02.01.14 Pharisees

Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 19, 2016  -  Comments Off on 02.01.14 Pharisees

02.01.14 Pharisees. The Pharisees (Gk. pharisaios 5330) [1] were the dominant Jewish party that consisted of a number of religious sects, from the early second century B.C.  They first appeared in 1 Maccabees 9:13 and 2 Maccabees 14:6 as they developed as a result of opposition and persecution by the Greek dictator Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who was overthrown in the Maccabean Revolt in 164 B.C.[2]  Understandably, the name Pharisee comes from the Hebrew perushim, perusin or perusim meaning pious ones, separated, or detached.[3]  Some scholars believe they evolved from the previous Hassidean movement[4] because the Pharisees were known for seven major characteristics:

  1. Separation. They considered themselves the separated ones, who emphasized strict adherence to the Mosaic laws pertaining to purity, Sabbath observance, prayer, tithing, and separation from anyone who was Hellenistic. There were four levels of Pharisees,[5] and the upper echelon is referred to in this e-Book as the “leading Pharisees.” They were so extremely legalistic, pious, and self-righteous that they even avoided the am ha-aretz, meaning the common people.[6]
  1. Legalism. Due to the encroachment of Greek values into Jewish life, the Pharisees promoted the legalistic observance of Jewish laws on both the national and personal level.[7] An example was recorded by the first century historian Josephus who noted that at one time more than six thousand of them refused to take the oath of allegiance to Caesar or Herod.[8] They were willing to lay down their lives for their religious laws. They considered themselves to be the honored ones who were called to practice and honor the Priestly Code of Ezra, with an emphasis on the Oral Laws.
  1. They were social and cultural liberals.
  1. They were religious conservatives.
  1. Most of them hated Rome, with the leading Pharisees being a possible exception.[9] They believed that if they could not fortify their cities against the Roman occupiers, they would fortify their laws to keep the Greco-Roman culture out of Judaism and their personal lives.
  1. They tried to be spiritual while the Sadducees tried to maintain their religious bureaucracy.
  1. Most Pharisees were sincere, honest synagogue leaders who cared for their people, while the leading echelon were the ones with whom Jesus had multiple conflicts.
  1. Many Pharisees were also scribes, judges, magistrates, teachers, rabbis, and priests. The people willingly put all power and authority into the hands of their rabbis, as orthodox Jews still do today. In fact, twice scribes are referred to as the “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mk. 2:16; Acts 23:9).

The Pharisees believed they had three obligations to strictly observe to find favor with God:

  1. Tithing, known as Neeman.[10] This was on all earnings.
  1. Observance of all Levitical laws on ritual purity known as chabher (a/k/a chabber).[11]
  1. The practice of purity, which included separation from people considered to be “impure.”

There were many sects within the broad group of “Pharisees,” but among them were two major theological schools that had major influences in the culture. Furthermore, some discussions Jesus had with “the Pharisees” were the result of disputes between these two schools.

  1. Beit Hillel (House or School of Hillel) [12]
  1. Beit Shammai (House or School of Shammai)[13]

Named after their founding rabbis, these schools of theology held opposing opinions on how certain written and oral commandments were to be practiced.  Their varied opinions are preserved in the Mishnah.  The Pharisees, whom Jesus addressed, were the Oral Law traditionalists who had become aristocratic and powerfully similar to the Sadducees, whom they greatly disliked.  The religious ideology of the Pharisees ranged widely as some were condemned by both Jesus and by some of their own leaders in the third century (A.D.).[14]  For example, the School of Shammai held it was unlawful to comfort the sick or visit the mourner on the Sabbath, but the School of Hillel permitted it.

The leading Pharisees were usually synonymous with the teachers of the Law,[15] which is why it can be difficult to distinguish them from the scribes.[16]  While most leading Pharisees considered themselves scribes, not all scribes considered themselves Pharisees.[17] They were scholars of the biblical text.[18] Whenever Jesus confronted them, He confronted the aristocratic leadership.[19] Most of the Jewish people obeyed codes of conduct and religion according to the Pharisees, even though they did not formally belong to this religious sect.[20]  While some aristocratic Pharisees, such as the Herodians, were comfortable with the Romans, and Josephus said that a majority was fiercely patriotic and hated the foreign yoke with an impassioned bitterness.[21]  

02.01.14 (2)

The upper echelon consisted of men who had become religiously and politically corrupt and were under constant rebuke by Christ.  They held the Oral Law in higher esteem than the written Mosaic Law. It was to this group that Jesus most frequently applied the word hypocrite, from the Greek hupokrites, meaning actor or pretender.[22] All confrontations Jesus had with them were related to the Halakhah, the regulations that pertained to the daily life activities.[23]

However, not all were evil. It should be noted that among these religious leaders were Simon, who made a banquet for Jesus (Lk. 7:37), and others who warned Jesus of Herod’s attempt to kill Him (Lk. 13:31). They are often referred to in this manuscript as the “leading Pharisees,” the “Pharisee elitists,” or “the aristocrats of the Pharisees,”[24] as opposed to the common Pharisees, many of whom became followers of Jesus. The Pharisees were by no means a homogeneous group.

