PHARISEES făr’ ə səz (פְּרוּשִׁים; φαρισαῖοι). One of the most important of the Jewish sects of the late intertestamental and NT periods, determining thereafter the character of reconstituted Judaism.
1. Meaning of “Pharisee.”The most widely accepted etymology is that which traces the name back to the Heb. word פָּרַשׁ֒, H7300, which means “to separate.” A Pharisee, according to this explanation, is a “separatist” or a separated person. Despite the obvious appropriateness of the designation “separated,” it is not entirely clear in what sense it is to be understood. Had the Pharisee separated himself from the house of the Hasmoneans, from the Gentiles and their abominations, from cultural assimilation to the Hel. way of life, or primarily from “the people of the land”—the large mass of Jewry who lived with little concern for the things of the law? Actually the Pharisee lived in separation from all of these, but it is not known which particular aspect historically, if any, was responsible for the designation פְּרוּשִׁים.
Some have disputed that the initial use of פְּרוּשִׁים referred to the separation from groups of people or things, contending instead that the “separation” referred to was in the interpretation of Scripture, for one of the meanings of פָּרַשׁ֒, H7300, is “to divide” or “interpret.” Accordingly, the suggestion is that whatever “Pharisee” came to mean later, initially it meant “interpreter” and referred to the exceptional exegetical abilities of these men. This, however, seems much less likely than the former explanation.
An interesting and quite plausible alternative denies that the name derives from the verb פָּרַשׁ֒, H7300, and finds its origin instead in the Aram. word for “Persian” (root, פרסי). This explanation, argued forcefully by T. W. Manson, is based on the strong resemblance between various doctrines of the Pharisees and doctrines of Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia (see below). The Pharisees by their somewhat innovative teachings might well have been regarded as “Persianizers.” Whether or not this is the true etymology of “Pharisee,” the word play and its suitability can hardly have been missed, for example, by the Sadducees who regarded themselves as purists in doctrine. It may be that both etymologies were currently popular in NT times; it seems probable, however, that “Pharisee” was originally coined to reflect the separatist tendencies of these people.
2. Origin and history. The roots of the Pharisees can be traced to the “Hasidim” of the 2nd cent.—those “pious men” of Israel whose loyalty to their covenant relationship with Yahweh impelled them to resist the increasing pressure toward Hellenization. The Maccabean uprising (167 b.c. and succeeding years) against the mad policies of Antiochus Epiphanes found the Hasidim in full support of the resistance. But with the rededication of the Temple in 164 b.c. and the achievement of religious freedom in 162 b.c., the Hasidim, who were concerned primarily with the religious and not the political life of the country, became increasingly separate from the political intrigues of the Hasmoneans. Among the many sects spawned by the Hasidim was that of the Pharisees, and indeed they, perhaps more than any of the other sects, may be regarded as the direct continuation of Hasidism into the NT period. The earliest historical reference to the Pharisees is found in Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. v. 9), who introduces them along with the Sadducees and Essenes as representatives of differing doctrinal viewpoints held at the time his narrative describes (about 145 b.c.).
The next piece of information concerning the history of the Pharisees is also from Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. x. 5; cf. BT, Kidd., 66a for a similar account). He tells of John Hyrcanus (son of Simon Maccabeus) who was the high priest under whom political independence was finally achieved (128 b.c.), and who was also a disciple of the Pharisees. Hyrcanus had invited Pharisees to a great dinner, and during the course of the festivities had shared with them his desire to attain righteousness and to please God, indicating that he would be glad to hear from them anything that would aid him in self-improvement. All concurred that he was already a righteous man. A certain Eleazar, however, a perverse individual according to Josephus, suggested that Hyrcanus really ought to give up the high priesthood and content himself with the civil government alone, since rumor had it that Hyrcanus’ mother had prior to his birth been a captive of the Seleucids. The implication was that the real father, and thus the priestly lineage, of Hyrcanus was questionable. The understandable offense taken by Hyrcanus was aggravated by a Sadducee named Jonathan, who insisted that such was the view of the Pharisees generally despite their loud disclaimers. When the Pharisees denied that Eleazar’s insult should require the death penalty, Hyrcanus allowed himself, by Jonathan’s urging, to be drawn away from the Pharisees, and to oppose their activities with much hostility. Thus in the earliest strand of historical information the beginnings of the breach between the Pharisees and the rulers are evident, and the rulers henceforth tended to espouse the Sadducean viewpoint. The rift that began here and continued to grow proved to be of great importance, since the Pharisees, according to Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. x. 5), held very great influence with the masses. This fact itself is seen by many to lie at the root of the quarrel between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees.
