Who Were the Pharisees in the Bible?

Learn more about the "bad guys" in the story of Jesus.

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Every story has a bad guy -- a villain of some kind. And most people familiar with the story of Jesus will label the Pharisees as the "bad guys" who attempted to derail His life and ministry.

As we'll see below, this is mostly true. However, it's also possible that the Pharisees as a whole have been given a bad wrap they don't entirely deserve.

Who Were the Pharisees?

Modern Bible teachers typically speak of the Pharisees as "religious leaders," and this is true. Along with the Sadduccees (a similar group with different theological beliefs), the Pharisees had a great deal of influence over the Jewish people of Jesus' day.

However, it's important to remember that most of the Pharisees were not priests. They were not involved with the temple, nor did they carry out the different sacrifices that were a vital part of religious life for the Jewish people. Instead, the Pharisees were mostly businessmen from the middle-class of their society, which meant they were wealthy and educated. Others were Rabbis, or teachers. As a group, they were kind of like Bible scholars in today's world -- or perhaps like a combination of lawyers and religious professors.

Because of their money and knowledge, the Pharisees were able to set themselves up as the primary interpreters of the Old Testament Scriptures in their day. Because most people in the ancient world were illiterate, the Pharisees told the people what they needed to do in order to obey God's laws.

For this reason, the Pharisees legitimately placed a high value on the Scriptures. They believed God's Word was critically important, and they put a lot of effort into studying, memorizing, and teaching the Old Testament law. In most cases, the common people of Jesus' day respected the Pharisees for their expertise, and for their desire to uphold the holiness of the Scriptures.

Were the Pharisees "Bad Guys"?

If we accept that the Pharisees placed a high value on the Scriptures and were respected by the common people, it's hard to understand why they are viewed so negatively in the Gospels. But there's no doubt they are viewed negatively in the Gospels.

Look at what John the Baptist had to say about the Pharisees, for example:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:7-10

Jesus was even harsher with His criticism:

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “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. 28 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 23:25-28

Ouch! So, why such strong words against the Pharisees? There are two main answers, and the first is present in Jesus' words above: the Pharisees were masters of self-righteousness who regularly pointed out what other people were doing wrong while ignoring their own imperfections.

Stated another way, many of the Pharisees were raging hypocrites. Because the Pharisees were educated in the Old Testament law, they knew when people were disobeying even the smallest details of God's instructions -- and they were ruthless in pointing out and condemning such transgressions. Yet, at the same time, they routinely ignored their own greed, pride, and other major sins.

The second mistake the Pharisees made was elevating Jewish tradition to the same level as the Bible's commands. The Jewish people had been attempting to follow God's laws for well over a thousand years before Jesus was born. And in that time, there was a lot of discussion about what actions were acceptable and unacceptable.

Take the 10 Commandments, for example. The Fourth Commandment states that people should rest from their work on the Sabbath -- which makes plenty of sense on the surface. But when you start to dig deeper, you uncover some difficult questions. What should be considered work, for example? If a man spent his working hours as a farmer, was he allowed to plant flowers on the Sabbath, or what that still considered farming? If a woman made and sold clothes during the week, was she allowed to make a blanket as a gift for her friend, or was that work?

Over the centuries, the Jewish people had accumulated a great deal of traditions and interpretations regarding God's laws. These traditions, often called Midrash, were supposed to help the Israelites better understand the law so they could obey the law. However, the Pharisees had a nasty habit of emphasizing the Midrash instructions even higher than God's original laws -- and they were remorseless in criticizing and punishing people who violated their own interpretations of the law.

As an example, there were Pharisees in Jesus' day who believed it was against God's law to spit on the ground during the Sabbath day -- because spit could potentially water a seed buried in the dirt, which would be farming, which was work. By placing such detailed and hard-to-follow expectations on the Israelites, they turned God's law into an incomprehensible moral code that produced guilt and oppression, rather than righteousness.

Jesus perfectly illustrated this tendency in another portion of Matthew 23:

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."
Matthew 23:23-24

They Weren't All Bad

It's important to conclude this article by pointing out that not all the Pharisees reached the extreme level of hypocrisy and harshness as those who plotted and pushed for Jesus to be crucified. Some of the Pharisees were even decent people.

Nicodemus is an example of a good Pharisee -- he was willing to meet with Jesus and discuss the nature of salvation, along with other topics (see John 3). Nicodemus eventually helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in a dignified way after the crucifixion (see John 19:38-42).

Gamaliel was another Pharisee who seemed to be reasonable. He spoke with common sense and wisdom when the religious leaders wanted to attack the early church after Jesus' resurrection (see Acts 5:33-39).

Finally, the apostle Paul was himself a Pharisee. Granted, he did start his career by persecuting, imprisoning, and even executing disciples of Jesus (see Acts 7-8). But his own encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus transformed him into a critical pillar of the early church.