Profile of the Pharisees, Jewish Faction in Gospel Stories of Jesus

The Pharisees bring an adulteress to Jesus
Culture Club / Contributor

The Pharisees were an important, powerful, and popular group of religious leaders among the Jews of Palestine. Their name might come from the Hebrew for “separate ones” or perhaps “interpreters.” Their origin is unknown but they are believed to have been very popular with the people. Josephus identifies some Jewish priests as Pharisees, so they should be regarded as a faction or interest group not necessarily opposed to the religious leadership.

When Did the Pharisees Live?

As a distinct group, the Pharisees existed between the second century BCE and the first century CE. The current Jewish concept of “rabbi” is generally traced back to the Pharisees, as opposed to other Jewish religious authorities of the era, so it appears that the Pharisees disappeared after the diaspora and became the rabbis.

Where Did the Pharisees Live?

The Pharisees appear to have only existed in Palestine, influencing Jewish life and religion there. According to Josephus, around six thousand Pharisees existed in first century Palestine. We only know of two people who claimed to be Pharisees, though: Josephus and Paul. It’s possible that the Pharisees existed outside of Roman Palestine and were created as part of an effort help Jews maintain a religious way of life in the face of Hellenistic culture.

What Did the Pharisees Do?

Information about the Pharisees comes from 3 sources: Josephus (considered generally accurate), the New Testament (not very accurate), and rabbinic literature (somewhat accurate). The Pharisees were probably a sectarian group (how one joined is unknown) faithful to their own traditions. The adhered to both the written and the oral law, emphasized ritual purity, and were popular and influential. Adherence to the oral law may have been their most distinctive feature.

Why Were the Pharisees Important?

The Pharisees are perhaps best known today because of their appearance in the New Testament. The New Testament portrays the Pharisees as legalistic, hypocritical, and jealous of Jesus’ popularity. While the latter may be theoretically plausible, the first two are not accurate or fair. Pharisees are the villains in gospel literature and, as such, are portrayed negatively because they need to be.

The Pharisees were important to the development of modern Judaism, however. The other two main factions of Judaism of the time — Sadducees and Essenes — disappeared entirely. Pharisees don’t exist anymore either, but their characteristics appear to have been taken on by modern rabbis. Attacks on Pharisees can, therefore, be regarded as attacks on Judaism itself.

The beliefs of the Pharisees are certainly more similar to those of modern Judaism than the beliefs of other ancient Jewish groups. One important characteristic was their insistence that God is in charge of history, and therefore it would be wrong to rebel against foreign domination. However much that domination might infringe on religion, the presence of those rulers is due to the will of God and must be endured until the coming of the Messiah.