A history of the Pharisees, explaining how their religious tendencies are still evident in contempoary religious expression, and are contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ.
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved. You are free to download this article provided it remains intact without alteration. You are also free to transmit this article and quote this article provided that proper citation of authorship is included.
Throughout the recorded earthly ministry of Jesus Christ there seems to be an almost continuous conflict between Jesus and the Jewish party known as the Pharisees. It will be instructive for Christians to consider who these people were, how they thought, and the methods they employed in their religion.
This becomes particularly important when we realize that Pharisaic religion is indicative of all religious thinking and practice. If we are to interpret Jesus’ life and teaching correctly we must recognize that He was constantly confronting religion, as exemplified primarily in the Pharisees.
History of the Pharisees
No one knows precisely when the fraternity or party of the Pharisees actually started. Maybe it started as an ideological movement and eventually evolved into an organized religious sect.
In 538 B.C., the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Israelite people to return to Palestine. There was a movement to preserve a pure remnant of Israel, calling on the people to be dedicated to God and keep the Law.
The first mention of the “Pharisees” comes in the second century B.C. Sometime around 168 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes, who was sort of a “Greek Hitler,” determined to annihilate the Jewish religion and make Judea and Palestine completely Hellenistic. He sacked Jerusalem, killed thousands of Jews, and then offered sacrifices to the Greek god, Zeus, on the Jewish altar. The Jews were horrified and outraged. They organized themselves into guerrilla groups. After much fighting and bloodshed, they regained their freedom under their famous leader Judas Maccabaeus, in 165 B.C. For that reason Judas Maccabaeus is remembered as one of the great heroes of Judaism to this day. In the midst of the record of this restoration of Jewish freedom, we have the first historical reference to a group called the “Pharisees,” meaning “the separated ones,” in the midst of the Hasidim or “Pious Ones,” sometimes called the Hasideans, who fought with Judas Maccabaeus.
From 134 – 104 B.C. a new ruler reigned over Palestine. His name was John Hyrcanus. The Pharisees did not believe that he had a right to be king and high priest. At a state banquet, John Hyrcanus asked if anyone present had recommendations on ways to improve the government. A Pharisee, named Eleazar, stood up and suggested that the best thing Hyrcanus could do for the government would be to resign. He explained that since Hyrcanus’ mother was a captive of the Greeks, she obviously had been violated, and the king was probably the illegitimate son of a Greek soldier, and resignation would be the only honorable thing to do. John Hyrcanus was not impressed, and developed closer ties with the Sadducees.
When John Hyrcanus died, his son Aristobulus assumed the throne. He was, like his father, not favorably disposed toward the Pharisees, but he ruled only one year before he died.
Aristobulus’ wife, Salome Alexandra, became the queen. She had more sympathy with the Pharisees, because it is reported that her brother was a prominent Pharisee, Simon ben Shatach. But she then married Alexander Jannaeus, who had no tolerance for the Pharisees.
Alexander Jannaeus did everything he could to denigrate the Pharisees. On one occasion as the Feast of the Tabernacle, he refused to pour water on the altar and poured it on the ground instead. The Pharisees began pelting him with citrons, a fruit resembling a large lemon, and began yelling insults at him. He responded by calling out the troops and slaughtered large numbers of Jews. Six years of civil war resulted, in which the Pharisees fought the king’s troops. Eventually, when Jannaeus was mortally wounded in a skirmish, Salome became ruling queen again. During her nine year reign, before she died in 67 B.C., the Pharisees became a powerful political and religious party, and remained so until the first century A.D..
The Roman general, Pompey, entered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and set up Roman rule. During the reign of Herod the Great in 37-4 B.C., the Pharisees refused to take an oath of loyalty to Herod and the Romans, and were therefore look upon with skepticism by the Roman rulers. The Romans allowed the Jewish Sanhedrin, composed mostly of Sadducees, to have some control of internal affairs in Palestine, but Josephus, the Jewish historian, notes that even the Sadducees had to capitulate “to the formulas of the Pharisees, since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them.”
Even among modern Jews there is a respected veneration for the Pharisees. These men were the “freedom fighters,” the heroes of Jewish liberation, brave men who helped to preserve God’s people. Jews don’t appreciate the fact that Christians hold the Pharisees in such disdain, to the extent that the English language even defines “pharisaism” as an attitude marked by hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
It is true that we can see some admirable points in the history of the Pharisees. They were dedicated national heroes. They accepted the Scriptures as God-given, and were careful Old Testament students. They kept the ceremonial laws, tithed sacrificially, emphasized the study of the Old Testament, and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. 1
But during the ministry of Jesus, almost one hundred years after the establishment of their influence and power, the Pharisees represented almost everything that was the antithesis of what Jesus came to reveal in Himself. The Pharisees represented the predominant grass-roots religion of Judaism during the first half of the first century A.D. They were the “people’s party.” Their influence was felt far beyond their numbers, for only about one in ten people in Palestine were official members of the Pharisees.
Most of the scribes, who were the professional teachers of the Law, were Pharisees. Some of the priests were Pharisees. Some scholars regard the Zealots as an extremist, left-wing branch of Pharisaism, determined to deliver Israel from Roman rule by militaristic might.
