The Pharisees: Guardians of Tradition in the Biblical World

The Pharisees were an influential religious sect within Judaism during the time of the New Testament. They played a significant role in the religious and political landscape of ancient Palestine. With a strict emphasis on personal piety, they adhered to an oral tradition in addition to the written Law and believed that all Jews should observe over 600 laws in the Torah.

Unveiling the Historical Figures
Unveiling the Historical Figures

Originating from a group of scribes and sages around 150 BC, the Pharisees laid the foundation for rabbinic Judaism and preserved the oral tradition of the Torah. They often clashed with Jesus Christ, as they were portrayed to be more interested in outward appearances than genuine faith, and were frequently criticized for their hypocritical behavior.

It is important to note, however, that not all Pharisees were like those described in the Gospels. Some Pharisees were admirable individuals, such as Nicodemus, who demonstrated what the Pharisees should have aspired to be. Despite their complex history and the negative portrayal in some biblical narratives, the Pharisees continue to be an essential part of the study of Judaism and the New Testament.

Historical Context of the Pharisees

who were the pharisees in the bible
Historical Context of the Pharisees

Origins and Beliefs

The Pharisees were an ancient Jewish group who laid the foundation for what would become rabbinic Judaism. They emerged during the Second Temple period (515 BCE-70 CE) and were known for their rigorous adherence to Jewish law and traditions. These traditions included both the written Torah and the oral tradition, which they interpreted and taught with great precision and detail.

Some of the most influential Pharisaic scholars in history were Hillel and Shammai, who held differing opinions on various laws and served as the basis for rabbinic debates in later generations. The Pharisees, as a group, believed in the resurrection of the dead, angels, and divine providence, in contrast to the more conservative Sadducees who rejected these beliefs.

Pharisees vs Sadducees and Other Sects

During the time of Roman rule over Judea, several Jewish sects emerged, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Herodians. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two major sects and often held opposing viewpoints. Pharisees focused on the oral tradition and were more accepting of new ideas, while the Sadducees strictly followed the written Torah and rejected the idea of the oral tradition.

The Pharisees had a much broader influence among the common Jews, while Sadducees were primarily composed of the priestly and aristocratic class. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that held significant political influence in Roman Judea, was composed of both Pharisees and Sadducees. The historian Josephus, a contemporary of the Pharisees and Sadducees, provides valuable insight into their beliefs, practices, and conflict.

Influence in Roman Judea

As Roman rule over Judea strengthened under Herod the Great and his successors, the Pharisees gained more traction in society due to their expertise in Jewish law and their connection to the common people. They often found themselves at odds with the Roman-appointed rulers, like Herod, who, in some instances, sought to impose Hellenistic and Roman culture on the Jewish people.

Although the Pharisees were not fully united as a political entity, they still held considerable influence within the Jewish community. Their teachings formed the basis for Rabbinic Judaism, the predominant form of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. As their influence grew, so did their importance in Jewish history and in shaping the religion’s course for the subsequent centuries.

Pharisaic Interactions with Jesus and the Early Christians

Pharisaic Interactions with Jesus and the Early Christians
Pharisaic Interactions with Jesus and the Early Christians

Conflicts and Debates

Throughout the Gospels, we find numerous accounts of the Pharisees engaging in conflicts and debates with Jesus. One of the most notable examples is when they attempted to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). Jesus, however, cleverly managed to avoid the trap by responding that everything belongs to its rightful owner: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Moreover, the Pharisees were often criticized by Jesus for their hypocrisy and rigid adherence to the letter of the law, instead of its spirit (Matthew 23). This caused tension between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Key Individuals: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea

Despite these conflicts, not all the Pharisees were antagonistic towards Jesus and the early Christians. Some key individuals, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, believed in Jesus and supported his teachings. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, and defended Jesus before them (John 7:50-51). He also helped with Jesus’ burial after his crucifixion (John 19:39). Joseph of Arimathea, another respected Pharisee, provided the tomb for Jesus’ body (John 19:38).

Legacy in Christianity

The Pharisees left a complex legacy in Christianity. Some, like the Apostle Paul, were devout Pharisees before they converted to Christianity. Paul was trained as a Pharisee and boasted of his credentials within that group (Acts 26:5). However, he later became one of the most influential early Christians, spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Additionally, some early Christians were former Pharisees themselves, as mentioned in Acts 15:5.

