, , ,

This is a paper I wrote a few years ago. It is over 4,000 words – too long for a blog post! However, I am sharing it regardless. If someone has special interest in the pharisees, they will read it. If not, they won’t! The pharisees can be a misunderstood group. While they were often in conflict with Jesus, Jesus and the pharisees shared many similar beliefs.


Who were the Pharisees? They were a seemingly obscure Jewish group that was influential for a limited period of time in a small area of ancient Palestine while the Jews were under the shadow of the Roman Empire. Yet, two millennia later, people are still familiar with the Pharisees. This is likely because the New Testament Gospels present Jesus in frequent conflict with them. This paper will present what can be known about the origins, history, and nature of the Pharisees [1] with the goal of better understanding the Scriptures and Christ. After the data has been presented and summarized, the New Testament passage of Matthew chapter twenty-three will be considered in detail.

Sources and Difficulties

Of the various religious groups referred to in ancient materials, the Pharisees are the most frequently mentioned. [2] However, the ancient literary and historical data on the Pharisees is still sparse. The two primary sources, contemporary to the time of the Pharisees, are Josephus and the New Testament. The Pharisees are mentioned less than twenty times by Josephus, which is not many when considering the voluminous nature of his writing. Perhaps the Pharisees are most well-known for how they are portrayed in conflict with Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. This paper will focus on these two primary sources. However, there are also references to the Pharisees in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls. Later rabbinic works from the second to sixth centuries (Mishnah and Talmuds) also refer back to the Pharisees.

Yet we are still dealing with references to the Pharisees that are limited in number, isolated from one another, or have a narrow focus. Steve Mason, in his book Josephus and the New Testament, warns against the “scissors-and-paste” historical method of bringing isolated statements from different sources together and deducing that a whole or complete picture has emerged.[3]  Anthony Saldarini, in his book on the Pharisees [4], places his primary focus on understanding Palestinian society. He feels that when the Pharisees are considered within this larger context of culture, a more accurate picture will be likely to come forth. Historians or scholars must make deductions and create a reconstructed picture of the Pharisees to the best of their abilities. Of course, we all come to the table with various biases or presuppositions. Liberal scholars may doubt or downplay the reliability of the biblical account.[5]  Conservative Christian scholars may be accused of focusing too much on the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, thus presenting an unfairly critical view of them.

Even how to describe the Pharisees as a group is not clear cut and reveals the difficulties of reconstruction. As various sources are perused, one can observe the Pharisees described as: a sect within Judaism, a school of thought or mental direction, a powerful religious leadership group, a political leadership group, a scholarly group, a fraternal or religious society, or some combination of these. Some sources consider the Pharisees a sect, while other sources give reasons why the Pharisees should not be considered a sect. (An objection to the word sect is that it implies isolation from the people, and the Pharisees were active in society.)

Neither Josephus nor the New Testament authors were writing with the primary purpose of providing an exposition about the Pharisees, therefore limited background or introductory information is provided. The point is not to insinuate that nothing certain can be known about the Pharisees, but to emphasize that the reconstruction of ancient history can be a complex endeavor and while parts can be known, we do not want to mistakenly assume we completely understand the Pharisees.

 Origins/History of the Pharisees

Some feel that the distant roots of Pharisaism can be traced back to the Babylonian Captivity, to the Jews who refused to compromise their faith during the exile. After the exile, due to the fact that temple worship and sacrifices had ceased, Judaism began to be centered on the Jewish Law and the Synagogue. Moving forward in time, to when Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BC, a group called the Hasidim (Hebrew for “pious ones”) arose. Antiochus IV actively promoted Hellenization, and the Hasidim were faithful Jews who objected to this growing Hellenism. Many scholars feel that the Pharisees developed out of the Hasidim and in relation to the Maccabean Revolt (165 BC). The earliest mention of the Pharisees by name is by the historian Josephus writing about the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC) in Antiquities. [6] The Pharisees opposed the combination of kingly and priestly power in the Hasmonean rulers. While being a pious and separated group that wanted to honor the Law, the Pharisees did not withdraw from society but remained a part of it. In contrast to another subgroup, the Essenes, who moved out to the desert and isolated themselves from society.