Most of the Pharisees, though, had no scribal education. They were just people who wanted to live pure, separated lives, separating themselves from the amhares, the “people of the land,” the “worldly” people. They joined together in closed communities (haburah) of religious association, which had strict rules of admission, demanding commitment to laws of purity and tithing. They tended to relate only to the haber, other members of the “brotherhood.” They were committed to the Law of Moses, as well as the Halakah, the oral traditions of the rabbis, which included many of the seyag, the “fence” or “hedge” laws to keep people within the parameters of the law. They had regular meetings, and were organized under the leadership of a scribe.
External behavior and “appearances” were important to the Pharisees. Coleman refers to them as the “How do we look” cult.2 “The ethical side was more important than the theological side. They were far more concerned with orthopraxy than with orthodoxy.” 3 But, they didn’t practice what they preached!
Even the Jews themselves recognized the hypocrisy and false piety of the Pharisees. In the Talmud there was a list of seven kinds of Pharisees. (1)
the “shoulder” Pharisee who wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them. (2) the “wait a little” Pharisee who was always procrastinating and finding an excuse for putting off a good deed. (3) the “bruised” Pharisee who closed his eyes to avoid looking at a woman and ran into a wall and bruised himself. (4) the “hump-backed” Pharisee who always walked bent over in false humility. (5) the “ever-reckoning” Pharisee who was always counting up the number of his good deeds. (6) the “fearful” Pharisee who was terribly afraid of the wrath of God. (7) the God-loving Pharisee who was like Abraham.4
Criticism of the Pharisees was common. The Sadducees criticized them. The writings of the Essenes of the Qumran community, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, criticized them. Jesus criticized them intensely.
A Contemporary Perspective of the Pharisees
In order to attempt to view the Pharisees analagous with contemporary attitudes and groups, one might take features of several social groupings and mix them together. This might help us to get a mental picture of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were somewhat like the…
Veterans of Foreign Wars. They traced their history back to being heroes of liberation. They lived in recollection of the past. When behind closed doors, they really liked to “party.”
“Good Ole Boys Club” (emphasis on the “good”). There was a camaraderie wherein they all thought alike, talked alike, dressed alike. Unless you grew up in that context, you could never really be a part of the “in” group.
U.S. Marine Corps. They were always recruiting for a “few good men.” They saw themselves as “The Few, the Proud, the Pharisees.” They were steeped in “tradition.” They were very disciplined. Some were quite militaristic in opposition to the Romans.
Ku Klux Klan. They had a sense of racial superiority. They were negativistic, bigoted, prejudiced and full of hate.
Radical Fundamentalists. They were knit-picking about the rules and regulations; the codes of conduct. They divided life into neat little compartments with no flexibility, having preconceived ideas of how everything should work. They were literalists. They were separatists. They were insecure about personal freedom, preferring instead precise behavioral fences.
Operation Rescue. There was a fanaticism about rescuing their ideology. They confronted the “issues,” as they saw them. They had spies and informants. On occasions they would even revert to murder, as in the case of Jesus.
Mormons. They had a tight family structure. They accepted extra-biblical revelation. They engaged in aggressive proselytizing.
Masons. Theirs was a secret society. You began as an “initiate” and moved up through the levels. There was advantage in the social “networking.”
Legal Defense League. They had lots of lawyers, willing to argue for or against the interpretation of the law.
Moral Majority. They were a right-wing political power that had to be reckoned with, feared, and capitulated to. They were the “moral policemen” of society. They looked down condescendingly and censoriously on the “worldly” people .
Roman Catholic Church. There was a well-organized hierarchy. They were ritualistic, formalistic and liturgical. There was great fear in missing the regulated times of prayer.
P.T.L. Club. They engaged in financial fraud, extorting contributions from widows and the poor; fleecing the people. They were hyperactive. They were hypocritical. They were overly concerned about “appearances” and how they looked to others, and became pretentious in their ostentatious religious externality.
Gnostics. They had a spiritual pride of their knowledge, believing that they had entered into the deeper levels of God’s mysteries.
Self-help pop-psychologists. They believed in an inherent human potential of every man to determine the good and do the good, and thus solve all of one’s problems.
Holistic, New Age movement. They believed there was a “divine spark” in every man that needed to be ignited by setting one’s mind on truth, so as to bring harmony to one’s being.
Religious conservatives. They attempted to conserve the practice of the law and the traditions.
Political liberals. They were primarily concerned with symbol, without substance. They were willing to add to and subtract from the laws as they saw fit, based on personal expedience.
When you throw all those ideas into the same hopper, you have some idea of a contemporary resemblance to the Pharisees. It was religious perversion at its worst! But it was a perfect environment to provide the ultimate contrast to what Jesus came to reveal in Himself, the “good news” of Christianity. Pharisaism provides a complete, glaring and radical religious antithesis to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The either/or between Christianity and religion is most evident in the contrast and conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.