Historically, it is clear that more fundamental differences were responsible for this major division within Judaism. The increasing political orientation of the Hasmonean house, embodied, for example, in the adoption of the royal diadem by Aristobulus I (Jos Antiq. XIII. xi. 1; War I. iii. 1), was at variance with the exclusively religious orientation of the Pharisees. During the reigns of Aristobulus I and Alexander Jannaeus, the breach between the two factions continued—with the Pharisees enjoying increasing popularity among the people. When Jannaeus was defeated by the Nabataean Arabs, the malcontented population took advantage of the situation and instigated a rebellion against Jannaeus that was to last nearly six years (94-88 b.c.). Although the Pharisees are not specifically mentioned in Josephus’ account (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xiii. 5; XIV. 2; War I. iv. 6), they must have played an important part in this rebellion, and would have been well represented among the eight hundred Jews crucified as victims of Jannaeus’ vengeance. Josephus does have Jannaeus refer to the Pharisees on his deathbed (76 b.c.) and attributes his conflict with the nation to his harsh treatment of them (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xv. 5). Jannaeus is said by Josephus also to have counseled his wife Alexandra concerning the power of the Pharisees among the people and thus to have encouraged her, for very practical reasons, “to yield a certain amount of power” to them (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xv. 5). Queen Alexandra, whose brother Simon ben Shetach was leader of the Pharisees, found this advice agreeable, and during her reign the power of the Pharisees grew considerably, indeed to such extent that Josephus says they possessed the royal authority whereas Alexandra had only its burdens (War I. v. 2).
The Pharisees flourished under Simon as long as Alexandra lived. At her death (67 b.c.) a struggle for the throne took place between her two sons, Hyrcanus II, the rightful heir who also possessed the support of the Pharisees, and his younger brother Aristobulus II who was backed by the Sadducees. Aristobulus proved the stronger of the brothers. Hyrcanus soon yielded to him and the political fortunes of the Pharisees declined. For the Pharisees, however, political matters were secondary, and adversity seems only to have had the effect of deepening and strengthening their religious commitment and effectiveness. Although Hyrcanus regained the high priesthood, thanks to the efforts of the opportunist Antipater, it was only at the cost of political sovereignty. This division within Judaism thus proved itself to be a major factor in the collapse of the Hasmoneans and the concomitant subservience to Rome.
The Pharisees retained their influence with the masses through all these vicissitudes, so that even Herod, a puppet of Rome, was careful not to offend them unduly. He had no regard for their religious teachings but was well aware of the threat they posed to the stability of his kingdom. At this time, according to Josephus, the Pharisees numbered “above six thousand” (Jos. Antiq. XVII. ii. 4). This, however, quite prob. refers only to members in the fullest sense and does not include many who should also be counted among the Pharisees. (T. W. Manson estimates that as much as five percent of the total population could be counted among the Pharisees.) They also held an important, though prob. not controlling (despite Talmudic claims), representation in the Sanhedrin through this period on into NT times.
In the gospels the Pharisees appear often as the chief antagonists of Jesus. They are portrayed as the religious “experts” of the day who took it upon themselves to scrutinize and ultimately to condemn the words and works of Jesus. A number of times they are linked with the Sadducees (e.g., Matt 16:1) and even with the Herodians (e.g., Matt 22:15f.; Mark 3:6; 12:13) with whom they were by no means in agreement, but with whom they were able to unite against Jesus (Matt 22:34). These passages doubtless reflect the place that the Pharisees held in the governing body of the Sanhedrin. Indeed, the considerable influence of the Pharisees apparently made it expedient for the politically more powerful Sadducees to respect and on occasion to yield to the opinion of the Pharisees. According to Josephus, the Sadducees repeatedly had to submit, albeit unwillingly, to the dictates of the Pharisees “since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them” (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 4; cf. the Sanhedrin’s acceptance of Gamaliel’s recommendation in Acts 5:34ff.).
