Who are the Pharisees in the Bible – How often have you found yourself asking: who were the Pharisees in the Bible? It’s a question that many ponder on when exploring the New Testament narratives. As we dive into the world of the Pharisees, we’ll unlock their impact, decode their beliefs, and seek to understand their complex relationship with Jesus.
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Who are the Pharisees in the Bible ?
The Pharisees were a religious and political group in Judaism that emerged in the second century BC during the time of the Hasmonean dynasty. They wielded significant influence, particularly in religious matters, and had a profound impact on the shaping of Jewish law, belief, and practice. Their teachings and interpretations continue to resonate in modern Judaism.
|2nd Century BCE
|The exact origin of the Pharisees is not definitively known, but they emerged as a distinct group during this period. They started as a group of scribes and scholars who interpreted the Torah and shaped its observance among the people.
|With the Roman conquest of Judea, the influence of the Pharisees increased as they navigated the complexities of living under foreign rule while maintaining Jewish law and traditions.
|The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans marked a significant turning point. The Pharisees’ approach to Judaism, which emphasized practices that could be carried out away from the Temple, became increasingly important after its destruction.
|Late 1st Century CE – Early 2nd Century CE
|The Pharisaic tradition evolved into Rabbinic Judaism, marking the effective end of the Pharisees as a distinct group. The compilation of the Mishnah around 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Prince codified this transition, incorporating many Pharisaic teachings and interpretations of the Torah.
|While the Pharisees as a distinct sect no longer exist, their impact can be felt in modern Judaism, particularly within Orthodox Judaism, which traces its roots to Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism.
Please note that these dates are approximations and there is scholarly debate over specific timelines and events.
Major Beliefs of The Pharisees during the Ministry of Jesus
The Pharisees were a significant religious and political movement in Judea during the Second Temple period. They held several distinctive beliefs which often put them in direct opposition with other groups, such as the Sadducees. In Jesus’ time, these beliefs held sway over many aspects of Jewish religious and communal life. Below are some of their central doctrines:
|Belief in Oral Law
|In addition to the written Torah (the five books of Moses), the Pharisees believed in the existence of an Oral Torah that had been handed down from Moses and provided interpretation and application of the written Law.
|Resurrection of the Dead
|Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead at the end of days. This belief was a major point of contention between the two groups.
|Existence of Angels and Demons
|Pharisees believed in the existence of angels and demons, unseen forces that interact with the world.
|Predestination and Free Will
|The Pharisees held a complex belief in both divine predestination and human free will. They thought that while God has foreknowledge of human actions, individuals still have the freedom to choose right or wrong.
|Importance of Ritual Purity
|Pharisees emphasized the importance of ritual purity and the observance of purity laws outside of the Temple, extending these laws into everyday life.
|Prayers and Blessings
|The Pharisees emphasized the need for daily prayer and regular blessings, including the Shema (a declaration of faith) and the Amidah (a series of blessings).
It’s important to note that the Pharisees were often criticized by Jesus in the New Testament, particularly for their emphasis on external religiosity rather than genuine, heart-felt devotion to God. Yet, they played a critical role in shaping post-Temple Judaism, with their teachings forming the basis for much of Rabbinic Judaism.
Origins and Early Influence of the
A Rising Power in the Hasmonean Dynasty
The Pharisees began to assert their influence during the Hasmonean Dynasty. What was the secret behind their rise? It was primarily due to their ability to engage with the common folk, interpreting the Torah in a way that resonated with the masses.
The Hasmonean Dynasty ruled Judea from approximately 140 BC to 37 BC, transforming it into a semi-independent kingdom. The dynasty was named after the ancestor of the family, Hasmonaeus, and it was initiated by a revolt led by Judas Maccabeus, which is commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Here are some of the major figures of this dynasty:
|Role and Importance
|A priest from Modi’in, Mattathias sparked the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods.
|Son of Mattathias, Judas led the Maccabean revolt after his father’s death. Known for his military skill, he won many battles against the Seleucids, leading to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem (the event celebrated during Hanukkah).
|The youngest son of Mattathias, Jonathan assumed leadership after the death of Judas and succeeded in establishing political autonomy for Judea. He became the High Priest of the Second Temple, a role he maintained until his death.
|Simon, another son of Mattathias, took over after the death of Jonathan. He achieved political independence for Judea from the Seleucids and became the first prince (Ethnarch) of the autonomous Jewish state, starting the Hasmonean Dynasty.
|John Hyrcanus I
|Simon’s son John Hyrcanus I continued his father’s work, consolidating Hasmonean power, expanding the kingdom’s boundaries, and promoting the conversion to Judaism of several non-Jewish populations.
|The wife of two Hasmonean rulers (first Aristobulus I, then Alexander Jannaeus), Salome Alexandra ruled in her own right after her second husband’s death. She is known for strengthening Pharisee influence in the kingdom.
|Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II
|These two brothers had a power struggle for control of the kingdom, which weakened the Hasmonean Dynasty and allowed the Roman general Pompey to capture Jerusalem in 63 BC, marking the end of Jewish political independence.
