The common Christian stereotype of the Pharisee is "the hypocritical enemy of Jesus." The basis for that stereotype is the fact that the gospels frequently present the Pharisees in the role of Jesus' antagonists. Early in Jesus' ministry, they became His opponents. They grew increasingly hostile as His popularity and influence grew among the Jewish populace.

Matthew's first reference to the Pharisees records John the Baptizer castigating the Pharisees and Sadducees who visited him in the desert as "offspring of vipers."<1> Matthew also records numerous antagonistic encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.<2> They claimed His power to heal came from the prince of demons.<3> One Sabbath as they followed Jesus, they accused His disciples of violating the Sabbath when they stripped ripened grain from stalks along the path.<4> They conferred among themselves seeking a way to destroy Him.<5> They asked Him for a sign which would prove His relationship with God.<6> They asked why His disciples did not keep the authoritative traditional teaching.<7> By using a controversial divorce question, they tried to trap Him in His teachings.<8> They wanted to arrest Him.<9> They sent people to "respectfully" ask Him a trick question concerning taxes in a deliberate plan to "ensnare" Him in His teachings.<10>

Mark records several of the same incidents: the criticism of Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors,<11> the criticism of the disciples for stripping grain on the Sabbath,<12> their being offended by Jesus' healing on the Sabbath,<13> the criticism of the disciples for violating the tradition of the elders,<14> their asking for a sign,<15> the attempt to trap Him with the divorce question,<16> and the attempt to trap Him with question about taxes.<17> Early in the gospel, Mark notes that the Pharisees and Herodians were conspiring in seeking a way to destroy Jesus.<18>

Luke also notes the Pharisees' reactions to Jesus' eating with tax collectors and sinners<19> and to the disciples' stripping grain on the Sabbath.<20> However, Luke adds considerable additional information about their antagonistic feelings. The Jews forgave the palsied man of his sins, the Pharisees began "reasoning" that Jesus had blasphemed.<21> Early Luke notes that the Pharisees and doctors of the law from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem assembled to hear Jesus' teaching.<22> After Jesus' indictment of the Pharisees and lawyers, the scribes and Pharisees "began to press upon him vehemently and to provoke him to say many things; laying wait for him, to catch something out of his mouth."<23> Once they tried to frighten Him away from Jerusalem by warning Him that Herod Antipas wished to kill Him.<24> After His teaching on materialism, they scoffed at Him.<25>

Luke also documents occasions of association between Jesus and the Pharisees. Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to eat with him, and Jesus accepted.<26> Jesus accepted another Pharisee's invitation to breakfast.<27> On this occasion Jesus shocked him by not ceremonially washing His hands before eating. On another occasion He ate with one of the rulers of the Pharisees on a Sabbath, and "they" watched Him.<28>

John's material on the Pharisees is unique. He records the respectful visit of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin of seventy-one in Jerusalem.<29> After hearing a Jerusalem multitude's reaction to Jesus' teachings, the chief priests and Pharisee sent officers with instructions to arrest Jesus.<30> The Pharisees and scribes sought to discredit Jesus by bringing Him a woman taken in the act of adultery and demanding that Jesus decide her fate.<31> The Pharisees denounced Jesus as a "man not from God" because He healed a blind man on the Sabbath.<32> This incident reveals the depth of their animosity. The chief priests and Pharisees convened a council of desperation after the resurrection of Lazarus. They saw no effective way to counter Jesus' swelling influence.<33> Later they ordered anyone knowing His whereabouts to reveal it that they might arrest Him.<34> In a further attempt to discourage those who would follow Jesus, the Pharisees declared anyone professing faith in Him would be banned from the synagogue.<35> The arresting officers who accompanied Judas were provided by the chief priests and Pharisees.<36>

The gospels clearly present the Pharisees as formidable antagonists of Jesus.