Essentially, during the Second Temple period, the Jews struggled with how to be God’s unique people while living among the pagan and gentile nations. There was pressure to conform or compromise their beliefs and practices. Judaism became fragmented or fractured, as the pressures led to different parties or subgroups (such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes) developing within Judaism. Each group had their own perspective on how Judaism should best respond and function during these times.

By New Testament times, the Pharisees were a known, established, and organized group. C.F. Moore describes them as “a party whose endeavor it was to live in strict accordance with the Law thus interpreted and amplified by the study and exposition of the Scribes, and the tradition and interpretation which they had established.” [7]  Likely after the Babylonian Exile, “oral law” or traditions began to develop. These were supplementary requirements that were added to the written Law. The purpose was to “put a hedge around” the written Law so that it would be more difficult to actually break it. The content of these traditions evolved and grew through the intertestamental, New Testament, and post New Testament periods, finally taking on written form in the Mishnah (AD 200).[8]  These traditions were very important to the Pharisees and a critical part of their way of life.

The origin of the name Pharisee remains uncertain.  Paul Barnett gives several theories or possibilities as for the origin of the name. One option is that it could be derived from perushim which means “separatists”, because they broke off from the Hasidaeans during the time of John Hyrcanus. Another possibility is the name derives from paroshim which means “specifiers”, perhaps in reference to the exact and precise ways they followed the Law.[9]

The Pharisees in Josephus

Josephus is a key source of historical information for Judaism and the New Testament era in general. Born in 37-38 AD of a priestly Jewish family, he was educated and well connected with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Josephus was involved in the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD 66-74. After defeat, he surrendered to Rome and joined the Roman generals who eventually became emperors. After the war, he went to Rome as a client of the Flavians and wrote his first work War. Later he wrote the Antiquities and the Life. Some feel that since he wrote with a bias to please the Romans, he is a less-than-trustworthy historian. Others feel that because his bias is so obvious, his works can still yield solid historical information.

While Josephus offers a handful of brief explanatory statements on the Pharisees, he is not writing with the purpose of giving a detailed presentation of them. They are mentioned less than twenty times in his lengthy volumes, and are typically only referred to when they are involved in some type of conflict or transitional time and exerting political influence. Josephus also avoids taking a personal stand on the Pharisees. For example, he states that the Pharisees are considered or reputed to be the most accurate interpreters of the Law. [10]

Saldarini states that “Josephus sees the Pharisees as an organized group, which he calls a syntagma, something which is ordered, such as a military unit, a political constitution, or a civil group recognized by a constitution.” [11]  Yet Josephus does not give details about the internal workings of the Pharisees. Although there were prominent Pharisees, as a group they lacked direct power. The Sadducees were more powerful in this aspect, as they were of the governing aristocratic class. The social class of the Pharisees is not specified, but it is inferred that most were of a lower social standing than the Sadducees.[12]  Nonetheless, the Pharisees were influential in Jewish society and involved with politics.

In regards to specific religious beliefs, Josephus references that they believe in life after death, resurrection, rewards and punishment in a future judgment, as well as fate and freedom of the human will (Ant.18.1.3).[13]  The Pharisees were known for their virtue and had a reputation for being precise. They were concerned that the Law be faithfully lived out, and they sought to interpret it “with exact skill” (Ant. 17.141-42) and were “experts in the laws of their own country” (War 1.648). [14]  Josephus also states that they followed “regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses” (Ant.13.10.6).[15]

Josephus indicates that the Pharisees were respected by the people, and to use modern terms it is inferred that they possessed good “public relation” skills. The Sadducees may have had more official or direct power, but the Pharisees seemed more influential with the general populace (Ant. 13.10.6). [16] On that note, it should be mentioned that the majority of the Jewish people did not belong to any of the special groups such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes.