This table covers some of the most significant members of the Hasmonean Dynasty, but there were others as well. It’s worth noting that this dynasty is characterized by political and religious transformation, but also by infighting and eventual decline.
Struggle for Influence: Pharisees and Sadducees
The Pharisees often found themselves locking horns with the Sadducees, another powerful group of the time. The two groups differed significantly in their interpretation of the law and the afterlife, leading to frequent clashes.
The Sadducees and the Pharisees were two distinct sects of Judaism that emerged during the Second Temple period. While both believed in Jewish Law, they interpreted and applied it differently. Here is a table outlining some of the primary differences in their faith beliefs, according to historical accounts, including those in the New Testament:
|Authority of Scriptures
|They held only the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as authoritative.
|They believed in the entire Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) and also revered the Oral Torah and rabbinic traditions.
|Denied the existence of an afterlife and the resurrection of the dead.
|Affirmed the existence of an afterlife and the resurrection of the dead.
|Angels and Spirits
|Denied the existence of angels and spirits.
|Believed in the existence of angels and spirits.
|Predestination vs Free Will
|Believed in absolute free will and rejected predestination.
|Believed in a mix of free will and divine predestination.
|As a largely priestly and aristocratic group, they emphasized Temple rituals.
|They focused on applying Jewish Law to everyday life and promoted synagogue and personal prayer, alongside Temple rituals.
|Cooperation with Rome
|Were more willing to cooperate with Roman authorities.
|Generally opposed Roman rule and often advocated for Jewish autonomy.
As always, it’s important to remember that our understanding of these groups is limited, and the above distinctions may not reflect the full complexity and diversity within these groups. Both the Sadducees and the Pharisees consisted of various sub-sects with differing views.
Beliefs and Practices of the Pharisees
Interpreting the Torah
The Pharisees put a premium on the interpretation of the Torah. They introduced the Oral Law, which was believed to have been passed down along with the Written Law (Torah). Their interpretations, known as ‘Halakhah,’ are still followed in modern Judaism.
Concept of the Afterlife
Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees held a belief in the afterlife and resurrection, greatly influencing early Christian thought. Their focus on actions and rewards in the afterlife gave people a greater sense of purpose, significantly impacting the Jewish community’s moral framework.
The Pharisees and Essenes
The Pharisees and Jesus
Table Showing the Main Faith Differences between the Pharissees and the Essenes in the New TestamentChatGPT
|Adherence to the Law
|The Pharisees strictly followed the Torah and oral tradition. They believed in the sanctity of both the written and the Oral Torah and were punctilious about their interpretation of the Law.
|The Essenes also adhered to the Torah but had a stricter interpretation. They were extremely stringent and disciplined, often living in ascetic communities away from cities.
|Resurrection and Afterlife
|Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and an afterlife, as well as reward and punishment after death.
|The Essenes shared these beliefs, with a strong emphasis on the fate of the soul and divine judgement.
|Pharisees actively participated in the society and politics of the time. They were the largest and most influential religious-political group in New Testament times.
|The Essenes were apolitical and often lived in isolation from mainstream Jewish society. They focused on maintaining spiritual purity and awaited a messianic figure.
|Pharisees supported the temple cult and sacrificial system. They believed it was a central part of their faith.
|The Essenes were against the temple in Jerusalem because they thought it was corrupted. They performed their own ritual purifications and had their own sacrificial practices.
|Pharisees believed in the coming of a Messiah from the line of David. This Messiah would be a human king.
|The Essenes expected two Messiahs – a priestly and a royal one, according to some interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Please note that much of our knowledge about the Essenes comes from documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the writings of historians like Josephus, so some interpretations may vary.
Conflicting Teachings: The Pharisees vs. Jesus
Jesus’s teachings often diverged from Pharisaic interpretations, leading to several confrontations. Their disagreements weren’t just academic—they reflected differing views on the nature of piety, the Kingdom of God, and what it meant to lead a righteous life.