Not the Sole Antagonists

For much of this century there has been a growing, prominent voice of support for the Pharisees. Some prominent elements of Jewish scholarship and of Protestant scholarship have rejected the gospels' testimony regarding the Pharisees. Elements of Jewish scholarship which seek to heal the breach between Judaism and Christianity do so by defending the Pharisees. Elements of Protestant scholarship use higher criticism to reject the gospels' caricature of the Pharisees. Some of these scholars strongly suggest that the Pharisees were major, helpful contributors to Jesus ministry. Much of the supportive material favoring the Pharisees implies that Scripture portrays the Pharisees as the only antagonist of Jesus However, the gospels clearly portray other segments of Jewish society as being equally hostile toward Jesus and His teachings. Amongst the other antagonists were the chief priests, the scribes, the Jewish elders, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the lawyers. It must be understood that there would be some overlapping among those groups. Many of the chief priests may have been Sadducees also; many of the scribes also may have been Sadducees or Pharisees; and such would be the case with the elders and the lawyers.

An analysis of each gospel's portrayal of Jesus' antagonists highlights a significant fact. Matthew presents the Pharisees in the role of Jesus' critics and opponents twelve times.<37> Matthew also mentions the chief priests in that role twelve times,<38> the elders ten times,<39> the scribes four times,<40> the Sadducees three times,<41> and the Herodians once.<42>

Mark mentions the Pharisees as opponents and critics seven times.<43> Mark also mentions the chief priests in that role twelve times,<44> the scribes seven times,<45> the elders three times,<46> the Herodians twice,<47> and the Sadducees once.<48>

Luke places the Pharisees in the role of Jesus' critics and opponents twelve times.<49> The chief priests are placed in that role ten times,<50> the scribes seven times,<51> the lawyers four times,<52> the elders twice,<53> and the Sadducees once.<54>

John places the Pharisees in that role nine times.<55> The chief priests are placed in that role seven times,<56> and the scribes once.<57>

It is abundantly obvious that the gospels do not present the Pharisees as the only antagonists of Jesus. There were many Jewish antagonists of Jesus.

Who Were the Pharisees?

The origin of the Pharisees is a subject of considerable disagreement. There are numerous views in regard to the inception of and the development of Pharisaism, and several of these views are in significant disagreement. There are two basic reasons for such conflicting views. Reason one: there is a meager amount of specific, factual information to be used to trace their origin and development. A small amount of information is subject to many interpretations. Reason two: there is a significant degree of difficulty in determining the appropriate way to interpret correctly the cultural and religious background and perspective of intertestamental and first-century writings.

There is even uncertainty in regard to the meaning of the name, Pharisee. Several positions are held in regard to the origin of the word. View one: the word denotes Jews who preserved their purity by begins 'separatist.'<58> View two: the name evolved from root words meaning "expound" or "interpreter," denoting the role of the Pharisee as a teacher of the Torah.<59> The Torah or Law was the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. View three: originally, the name was a derisive term given to the Hasidim by their enemies.<60> In time it became a respectable name. There are additional variations of each of these views.

The most common view held concerning their origin declares that the Pharisees evolve in some manner from the sprit or the activities of the Hasidim of the intertestamental period. The Hasidim or "pious ones" regarded themselves a being the orthodox Jew. They held strict religious views based on the Mosaical covenant, and they maintained a zealous commitment to ancient Judaism and its way. Political and national aspirations were of little interest. They were devoted to preserving the old paths against cultural changes and a changing world.

The Basic Concern

While there is much yet to be resolved about the origin of Pharisaism, there is broad agreement concerning the basic concern of Pharisaism. A dire threat to the survival of Judaism began with the Babylonian captivity (597 BC). From its beginnings, Judaism was designed to be a national religion of a settled, localized people. They would have one center of sacrificial worship.<61> Attendance to national religious festivals would be within ability of all and compulsory for all the men.<62> A priesthood would be accessible to the populace and capable of meeting their religious needs.

