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The Truth About The Pharisees

John D. Rayner
Spring 1998

The Evidence of the New Testament  

Anyone at all familiar with the New Testament knows that it contains many disparaging remarks about the Pharisees, mostly put into the mouth of Jesus. Here is a sample selection according to the New Revised Standard Version: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, "The people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me . . ." For you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ (Mk. 7:6-8). ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ (Matt. 3:7). ‘You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil?’ (Matt. 12:34). ‘Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit’ (Matt. 15:14). ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matt. 23:13-15, 23-24, 27-28).  

There are more passages in the same vein. Some of them are directed explicitly against the Pharisees, some against ‘the hypocrites,’ by which the Pharisees are evidently intended. Often the Pharisees are linked with the ‘scribes’, sometimes with other groups like the ‘elders’, the ‘chief priests’ and the Herodians.  

Hatred of Pharisees  

And as Jesus is portrayed as having hated the Pharisees, so the Pharisees are portrayed as having hated him. ‘Jews of every stripe — Pharisees, scribes, priests, Herodians, Herod Antipas, the Sadducees, the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, and abruptly in the passion narrative, the crowds — are virtually of a single mind in hating Jesus’ (Samuel Sandmel, Antisemitism in the New Testament?, p. 46). Worst of all, the Pharisees are said to have been among those who plotted Jesus’ death. Mark, for instance, reports that, after watching Jesus cure the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, ‘The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him’ (3:6).  

Admittedly, that is not the whole of the story. Jesus does concede the authority of the Pharisees. In one important passage he says to the crowds and his disciples: ‘The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do’ (Matt. 23:2-3). Just occasionally Jesus commends them for their correct understanding of what God requires. Three times Jesus is invited into the home of a Pharisee (e.g., Lk. 7:37; James Parkes, Jesus, Paul and the Jews, p. 91). Luke also reports that once the Pharisees warned Jesus against Herod, who intended to kill him (13:31). And according to Acts, Rabban Gamaliel, the leading Pharisee of the time, intervened on behalf of Peter and the Apostles when they were brought to trial (5:34), as did a group of Pharisees on behalf of Paul (23:9).  

These exceptions are very significant, but they hardly alter the fact that in the Gospel story the Pharisees are the chief villains. The question must, however, be asked: How reliable is the New Testament as a source of information about the Pharisees? There are two reasons for caution. The first is that the Gospels were written a generation or two after the Crucifixion and reflect the animosity towards the Jews of the Church of that time, some of which the Evangelists retroject in the form of anti-Pharisaism into the lifetime of Jesus; and there is some evidence that the actual relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was less hostile on both sides than the Evangelists suggest. The other reason for caution is that, nevertheless, the New Testament is, editorially, a hostile witness.  

The Evidence of Josephus  

Where then is the truth about the Pharisees to be found? The ideal source would be an impartial historian of the time. Unfortunately, such a source does not exist, although Josephus comes close to it; for on the one hand he was a Jew, but on the other hand he was not a Pharisee, and in any case he was a remarkably accurate historian. Here is what we glean from him.  

The Pharisees, he says, are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws; they are the leading sect; they believe in free will but also in divine providence; they believe in immortality; they are affectionate to each other and cultivate harmonious relations with the community (Wars II, 162-1 66; cf. Antiquities XIII, 171); they are naturally lenient in the matter of punishments (Ant. XIII, 294); they are transmitters of the Oral Tradition, which the Sadducees reject; unlike the Sadducees, who enjoy the confidence only of the wealthy, the Pharisees have the support of the masses (Ant. XIII, 297-98); they live simply, not indulging in luxury; they respect their elders; they believe in reward and punishment after death; they are extremely influential among the townsfolk; all prayers and worship rituals are performed according to their exposition, this being ‘the great tribute that the inhabitants of the cities, by practising the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse, have paid to the excellence of the Pharisees (Ant. XVIII, 12-15).  

From Josephus we also learn that when James, the brother of Jesus, was arrested by a Sadducean high priest, it was ‘those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law,’ by which phrase the Pharisees are evidently meant, who interceded with King Agrippa on his behalf (Ant. XX, 201-03).  

