Brief History


Hasmonaean CoinBrief History of the Pharisees

As previously mentioned there is no way to know for certain exactly how the Pharisees had originated but the roots of the Pharisees can be traced to the "Hasidim" of the 2nd century B.C. The Hasidim were those devout and "pious men" of Israel who were pressed to resist the increasing pressure toward. Hellenization because of their loyalty to Yahweh and His Law.

When the Maccabees resisted the tyrannical policies of Antiochus Epiphanes (167 B.C. and following) the Hasidim were in full support of the resistance. Once the Temple was re-dedicated in 164 B.C. and the triumph of religious freedom in 162 B.C., the Hasidim, who were mainly concerned with religious and political affairs, became increasingly separate from the political scheming of the Hasmoneans.

The Hasidim gave birth to many sects and among them were the Pharisees, who may be regarded as the direct continuation of Hasidism into the New Testament period. The earliest historical reference to the Pharisees is found in Josephus (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. v. 9 ), who introduces them along with the Sadducees and Essenes as representatives of differing doctrinal viewpoints held at the time his narrative describes (about 145 B.C.).

The next mention of the Pharisees in ancient literature is also from Josephus (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. x. 5; also see BT, Kidd., 66a for a similar account). Josephus tells of John Hyrcanus (son of Simon Maccabeus) who was the high priest under whom political independence was finally achieved (128 B.C.), and who was also a disciple of the Pharisees. Hyrcanus had invited some Pharisees to a great dinner, and during the course of the festivities had shared with them his desire to attain righteousness and to please God, signifying that he would be gladly hear their advice for his own self-improvement. They had all agreed that he was already a righteous man. A man named Eleazar (a perverse individual according to Josephus) suggested that Hyrcanus really ought to give up the high priesthood and be content with the civil government alone, since rumor had it that Hyrcanus' mother had been a captive of the Seleucids before his birth. The implication was that the real father, and thus the priestly lineage, of Hyrcanus was questionable. Hyrcannus took offense, and a Sadducee named Jonathan, insisted that such was the view of all Pharisees. When Hyrcanus saw that the Pharisees did nothing to Eleazar regarding his insult he withdrew from them, at Jonathan’s advice, and began to oppose their activities with much hostility.

This is the earliest fiber of historical information which records the breach between the Pharisees and the rulers, and the rulers from now on tended to promote the Sadducean viewpoint. The rift that began here and continued to grow proved to be of huge importance, since the Pharisees, according to Josephus (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. x. 5 ), held very great influence with the masses. This event itself is apparently at the root of the quarrel between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees.

But, according to history, there were many other reasons for this major division within Judaism. The Hasmonean house seemed to be absorbed in their political position. Take for example the adoption of the royal diadem by Aristobulus I (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xi. 1; War I. iii. 1), which was at conflict with the completely religious orientation of the Pharisees.

During the reigns of Aristobulus I and Alexander Jannaeus, the breach between the two factions continued, with the Pharisees enjoying incredible popularity among the people.

When Alexander Jannaeus was defeated by the Nabataean Arabs, the people took advantage of the situation and instigated a rebellion against Jannaeus that lasted nearly six years (94-88 B.C.). No doubt the Pharisees played a major role in this rebellion (even though Josephus neglects to mention their involvement, Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xiii. 5; XIV. 2; War I. iv. 6), and would have been no doubt been among the eight hundred Jews crucified as victims of Jannaeus' vengeance.

Josephus does have Jannaeus refer to the Pharisees on his deathbed (76 B.C.) and characterizes his conflict with the nation to his harsh treatment of the Pharisees (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xv. 5).

Josephus also mentions that Jannaeus counseled his wife Alexandra concerning the power of the Pharisees with the people and "to yield a certain amount of power" to them (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xv. 5). Queen Alexandra, whose brother Simon ben Shetach was leader of the Pharisees, found this advice agreeable, and during her reign the power of the Pharisees grew considerably, so much so that Josephus says they possessed the royal authority whereas Alexandra had only its burdens (Josephus, War I. v. 2) .

The Pharisees thrived under Simon as long as Alexandra lived. When she died (67 B.C.) a struggle for the throne took place between her two sons, Hyrcanus II, the rightful heir who also possessed the support of the Pharisees, and his younger brother Aristobulus II who was supported by the Sadducees. Aristobulus proved stronger than his brother. Hyrcanus soon gave in to him and the political power of the Pharisees declined.

But this political adversity had a reverse effect because it caused the Pharisees to be even more zealous in their religious commitment. Soon Hyrcanus regained the high priesthood, no doubt through Antipater’s efforts. This division within Judaism had proved to be a major factor in the collapse of the Hasmoneans and the related subservience to Rome.

The Pharisees continued to maintain an incredible influence among the people throughout all of these conflicts, so that even Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet, was careful not to offend them. He had no regard for their religious teachings but was well aware of the power they had with the people and the threat they posed to the stability of his kingdom if he were to attack them.

At this time, Josephus records that there were "above six thousand" strict Pharisees (Josephus, Antiq. XVII. ii. 4) and some believe that nearly 5% of all of the total population could be counted among the Pharisees. They also held an important place in the Sanhedrin through this period on into New Testament times. They most likely did not control the Sanhedrin as the Talmud suggests.

In the New Testament, the Pharisees seem to be the main enemies of Jesus, probably because He had won a deeper influence among the people which they formerly possessed. It was the Pharisees who were known as the "experts" in the Law and so they took it upon themselves to scrutinize and ultimately condemn the very words of Jesus, and attributed his miracles to Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.

More than once the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians had joined themselves together to attempt to destroy Jesus (see Matt 22:15f.; Mark 3:6; 12 :13). These passages reveal just how politically powerful the Pharisees really were and the position that they held in the governing body of the Sanhedrin. More than once the politically powerful Sadducees yielded to the opinion of the Pharisees.

According to Josephus, the Sadducees had to repeatedly submit to the dictates of the Pharisees "since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them" (Josephus, Antiq. XVIII. i. 4; remember the Sanhedrin's acceptance of Gamaliel's recommendation in Acts 5: 34ff.).

The great Jewish revolt leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. owed its vitality to the Zealots rather than to the Pharisees. In fact the Pharisees seemed to be opposed to the revolt and were among the first to make peace with the Romans. According to the Talmud, even before the destruction was concluded, Johanan ben Zakkai asked for and received permission from the Roman authorities to establish a school at Jamnia (Jabneh).

Later on, at Tiberias, a succession of famous rabbis, such as Gamaliel II, Akiba, Ishmael, and Meir, carried on the endeavor of maintaining and perpetuating the essence of Judaism.

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 direction.

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 with Judaism.

The Pharisees - Jewish Leaders in the New Testament.

The Pharisees Overview of the Pharisees The Name Pharisee Origin of the Pharisees Brief History of the Pharisees Teaching of the Pharisees Influence of the Pharisees Practices of the Pharisees Dress, Clothing, and Appearance of the Pharisees Traditions of the Pharisees Jesus and the Pharisees Conclusion -  the Pharisees Bible Dictionaries - the Pharisees Bible Encyclopedias - The Pharisees Historical Quotes about the Pharisees


"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.

The Pharisee

"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 unheeded." � 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 direction.

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 with Judaism.

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




The Name

Their Origin

Their History

Their Teaching

Their Influence

Their Practices

Their Dress

Their Traditions

Jesus and the Pharisees

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Bible Encyclopedias


Historical Quotes


The Paradox of the Pharisees


The Pharisees

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