The Pharisees - Jewish Leaders in the First Century AD.
The Traditions of the Pharisees
The big question was: How authoritative is the oral law? The Pharisees accepted
the oral law along with the Torah, and it was believed to be equally inspired
and authoritative, and all of the explanatory and supplementary material
produced by, and contained within were the oral tradition. This material began
to emerge during the Babylonian Captivity that was brought upon the Jewish
people. The Captivity was explained as divine punishment for the neglect of the
law, and many during this period earnestly turned to the law.
During the Captivity or Exile, detailed commentaries on the law appeared in the
form of innumerable and highly specific restrictions that were designed to
"build a hedge" around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible
violation of the Torah by ignorance or accident.
The situation that the Jews were in (Post-Exilic Period), and how they were to
deal with it exactly, was not clearly written in the Torah, according to some
Jewish authorities. A new legislation had to be produced from that which already
existed. It was like an evolution of traditions that would continue to grow, and
would finally achieve written form as the "Mishnah" in 200 A.D.
During the time of Jesus the oral law came to be revered so highly that it was
said to go back to Moses himself and to have been transmitted over the centuries
orally, paralleling the written law that also derived from him. This is exactly
what the Pharisees believed, and also it was these "traditions" that Jesus
Josephus said several times that the Pharisees were "experts in the
interpretation of the Law" (Josephus, Life, 38). Of the various sects the
Pharisees were regarded as "the most accurate interpreters of the laws"
(Josephus, War II. viii. 14) and also were known for their austerity of life
(Josephus, Antiq. XIII. i. 3). Josephus further specifies that it was exactly
this obsession with "regulations handed down by former generations and not
recorded in the Laws of Moses" (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. x. 6) that
constituted the breach between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Jesus continually referred to the oral law as the "tradition of the elders" or
the "tradition of men" (Matt 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-23; also see Josephus, Antiq.
XIII. xvi. 2).
Some examples in the New Testament alluding to the scrupulous concern of the
Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism are:
The tithing of herbs (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42).
The wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels (Matt 23:5).
The careful observance of ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7:l ff.).
Frequent fastings (Matt 9:14).
Distinctions in oaths (23:16ff.).
The scrupulous details of the minutia of the law are easily seen in the Mishnah.
This encyclopedia of Pharisaic legalism instructs the reader with incredible
detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct. To be honest it would be an
injustice for me to try to describe it and it would probably take someone three
lifetimes just to begin to understand it. My program "Jewish Literature in the
Time of Christ" goes into more details about the Mishnah and other writings of
The legal material of the Mishnah is described as Halacha
"walking"), that which prescribes, as contrasted with the other basic type of
material in oral tradition (esp. in the Gemaras and Midrash) known as
or that which edifies and instructs.
Under the direction of their scribes, the Pharisees tended to multiply
concern for every jot and tittle of performance might
give the impression that the Pharisees were excessively rigid and intolerant. It
is interesting to note that in their interpretation of the written Torah they
often were more liberal than the literalist Sadducees.
There was often disagreement among them concerning the oral law. In the last
decades of the 1st cent. B.C. there sprang up two rival schools of
interpretation among the Pharisees. The one, led by Shammai, was very stringent
and unbendingly conservative; the other, led by Hillel, was very liberal and
willing to "reconcile" the laws with the actual situations of everyday life.
The Mishnah records this rivalry between the two schools often to illustrate
truth. In fact, in the New Testament it seems that when the Pharisees brought
difficult questions to Jesus they were relating to the disputes between these
two schools of interpretation (e.g., divorce, Matt 19:3 ff.). It is also
interesting that many Jewish scholars have compared Jesus with Hillel in such a
way that Jesus could be regarded as a disciple of Hillel. When Jesus answered
the question posed by the Pharisees concerning divorce (Matt 19:9) He apparently
agreed with Shammai against Hillel. Hillel made a statement similar to Jesus'
summary of the law. It is kind of a negative formulation of the Golden Rule:
"What you would not have done to thyself do not to another; that is the whole
law, the rest is commentary" (BT Shabbath
Before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. it seems that the harsher
attitude of the followers of Shammai tended to prevail among the Pharisees, but
after the catastrophe the meek attitude of the followers of Hillel had won out.
The division among the Pharisees had come to an end.
Although the oral law of the Pharisees and its "microscopic precepts" was
condemned by Jesus as a "burden" that is impossible for men to carry, the work
is quite impressive. This is true not only of the scope, the complexity of
structure, and the inventiveness (not to say genius) of its exegesis, but also
as a monumental expression of concern for preservation and righteousness.
