Who Were the Pharisees in the Bible?

The Pharisees cared more about outward religious form than genuine faith

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees. duncan1890 / Getty Images

The Pharisees in the Bible were members of a religious group or party that frequently clashed with Jesus Christ over his interpretation of the Law.

Pharisees Definition

The Pharisees formed the largest and most influential religious-political party in New Testament times. They are consistently depicted in the Gospels as antagonists or opponents of Jesus Christ and the early Christians.

The name "Pharisee" means "separated one." The Pharisees separated themselves from society to study and teach the law, but they also separated themselves from the common people because they considered them religiously unclean.

The Pharisees probably got their start under the Maccabees, about BC 160, emerging as a scholarly class dedicated to the teaching of both the written and oral Law and stressing the internal side of Judaism.

The historian Flavius Josephus numbered them at about 6,000 in Israel at their peak. He described the Pharisees as maintaining a simple lifestyle, affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others, respectful of elders, and influential throughout Israel.

Middle-class businessmen and trades workers, the Pharisees started and controlled the synagogues, those Jewish meeting places that served for both local worship and education. They also put great importance on oral tradition, making it equal to the laws written in the Old Testament.

The Pharisees were extremely accurate and detail-oriented in all matters pertaining to the law of Moses (Matthew 9:14; 23:15; Luke 11:39; 18:12). While they were sound in their professions and creeds, their system of religion was more about outward form than genuine faith.

Beliefs and Teachings of the Pharisees

Among the Pharisees' beliefs were life after death, the resurrection of the body, the importance of keeping rituals, and the need to convert Gentiles. 

Because they taught that the way to God was by obeying the law, the Pharisees gradually changed Judaism from a religion of sacrifice to one of keeping the commandments (legalism). Animal sacrifices still continued in the Jerusalem temple until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., but Pharisees promoted works over sacrifice.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees constantly appear to be threatened by Jesus. The Gospels often portray them as arrogant, although they were generally respected by the masses because of their piety. Nevertheless, Jesus saw through the Pharisees. He scolded them for the unreasonable burden they placed on the common people.

In a scathing rebuke of the Pharisees found in Matthew 23 and Luke 11, Jesus called them hypocrites and exposed their sins. He compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside but on the inside are filled with dead men's bones and uncleanness:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:13, 27-28)

The Pharisees could not bear the truth of Christ’s teachings, and they sought to destroy his influence among the people.

Pharisees Vs. Sadducees

Most of the time the Pharisees were at odds with the Sadducees, another Jewish sect, but the two parties joined forces to conspire against Jesus. They voted together in the Sanhedrin to demand his death, then saw that the Romans carried it out. Neither group could believe in a Messiah who would sacrifice himself for the sins of the world.

Famous Pharisees in the Bible

Mentions of Pharisees occur in the four Gospels as well as the book of Acts. Three famous Pharisees mentioned by name in the New Testament were the Sanhedrin member Nicodemus, the rabbi Gamaliel, and the apostle Paul

Sources

  • The New Compact Bible Dictionary, T. Alton Bryant, editor.
  • The Bible Almanac, J.I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, William White Jr., editors.
  • Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor.
  • “Pharisees.” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
  • Easton’s Bible Dictionary.
  • “What are the differences between the Sadducees and Pharisees?”. https://www.gotquestions.org/Sadducees-Pharisees.html