Josephus, therefore, gives us a rather positive picture of the Pharisees to set against the negative one of the Gospels.  

The Evidence of Rabbinic Literature  

The only other source of information would be, if it existed, the literature of the Pharisees themselves. But unfortunately the Pharisees, like Jesus, didn’t write anything. For they were essentially expounders of an Oral Tradition which, to keep it distinct from Scripture, was not supposed to be written down. But that counsel of perfection could not be maintained indefinitely. By about the year 200 of the Christian Era, the Oral Tradition had become so extensive that it could no longer be retained in people’s memories alone. It was then that the recording of what is known as Rabbinic Literature began: Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, etc.  

So the question is: How reliable is Rabbinic Literature, dating from the third century onwards, as a source of information about the Pharisees of the time of Jesus about 200 years earlier? There is also a related question: To what extent is Rabbinic Judaism a continuation of Pharisaic Judaism? My answer to both these questions is positive. I believe that the transmitters of the Oral Tradition transmitted it, though not with perfect accuracy, nevertheless punctiliously and on the whole reliably; and I also believe that there is a high degree of continuity between the religion of the Pharisees, as reflected in the traditions going back to the time before the Roman War, and the religion of the Rabbis as reflected in the traditions and writings of subsequent generations.  

In short, I believe that Rabbinic Literature can be used as a generally sound source of information about the Pharisees, and in the rest of this article I shall single out a few areas of Pharisaic activity and teaching which seem to me to reliably attested by it.  

The Origin and Name of the Pharisees  

But first a few words about the origin and name of the Pharisees. They are first mentioned (by Josephus, Ant. XIII, 171) during the reign of the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus (135-105 BCE), and it is therefore agreed by all scholars that they emerged shortly after the Maccabean Rebellion of 168-165 BCE.  

The name Pharisees, which in Hebrew is perushim, means ‘those who separate themselves’ or ‘keep themselves aloof’. Accordingly, generations of Christian scholars have maintained that their chief distinguishing characteristic was a tendency to avoid contact with the common people (am ha-aretz) for fear of being contaminated by their inattention to the laws of ritual purity, a view which goes nicely with the holier-than-thou attitude of which they are accused in the Gospels. However, that theory is no longer tenable, for it is now known that the Pharisees never called themselves by that name, which was a pejorative nickname given to them by their opponents, the Sadducees, so that nothing can safely be inferred from it about the nature of Pharisaism, any more than the teachings of the Society of Friends can be inferred from the name ‘Quakers’ by which they are commonly known.  

In saying that I am referring to an exhaustive study by the American Jewish historian Ellis Rivkin in which he proved with mathematical precision that the only passages in early Rabbinic literature in which the word undoubtedly refers to the Pharisees, rather than to ‘dissenters’ or ‘heretics’ in general, which the word can also mean, are cases in which the Sadducees are the speakers (‘Defining the Pharisees: The Tannaitic Sources’ in Hebrew Union College Annual, Vols. XL-XLI, 1969-70).  

What, then, did the Pharisees call themselves? The answer is chachamim, which means sages’, and that does bring us almost to the heart of the matter, for the Pharisees were essentially lay scholars, that is, people who, without necessarily being of priestly descent, were nevertheless expert expounders of the Scriptures and the Oral Tradition.  

As such, they had an antecedent in the so-called chasidim or ‘pious ones’, that is to say, lay people who practised an intensive regimen of Scripture study and prayer, from whom the Maccabees drew much of their support.  

Religious and Political Authority  

What, then, were the conditions that gave rise, first, to the chasidim and then to the chachamim? The key fact is that the period after the Babylonian Exile, first under the Persians and then under the Greeks, was a period in which Judea was ruled by High Priests, who exercised both religious and political authority, and in which the Temple dominated the national life. But there was only the one Temple in Jerusalem, where sacrifices were offered twice daily by a hereditary priesthood, for the book of Deuteronomy strictly forbade religious worship anywhere else.  

