The Pharisees and the New Testament

With the resources and data available today, we do not have to accept the historically flawed presentation of the Pharisees.

by Marc Turnage

Most students of the Gospels are familiar with the Jewish party of the Pharisees. Christian history remembers them as the opponents of Jesus, even though the Gospels are unanimous that the party that handed Jesus over to Pilate did not include Pharisees (Luke 19:47,48; 23:1,10; Mark 11:18; 15:1; Matthew 27:1,2; John 18:28; 19:6).1

The Gospels define the body that handed Jesus over to Pilate as composed of the chief priests, their scribes, and the Sadducees, led by the high priest Caiaphas (Luke 22:54,66; 23:1; John 18:13,14,19,28).2 They are typically identified as hypocrites who fixated on legalism and works-based righteousness, the very attitudes Jesus came to stand against. However, some of our ideas about the Pharisees may not be completely accurate.

During the Protestant Reformation, terms such aslaw, grace, works, and faith became buzzwords of the Church. The Reformers framed their struggle with the Catholic Church through their distorted historical lens of the Early Church’s struggle with Judaism. The Reformers had very little direct contact with Judaism; therefore, Judaism, Jews, and the Pharisees became abstract ideas and concepts within their theological discourse.3

Within the Reformation discourse, the Pharisees became negative representations of Church attitudes and actions having nothing to do with the historical Pharisees. In other words, the concept of Pharisees became more associated with inner-Christian polemics than historical or modern Judaism.

A more recent example of this phenomenon is a popular drink that appeared on menus in the 19th century. Made with rum and coffee, the drink was served in a tall glass with whipped cream to hide the smell of alcohol. To passersby, it looked like a cappuccino. This permitted patrons to hide the midday drinking from friends and neighbors. The drink was called a “Pharisee.”4

Christians today still call certain unethical or hypocritical people and practices Pharisees or Pharisaic, using these terms in disparaging ways. The political overtones have faded through the centuries. Yet the negative stereotype attached to the Pharisees affects how Christians read about them in the Gospels and Acts. At the least, this produces poor and faulty interpretations of the biblical text. More problematically, it continues to foster Christian anti-Jewish attitudes that penetrate Christian preaching and teaching. So who were the historical Pharisees?

The Pharisees: A History

The Pharisees appear in the ancient writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus, the New Testament, and in a few places within the Talmud. The name “Pharisee” seemingly derived from the Hebrew word parush (לפרוש), which means, “to be separated.”

In Hebrew, this term carries a negative connotation, which is why the Pharisees themselves generally avoided using the word.5 Like the term Protestant, the name Pharisees originated with their opponents. The pejorative connotation did not cross over into Greek, as both Paul (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5) and Josephus (Life 10) refer to themselves as Pharisees in Greek.

The Greek New Testament identifies Nicodemus (known in Jewish sources as Naqdimon ben Gurion) and Rabban Gamaliel the Elder as Pharisees (John 3:1; Acts 5:34). Likewise, Josephus identified the grandson of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, as a Pharisee (Life 191), as well as Samaias and Pollion, two prominent Pharisees who lived under Herod the Great (Antiquities 15:4,370).6

The origins of the Pharisees begin during the second century B.C. Josephus first mentions them in connection with the career of Jonathan the Hasmonean (152–142 B.C.; Antiquities 13:171). His first mention of them in connection with historical events dates to the reign of John Hyrcannus (134–104 B.C.). The Pharisees rejected John’s identification of both priest and king, so Hyrcannus aligned himself with the enemies of the Pharisees — the Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees both sought to influence the political workings of the Hasmonean government. Alexander Janneus, son of John Hyrcannus, crucified 800 Pharisees for their opposition to his government. Yet on his deathbed, he instructed his wife Salome Alexandra to heed their counsel. So, during her reign, the Pharisees exercised great political influence and power. With Rome’s conquest of Judea and the rise of Herod the Great, the focus of the Pharisees shifted from politics to areas of religious practice. Josephus reports that during the time of Herod the Great, there were about six thousand Pharisees in the land of Israel. This number represents those who undertook to “consume their everyday food in ritual purity.”

The Pharisees: Their Beliefs

This brings us back to the origin of the pejorative nickname “Pharisee.” As we said, the word means “to be separated.” Within Jewish sources, we encounter groups functioning in the first century called Haverim (Havurah singular). These groups were particularly fastidious about ritual purity, especially pure vessels and eating meals in a state of ritual purity. In fact, for their meals, they assumed a degree of ritual purity required of priests eating in the Temple, which was not required outside the Temple. This requirement of table purity excluded the regular person from the table of the Havurah. They received upon themselves a stricter purity code not accepted by the remainder of Israel, which separated them from the people. This separation caused by their strict purity led to their identification as Pharisees (cf. m. Hagigah 3:7).

The Pharisees did not insist that everyone should be a full member of their community; rather, they reflected a broad stream of piety based upon certain points of agreed consensus, which gave them widespread support. Josephus relates that the whole nation followed the Pharisees. Their influence came through their positions within the synagogues throughout the land of Israel.7 In the synagogues, they instructed the people in their interpretation of the Torah, which they viewed as a developing dynamic entity that comprised the written Scripture and their oral tradition around it. They sought to provide accurate and exact interpretations of the Torah, while also making it relevant, vibrant, and applicable to the current life situation of the people. In this, they were no different than a pastor who seeks to make the ancient Scriptures relevant to his or her congregation by giving it contemporary meaning and application.