The Pharisees and Jesus Christ had differing views on various aspects of faith and religious practice, mainly centering around the interpretation of the Law (Torah) and the concept of righteousness. Here’s a table outlining some of these key differences:
|Jesus Christ’s Teaching
|Interpretation of the Law
|Pharisees were strict adherents to the Mosaic Law and added to it with extensive oral tradition and interpretations, which were sometimes seen as burdensome (Matthew 23:4).
|Jesus taught that the spirit of the Law was more important than the letter. He emphasized love, mercy, and justice over strict adherence to rules (Matthew 23:23; Mark 12:33).
|Pharisees believed in achieving righteousness through strict adherence to religious rituals and laws.
|Jesus taught that true righteousness comes from the heart, with love and faith in God being more important than external observances (Matthew 5:20; Luke 18:9-14).
|The Pharisees expected a political Messiah who would liberate Israel from Roman rule.
|Jesus taught that He was the Messiah, but His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). He came to save people from their sins, not from political oppression.
|Afterlife and Resurrection
|Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and in an afterlife (Acts 23:8).
|Jesus affirmed the resurrection of the dead and the reality of eternal life, but emphasized that this life was given through faith in Him, not just through adherence to laws or membership in a particular group (John 11:25-26; John 14:6).
|Treatment of Sinners
|Pharisees often avoided and looked down upon those they considered “sinners” (Luke 7:39).
|Jesus reached out to sinners, showing them compassion and calling them to repentance (Mark 2:15-17).
It’s worth noting that while Jesus had significant differences with the Pharisees, He didn’t reject everything they taught. For instance, He agreed with them on the importance of the Law and the prophets, the existence of the afterlife, and the practice of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (though He criticized the Pharisees for doing these things to show off rather than out of genuine piety).
From Dispute to Persecution: The Trial of Jesus
Many scholars argue that the Pharisees played a crucial role in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. We’ll explore these narratives, delving into how differences in teachings escalated into one of history’s most poignant episodes.
Here’s a timeline outlining the key involvement of the Pharisees during the events surrounding the trial of Jesus:
|Conspiracy to Arrest Jesus
|Shortly before Passover, 30/33 A.D.
|The Pharisees conspired with the chief priests to arrest Jesus and kill him (Matthew 26:3-5).
|Evening of Passover (start of 15 Nisan)
|Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and other religious leaders were planning His arrest.
|Night of Passover (start of 15 Nisan)
|Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’s disciples, betrayed Him to the religious authorities, including the Pharisees (Matthew 26:14-16, 47-56).
|Trial before the Sanhedrin
|Early morning hours of 15 Nisan
|Jesus was taken before the Sanhedrin, which included Pharisees, to face charges of blasphemy (Matthew 26:57-68).
|Trial before Pilate
|Morning of 15 Nisan
|The religious leaders, including Pharisees, took Jesus to Pontius Pilate, accusing Him of claiming to be King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-5).
|Approximately 9 a.m., 15 Nisan
|Jesus was crucified after Pilate, under pressure from the religious leaders and the crowd, sentenced Him to death (Matthew 27:24-26, Mark 15:25).
|Death and Burial
|Approximately 3 p.m., 15 Nisan
|Jesus died on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (though not necessarily a Pharisee), requested His body for burial (Matthew 27:57-60).
It’s worth noting that while the Pharisees played a significant role in the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion, they did not act alone; they were part of a broader group of religious authorities that also included the chief priests and elders. Not all Pharisees agreed with the decision to crucify Jesus (see John 3:1-21 for the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to Jesus by night).
Etymology of the Biblical Word Pharisee
The word “Pharisee” is a term that has been used in the Bible since ancient times. It refers to a sect of Judaism that was very influential in the first century AD. The etymology of the word “Pharisee” is complex and has been the subject of much debate. It is generally accepted that the word has its origins in the Hebrew language, however, it is also believed to have been influenced by Greek and Aramaic.
The word “Pharisee” is derived from the Hebrew word “Parushim”, which means “separated” or “set apart”. This is a reference to the strict observance of Jewish law which was practiced by the Pharisees. The term was first used in the Bible in the book of Ezra (7:10), and it is believed to have been in use since the time of the Second Temple (535 BCE – 70 CE).
The Hebrew root of the word “Pharisee” is “parash”, which means “to separate” or “to be distinct”. This root is also found in other Hebrew words related to the Pharisees, such as “parushim” (“separated ones”) and “parushut” (“separation”).
The Greek version of the term “Pharisee” is “Pharisaioi”. This is derived from the Greek verb “phariseo”, which means “to separate” or “to be distinct”. This verb is related to the Hebrew verb “parash” which is the root of the word “Pharisee”.
The Aramaic version of the term “Pharisee” is “Perishaya”. This is derived from the Aramaic verb “parisha”, which is also related to the Hebrew verb “parash”. This verb means “to separate” or “to be distinct”.