The Pharisaic interactions with Jesus and the early Christians show a multifaceted relationship. While there were indeed conflicts and debates, there were also Pharisees who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and became followers of his teachings. This duality displays the diverse nature of the Pharisees as a group, as well as their importance in shaping the development of early Christianity.

Pharisaic Practices and Teachings

who were the pharisees in the bible
Pharisaic Practices and Teachings

Adherence to the Law and Oral Traditions

The Pharisees were a religious group in the New Testament times, known for their strict adherence to both the written and oral laws. They believed that not only was the written Torah, handed down to Moses, binding, but so were the interpretations of the Torah, known as the Oral Law or Talmud. This devotion to the Law led them to create elaborate systems of rules, including guidelines on the Sabbath, tithing, and rituals surrounding purity.

In practicing their faith, Pharisees highly valued piety and adherence to the commandments. They would vigorously study the Torah and encouraged members of their community to do the same. Moreover, they had a strong emphasis on ritual observances, tithing, and maintaining purity. These practices were believed to establish a closer connection with God and deepen their sense of holiness.

Worship and Ritual Observances

The Pharisees’ worship practices revolved around both the written and oral traditions. These included rituals related to purity, such as the washing of hands and vessels, along with observing dietary laws. They meticulously observed the Sabbath, ensuring that they did not violate any of the numerous prohibitions related to work or other activities.

In addition, the Pharisees emphasized the importance of tithing and sacrifices. According to their beliefs, these offerings were essential to maintain a proper relationship with God. Furthermore, they adhered to Greek customs and languages, which set them apart from other Jewish groups, especially the more conservative ones.

Social Roles and Teaching Structures

The Pharisees held prominent positions in Jewish society, mainly as rabbis, scribes, or laypersons. They were responsible for interpreting the written and oral laws and teaching them to the people. As most of them belonged to the middle class, they had a broader influence on society compared to the aristocratic Sadducees.

Their teaching structure was based on the doctrine of the Tradition of the Elders. They believed that the wisdom of past generations should be preserved and conveyed to future ones. Through this, they ensured the continuity of Jewish religious and cultural heritage. They often engaged in public debates with other religious authorities to assert their interpretations of the law. As a result, their influence in shaping the development of rabbinic Judaism was immense.

In conclusion, the Pharisees had a significant impact on Jewish religious practice and teachings in the New Testament times. Their strict adherence to the Law and Oral Traditions, their extensive rituals, and their influence in social and teaching structures contribute to their lasting legacy on Judaism and the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures.

Cultural and Religious Impact Beyond the Bible

Cultural and Religious Impact Beyond the Bible
Cultural and Religious Impact Beyond the Bible

Influence on Later Jewish Traditions

As an influential religious sect within Judaism during the time of Christ and the early church, the Pharisees left a lasting impact on later Jewish traditions. Their emphasis on personal piety and their acceptance of oral tradition in addition to the written Law shaped the development of rabbinic Judaism1. They believed that all Jews should observe the 600-plus laws found in the Torah, which included those related to purity, justice, and righteousness.

The Pharisees held firmly to their Hebrew roots, fostering a strong sense of identity within the Jewish community1. Their teachings have had a profound influence on several key aspects of modern-day Judaism, casting a lasting legacy. For instance, their commitment to the oral tradition was essential to the eventual forming of the Talmud, a key text in Jewish tradition.

Interactions with Gentile Populations

The Pharisees’ dedication to upholding the laws of the Torah put them at odds with the People of the Land2, who were predominantly non-Jewish populations (Gentiles) in the region. The Pharisees strictly maintained their separation from these Gentiles, fearing that contact with them would cause ritual impurity2. They also took great care to ensure that Jews did not adopt the religious beliefs or cultural practices of the surrounding Gentile populations.

Despite their insistence on separation, the Pharisees were not entirely closed off to interactions with the Gentiles. In some cases, they did engage in dialogue and debate, considering the effects of their actions on the larger Jewish population. Additionally, their encounters with the Romans – another Gentile group – added further layers of complexity3.

In summary, the Pharisees made significant contributions to the development of later Jewish traditions and interactions with Gentile populations. Their insistence on maintaining Jewish identity and their oral tradition, along with their complex relations with non-Jewish communities, shaped the course of Judaism’s evolution and impact on the world.


  1. Got Questions – Who were the Pharisees?2
  2. Learn Religions – Who Were the Pharisees in the Bible?2
  3. Overview Bible – Who Were the Pharisees?