The Pharisees in the New Testament

The authors of the Gospels write as though the Pharisees are a known group that do not need an introduction. The Gospels portray the Pharisees primarily in how they are in conflict with Christ. In Mark, we can observe the Pharisees in dispute with Jesus over issues such as fasting (2:18), Sabbath observance (2:24; 3:2), divorce (10:2), and washing of hands (7:1). They also question Jesus’ authority by demanding a sign (8:11). In league with the Herodians, they try to trap Jesus on the political issue of Roman taxes (12:13) and enter into a plot against him. In Matthew we can observe similar conflicts. However, Matthew expands it by describing two incidents where the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ authority by assaulting its source (9:32-34; 12:22-30). Saldarini gives an astute summary of the Pharisees as portrayed in Matthew and Mark: “The Pharisees are the day to day opponents of Jesus par excellence. They oppose his teachings on Sabbath, purity and other issues and they try to destroy his reputation and influence with the people.” [17]

Although Luke clearly portrays the Pharisees as opponents of Jesus, there are several incidents that provide a unique or slightly more sympathetic view. For example, Luke records that Jesus dined with Pharisees (11:37; 14:1). On another occasion, some Pharisees are sympathetic to Jesus (13:31) as they warn him to depart since Herod sought to kill him. The book of Acts (written by Luke) also records Pharisees that seem sympathetic to the followers of Jesus (5:34-39; 23:6-9) by encouraging caution in their treatment.

The Gospel of John presents some distinctive aspects not found in the Synoptics. While at odds with Jesus, John has more emphasis on the Pharisees’ leadership role in the community. The Pharisees were watchful and kept Jesus, as well as the people’s response to Jesus, under surveillance.  They were involved (along with the chief priests) in taking official action against Jesus. John chapter three also provides us with the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee that accepts Jesus as a fellow teacher, and consults with Jesus (albeit it at night) on spiritual matters.

Jesus did not mince words with the Pharisees. He called them a generation of vipers (Matthew 3:7); condemns their works-righteousness (Matthew 5:20); condemns them for pride (Luke 18:11); scorns their strict adherence to the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). Jesus’ longest and most scathing rebuke of the Pharisees is found in Matthew 23 which contains a series of eight “woes” against them. Here is a sample (verse 27): “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

The importance of oral law for the Pharisees was mentioned in previous portions of this paper. New Testament references for this would be Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-23 that mention how the Pharisees were concerned with the “traditions of the elders” or the “traditions of men.”  The Gospels abound with examples of their keeping or expanding rules down to the smallest details, such as the tithing of herbs (Luke 11:42), careful observance of ritual purity (Mark 7:2), or literally wearing the Law with their display of phylacteries (Matthew 23:5).

Despite the overwhelmingly negative picture of the Pharisees, the discriminating Bible student should note that the picture is not entirely bad. As discussed at the beginning of the paper, our sources on the Pharisees present only a partial or incomplete view of them. Partial and incomplete does not necessarily mean inaccurate, especially not with the Scriptures which are inerrant and trustworthy. Clearly God, through inspiration, wanted us to be acutely aware of the downfalls of the Pharisees. Yet, a careful look at the Scriptures reveals that not everything about every Pharisee was bad.

It was already noted that Luke, Acts, and John provide several examples of Pharisees who were sympathetic to Jesus. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee before becoming a follower of Jesus. When Paul refers to the fact that he had been a Pharisee in Philippians 3:4-6, he does not use it in a reproachful way but rather like a badge of honor as one who had faithfully followed the Law. This would coincide with Josephus who indicated that the Pharisees were respected by the people. Barnett points out that Jesus and the Pharisees actually had much in common despite their differences. They both pointed to the Scriptures as their guide, and held to the same eschatological framework of the beginning of all things at creation and a universal resurrection at the end. [18]  Dwight Pentecost articulates the matter well in this statement:

A general preoccupation with the vices of the Pharisees has unfortunately often obscured not only the good aspects of Pharisaism but also its true character and significance. Pharisaism was admirable in its attempt, however futile, to bring every area of life into subjection to the law. Perhaps more important than the dismal failure of its legalism in this regard was the wellspring of piety that motivated the whole phenomenon known as Pharisaism. It was the longing for a righteous Israel and hope of the coming Messianic kingdom that motivated these men….Pharisaism was at heart, though tragically miscarried, a movement for righteousness.[19]