This situation led to a growing sense of exclusion on the part of those (the great majority) who did not have the good fortune to be born into priestly families, especially if they were also prosperous and educated, as happened increasingly with the coming of Greek rule. For if they lived far from Jerusalem, they had no opportunities for regular worship, and even if they lived in Jerusalem and could go to the Temple, their role in it was passive. They attended, not as participants but as spectators, watching the priests perform the sacrificial rites.  

The consequent resentment apparently came to a head during or immediately after the Maccabean War, and led to a democratising movement, which is essentially what Pharisaism was. In other words, the principal aim of the Pharisees was to make Judaism, which had been so largely a Temple religion, into a people’s religion: to bring it into the daily lives of ordinary folk. Far from keeping aloof from the common people, the Pharisees addressed themselves to the common people, represented their interests, and were popular with them, as Josephus testifies.  

Nevertheless, they didn’t have an easy time of it. For they were opposed, not only by the Sadducees, who, as the priestly party, possessed much wealth and prestige, but also, some of the time, by the Hasmonean rulers. Alexander Jannai (101-78), for instance, persecuted them, though his widow and successor Salome Alexandra favoured them, and their history remained a chequered one until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Then, of course, the priestly Sadducees lost their raison d’etre, and from that time Pharisaism dominated virtually all Judaism, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora.  


How, then, did the Pharisees set about achieving their democratising purpose? First and foremost through the Synagogue. There is indeed some doubt whether synagogues existed at all before their time, except in Egypt, where the first mention of synagogues dates from the reign of Ptolemy III, who reigned in the second half of the third century BCE. But if they existed in Palestine as early as that, we may be sure that the High Priest would have done his utmost to prevent them from gaining too much influence. The Pharisees, however, if they did not invent the Synagogue, used it for their purpose and made it a major institution of Jewish life, rivaling the Temple itself.  

The very name ‘synagogue’, which is Greek for ‘assembly’, suggests a democratic institution. In it the Pharisees evolved a new form of worship, unprecedented in the whole history of religion, which involved no sacrifices and required no priesthood. Instead, it consisted of communal prayer and the public reading and expounding of Scripture; it was conducted by anybody, regardless of pedigree, who possessed the necessary knowledge; and it was participatory.  

Soon synagogues sprang up in their hundreds wherever Jews lived, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, and so spread the influence of Pharisaism far and wide. Admittedly, the number of Pharisees, in the sense of ‘card-holding’ members of the Pharisaic chavurah or brotherhood was relatively small and centred in Jerusalem. According to Josephus there were only 800 in the time of Jesus. But they traveled extensively, as Paul did on his missionary journeys, and exerted great influence. It is therefore likely that Jesus would have become acquainted with Pharisaism, for instance, in the Capernaum synagogue.  


The Synagogue, in turn, required an extensive liturgy, for in the Temple, apart from the chanting of Psalms, the use of words played only a subsidiary part. Here again the Pharisees were the pioneers. It was they who singled out the Shema — that is, the passage beginning ‘Hear, 0 Israel, the Eternal One is our God’ from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, supplemented by two other Scriptural passages, as a declaration of loyalty to the Jewish faith, to be recited twice daily. It was they who composed the series of benedictions known as the Tefillah which became the core of the three daily services. Indeed, all the basic elements of the Jewish liturgy go back to the Pharisees.  


The Pharisees also understood that, in order to achieve their purpose, what they must do is not to level down but to level up; not to downgrade the priests but to upgrade the lay folk; in short, to implement the Scriptural ideal of ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exod. 19:6). For this purpose education was all-important. The public reading of Scripture in the synagogue, and the exposition of it which became the sermon, served that purpose. But in addition, the Pharisees established schools in which children, admittedly only of the male sex, were taught to read and write, and to understand the sacred texts. Two Pharisaic teachers especially are mentioned in that connection. One was Simeon ben Shetach, brother of Queen Salome Alexandra, in the first century BCE; the other was Joshua ben Gamla, who was also a High Priest, in the first century CE.  

If Jesus, as a child, attended a school in Nazareth, he would have benefited from a Pharisaic institution which, in addition to the synagogues he visited, would have introduced him to Pharisaic ideas.  

