Pharisees [N] [E] [H] [S]

Jewish group mentioned, either collectively or as individuals, ninety-eight times in the New Testament, all but ten times in the Gospels.

The root meaning of the word "Pharisee" is uncertain. It is probably related to the Hebrew root prs [v;r'P], meaning "separate" or "detach." From whom did the Pharisees separate? From those, especially priests or clerics, who interpreted the Law differently than they? From the common people of the land ( John 7:49 )? From Gentiles or Jews who embraced the Hellenistic culture? From certain political groups? All these groups of people the Pharisees would have been determined to avoid in their resolution to separate themselves from any type of impurity proscribed by the levitical law — or, more specifically, their strict interpretation of it.

Josephus's references to the Pharisees are selective, probably because he was adapting them to a cultured Gentile audience. His information comes in two forms: direct descriptions and the role the Pharisees play in the history that he depicts.

Josephus says the Pharisees maintained a simple lifestyle (Ant18.1.3 [12]), were affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others (War 2.8.14 [166]), especially respectful to their elders (Ant18.13 [12]), and quite influential throughout the land of Israel (Ant13.10.5 [288]; 17.2.4 [41-45]; 18.1.3 [15])although at the time of Herod they numbered only about six thousand (Ant17.2.4 [42]). Josephus mentions their belief in both fate (divine sovereignty) and the human will (War 2.8.14 [163], Ant18.1.3 [13]) and in immortality of both good and evil persons (War 2.8.14 [16]; Ant17.1.3 [14]). Some Pharisees refused to take oaths (Ant17.2.4 [42]). Of particular importance are Josephus's statements that the Pharisees adhered to "the laws of which the Deity approves" (Ant17.2.4 [41]) and that they "are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws" (War 2.8.14 [162]). Pharisees "follow the guidance of that which their doctrine has selected and transmitted as good, attaching the chief importance to the observance of those commandments which it has seen fit to dictate to them" (Ant18.1.3 [12]) and they "passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses" (Ant17.2.4 [41]; 13.10.6 [297]). Although the phrase "Oral Law" is not used, it appears Josephus understood that the Pharisees affirmed a body of traditional interpretations, applications, and expansions of the Old Testament law communicated orally.

The Pharisees first appear in Josephus's account of intertestamental history as he describes the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104). He assumes they had been in existence for some time. This raises the much discussed question of their origin. Some see the Pharisees' roots in the biblical Ezra ( Ezra 7:10 ; shows his concern for exact keeping of the Law, especially ceremonial purity ), others in the Hasidim (the Holy/Pure/Righteous) who supported the Maccabean revolt as long as its motives were religious but withdrew when it became primarily political (1 Macc 2:42; 7:13; cf. 2 Macc 14:6). Recent studies suggest the Pharisees were part of a general revolutionary spirit of the pre-Maccabean times and that they emerged as a scholarly class dedicated to the teaching of both the written and oral Law and stressing the internal side of Judaism. In any case, they were certainly one of the groups that sought to adapt Judaism for the postexilic situation.

John Hyrcanus was at first "a disciple" of the Pharisees but became their enemy (Ant13.10.5 [288-98]). The Pharisees were opponents of the Hasmonean rulers from then on. The hostility was especially great during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76), and they seem to have taken a leading part in opposition to him; it is usually assumed that Pharisees composed either all or a large part of the eight hundred Jews he later crucified (Ant13.14.2 [380]). The one exception to Pharisaic opposition to the Hasmoneans was Salome Alexandria (76-67), under whom they virtually dominated the government.

Josephus's information about the Pharisees under the Romans is spotty. Under Herod (37 b.c.-4 b.c.) the Pharisees were influential, but carefully controlled by the king. Some individual Pharisees did oppose Herod on occasion. Josephus gives almost no information about the Pharisees from the death of Herod until the outset of the revolt against Rome (about a.d. 66). At first they attempted to persuade the Jews against militant actions (War2.17.3 [411]). Later Pharisees appear as part of the leadership of the people during the revolt, some individuals playing a leading role in it.