 Summary Statement on the Pharisees

Although certain details are unknown and scholars will continue to debate some specifics, there are essential facts that can be known about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of several groups that developed in the Second Temple period of Judaism, as the Jewish people struggled with how to live among the pagan and gentile nations. They were an exclusive group of men, but they did not isolate themselves as the Essenes, and were influential in Jewish society. They appear most active as a distinct and organized group from about the time of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BC) until later in the first century. Barnett describes them as the “theological and moral watchdogs of the covenant people” [20] and this statement is a succinct synopsis. Per both Josephus and the New Testament, the Pharisees attempted to follow the Law and traditions in a precise and exacting manner. The Gospels focus on the vices of the Pharisees and show them in almost constant conflict with Jesus. While their underlying beliefs were orthodox, Jesus disputed their behavior and the internal condition of their hearts. This will be elaborated on as we focus on a specific passage of Scripture (Matthew chapter twenty-three).

Matthew Chapter Twenty-Three

Some context is needed: In the second half of Matthew twenty-one and into chapter twenty-two, Jesus tells parables that brought critique against the Pharisees and chief priests. Although parables can “conceal” the message, the Pharisees and chief priests knew Jesus was referring to them (21:45) in less-than-complementary ways. Further into chapter twenty-two, there is a series of incidents where the Pharisees (and/or Sadducees, Herodians) approach Jesus with specific questions on taxes, divorce, and the greatest commandment. They were attempting to trick Jesus or entangle him, which they were unable to do. Finally, at the end of chapter twenty-two Jesus turns the tables and asks the Pharisees a question about the identity of the Christ. This leads into chapter twenty-three where Jesus now begins to speak to the crowds and his disciples, instead of debating with Pharisees or other leaders.

Jesus’ message to the crowd is about the Pharisees. Jesus criticized the Pharisees frequently for their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:2-3 could be considered a classic summary statement by Jesus on their hypocrisy. It states: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.”  As the chapter progresses, Jesus pronounces eight “woes” on the Pharisees and in seven of them he refers to them as hypocrites. [21] Clearly, hypocrisy is a major emphasis in this chapter.

According to verses two and three, the Pharisees were in the “chair of Moses” and the people should listen to them. The Pharisees were an authority and had teachings of worth from the Law of Moses. They had originated as a group that wanted to be loyal to the Law and faithful to Judaism, while there were many pressures to compromise. This was commendable. Jesus and the Pharisees actually agreed on key issues. Yet, over time, something had gone wrong. The Pharisees’ way of life seemed to deteriorate into legalism or formalism. Jesus continues in verse three by stating that the people should not do as they Pharisees do. While their teachings were generally dependable, their practice was not. Their creed and conduct did not match.

In verse four, it states how the Pharisees “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders.”  Likely this refers to the many rules and rituals that had been added on to the Law. Pentecost states that “Over the years the Pharisees had sought to assist those who sought righteousness through the law by codifying it into 365 prohibitions and 248 commandments.” [22] This would indeed be an exhaustive burden and nearly impossible to manage, especially for the ordinary populace (peasants) that struggled just to survive.

In the verses that follow (through verse twelve) Jesus indicated that the Pharisees performed religious observances to be seen by men and not from a sincere heart. The spirit behind what they did seemed a spirit of pride and self-importance.  Examples are given of how they wore wide and conspicuous phylacteries, loved the best seats at the synagogues, and sought important titles. Then, in verses thirteen to thirty-six, there is a series of eight “woes” or denunciations against the Pharisees. Several will be highlighted.

The fifth woe (verses twenty-three and twenty-four) is an example of how the Pharisees expanded the written Law (Leviticus 27:30) down to minute details. They meticulously tithed, even of their herbs. Yet, Jesus said that while they did this, they were neglecting more important aspects of the Law such as justice, mercy and faith. The Pharisees were majoring on the minors. Jesus does not condemn their herb tithing, but condemns how they forgot more critical matters. They were faithful to the letter of the Law but lost the spirit of the Law.