Domestic Observance  

The Pharisees brought Judaism out of the Temple into the synagogues and schools and therefore within reach of ordinary people. But they also brought it into their homes, by devising a whole regimen of domestic rituals. The most colourful of them is the domestic celebration of the Passover festival known as the Seder.  

An even more illuminating example is the kindling of the Sabbath lights. According to the book of Exodus (35:3) it is forbidden to burn a fire on the Sabbath. The Sadducees took that literally and would therefore sit in darkness on Friday night. But the Pharisees pointed to a verse in Isaiah which says, ‘You shall call the Sabbath a delight’ (58:13), which they took to mean that the Sabbath is supposed to be a joyful day. Therefore they took the Exodus verse only as a prohibition against kindling a fire on the Sabbath and, to the consternation of the Sadducees, declared it to be a positive duty of the Jewish housewife to kindle lights before the onset of the holy day, so that Jewish homes would look bright and festive on the Sabbath Eve (Mishnah Shab. 2:6f). It was typical of their liberal, creative approach to Jewish observance.  


Central to the whole Pharisaic scheme was the doctrine of the Twofold Torah: that, in addition to the Written Torah of the Bible, and especially the Pentateuch, God had, at Mount Sinai, revealed a supplementary body of teachings which was to be handed down by word of mouth and augmented from generation to generation. Of this Oral Torah, elucidating and amplifying the Written Torah, the Pharisees claimed to be accredited exponents. They made this claim by asserting that the Oral Torah had been transmitted all along by a lay rather than priestly chain of tradition: from Moses to Joshua, then to the Elders, then to the Prophets, then to the Men of the Great Assembly — who were the immediate predecessors of the Pharisees. By this opening statement of the Ethics of the Fathers, the Pharisees established their credentials.  

The Oral Torah, in turn, had two aspects: Halachah and Aggadah. Halachah means ‘law’ and is the Pharisees’ answer to the question of the Deuteronomist, ‘And now, 0 Israel, what does the Eternal One your God require of you?’ (10:12). It is an attempt, monumental in its comprehensiveness and mind-boggling in its detailedness, to construct out of the data of Scripture, supplemented by the Oral Tradition, a code of conduct governing every aspect of life, private and public, ritual and ethical, social and economic.  

If we ask, more specifically, what was the approach of the Pharisees to civil and criminal law, I think we must say that its outstanding characteristic was humaneness. It was, for instance, the Pharisees who interpreted the biblical law of ‘an eye for an eye’ to mean that monetary compensation, commensurate with the injury, is to be paid to the injured party (BK 8:1). And it was the Pharisees who, out of regard for the sanctity of human life, weighted the rules of evidence in capital cases so heavily in favour of the defendant as to make conviction virtually impossible (San. 4-5). One Pharisaic teacher is quoted in the Mishnah as saying that a court which orders one death penalty in seven years is considered cruel; another said ‘one in seventy years’; and two more declared: ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been put to death’ (Makkot 1:10).  

Moreover, when the Pharisees considered the question, what is the essence of the Torah, they always tended to define it in ethical terms. When, for instance, Hillel the Elder, who was the greatest of the Pharisees, was challenged to sum up the Torah in a nutshell, his answer was: ‘What is hateful to yourself, don’t do to others. That is the gist of the Torah, the rest is a commentary on it. Go and learn’ (Shab. 31a). Similarly, Rabbi Akiva taught that ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18) is the dominant principle of the Torah (Sifra 89b).  


The other aspect of the Oral Torah, called Aggadah, which means narrative, covers everything non-legal, including Bible commentary, legends of all kinds, and general religious and ethical teachings. In this area, too, the Pharisees were extremely creative. As we already know from Josephus, they espoused the doctrine of resurrection, of the world-to-come, of reward and punishment, and of free will, even while affirming the paradox that, nevertheless, the ultimate control of human destiny is with God. They also adopted the belief in a human Messiah who will ultimately bring redemption to the Jewish people and to all humanity, but discouraged speculation about the time of his coming. Innumerable passages could be quoted from early Rabbinic Literature on these and other themes, including the justice and mercy of God, the good and evil inclinations in human nature, the power of repentance to obtain divine forgiveness, the special responsibility of the Jewish people, and the supreme ideal of peace.  