The Babylonian captivity created a dilemma with which Judaism was not designed to cope. That dilemma threatened to destroy the Jewish people as a distinctive society and Judaism as a religion. The temple was in ruins and its site far away. Sacrificial worship as originally instituted was impossible. With no temple in which to serve, the priests could not function in their ancient role. Religious festivals and pilgrimages as they had been observed in Palestine were impossible. The threat of assimilation was a deadly problem. How could the Jews prevent their being assimilated into the Babylonian culture? How could they in exile preserve their distinctiveness religiously and nationally?

Judaism's survival of the Babylonian captivity and the return of some to Palestine did not end the threat. After being permitted to return to their land, they were still under the control and influence of the Persians. They were to remain a subjugated people for generations following the return as they were controlled by the Egyptians, subjugated by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and ruled by the Syrians.

The most serious threat came from the Syrian determination to eradicate Jewish culture and religion and to replace it with the Greek culture. Antiochus IV Epiphanes made a cruel, determined effort to destroy Judaism.<63> His repressive measures included execution of those possessing Scripture and of mothers with circumcised infants and their infants. This attempt to Hellenize Jewish society was welcomed by some Jews. They preferred acceptance of a "modern" culture and entrance into the mainstream of the "modern" world. They detested the rest of the nation's attempt to maintain religious and cultural isolation.

Beginning with the Babylonian captivity and continuing through much of the intertestamental period, the survival of Judaism was continually threatened. Those periods thrust Judaism into uncontrollable contact with pagan societies and subjected it to the demands and stress of the changing world. When Judaism existed primarily as an isolationist society and religion, the society and the religion could be regulated by the Mosaical convenant with reasonable ease. In isolation and a semi-controlled society the Torah could always contain "the answer." Most of religious and social needs were generated by the role of the Torah as the foundation of religion and culture.

However, beginning with the Babylonian captivity, the Jews were dominated by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Syrians. Such domination ended convenient isolation and forced interaction with other cultures and religions. The end result was new social circumstances, new religious questions about life and existence, new ways of living, new moral dilemmas, new ethical questions, new aspects of human needs, and differing religious demands. Frequently the Torah did not specifically address these new questions, thoughts, and situations. There was a growing demand that Judaism and the Torah provide meaningful, effective answers for these new questions, thoughts, and situations created by interaction with the changing world and pagan cultures.

As has always been typical of most religious movements, Judaism had formulated, maintained, and defended "pat answers" which had served as the authoritative position in regard to most religious matters. Those "pat answers" were sufficient as long as the society was isolated and the real needs of daily life situations remained basically unchanged. However, when isolation ended, when the real needs of daily life situations changed through contract with differing cultures, and when social change produced new moral/ethical dilemmas, many of the "pat answers" became irrelevant, meaningless, and ineffective.

At some point in this period, Pharisaism evolved. It derived its impetus from two basic concerns. The first concern was the desire to preserve and to maintain Judaism's old paths and ancient ways. If the ancient ways were to survive, Judaism had to answer effectively the new moral/ethical questions and to meet the real needs of the daily life situation. Ineffective, irrelevant "pat answers" from a world and society which no longer existed would have doomed Judaism to becoming a dead religion. Teachings of the Torah had to harmonize with the realities of the existing world.

The second concern was the desire to answer the questions and issues of the day by making the spirit and the intent of the Torah relevant to the problems and needs of daily life. The true spirit of the Torah and God's intent in the Torah had to be applicable to all life's realities in that present age.

Pharisaism did not evolve and never existed as an attempt to bypass or to minimize the teachings of the Torah. It came into being and existed as a determined effort to preserve fully the teachings of the Torah.


<1>Matthew 3:7.

<2>Matthew 9:11.

<3>Matthew 9:34; 12:24.

<4>Matthew 12:2.

<5>Matthew 12:14.

<6>Matthew 12:34; 16:1.

<7>Matthew 15:1-2.

<8>Matthew 19:3-4.

<9>Matthew 21:45-46.

<10>Matthew 22:15.

<11>Mark 2:16.

<12>Mark 2:24.

<13>Mark 3:6.

<14>Mark 7:1-5.