In the sixth woe (verses twenty-five and twenty-six) Jesus condemns the externalism of their practices. They were concerned with ritualistic cleaning of the outside of cups and dishes, yet ignored the sinful attitudes or motives inside their hearts. This thought continues in the seventh woe (verses twenty-seven and twenty-right), where Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs. Tombs at that time were painted white, yet inside was a decaying corpse. Similarly, the Pharisees’ religious activities may have made them look good and commended them to the people, but inside Jesus said they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness. They had drifted into empty formalism, forgetting the meaning behind their rituals. After the series of woes, when you think the critique could not get any worse, Jesus goes on to call the Pharisees snakes and vipers that will be judged for shedding innocent blood (verses 33-36).

Remembering that Pharisaism began because of a desire to pursue righteousness through following the Law, Pentecost in this sentence summarizes the message of Matthew chapter twenty-three: “Convinced they had attained the righteousness they sought, the Pharisees became prey to their own self-satisfaction, and unknowingly they rejected their only hope of righteousness.” [23]  The Pharisees were so completely caught up in following the Law that they missed or forgot the point. The fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17-18) and the fulfillment of all righteousness (Matthew 3:13-15) was in their midst, yet they failed to see Jesus as this fulfillment.  The righteousness the Pharisees sought was not sufficient (Matthew 5:20). Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus would become the righteous basis by which sinners could be justified in the sight of God. This was the hope the Old Testament prophets had pointed to, which would have also unified fractured Judaism. Romans 10:3-4 summarizes: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”


This brief paper attempted to provide an overview of the historical Pharisees within the limits of studying history two millennia after the fact. The Second Temple period fractured Judaism into various parties, sects, and groups. The Pharisees in particular focused strongly on the written and oral Law. The Jews also had a hope in Yahweh’s promises through the prophets. When Jesus, the answer to these hopes and the fulfillment of the Law appeared, the nation as a whole rejected him. Since the Gospels highlight the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees (and other such groups) in such a striking way, it seems that God through inspiration wanted us to be familiar with the downfalls of the Pharisees. Even today it is all too easy to focus inward on our own good deeds or legalistically force our “personal standards” on others, instead of looking to Christ – our only hope of righteousness.


Barnett, Paul. Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999.

Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997.

Bock, Darrell. Studying the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. New York: Longmans Green and Company, no date.

Elwell, Walter, and Robert Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Holy Bible, New Catholic Edition [Contains Apocrypha]. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1948.

Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com).  Entry on the Pharisees, 1906.

Josephus, Flavius. The New Complete Works of Josephus. (Translated by William Whiston, Commentary by Paul Maier). Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.

MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990.

Mason, Steve. Josephus and the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 1992.

Neusner, Jacob. In Quest of the Historical Pharisees. Waco, Tx: Baylor University Press, 2007.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Saldarini, Anthony. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.

Tenney, Merrill, ed. Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.

Tenney, Merrill. New Testament Times. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, eds. Bible Knowledge Commentary. Victor Books, 1983.

Wellhausen, Julius. The Pharisees and the Sadducees. USA: Mercer University Press, 2001.

[1] Deeper scholarly debates/issues will be mentioned only in a more surface way, mainly because the brief length of this research paper is prohibitive for detailed explanation. In addition, the focus will be on what is more generally accepted so that the Scriptures and Christ can be better understood.

[2] Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 134.

[3] Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 27.

[4] Anthony Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

[5] Much scholarly research (biblical criticism) in relation to the Pharisees undermines the Scriptures. Mason and Saldarini, while having some valuable insight, create doubt about the historical reliability of the Gospels.

[6] Flavius Josephus, The New Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999), 441. Ant. 13.10.5

[7] Merrill Tenney, ed., Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 647.

[8] J.Dwight Pentecost, The Words & Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 546-547.

[9] Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 138.

[10] Anthony Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 93 and 111.

[11] Ibid., 93.

[12] Ibid., 120-122.

[13] Flavius Josephus, The New Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999), 586.

[14] Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 134.

[15] Flavius Josephus, The New Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999), 441.

[16] Ibid., 441.

[17]   Anthony Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 172.

[18] Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 139-140.

[19] J.Dwight Pentecost, The Words & Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 548.

[20] Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 137.

[21] In some manuscripts, verse fourteen is omitted which would make only seven woes.

[22] J.Dwight Pentecost, The Words & Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 176.

[23] Ibid., 548.