From such an abundance it is hardly possible to make a meaningful selection, but perhaps something of the flavour of Pharisaism may be gauged from these aphorisms by its greatest exponent, Hillel. ‘Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow human beings, and drawing them near to the Torah . . . If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? . . . Do not separate yourself from the community . . . Do not judge others until you have been in their position . . . Where none behave like human beings, behave like a human being’ (Avot 1:12, 1:14, 2:4, 2:5).  

Preaching and Practising  

Of course the Pharisees didn’t always practise what they preached, and there were no doubt hypocrites among them, as there are in all religious communities. At their best the Pharisees were people of extraordinary gentleness as well as spirituality. Of Hillel, for instance, it is said that, no matter how hard one might try, it was impossible to rouse him to anger (Shab. 30b-31a). And of Hillel’s disciples it is said that they were gentle and humble, and that they always cited the opinions of their opponents as well as their own, and even before their own (Eruvin 13b). It is therefore hard to imagine Hillel using against his opponents the kind of vituperative language which the Evangelists put into the mouth of Jesus against the Pharisees. And when it comes to readiness to die for one s beliefs, nobody in the history of martyrdom has shown greater courage than, among many other Pharisees, Rabbi Akiva, who, as he was tortured to death by the Romans, recited the Shema, happy in the knowledge that he was able to fulfil the commandment, ‘You shall love the Eternal One your God . . . with all your soul’ (Ber. 61b).  

Jesus and the Pharisees  

In spite of all the denunciations of the Pharisees attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, he probably had more in common with them than with any other Jewish sect. He held similar beliefs, for instance about life after death, and about the infinity of God’s mercy. He used the same kind of language, not least in his prayers. The ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ for instance, is a string of characteristically Pharisaic phrases. He employed the same kinds of metaphors in his parables: father and son, king and subject, farmer and tenant. Often he taught in slightly enigmatic aphorisms just as Hillel did. And one could draw many more parallels. Above all, as we have seen, he advised his disciples to ‘do what the Pharisees teach’, which can only mean that in his view what they taught was, in the main, right.  

lt is therefore hard to believe that Jesus was as vehemently against the Pharisees as the Gospel writers make him out to have been. Furthermore, it is actually possible to prove that there occurred an intensification in the perception of their mutual hostility between the lifetime of Jesus and that of the Evangelists, and here is the best example.  

According to the earliest Gospel, Mark, one of the Scribes, presumably a Pharisee, asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, and Jesus replies with two: first, ‘Hear, 0 Israel, the Eternal One is God, the Eternal God is One; and you shall love the Eternal One your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Deut. 6:4f); secondly, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18). The Scribe is delighted with the answer; Jesus in turn says to him: ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (12:28-34); and they part in perfect harmony.  

But notice what happens in the subsequent transmission of the story. In Matthew the questioner, who is called a lawyer, again meaning a Pharisee, is out to ‘test’ Jesus, and there is no mutual commendation; the atmosphere has become distinctly chilly (22:34-40). In Luke the lawyer is again intent on ‘testing’ Jesus; he throws the question back at the lawyer, who duly quotes the same two commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and Jesus says to him: ‘You have answered right; do this, and you will live.’ But then Luke continues: ‘But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?" Whereupon Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, with the implication that the Pharisee needs to be taught a lesson about good neighbourliness (10:25-37). As for John, he omits the story altogether, as if the merest hint of a suggestion that there were good Pharisees would be too great a concession.  

So we can see that from generation to generation, as the conflict between the Church and the Synagogue grew sharper, so the perception of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees became sharper too. And if we extrapolate that tendency backwards in time, we come to the conclusion that the actual relationship must have been more harmonious than even the earliest strata of the Gospel process indicate.  


We have looked at three sources of information about the Pharisees: the Gospels, which are mainly anti-Pharisaic and tell us very little; Josephus, who is neutral and tells us more but still not very much; and Rabbinic Literature, which is pro-Pharisaic and voluminous but rather late, so that much depends on the reliability of the oral traditions it enshrines. From these data, we must each make up our minds as best we can what the truth about the Pharisees is most likely to be.

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