The New Testament depicts the Pharisees as opponents of Jesus or the early Christians. On the other hand, they warn Jesus that his life is in danger from Herod ( Luke 13:31 ), invite him for meals ( Luke 7:36-50 ; 14:1 ), are attracted to or believe in Jesus ( John 3:1 ; 7:45-53 ; 9:13-38 ), and protect early Christians ( Acts 5:34 ; 23:6-9 ). Paul asserts he was a Pharisee before his conversion ( Php 3:5 ).

The clearest New Testament statement of Pharisaic distinctives is Acts 23:8: "The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels, nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all." This would give the impression that doctrine was the basic concern of the group. However, Mark 7:3-4 says that "The Pharisees do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles." Thus, we are also told of the Pharisees' concern for washing (ceremonial cleansing) and observance of "the traditions of the elders, " a description of the Oral Law. Matthew 23 calls attention to their (1) positions of religious authority in the community, (2) concern for outward recognition and honor, (3) enthusiasm for making converts, and (4) emphasis on observing the legalistic minutia of the law. In verse 23 Jesus condemns them, not for what they did, but for neglecting "the more important matters of the law justice, mercy and faithfulness."

There is general recognition that Josephus's description of the Pharisees as a "sect" (hairesis [ai&resi"]) should not be understood in the modern sense. Instead, it seems to denote something like a "religious party, " "community, " or "denomination" within mainstream Judaism. Pharisaic zeal for the Law is obvious, but what is meant by Law? The sanctity of the written Law was never questioned, but intertestamental Jewish groups differed on how it was to be interpreted and applied. The Pharisees developed their own body of interpretations, expansions, and applications of the Law that they came to regard as of divine origin (Mishnah, Aboth, 1:1). This was to assist in understanding and keeping the Law, often added regulations ("fences" or "hedges") were designed to prevent even coming close to breaking the Law. Most of these traditions, the Oral Law, dealt with matters of levitical purity. Some contained other additions that had come into prominence in the intertestamental situation. These included belief in immortality, angels and demons, spirits, and divine sovereignty. Expansions of such doctrines led to others. For example, belief in immortality resulted in expanded messianic and eschatological views. Their social and political views were based on their premise that all of life must be lived under the control of God's Law. The Pharisees opposed Hasmoneans who, contrary to the Law, sought to combine the monarchy and priesthood. Likewise, they rejected Roman authority when it appeared to conflict with the Law of God.

Some modern scholars have objected to the assumption that intertestamental Judaism, including Pharisaism, believed in a "wage price-theory of righteousness, " that eternal life is granted on the basis of faithfulness in keeping the Law. Rather, they insist, Israel's religion was a "covenantal nominism" in which Law-keeping was a response to God's grace offered in his covenant with Israel. These studies provide a helpful corrective to traditional views of intertestamental Judaism, including Pharisaism, as merely a blatant legalism. Yet the New Testament assumes that Jesus and his disciples were at times in conflict with just such legalism (e.g., Mark 10:17 ; Luke 15:29 ; [note that "the older brother" most likely represents the Pharisaic point of view] ); John 6:28; and Paul's constant fight against earning salvation by works of the law (note: Rom 9:30-32, ; Israel "pursued it [righteousness] not by faith but as if it were by works" ). Of particular relevance here are the contrasting prayers of the Pharisee and the Publican, the results of which the latter "went home justified" ( Luke 18:9-14 ). Intertestamental Judaism was far from a monolithic whole; many, if not most, of the common people, who were influenced by the Pharisees, seem to have held a legalistic view of their religion. Jesus and the early Christians strongly opposed views that externalized religion and/or sought God's favor on the basis of human effort.

J. Julius Scott, Jr.

See also Jesus Christ; Legalism; Paul the Apostle

Bibliography. J. W. Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees; L. Findelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of Their Faith; L. L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian; J. Neusner, Formative Judaism: Torah, Pharisees and Rabbis; idem, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70; E. Rivkin, A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees Search for the Kingdom Within; E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE; idem, Paul and Palestinian Judaism; Emil Schürer, The History of Their Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ; Moisés Silva, WTJ42 (1979-80): 395-405; M. Simon, The Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[H] indicates this entry was also found in Hitchcock's Bible Names
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Pharisees'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.