The Pharisees frequently taught the people using story parables. In fact, outside of the Gospels, story parables only appear in the teachings of the Sages (Pharisees).8 They embraced Jewish redemptive hopes and believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead, as well as the world to come. They also accepted that divine will and human freedom existed simultaneously in the world.

We should think of the Pharisees as a movement, a stream of piety, with subgroups that did not all agree on a specific topic. For example, two of the primary camps, or schools (houses) in the first century, were those of Hillel and Shammai. A group called the Hasidim existed among the broader Pharisaic movement. These pious, sometimes wonder-working, individuals had a tense relationship with the Pharisaic establishment. So did an activist group Josephus called the “fourth philosophy,” affiliated with the Pharisees. The Pharisaic “peace movement” disagreed with their religious-political activism and coined the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as an antislogan against those who sought to bring about God’s reign by force.9

The theology of the New Testament emerges from the world of Pharisaic theology. While some sectarian Jewish elements appear in the writings of Paul, John, and the author of Hebrews, for the most part, the theological worldview of Jesus and Paul was Pharisaic. In fact, in the earliest rabbinic commentary on the Book of Exodus, we find Sages (Pharisees), who predated the New Testament, saying that salvation comes through faith.10

As communicators of the biblical text we have a responsibility to do the work in order to properly place the Bible within its historical, cultural, and linguistic milieus. The best intentions cannot save edifices built upon poor foundations. With the resources and data available to us today, we do not have to accept the historically flawed presentation of the Pharisees, nor do we need to continue to perpetuate a presentation that undermines the historical reality of the Incarnation by driving a wedge between Jesus and His Jewish contemporaries. By understanding the historical Pharisees, their faith, piety, and hermeneutics, we can better understand Jesus and Paul. In fact, failing to do so permanently removes us from Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God.


1. The Gospels are clear that Jesus’ actions during His last week in Jerusalem were deliberately directed against the chief priests, their scribes, and the Sadducean leaders (Luke 19:45,46; 20:1–40). His popularity with the masses protected Him against the chief priests, led by Caiaphas, who sought to destroy Him (Luke 19:47,48; 20:19; 22:2; John 18:14,28). The Book of Acts likewise portrays this same group as the opponents of the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1–7), who, like their Master, enjoyed the favor of the Jewish masses. The chief priests of the first century belonged to the party of the Sadducees (cf. Acts 4:6; 5:17; Josephus, Antiquities 20:199; and b. Pesahim 57a). See also Marc Turnage, “The Enemies of Jesus,” Enrichment (Spring 2012), 112–114.

2. The mention of the supreme Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, in Matthew 26:59 and Mark 15:1 have led many to assume the presence of the Pharisees at Jesus’ inquiry; however, if the Sanhedrin was in session at Jesus’ inquiry, Caiaphas only needed to assemble 23 judges of his Sadducean friends to condemn Jesus to death (m. Sanhedrin 4:1). The entire council did not have to pass judgment. Caiaphas could have easily orchestrated such a group since the Sadducees were the dominant party on the Jewish court. The fact that Jesus was crucified suggests that He was not condemned by the Sanhedrin, but rather an inquiry sought grounds to hand Him over to Pilate, allowing Rome to do the dirty work. One of the most telling facts that the Sanhedrin did not condemn Jesus is that He was not buried in one of the two graves reserved for those executed by order of the Sanhedrin (m. Sanhedrin 6:5). According to Josephus, the high priest Ananus, the grandson of Annas (John 18:13), a Sadducee, convened a session of the Sanhedrin apparently engineered with Sadducees in order to condemn James, the brother of Jesus, and other Christians to be stoned. Upon hearing of this illegal session of the court, the Pharisees protested to the Roman governor and Agrippa II that this was done without their knowledge (Antiquities 20:199–203). Josephus describes a relationship between the chief priests and Sadducees, who were hostile to Jesus’ movement, and the Pharisees who sought to defend and protect this movement, which mirrors the presentation found in the Book of Acts (4:1–7; 5:17–39; 22:30 through 23:10). Cf. David Flusser, Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 146–148; and Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1974).

3. This is also true of how they interpreted and discoursed about the concepts of “law,” “circumcision,” and “works.” See the excellent work of Peter J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law (Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

4. S. Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 76.

5. The group that Josephus and the New Testament refer to as Pharisees, which reflects a broad movement, is referred to within Hebrew sources as the Sages or the Sages of Israel.

6. Josephus undoubtedly referred to the great Sages Shammai and Hillel.

7. In the land of Israel during the first century, the synagogue was primarily a place for the reading, studying, and interpretation of the Torah. The few first century synagogues excavated in the land of Israel were built with the architectural focus of the building at the center where the reader/interpreter could teach. These earlier structures do not reflect the later practice of orientation toward Jerusalem when prayer became the central focus of synagogue worship.

8. Cf. R. Steven Notley and Ze’ev Safrai, Parables of the Sages: Jewish Wisdom from Jesus to Rav Ashi(Jerusalem: Carta, 2011), see especially 1–70; Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation(Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1998).

9. David Flusser,“The Image of the Masada Martyrs in Their Own Eyes and in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period, Volume 2: The Jewish Sages and Their Literature(Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 76–112; idem, Jesus(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998), 104–112, and 258–275.

10. Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmaelon Exodus 14:31 through 15:1; cf. also Sifrato Leviticus 18:5.