The Apostle Paul proudly maintained his status as a righteous Pharisee (Phil. 3:5; Acts 22) and, as a Pharisee, he was a messenger of God to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16).  It should be noted that among the Pharisees were those who were devoted to Jesus,[25] and they were probably followers of Hillel.  Those who planned evil against Him were probably of Shammai and the aristocratic followers of Hillel.

02.01.14 B (2)

In summary, the Pharisees (compare to 02.01.16 “Sadducees”) were,

  1. In strong opposition to Hellenism
  2. Had great disdain for the Romans
  3. Generally middle class although the leadership was aristocratic
  4. Theologically progressive, but within the Pharisee sect there was a diversity of opinions
  5. Believed in the entire Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)
  6. Affirmed the resurrection of the soul and heaven
  7. Held a mythological belief that Abraham was seated at the gates of hell waiting to make sure no Jew would enter. To have been born a Jew meant automatic rights to the eternal Messianic Kingdom.[26]
  8.  Believed in a final judgment for non-Jews, angels, etc.
  9. Some Pharisees affiliated with the common people (am-ha-arets)[27] and sought converts (except for the leadership). However, the leading Pharisees had great disdain for them and separated themselves from them. This may be why Jesus referred to the common people as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). Yet, in spite of this, many people sided with the Pharisees.[28]
  10. Estimated to be over 6,000 in number who belonged to a chebher or chabher,[29] which was their association or fraternity.[30]
  11. Believed that man has control of his decisions and actions, but that God ultimately controls all things.
  12. They believed that their Oral Law (a/k/a the Mishnah) superseded the authority of the Old Testament. Jesus referred to them as “hypocrites”[31] because, while they made the laws a heavy burden for the common people, they created loopholes for themselves.[32] Theologically speaking, the leading Pharisees canonized their own interpretation of the Law.[33]
  13. Under the umbrella term of Pharisee, there were many religious sects. The two most notable were the theological School of Hillel and School of Shammai. By the time Jesus was in His ministry, the Sadducees controlled the temple, but the Pharisees controlled the synagogues. Many were led by Rabbi Hillel who won the hearts of the people.
  14. In judicial matters, the Pharisees were kinder, more merciful, and more lenient than the Sadducees, with the possible exception of the Pharisaic School of Shammai.[34]
  15. In the book of Acts, Luke speaks frequently of the Pharisees and always in a positive manner. This is profoundly different from the Pharisees who repeatedly plotted to kill Jesus in the gospels, and then stepped aside and let the Sadducees do their dirty work.[35]


02.01.14.Q1 What were the four levels of Pharisees?

Like most people today, this writer had once believed that all Pharisees were the same, but this was hardly the case.[36]  Some constantly confronted Jesus while others gave Him aid.  Some Pharisees were also scribes who read the Scriptures in the synagogue.  Pharisees permitted a wide degree of divergent opinions as shown by the differences between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai.  According to the third century (A.D.) respected Rabbi Pin Hasben Jair, there were four characteristics of separation (a core doctrine of the sect) that all four levels of Pharisees had to endorse.[37] Those characteristics were:

  1. Heedfulness leading to diligence,
  1. Diligence to cleanliness,
  1. Cleanliness to separation, and
  1. Separation to holiness.

It is not until one gets deeper into the study of first century Judaism that one learns of the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, and how these theologians interacted with Jewish society and Jesus.  By knowing the basic beliefs of these two theological schools, one can often determine which question or statement presented to Jesus came from which school.