The great Jewish revolt leading to the collapse of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 owed its vitality to the Zealots rather than to the Pharisees. In fact, the Pharisees appear to have been in principle opposed to the revolt and were among the first to make peace with the Romans. According to the Talmud, even before the hostilities were concluded, Johanan ben Zakkai asked for and received permission from the Rom. authorities to establish a school at Jamnia (Jabneh). Here and later, at Tiberias, a succession of famous rabbis, such as Gamaliel II, Akiba, Ishmael, and Meir, carried on the process of establishing and perpetuating the essence of Judaism. Without its Temple, the Jewish religion was forced to take on a new character, and when after the last Jewish rebellion (a.d. 132) all hope of rebuilding the Temple was lost, the work of these men assumed a new importance. The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah (c. a.d. 200), which is the culminating work of these scholars—and, in turn, a new beginning in the history of Jewish scholarship—is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of Pharisaism, which henceforth became synonymous with Judaism.
3. Composition and organization. By way of contrast with the Sadducees, who were drawn almost exclusively from the aristocracy, the Pharisees largely were members of the middle class. They tended to be the businessmen—the merchants and the tradesmen of their day—and this apparently accounts for the large amount of Talmudic material given over to the intricacies of commercialism. These were men earnestly concerned with following after the law and who had thus separated themselves from the great mass of the populace—the so-called “people of the land” (am ha-aretz)—by their strict adherence to the minutia of their legal tradition. The average Pharisee had no formal education in the interpretation of the law and accordingly had recourse to the professional scholar, the scribe (of which class the majority were Pharisees), in legal matters. Although the vast majority of the Pharisees were thus bourgeois laymen there appear to have been a number of Priests and Levites who were also Pharisees. They were a relatively small number within their own ranks, but they were nonetheless committed to Pharisaic ideals, seeing in them a means to raise the purity of the laity to a level approximating that of the priesthood (idealistically conceived).
The Pharisees, like other separatist groups (e.g. the Essenes), were organized into distinct and closed communities. The haburah, “community,” referred to in the Talmudic materials is prob. a Pharisaic community, and the haber, “companion” or member of the community, a Pharisee. Apparently several of these holy communities existed in the environs of Jerusalem, where their concentration heightened their effectiveness. Admission into these communities was strictly regulated. A candidate must first agree to take upon himself obedience to all the detailed legislation of the Pharisaic tradition, involving tithing and esp. ceremonial and dietary purity. He then entered a period of probation (the length of which was, according to differing viewpoints, either one month or one year) during which he was carefully observed with respect to his vow of obedience. Successful completion of this probation entitled the candidate to full membership in the community.
Each community was organized under the leadership of a scribe, who served as a professional authority in the interpretation of the law, and prob. had other officers as well. The communities not only provided opportunity for mutual scrutiny and mutual encouragement, but also had regularly scheduled meetings for worship (usually on the eve of the Sabbath). Study of the Torah and a communal meal were also a part of these gatherings. The pseudepigraphon known as the Psalms of Solomon is a document that was used in Pharisaic communities and quite possibly used liturgically in their worship services. It would have provided not only a strong anti-Sadducean polemic, and thus a reminder of the reason for the existence of the community, but also would have voiced the hopes of the Pharisaic community. The outreach and impact of the Pharisees was, of course, not limited to these closed communities. Through the activities of the synagogue, which served as the arm of the Pharisees, esp. in the teaching of Torah and in the administration of public charity, Pharisaism influenced a large segment of the populace, many of whom inclined toward the views of the Pharisees without taking upon themselves full membership in the community.
The closed communities of the Pharisees are thus parallel and closely related to the Essene separatist groups, known today particularly from the Damascus Document, and also, to a lesser extent, known through the Qumran Manual of Discipline. Without identifying the Pharisees and the Essenes, it may be readily admitted that they had much in common, in goals and methodologies as well as in the common milieu that constituted the motivating force of both movements.
