themselves from most other Jews. They were highly critical, always ready to criticize others for not keeping the law, looking down on them as ‘sinners.’

A question we might ask at this time is,

does the church of today and the Pharisees have much in common?

The truth is we have much in common. We see this in the many unwritten rules we have made to be sure we do not violate any teaching in the New Testament. As a people we have always struggled with recognizing the difference between what is human judgment and what is a matter of true faith?

We could begin with the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said we are to do this in memory of him. To protect this command, we have added our own rules. As an example, are the one cup churches. Often our rules end up being a ritual or formalism.

Many rules have been established about the order of worship. Any change in these rules is deemed as a serious violation of the words of Jesus that we are to worship God

‘in spirit and in truth.’ John 4:24

Numerous rules have been made about the use of the church building yet for the first three centuries there were no church buildings. Our rules end up making the building sacred missing the point that a building is merely an expediency. Rules about what could or could not be preached on particular Sundays.

Also, which translations could be read in worship or even in private study. The terrible debate over the support of orphan homes in the 50s and 60s. For example, one unwritten law was that a child must be a ‘Orphan Indeed’ meaning that neither parent is living.

The attitude of the Pharisees still exists today. It binds human judgment on other Christians by demanding conformity to certain unwritten laws. Most of these laws come from sincere Christians who have a genuine concern about violating God’s word but at the same time these brethren can be dangerous because this type of reasoning often results in factions and dissention.

For all of us who are loyal to what the Bible teaches our basic problem is interpretation. What we have to be careful about is,


not going ahead to add to or take away or add to the intent and purpose of the verse or verses under consideration. In spite of our best efforts there will always be matters over which we will disagree. When this happens, it would be well for us all to recall an old motto used in the past that would prevent legalism.

‘In matters of faith unity; in matters of opinion liberty, in all things love’. Romans 14

Another question to ask is, does the issue we disagree on, is it something that would keep us out of heaven? Is it serious enough to cause harsh feelings or even cause division in the body of Christ?

The consequences usually are far worse than the issues brethren divide over, however division sometimes may be the best solution.



"Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'"

Matthew 22:37