The bottom line is that the most significant issues in the Law were lost in the
trivial details of Pharisaic tradition. Any system that is governed by rules
will ultimately fail. Only in the New Testament and in the teachings of Christ
do we see that it is "the mercy of God which leads us unto repentance."
The Pharisees - Jewish
Leaders in the New Testament.
"Pharisee" is from a Greek word (pharisaios) taken from the Heb/Aramaic
"Perisha" meaning "Separated one." In the time of Jesus the Pharisees were one of
the three chief Jewish sects, the others were the Sadducees and the Essenes. Of
the three, the Pharisees were the most separated from the ways of the foreign
influences that were invading Judaism, and from the ways of the common Jewish
people in the land.
"There was probably no town or village inhabited by Jews which had not its
Pharisees, although they would, of course, gather in preference about Jerusalem
with its Temple, and what, perhaps would have been even dearer to the heart of a
genuine Pharisee--its four hundred and eighty synagogues, its Sanhedrims (great
and small), and its schools of study. There could be no difficulty in
recognising such an one. Walking behind him, the chances were, he would soon halt to
say his prescribed prayers. If the fixed time for them had come, he would stop
short in the middle of the road, perhaps say one section of them, move on, again
say another part, and so on, till, whatever else might be doubted, there could
be no question of the conspicuousness of his devotions in market-place or
corners of streets. There he would stand, as taught by the traditional law, would
draw his feet well together, compose his body and clothes, and bend so low "that
every vertebra in his back would stand out separate," or, at least, till "the
skin over his heart would fall into folds" (Ber. 28 b). The workman would drop
his tools, the burden-bearer his load; if a man had already one foot in the
stirrup, he would withdraw it. The hour had come, and nothing could be suffered to
interrupt or disturb him. The very salutation of a king, it was said, must
remain unreturned; nay, the twisting of a serpent around one's heel must remain
– Alfred Edersheim
Origin and History
The sect of Pharisees is thought to have originated in the 3rd century B.C.,
in days preceding the Maccabean wars, when under Greek domination and the Greek
effort to Hellenize the Jews, there was a strong tendency among the Jews to
accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs. The rise of the Pharisees
was a reaction and protest against this tendency among their fellow kinsmen.
Their aim was to preserve their national integrity and strict conformity to Mosaic
law. They later developed into self-righteous and hypocritical formalists.
Later they were among those who had condemned Jesus to death.
How fearfully the prophecy of destruction that Jesus had foretold was
fulfilled! In a few brief years the Roman legions of the Emperor Titus utterly
destroyed the city and its glorious Temple. Over a million Jews perished in the siege
in a few days, and a hundred thousand more were taken away in captivity.
Without its marvelous Temple, the Jewish religion was forced to take on a new
character, and after the final Jewish rebellion (132 A.D.) all hope of
rebuilding the Temple was lost, and the work of these rabbis took a different
The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah (200 A.D.), which is the final
work of these rabbis, began a final work in the history of Jewish scholarship. It
is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of
Pharisaism, which now is compiled into the Talmud which has become synonymous
Jesus and the Pharisees
The Pharisees were the most numerous and influential of the religious sects of
Jesus’ day. The were strict legalists. They stood for the rigid observance of the
letter and forms of the Law, and also for the Traditions. There were some good
men among them, no doubt, but for the most part they were known for their
covetousness, self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
Scribes were copyists of the Scriptures and because of their minute
acquaintance with the Law they became recognized authorities. They were sometimes called
"lawyers." Scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the nation.
The incredible influence of the Pharisees among the masses cannot be mistaken.
The were the most honored in Judaism at the time of Christ. When Christ won
the favor of the people.
"But the great crowd of people went on hearing Him gladly."
The Words spoken by Jesus in Matt 23 constitute the most bitter denunciation
that ever fell from His lips. The enemies of Jesus could not answer Him a word,
nor did anyone ever again dare to ask Him anything. The Pharisees were
unrepentant, hypocritical, and more determined than ever to seek His destruction. In
His final public discourse in the Temple, it was fitting that He should warn His
disciples against the hypocrisy of these corrupt and wicked men. Even while He
denounced their spiritual blindness, ritualism, and wickedness, He wept over
Jerusalem, and ended His discourse with a lamentation, addressed to the beloved
but doomed city which had sinned away its day of opportunity.
The Paradox of the Pharisees
Jesus and the Pharisees
The Paradox of the Pharisees
The Story of the Bible
© Bible History Online (http://www.bible-history.com)
Table of Contents
Jesus and the Pharisees
Paradox of the Pharisees