4. Teaching in relation to other sects. The prime distinctive of Pharisaism is not to be found in its zeal for the law, for this was a characteristic of all the religious sects among the Jews of the NT period. It is to be found instead in the peculiar importance attached to the oral law as contrasted to the written law or Torah.
a. Oral law. The basic issue was the authority of the oral law. The Pharisees accepted along with the Torah, as equally inspired and authoritative, all of the explanatory and supplementary material produced by, and contained within, the oral tradition. This material apparently began to evolve during the Babylonian Exile through the new circumstances thereby brought upon the Jewish people. The Exile was seen as divine punishment for neglect of the law, and accordingly during this period there was an earnest turning to the law. Detailed exposition of the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific injunctions that were designed to “build a hedge” around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible infringement of the Torah by ignorance or accident. In addition, the new circumstances of the Exile and the post-exilic period involved matters not covered in the written Torah; consequently new legislation had to be produced by analogy to, and inference from, that which already existed. The content of this oral law continued to evolve and to grow in vol. through the intertestamental, NT, and post-NT periods, finally to achieve written form in the Mishnah (a.d. 200). For the Pharisees, the oral law came to be revered so highly that it was said to go back to Moses himself and to have been transmitted over the centuries orally, paralleling the written law that also derived from him.
Josephus refers several times to the expertise “in the interpretation of the Law for which the Pharisees had become known” (e.g., Jos. Life, 38). Of the various sects they were regarded as “the most accurate interpreters of the laws” (Jos. War II. viii. 14) and also were known for their austerity of life (Jos. Antiq. XIII. i. 3). Josephus further specifies that it was exactly this obsession with “regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses” (Jos. Antiq. XIII. x. 6) that constituted the breach between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. With this may be compared the NT reference to the Pharisaic prepossession with the “tradition of the elders” or the “tradition of men” (cf. Matt 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-23; cf. Jos. Antiq. XIII. xvi. 2). The NT abounds with allusions to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism: the tithing of herbs (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42); the wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels (Matt 23:5); the careful observance of ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7:1ff.); frequent fastings (Matt 9:14); distinctions in oaths (23:16ff.), etc.
The Mishnah offers even more striking illustration of this precise definition of the law. Here is a virtual encyclopedia of Pharisaic legalism that instructs the reader with almost incredible detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct. It is impossible to do justice to this material by attempting to describe it; one can do no better than to sample the contents of the Mishnah for himself. This legal material of the Mishnah is described as Halacha (literally “walking”), that which prescribes, as contrasted with the other basic type of material in oral tradition (esp. in the Gemaras and Midrash) known as Haggadah, or that which edifies and instructs.
Under the direction of their scribes, the Pharisees tended to proliferate Halacha. This concern for every jot and tittle of performance might give the impression that the Pharisees were excessively rigid and intolerant. That they were rigorists there can be no doubt, but it is interesting to note that in their interpretation of the written Torah they often were more liberal than the literalist Sadducees. Moreover, even among themselves there was room for disagreement. In the last decades of the 1st cent. b.c. there sprang up two rival schools of interpretation among the Pharisees. The one, led by Shammai, was stringent and unbendingly conservative; the other, led by Hillel, was liberally inclined and willing to “reconcile” the laws with the actual situations of life. The rivalry between these two schools is permanently recorded in the Mishnah where frequently the differing views are contrasted. In the gospels certain questions put to Jesus by the Pharisees seem to have as their background, if not their actual motive, disputes between these two schools of interpretation (e.g., divorce, Matt 19:3ff.). Jewish scholars often liken Jesus to Hillel and argue that in many respects he could be regarded as a disciple of Hillel. Nonetheless, on at least one point—that regarding grounds for divorce (Matt 19:9)—Jesus agreed with Shammai against Hillel. Hillel indeed anticipated Jesus’ summary of the law in his own negative formulation of the Golden Rule: “What you would not have done to thyself do not to another; that is the whole law, the rest is commentary” (BT Shabbath 31a). In the decades prior to the catastrophe of a.d. 70 it seems that the harsher attitude of the Shammaites tended to prevail among the Pharisees generally. From the following reconstruction onward it was the somewhat gentler viewpoint of the Hillelites that won out. Thus a division within the Pharisees came to an end, which could itself have been disastrous for the remaining history of Pharisaism.