<15>Mark 8:11.

<16>Mark 10:2.

<17>Mark 12:13.

<18>Mark 3:6.

<19>Luke 5:30; 15:1-2.

<20>Luke 6:2.

<21>Luke 5:21; Mark notes that the scribes made that criticism, Mark 2:6-7.

<22>Luke 5:17.

<23>Luke 11:53-54.

<24>Luke 13:31.

<25>Luke 16:14.

<26>Luke 7:36.

<27>Luke 11:37-38.

<28>Luke 14:1.

<29>John 3:1-15.

<30>John 7:32.

<31>John 8:3.

<32>John 9:13-34.

<33>John 11:47-48.

<34>John 11:57.

<35>John 12:42.

<36>John 18:3.

<37>Matthew 9:11; 9:34; 12:2, 14; 12:24; 12:38; 15:1; 16:1; 19:3; 21:45-46; 22:15; 22:34-35; 27:62-63.

<38>Matthew 16:21; 20:18; 21:23; 21:15; 21:45; 26:3-4; 26:47; 26:59; 27:1; 27:12; 27:20; 27:41.

<39>Matthew 16:21; 21:23; 26:3-4; 26:14; 26:47; 26:49; 27:1; 27:12; 27:20; 27:41.

<40>Matthew 20:19; 21:15; 27:41; 15:1.

<41>Matthew 16:1; 16:6, 12; 22:23.

<42>Matthew 22:16.

<43>Mark 2:16; 2:24; 3:6; 7:1-5; 8:11; 10:2; 12:13.

<44>Mark 8:31; 10:33; 11:18; 11:27; 14:1; 14:10-11; 14:43; 14:55; 15:1; 15:3; 15:10-11; 15:31.

<45>Mark 8:31; 10:33; 11:18; 11:27; 14:1; 14:43; 15:31.

<46>Mark 8:31; 11:27; 14:48.

<47>Mark 3:6; 12:13.

<48>Mark 12:18.

<49>Luke 5:21; 5:30; 6:2; 6:7; 7:30; 7:39; 11:53; 13:31; 15:2; 16:14; 17:20; 19:39.

<50>Luke 9:22; 19:47; 20:19; 20:22; 22:4; 22:66; 23:10; 23:13; 24:10.

<51>Luke 9:22; 19:47; 20:1; 20:19; 20:22; 22:66; 23:10.

<52>Luke 5:17; 10:25; 11:45-52; 14:3.

<53>Luke 9:22; 20:1.

<54>Luke 20:27.

<55>John 7:32, 47; 8:3-5; 8:13; 9:16; 11:47; 11:57; 12:19; 12:42; 18:3.

<56>John 7:32; 11:47; 11:57; 12:10-11; 18:3; 18:35; 19:6.

<57>John 8:3.

<58>D. S. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 162-163.

<59>Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 159.

<60>Louis Finkelstein, Pharisaism In The Making (KTAY Publishing House, nc., 1972), p. 187, note 1.

<61>Deuteronomy 12:5-14.

<62>Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16-17.

<63>Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 12.5.4.

  1. What is the common Christian stereotype of the Pharisees?

  2. List some of the information given about the Pharisees in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

  3. What does Luke record about Jesus and the Pharisees in Luke 7:36-50, 11:37-41, and 14:1-6?

  4. Give the unique information about the Pharisees found in the gospel of John.

  5. List Jesus' other antagonists. Identify each group.

  6. Why are there many views held about the origin of the Pharisees?

  7. What is the Torah?

  8. What is the most common view held about the origin of the Pharisees?

  9. How did the Babylonian captivity threaten the survival of Judaism?

  10. Explain how both exile and domination by pagan societies affected Judaism for generations following the Babylonian captivity.

  11. Give the two basic concerns of the Pharisaic movement as it evolved.

  12. What was the objective of Pharisiasm in regard to the Torah?


Why do people always desire "pat answers" to religious questions? Why are all "pat answers" destined to become irrelevant and ineffective?

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