In conclusion, the etymology of the word “Pharisee” is complex and has been the subject of much debate. It is generally accepted that the word has its origins in the Hebrew language, however, it is also believed to have been influenced by Greek and Aramaic. The Hebrew root of the word “Pharisee” is “parash”, which means “to separate” or “to be distinct”. The Greek version of the term is “Pharisaioi”, and the Aramaic version is “Perishaya”. The term was first used in the Bible in the book of Ezra (7:10) and it is believed to have been in use since the time of the Second Temple (535 BCE – 70 CE).
The Pharisees in Modern Context
From Pharisees to Rabbis: The Transformation
The Pharisees didn’t just vanish into thin air after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. They evolved, and their teachings were instrumental in shaping the modern rabbinic tradition.
Notable Pharisees in the New Testament
Here’s a table that outlines notable Pharisees during the time of Jesus:
|A leading authority in the Sanhedrin in the early 1st century AD. He is noted for his lenient stance toward the early Christians in Acts 5:34–40, advising his fellow lawmakers to “be careful what you are planning to do to these men.”
|Acts 5:34–40, Acts 22:3
|A Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, who, according to the Gospel of John, showed favour to Jesus. He came to Jesus by night, showing curiosity about Jesus’ teachings, and later defended Him before the Sanhedrin.
|John 3:1–21, John 7:45–52, John 19:39–42
|Joseph of Arimathea
|Though the New Testament does not explicitly identify Joseph as a Pharisee, it does mention him as a respected member of the council or Sanhedrin. He provided the tomb for Jesus’ burial.
|Matthew 27:57–60, Mark 15:42–46, Luke 23:50–55, John 19:38–42
|Saul of Tarsus (later Apostle Paul)
|Before his conversion, Saul was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted Christians. After a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, he became a fervent Christian and one of the most important figures in the spread of Christianity.
|Acts 8:1–3, Acts 9:1–31, Philippians 3:4–6
The Pharisees held considerable influence over the Jewish public and were known for their emphasis on following the Law. Jesus frequently engaged in debate with them about the nature of this adherence to the Law, especially as it related to the spirit versus the letter of the Law.
Understanding the Pharisees Today
Many people harbor misconceptions about the Pharisees due to their portrayal in the New Testament. It’s crucial to remember that historical narratives often bear the bias of the times. So, who were the Pharisees really, divorced from the lens of the New Testament writers?
- What was the central belief of the Pharisees?
The Pharisees believed in the interpretation of the Torah, both written and oral. They held a strong belief in the afterlife, resurrection, and divine justice.
- How did the Pharisees interact with Jesus?
The Pharisees frequently conflicted with Jesus over interpretations of the law and his teachings. This led to several confrontations and, according to some narratives, their involvement in his trial and crucifixion.
- How did the Pharisees impact modern Judaism?
The Pharisees heavily influenced modern Judaism. Their teachings and interpretations, encapsulated in the ‘Halakhah,’ form a significant part of Jewish law and practice today.
- Who were the Pharisees’ main adversaries during their time?
The Pharisees often clashed with the Sadducees, another influential group of the time. The main points of contention were interpretations of the law and beliefs about the afterlife.
- Did the Pharisees believe in the Messiah?
The Pharisees did believe in the coming of a Messiah, though their interpretation differed from early Christian thought.
- What happened to the Pharisees after the destruction of the Second Temple?
The Pharisees didn’t disappear after the destruction of the Second Temple. Instead, they evolved, with their teachings playing a pivotal role in shaping the modern rabbinic tradition.
Best Old Testament Commentaries
Below is a table featuring some renowned Old Testament commentaries, their publishers, and websites where they can be found. As always, it’s best to confirm availability on multiple platforms or the publishers’ websites.
|The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
|Word Biblical Commentary
|Baker Commentary on the Old Testament
|The Anchor Yale Bible Commentary
|Yale University Press
|Yale University Press
|Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
|Expositor’s Bible Commentary
|The Old Testament for Everyone
|Westminster John Knox Press
|Westminster John Knox Press
Note: As with the New Testament table, this table provides generalized examples and does not list each volume within the commentary series. The commentaries can usually be found on the publishers’ websites or other online book retailers such as Amazon or Christianbook. It is always advisable to check for the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding availability.
Final Thoughts The Lasting Legacy of the Pharisees
So, who were the Pharisees in the Bible? They were scholars, interpreters, leaders, adversaries, influencers, and a lot more. Their impact on Judaism and, by extension, Christianity, is monumental, their legacy etched into religious and cultural narratives. Understanding the Pharisees provides a richer insight into the Biblical context and deepens our comprehension of modern religious thought.