However, unfortunately throughout history the condemning word “hypocrisy” used by Jesus against the leading Pharisees has been used by the church to condemn all the Pharisees and all the Jewish people. But in fact, most Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, were godly people who simply wanted to live right before God and man.[38] Most of the issues Jesus had with the Pharisees originated with the upper echelon, that is, the policy-makers and leaders of the sect. Therefore, the four levels of Pharisees are explained below:[39]

  1. The ne’eman, meaning trustworthy, was the entry level and required the endorsement of all membership obligations before three members in good standing.[40] During this time, the candidate was not permitted to be the guest of a common Jew, known as an am ha-aretz, and would certainly not be found in the home of a Gentile, tax collector, or sinner. Some priests and high priests were so prideful that they wore silk gloves when among people or presiding over sacrifices, so they would not become defiled by “those repulsive and degrading common people.”[41] He had to tithe faithfully on everything he earned and ate.[42] This stage was also known as “heedfulness leading to diligence.” Slaves and women were permitted to join this association, but only at this level.
  1. The second level of entry was called for wings and at this stage the candidate had to diligently practice the ritual of washing his hands before eating and before touching ritually clean food.[43] This stage was also known as “diligence leading to cleanliness.” Incidentally, the Law of Moses did not require such extremism.
  1. In the third level, a candidate was a probationary member for either thirty days or one year. This stage was also known as “cleanliness leading to separation.”
  1. If a person wanted to reach the pinnacle of the hierarchy, he had to take two vows:
  1. To tithe faithfully
  2. Maintain and promote ritual purification.

This fourth level was the upper echelon of Pharisees, who firmly believed they had arrived at perfected holiness.  They had moved from “separation leading to holiness.” These individuals generally had sufficient wealth so that they could live a separated life that would not get “polluted” by associating with common Jewish people who did not always observe ritual cleansing laws.

While the membership of the Pharisees was merely 6,000, there were literally thousands more who faithfully observed Pharisee doctrines. Josephus noted that,

On account of which (the Pharisee) doctrines, they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform according to their direction; insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.

Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.3 (15)[44]


Again and again Josephus said that the Pharisees were by far the greatest influence with the common people.[45] Other groups who followed basic Pharisee doctrines included the Essenes who lived in a number of communities including west Jerusalem, Damascus, Qumran, and elsewhere.[46]  Another group was the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect who lived throughout the Diaspora, including a large community in Alexandria. The final group that observed Pharisaic doctrines were the early Christians of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.  One Jew, who identified himself with the Pharisees although he was never a member, was Josephus. He observed the basic doctrines of the sect.[47] Non-members were not always as strict and legalistic as were the members.

As previously stated, the influx of Hellenism had disastrous consequences upon the Jewish people.  While the Sadducees endorsed many Hellenistic elements, the Pharisees saw themselves as the restorers of the Law.  Yet within the Pharisaic world there were many divisions and theological opinions. Amazingly, while they are justly criticized for their legalistic harshness, they should be noted for their kind and responsible landmark decisions. These include:[48]

  1. Concerning the punishment for a crime, the Pharisees interpreted the phrase “an eye for an eye” (Ex. 21:24; Deut. 19:21)[49] metaphorically, and permitted compensation or punishment in the form of a financial settlement.[50] However, the Sadducees demanded exact compliance.
  1. They ordered for husbands to pay support for their wives after a divorce. This lowered the divorce rate. This is noteworthy, because Joseph considered a divorce which would have been expensive, as opposed to accusing Mary of adultery which would have cost him nothing and saved his family honor.
  1. The promotion of education for both boys and girls, (see “Education” 02.03.04).
  1. Required education for boys to the age of sixteen.
  1. If the brother-in-law of a widow refused her the Levirate marriage rights (Deut. 25:5-9),[51] the Pharisees permitted her to spit on the ground in front of him while the Sadducees demanded she spit in his face.
  1. If an animal died, the Pharisees said that the owner may use the carcass for any purpose except for food (Lev. 7:24), but the Sadducees said any use results in the strict penalties of uncleanness.
  1. The final example of harshness is that the Sadducees demanded that false witnesses be put to death while the Pharisees permitted punishment by eighty scourgings.[52] The irony is that the Sadducees acquired false witnesses to testify against Jesus.

The Pharisees have been criticized and condemned for their actions against Jesus.  However, it was the leading Pharisees who were against Jesus, because as other Pharisees came to faith in Him, they warned Him of impending danger. The Pharisees, like the Essenes, were a very legalistic religious sect. An example of legalism is found in 02.01.06.Q1 that describes the entrance procedure for new Essene members. Scholars are examining these requirements for the probability that very similar procedures existed for new Pharisee candidates.

When the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, only the Pharisees survived the slaughter. In the early days of the First Revolt (A.D. 66) the Messianic believers had escaped to Pella and avoided the conflict, but the Sadducees, Herodians, and Essenes were wiped out by the Romans.  Consequently, all forms of Judaism today have their roots in the first century Pharisees.[53]  In fact, today’s Rabbinic Judaism is distinctly different from Inter-Testamental and biblical Judaism.[54]

It is important to stress that most synagogue leaders were righteous Pharisees who loved their people. Criticisms by Jesus were generally directed at the aristocratic leadership of the Pharisees. Most of the Jewish people obeyed codes of conduct and religion according to the Pharisees, even though they did not formally belong to them.[55]

Finally, among those who considered themselves Pharisees were Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, Hillel and his son, Simeon, Simeon’s son Gamaliel was also a Pharisee and the renowned teacher for the Apostle Paul.[56]


[1]. Vine, “Pharisees.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:470-71.