The oral law of the Pharisees, however, is unquestionably impressive. This is true not only of the scope, the complexity of structure, and the inventiveness (not to say genius) of its exegesis, but also as a monumental expression of concern for righteousness. Although it is known that hypocrisy existed, there is no point in impugning the motives of these men generally. Yet there seem to be some inevitable weaknesses in a system that is devoted to the formulation of microscopic precepts. Really significant issues are too easily lost in the welter of trivial detail. Worse than that, often the very dictum of the law supposedly elucidated by the specifics of the oral tradition tends itself to fall victim to, and to be nullified by, the casuistry of the scribes. These, of course, are among the main criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees voiced by Jesus (see below).
b. The future life. Among other doctrinal characteristics of the Pharisees, those having to do with the future life stand in particularly marked contrast with the views of the Sadducees. In that superb compendium of Pharisaic worship, the Psalms of Solomon, the eschatological expectations of a Messiah who would restore the fortunes of Israel are prominent. The Pharisees looked for that day when the evil regime of the present (esp. the wickedness of the Sadducees) would be dissolved and the glorious kingdom of righteousness for a righteous Israel would be inaugurated. The righteousness they themselves followed after with such zeal would, they hoped, serve as catalyst for the coming of the Messiah. It was not only here, however, that the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees with respect to the future, for the Pharisees also taught that there remained a future for the dead. According to Josephus, the Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul and in reward and retribution after death (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 3; War II. viii. 14). In the latter passage he speaks of the soul moving into “another body.” It seems more likely that Josephus was intending to thus describe the resurrection of the body to his Hel. readers than that he was attributing the doctrine of transmigration of the soul to the Pharisees. These teachings were rejected outright by the Sadducees (who held to the old notion of Sheol; cf. Matt 22:23) presumably on the contention that such teachings were not to be found in the written Torah, and therefore were foreign imports. The bitter quarrel between the Pharisees and the Sadducees on this question is humorously illustrated in the clever way that Paul was able to pit the one group against the other by referring to the question of the resurrection of the dead in his trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6ff.). The ultimate triumph of the Pharisaic view is very apparent in the strong assertion of the Mishnah that “he that says there is no resurrection of the dead prescribed in the Law” (but the last three words are omitted in some MSS) has “no share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 10:1).
c. Free will and determinism. On this difficult question, the Pharisees held to a mediating view that made it impossible for either free will or the sovereignty of God to cancel out the other. As Josephus put it, “Though they postulate that everything is brought about by fate, still they do not deprive the human will of the pursuit of what is in man’s power” (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 3; cf. Antiq. XIII. v. 9; War II. viii. 14). By the word “fate,” a term familiar in Stoicism, Josephus intended to communicate to his Hel. readers the Jewish idea of “providence.” In holding to both sides of the antinomy, the Pharisees avoided the extreme views of both the Sadducees and the Essenes. The former argued that free will was ultimately determinative of the course of history (Jos. War II. viii. 14; Antiq. XIII. v. 9), whereas the latter went to the extreme of arguing that all was determined in advance and that therefore human will was of no consequence (Jos. Antiq. XIII. v. 9; cf. Antiq. XVIII. i. 5). Again the prevalence of the Pharisaic view in later Judaism is evident from the Mishnah as can be seen for example in Akiba’s dictum “all is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given” (Aboth 2:16).
d. Angelology. The Pharisees accepted a rather developed hierarchy of angels and demons. Although Josephus is silent on the subject, the NT (Acts 23:8) relates that the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees, arguing there is neither “angel, nor spirit.” It seems unlikely that this piece of NT evidence should be taken in an absolute sense, since there is evidence of angels already in the Books of Moses, which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative. The Sadducees would have protested, however, the proliferation of angels in the intertestamental period, and esp. the individualizing and personalizing of such beings, as well as the structuring of them into hierarchies of two opposing kingdoms, in which the Pharisees indulged. Doubtless the Pharisees were accused of adopting their angelology and demonology from Babylonian and Persian sources. In the apocrypha, and esp. in the Apoc. Lit., such angelology flourished. In the later Jewish tradition, the rabbinic concept of angels apparently remained unsettled and there are signs of a continuing debate on the subject.