Criticism and Depictions of Pharisees in the Gospels

who were the pharisees in the bible
Criticism and Depictions of Pharisees in the Gospels

Alleged Hypocrisy and Legalism

In the Gospels, Pharisees are often depicted as hypocrites and legalists, accused of adhering to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Pharisees were known for their strict observance of the law and insistence on following numerous religious rituals. This legalism often led them to focus on external appearances while neglecting more important aspects of faith like mercy and compassion.

For instance, in Matthew 23, Jesus directly criticizes the Pharisees:

  • Woe 1 (v23-24): He condemns them for their emphasis on tithing even the smallest herbs while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
  • Woe 2 (v25-26): Jesus critiques their obsession with ritual purity, saying they clean the outside of their cups and dishes while their insides are full of greed and self-indulgence.
  • Woe 3 (v27-28): He compares the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs” that appear beautiful on the outside but contain dead bones and impurity within.

Condemnations by Jesus

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus frequently speaks out against the Pharisees. He accuses them of being hypocrites who care more about their own reputation and social standing than the welfare of the people they lead. The Pharisees’ emphasis on legalism, according to Jesus, leads them to miss the true meaning of the law, which is grounded in love, mercy, and faithfulness.

Notable instances include:

  1. Matthew 12: Jesus chastises them for condemning his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath, illustrating that mercy takes precedence over strict observance of the law.
  2. Luke 11: Jesus rates the Pharisees for prioritizing ritual over mercy, and warns of their impending judgment.

Assessment of Pharisaic Character

While the Gospels depict the Pharisees as adversaries of Jesus, it is important to acknowledge the complexities within the Pharisaic community. Some Pharisees, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, genuinely engaged with Jesus’ teachings and played roles in the early Church.

Furthermore, the Pharisees were recognized for their dedication to studying and teaching the law, and they did strive to live by the word of God. They also resisted cultural assimilation to the Romans, something that the Sadducees did not do. Thus, it is essential to keep in mind that not all Pharisees were hypocritical or antagonistic towards Jesus and that their relationship with the early Christian community was more nuanced than often portrayed.

Frequently Asked Questions

who were the pharisees in the bible
Frequently Asked Questions

What were the distinguishing beliefs of the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were a religious and political group in ancient Israel known for their strict adherence to the Mosaic Law and their emphasis on oral traditions. Their beliefs were centered on the authority of the Torah and the need for faithfulness to it. They also believed in the resurrection of the dead, angels, and divine judgment, along with the importance of prayer and fasting BibleGateway.

How did Pharisees and Sadducees differ in their teachings and beliefs?

While both Pharisees and Sadducees were influential Jewish groups during the New Testament period, they had significant differences in their teachings and beliefs. Pharisees focused on the written and oral Torah, prizing their rigorous interpretation and application of the law. Sadducees, in contrast, were more aristocratic and held conservative views, accepting only the written Torah and rejecting beliefs such as the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels. This placed them at odds with the Pharisees in various theological matters GotQuestions.

Why did the Pharisees oppose Jesus, according to biblical accounts?

According to the New Testament, the Pharisees opposed Jesus primarily because they viewed him as a threat to their religious authority. His teachings, which often criticized their hypocrisy and legalism, challenged their interpretation of the Mosaic Law and their status as the guardians of religious tradition. Additionally, Jesus’ growing popularity with the people attracted their suspicion, and they sought to undermine his influence by questioning and testing his authority Learn Religions.

What role did the Pharisees play in the context of the New Testament?

In the New Testament, the Pharisees are portrayed as antagonists of Jesus and the early Christians. They are depicted as legalistic and self-righteous, often clashing with Jesus over his teachings and actions that challenged traditional religious norms. They are portrayed as opponents of Jesus’ ministry, attempting to discredit him and ultimately conspiring to have him arrested and killed Overview Bible.

Which notable figures were part of the Pharisaic movement?

One of the most significant Pharisaic figures in the New Testament is Paul the Apostle, who initially persecuted early Christians before converting to Christianity and becoming one of its key leaders. Paul’s background as a Pharisee shaped his understanding of the law and his subsequent teachings on faith, grace, and salvation found in his epistles Bible Study.

How are the Pharisees depicted in relation to the Scribes in biblical narratives?

In the Bible, Pharisees and Scribes are often mentioned together, as both groups were seen as religious experts and teachers of the Jewish Law. Both held positions of religious authority and were sometimes depicted as adversaries of Jesus due to their legalism and resistance to his teachings. However, it is important to note that while some Pharisees were also Scribes, not all Scribes were Pharisees, as they could come from various backgrounds and serve different religious sects Bible Gateway.

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