[2]. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Hanukkah/History.shtml Retrieved September 20, 2014; See also Josephus, Antiquities 11.4.8 and 13.10.5-6; Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 66a.


[3]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 86; Vine, “Pharisees.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:470-71.


[4]. See 03.04.17; House, Chronological and Background. 73.


[5]. See 02.01.14.Q1 below.


[6]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 86.


[7]. Finkelstein, The Pharisees. 145.

[8]. Josephus, Antiquities 17.2.4.

[9]. Many scholars believe the leading Pharisees were associated with the legalistic School of Shammai.


[10]. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, 112; Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 216.


[11]. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 215-17.

[12]. See 02.01.19.

[13]. See 02.01.20.

[14]. Mishnah, Sotah. 3:4; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah. 22b.


[15]. Mt. 3:7; 15:1; Mk. 2: 16, 24; Lk. 11:38.


[16]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 59.  


[17]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church.  93-94.


[18]. Bruce, “Josephus, Flavius.” 69-71; Major, Manson, and Wright, The Mission and Message of Jesus. 601-02; Josephus, Wars 1.5.2; Mishnah. Aboth. 2:5.


[19]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 259, n42.


[20]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 258.


[21]. Read the full account of Josephus pertaining to the Pharisees in Antiquities 18.1.3 (12-15).


[22]. Herbert, “Hypocrite.” 109-10; Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 172-73.


[23]. Bruce, Jesus Past. 69-71; Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. 106-07.


[24]. Other Jewish writers also criticized the leading Pharisees as found in 1 Enoch 102:9-10; Testament of Moses 7:3; Tosefta, Menahot 13:22. This is a recommended subject for further study in Appendix 33.


[25]. Jn. 3:1, 19:38-39, Acts 5:34, 23:6-8.


[26]. Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 6, page 6.


[27]. Lang. Know the Words of Jesus. 173; Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 145; Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 2:33-35.

[28]. Josephus, Antiquities 13.10.6.


[29]. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 215-17.

[30]. Josephus, Antiquities 17.2.4; Lang. Know the Words of Jesus. 172-73.


[31]. See the discussion on hypocrites / hypocrisy in 08.03.04 (Mt. :5-15).

[32]. Fruchtenbaum, The Jewish Foundation of the Life of Messiah: Instructor’s Manual. Class 20, page 11.


[33]. Lee, The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus, 13.


[34]. For additional information on the resulting judicial differences between these two schools, see Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 18b and Yebamoth 14a in 02.01.20 “School of Shammai.” See also 13.02.04.


[35] Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes. 31.


[36]. There are two reasons why many have equated the Pharisees with a group of Jewish leaders who were filled with hypocrisy and hatred: 1) The gospels clearly indicate this group often confronted Jesus and planned to kill Him, and 2) the doctrine of replacement theology and anti-Semitic attitudes promoted by the church. These two biased conditions led to a horrible conclusion – the inability to recognize the variations of other Pharisaic individuals, such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and give them appropriate credit for their righteous attitudes and acts.


[37]. Cited from  Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 88; Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 67-68, 215-18.

[38]. See Lk. 13:31; 7:36; 11:37; 14:1; Jn. 3:1; 19:38-39; Acts 5:34; 23:6-8. See also Gamaliel in Acts 5, the teacher of the Apostle Paul.


[39]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 88, 112-13.


[40]. Babylonain Talmud Bekakoth, 30b (Soncino ed.).


[41]. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:89.


[42]. See additional rules on tithing in the Mishnah, Ma’aserot 1.1.


[43]. Tosefta, Dem’ai. 2:11; Encyclopedia Judaica  Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House 7:1489-90.


[44]. Parenthesis mine.


[45] Stemberger. Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes. 19.


[46]. See 02.01.06.Q1 “How did a one become a member of the Essene sect and how does this relate to the Pharisees?”


[47]. Josephus, Life 8.


[48]. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 134-35.


[49]. Lev. 24:20; Mt. 5:38-42; 08.02.07.


[50]. Financial settlements are found in passages such as Deut. 22:29.


[51]. See also Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 16a.


[52]. Mishnah, Makkoth 1.3 and 1.5; See 15.03.07.


[53]. Finkelstein, The Pharisees. 142-45.

[54]. Scott, Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. 21.


[55]. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 115.    


[56]. Geikie, The Life and Works of Christ. 1:73; Wyatt, “Pharisee.” 3:822-29.


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