e. Humanity. The Pharisees were champions of human equality. Unlike the aristocratic Sadducees, who with their vested interests were defenders of the status quo, the Pharisees can be characterized in a number of respects as representatives of a democratic movement. The Pharisaic antagonism to the political reign of the aristocrats constitutes a major reason for the popularity of the Pharisees among the masses. Indeed, the social position of the Pharisees as plebeians and the resultant hatred for the patrician Sadducees is taken by Finkelstein to be of crucial importance in the understanding of Pharisaism. For example, Finkelstein points to the Pharisees’ hunger for equality with the aristocracy as the principal reason for their favoring the doctrines of eschatology, determinism, and angelology, with their intrinsic promises to the downtrodden. To be sure, the Pharisees looked superciliously upon the am ha-aretz, “the people of the land,” who took no heed of the Torah, but this was precisely because the Pharisees were concerned to make righteousness of life a “democratic” phenomenon by extending it beyond the priestly class. The Pharisees, indeed, possessed an admirable reverence for humanity, and along with that reverence a high regard for tolerance (cf. Gamaliel’s restraint in Acts 5:34ff.) and a great love of peace. Hillel’s famous saying recorded in the Mishnah, was “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Law” (Aboth 1:12).
In summary, it is obvious that the emphasis of their teaching fell upon the ethical side rather than the theological side. That is, they were far more concerned with orthopraxy than with orthodoxy. Beyond their fascination with legal minutia and the great mass of theology that they held in common with all other 1st-cent. Jews, there were special tenets peculiar to Pharisaism. It was claimed by the Sadducees that these distinctive teachings of the Pharisees (i.e., resurrection and the future life; angelology and demonology) had been borrowed from the Persians and Babylonians, and esp. the Zoroastrian religion. It cannot be denied that these views, which are shared also by NT Christianity, were of great importance in Babylon and Persia, and that the contact of the exiled Jews with these cultures stimulated Jewish thinking on these subjects. While allowing this, however, it is difficult to believe that the Jews who otherwise insulated themselves so effectively from pagan contamination during the Exile would have adopted ideas that were alien to their written law. It is much more likely that certain ideas that were to a degree implicit but undeveloped in the written revelation received a new impetus and a subsequent development consonant with, and not contradictory to, that revelation. The Pharisaic justification for these views thus appears to have been a valid one.
A final point that should be noted is the tension within Pharisaism, which was both a conservative and a progressive movement—a movement championing tradition but capitalizing on adaptation. Surely here is something of the genius of the Pharisaic movement. It was able to move ahead with changing times and circumstances, making itself relevant to the vast majority of the population, yet remaining true to its basic commitments.
5. Jesus and the Pharisees. If the Pharisees of Jesus’ day adhered at all to what has been sketched above as the essentials of Pharisaism, how are we to account for the scathing denunciations they received from the lips of Jesus? Taken at face value Matthew 23:13-39 presents anything but an attractive picture of the Pharisees. Jesus accused them of hypocrisy and pretentiousness, and pronounced upon them a succession of woes (seven in all) culminating in the terrible, climactic exclamation: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (23:33). It is a tragedy that from this ch. in Matthew the word “Pharisee” has come to mean popularly a self-righteous, hypocritical prig. Unfortunately not even Christian scholarship was able over the centuries to rid itself of an unfair bias against the Pharisees. Some of this failure was, no doubt, due to an all too common anti-semitism, but much was the result of neglecting the rabbinic lit. (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, etc.) as valid historical sources. That lit.—if it was considered at all—was regarded as contradicting the picture of Pharisaism in the primary sources, Josephus and the NT. If the rabbinic sources contradicted the NT, it was argued, so much the worse for the rabbinic sources. It was never considered, however, that the contradiction might be only an apparent one and not a real one. Even if the fullest weight is given to the NT, it will do no good to shut the eyes to the positive qualities of Pharisaism as revealed in the rabbinic lit. As Jewish scholars rightly insist, and as Christian scholars have increasingly admitted, that picture of Pharisaism cannot be completely a fabrication. Although from a historical perspective the superiority of the NT documents to the Mishnah and later rabbinic compilations as sources for our knowledge of the 1st cent. cannot be doubted, yet it must be recognized that a fair amount of the latter material does provide accurate information concerning Judaism in this period.