Contrasting Christ’s Teaching and Pharisaism
In his book exploring the Ethics of Christianity, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer indicates that,
“It is in Jesus’ meeting with the Pharisees that the old and the new are most clearly contrasted. The correct understanding of this meeting is of the greatest significance for the understanding of the gospel as a whole.”
“Jesus speaks with a complete freedom which is not bound by the law of logical alternatives To the Pharisees this freedom necessarily appears as the negation of all order, all piety and all belief. Jesus casts aside all the distinctions which the Pharisee so laboriously maintains. For the Pharisee, Jesus is a nihilist, a man who knows and respects only his own law, an egoist and a blasphemer of God.” 5
Swedish author Hugo Odeberg, in his book entitled Pharisaism and Christianity, notes the contrasting presuppositions of Pharisaic thought and Christian thought.
“The antithesis between Jesus and the Pharisees…involved the extreme basic principles, teachings, and experiences upon the recognition or denial of which the entire existence of society was dependent.” 6
“Pharisaism declares: Man shall will what is good, and he is able to will what is good. He who wills what is good and also seeks to do good becomes a good and upright person. Christ’s teaching, however, declares that by nature man neither can nor will do what is good. If he directs his will and his efforts toward that which is good, he in reality comes to strive for that which is evil. 7
“It is a fundamental conviction of Pharisaism that man has a free will with respect to morality. The Talmud states that ‘everything is in God’s hands except godliness. Whether man is a wicked man or a righteous man, this is determined by man himself.’ That man has a free will in moral matters implies he is able to do what the commandments require. The ethical action is within man’s power to perform. He can both will and do what is right. Josephus, himself a Pharisee, explained, ‘do not deprive the human will of the pursuit of what is in man’s power.’ The Christian view is that man cannot choose what is good, and whatever ways of conduct he may choose, he can never produce what is good.”8
“The Christian view is that man can will to do good and obey the divine will only on the assumption that he has become a new creature, born again by the Spirit. To the Pharisaic manner of thinking, this view is simply incomprehensible and appears as sheer folly.9
“The Pharisees taught the idea of the indestructible divine soul, the innermost and vital part of man. The neshama prayer was, ‘My God, the soul which Thou hast given me is pure.’ The neshama (soul) of man was regarded as a divine and eternal vestige in man, the divine spark in every man. Pharisaic Judaism is unable to comprehend the fall of man and the idea of original sin. They speak of good impulses versus evil impulses. The evil impulses may obscure the purity of the soul, but never extinguish it. Man’s task is to bring everything within himself into harmony with his noblest (neshama) part, under the dominion of the divine spark. One rabbi wrote, ‘In all of man there is nothing unclean. He is pure. Man is created in the image of God.’ Christian teaching, on the other hand, indicates that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12,16,17). The divine life in man has not been obscured but totally lost.10
“For Pharisaism ‘conversion’ is when man turns around from the direction leading away from God to the direction leading to God, to begin a new way of life by one’s own ability, to change oneself by his own strength. Pharisaism consists in wanting to attain the divine by means which are apart from God. Christian behavior is based on, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20).” 11
These are revealing contrasts between the theses of Pharisaism and Christianity. They are based on diametrically opposite presuppositions and premises.
Pharisaic thinking is indicative of all religious thinking, which is contrary to the “good news” of what Jesus came to bring in Himself. Pharisaic thinking and methodology is cultic thinking and methodology. It includes extra-biblical revelation, authoritarianism, elitism, superiority, pride, exclusivism, separatism, secrecy, legalism, moral and behavioral conformity, isolationism, busyness, critical and hostile attitudes, defensiveness, self-serving, deception, proselytizing, financial exploitation, political attachments, prophetic abuse, etc. These are not consistent with the character and ministry of Jesus Christ.
To the extent that one thinks like a Pharisee, he is not thinking like a Christian. Odeberg explains that
“A Pharisaism which assumes Christian lines of thought ceases to be Pharisaism, and a Christianity which incorporates Pharisaic lines of thought likewise ceases to be Christianity. Pharisaism is not something that can be combined with Christianity. It will work as a deadly poison which is bound to destroy the Christian life. 12
It is tragic that many Christians have never seen the radical dichotomy between Pharisaism and Christianity, between religion and Christianity. Pharisaic attitudes and methods are so pervasive and rampant within “Christian religion” today that it is imperative that those who call themselves “Christians” reconsider why Jesus was constantly exposing the Pharisees as contrary to the gospel He came to bring in Himself.
1 The historical synopsis and evaluation of the Pharisees is derived from Coleman, William L., The Pharisees Guide to Total Holiness. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publlishers, 1977. 2 Ibid., pg. 120. 3 Hagner, D.A., The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia. Article on “Pharisees.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co., pg. 750. 4 Varner, Will, Israel, My Glory magazine. “Another Look at the Pharisees.” June/July, 1989. pg. 10. 5 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1955. pgs. 26-36. 6 Odeberg, Hugo, Pharisaism and Christianity. St Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1964. pg. 6. 7 Ibid., pg. 56. 8 Ibid., pg. 57. 9 Ibid., pg. 66. 10 Ibid., pg. 74. 11 Ibid., pg. 104. 12 Ibid., pg. 7.