In the gospels, it is clear that Jesus was not attacking a straw man; His criticisms of the Pharisees may be regarded as appropriate and justified. These criticisms center on the areas of teaching and practice. In the first instance—and here it is primarily the Pharisaic scribes that are in view—the content of the oral law was called into question. With devastating irony Jesus exclaimed, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!” (Mark 7:9; cf. Matt 15:3). The “tradition of men” had taken the place of, indeed had nullified, the commandments of the word of God (Mark 7:8, 13). Jesus did not question the rightful authority of these scribes, nor would He have questioned everything that they taught. They “sit on Moses’ seat” and accordingly the people should “practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matt 23:2f.). Although there certainly are the “weightier matters of the law,” not even the Pharisaic custom of tithing mint, dill, and cummin should be neglected (23:23). At the same time much of the legal minutia of the oral tradition constituted too difficult and unnecessary a burden, which the Pharisees made no move to alleviate (23:4; cf. Acts 15:10). Their apparent inability to maintain a consistency between their tradition and the written law made them, as Jesus put it, blind leaders of the blind (Matt 15:14; cf. 23:16, 17, 19, 24, 26). Their culpability lay in the fact that they did not enter the kingdom of God, nor (what is even worse) would they by their teaching “allow those who would enter to go in” (23:13).
Even more pernicious than the teaching of the Pharisees, however, was the gap between their profession and their practice. Their over-concern with externals led almost naturally to a neglect not only of the weightier parts of the law, but also of the inner man and matters of the heart. The resultant hypocrisy Jesus described in the words of Isaiah (29:13 in Mark 7:6f.), about a people who honor the Lord with their lips while their hearts are far from him. In fact, the Pharisees were intent upon cleansing the outside of the cup and plate whereas the inside remained dirty (Matt 23:25f.); they were like whitewashed tombs, disguising an inner corruption (23:27f.). Some of this may well have been the inevitable product of the Pharisaic legalism. What was not inevitable, however, was the pride of which the Pharisees were simultaneously guilty. Their motive in holding to their observances was a wrong one: “They do all their deeds to be seen by men” said Jesus (23:5). They loved the special honor that was paid to them as men who were reputedly serious about their godliness (23:6ff.), but their pride was totally without foundation—for the truth was, as Jesus summarized it, “they preach, but do not practice” (23:3).
Surprisingly, it can be demonstrated from the Talmud that hypocrisy was not unknown among the Pharisees. A famous passage denounces six types of hypocritical Pharisees (BT, Sotah, 22b), which exhibit many of the same faults pointed out by Jesus. Pretense and hypocrisy are condemned uncompromisingly in the Talmudic lit. (e.g. JT, Berakoth f. ix, 7; 13), and from this it may be concluded that in all probability these vices constituted special problems for Pharisees. The point to be noticed here is that the lit. of the Pharisaic tradition in no way sanctions hypocrisy. Indeed, it is at one with Jesus in its castigation of hypocrisy. Without denying that hypocrisy existed among the Pharisees, it can be seen that simply to equate the two is to make an unfortunate error.
It is also to be noted that the condemnation of the Pharisees in the gospels is not a universal one. That is to say, it must not be concluded that all the Pharisees were like those described in Matthew 23. The gospels contain references to Pharisees who were admirable men. Nicodemus is an excellent example of what a Pharisee ought to have been. He was genuinely a seeker of truth (John 3:1ff.), spoke out for justice on behalf of Jesus (7:50), and remained a follower of Jesus even after the disciples had fallen away (19:39). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin who looked for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43), and who was almost certainly a Pharisee, did not consent to the decision to do away with Jesus (Luke 23:51). He was a disciple of Jesus “secretly, for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38) and made final provisions for the body of Jesus. There may well have been many such Pharisees who believed in Jesus, albeit secretly. Even those who were not necessarily believers could display admirable traits: Gamaliel argued for tolerance (Acts 5:34ff.); others warned Jesus of an attempt on His life (Luke 13:31); others showed hospitality to Jesus (Luke 7:36ff.; 11:37; 14:1). Initially the great mass of Pharisees would only have regarded the ministry of Jesus with interest. Soon, however, as the Pharisees became aware of the uniqueness claimed by Jesus, the opposition began to harden, and their hostility toward Him grew. Consequently in the gospels, as a body they appear in an ever poorer light, until finally they enact their part in the arrest of Jesus (John 18:3).
To sum up, a fair examination of both the gospel records and the Talmudic lit. leads one to conclude that there is no necessity of seeing an absolute contradiction between the two views of Pharisaism. In the main, the gospel account of the Pharisees is a negative one. Two things, however, are to be noted: (1) not all of the Pharisees were bad; and (2) Pharisaism, as ideally conceived, ought to have been a good thing. The latter is precisely the reason for Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees. Nowhere does Jesus appear more like an OT prophet than in Matthew 23. He called the Pharisees back to the “weightier matters of the law” (23:23). He called them to close the gap between their profession and their performance. It is because they were so close (and yet so far) from being what they ought to have been, and yet at the same time made a great fuss over their supposed accomplishments (cf. Luke 18:11), that Jesus took them to task in such ominous tones.
It goes without saying that this criticism was exceedingly painful to the Pharisees. Nonetheless it is not here that their quarrel with Jesus lay, for they too were at least theoretically against hypocrisy (if only they could see it). Their real quarrel was much deeper: they would have nothing to do with the personal claims of Jesus and the centrality of these claims to His message. Jesus, in fact, put His own person in that central place previously held by the Torah as God’s revelation to man.
The quarrel that Jesus had with the Pharisees was also a deeper one, which necessarily remained implicit, and not explicit, at this stage in His redemptive work. The point is, that even if they had accomplished what they theoretically set out to do in successfully living according to a reformed oral tradition, they had no claim upon God. “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Merit before God on the basis of righteous works is a nonentity, and thus the whole Pharisaic outlook was vitiated by this basic deception. It was left to Paul to make this explicit in no uncertain terms.
6. Significance of Pharisaism. 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 the hope of the coming Messianic kingdom that motivated these men. The piety and expectant tone of the Pharisaic Psalms of Solomon is virtually indistinguishable from that, so highly honored by Christians, which appears in the poetic utterances of Luke 1 and 2. God was about to do a great work for His people, and in preparation it was necessary for the people to turn to the law anew. The scribes and Pharisees accordingly made the law an influence in the lives of the masses that it had never before been. Despite excesses and failures, to the extent that it remained Biblical it accomplished much. Pharisaism was at heart, though tragically miscarried, a movement for righteousness. It was this concern for righteousness that drove the Pharisees to their legalism with such a passion. 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. Nevertheless this basic drive for righteousness accounts for what may be regarded as attractive and Biblical both about Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism. This later Judaism stands in continuity with Pharisaism and, as might be expected, displays some of the same vices and virtues. Not without reason did G. F. Moore write that “Judaism is the monument of the Pharisees” (II, 193). Exactly for this reas on, however, the quarrel between Jesus and the Pharisees finds its modern counterpart in that between Judaism and the Gospel.
Bibliography Primary source material in addition to the NT and Josephus includes: The Mishnah (tr. H. Danby, 1933); and The Babylonian Talmud (English tr. ed. I. Epstein, 1935-1952; reprinted 1961).
Secondary material: E. Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, Division II, vol. II (1890); I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (First Series, 1917; Second Series, 1924); A. T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus (1920); R. T. Herford, The Pharisees (1924); K. Kohler, “Pharisees,” Jew Enc vol. IX (new ed., 1925), 661-666; F. C. Burkitt, “Jesus and the Pharisees,” JTS, XXVIII (1927), 392-397; G. F. Moore, Judaism (3 vols., 1927-1930); Judaism and Christianity (3 vols., edited respectively by W. O. E. Oesterley, H. Loewe, and E. I. J. Rosenthal; 1937-1938); W. O. E. Oesterley, The Jews and Judaism During the Greek Period (1941); J. Z. Lauterbach, Rabbinic Essays (1951); T. W. Manson, The Servant-Messiah (1953); W. D. Davies, Introduction to Pharisaism (1954; reprint 1967); A. F. J. Klijn, “Scribes, Pharisees, Highpriests and Elders in the New Testament,” Novum Testamentum, III (1959), 259-267; T. F. Glasson, “Anti-Pharisaism in St. Matthew,” JQR, LI (1960-1961), 316-320; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees (2 vols., 1962); M. Black, “Pharisees,” IDB, III (1962), 774-781; A. Finkel, The Pharisees and the Teacher of Nazareth (1964); J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Eng. tr., 1969).