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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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The Pharisees were one of the two main parties within Judaism in New Testament times, the other being the Sadducees. The origins of the two parties go back to the second century BC, when Greek influence in Jewish affairs created divisions among the Jewish people.

Most of the Pharisees came from the working classes and tried to preserve traditional Jewish practices from the corruption of foreign ideas and political ambition. The Sadducees came mainly from the wealthy upper classes. Their chief concern was not with following tradition, but with using the religious and social structures of Jewish society to gain controlling power for themselves. (For fuller details concerning the origins of the two parties see SADDUCEES.)


Once the Sadducees had gained priestly power, they furthered their own interests by emphasizing the need to keep the temple rituals. The Pharisees, by contrast, emphasized the responsibility to keep the law in all aspects of life, not just in temple rituals. In this the Pharisees supported the traditions that the teachers of the law (the scribes) had developed and taught. The scribes had expanded the law of Moses into a system that consisted of countless laws dealing with such matters as sabbath-keeping (Matthew 12:1-2; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-14), ritual cleanliness (Matthew 23:25; Mark 7:1-9), fasting (Luke 18:11-12), tithing (Matthew 23:23) and the taking of oaths (Matthew 23:16-22; see also SCRIBES).

Being members of such a strict party, many of the Pharisees regarded themselves alone as being the true people of God, and kept apart from those who did not follow their beliefs and practices. The name ‘Pharisees’ meant ‘the separated ones’ (Acts 15:5; Acts 26:5; cf. Galatians 2:12).

The Pharisees criticized Jesus for not keeping their laws (Matthew 12:10-14; Matthew 15:1-2; John 9:16), but Jesus condemned the Pharisees for not keeping God’s law. They were more concerned with maintaining their traditions than with producing the kind of character and behaviour that God’s law aimed at (Matthew 5:20; Matthew 15:1-10; Matthew 23:23-26). They were concerned with outward show more than with correct attitudes of heart. They wanted to impress people more than please God (Matthew 23:2; Matthew 23:5; Matthew 23:27-28).

Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees caused them to hate him. They even cooperated with the Sadducees (the priests) to get rid of him (John 11:47-53; John 18:3). Although the Sadducees had the chief positions in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Council that condemned Jesus), many Pharisees were Sanhedrin members. At least one of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, became a believer in Jesus (John 3:1; John 7:45-52; John 19:38-40; see SANHEDRIN).

Other beliefs and practices

While lawkeeping was the Pharisees’ main concern, other distinctive beliefs added to the tension in their relationship with the Sadducees. The Pharisees, for example, believed in the continued existence of the soul after death, the resurrection of the body and the existence of angelic beings, whereas the Sadducees did not (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8).

The Pharisees’ belief in the resurrection was probably one reason for their favourable attitude to Christians in the early days of the church. They did not object to multitudes of people believing in the resurrection of Jesus. Although the Sadducees angrily opposed the Christians, the Pharisees seem to have regarded the Christians as sincerely religious Jews with orthodox beliefs and practices (Acts 2:46-47; Acts 4:1-2; Acts 5:12; Acts 5:17; Acts 5:25-28).

Another belief of the Pharisees, also in contrast to the beliefs of the Sadducees, was that all events were under the control of God, and no person had independent right to interfere with what God had decreed. They therefore thought it wise not to oppose the Christians, lest they oppose a movement that had God’s approval (Acts 5:34-39).

This attitude of tolerance towards Christians changed suddenly when the Pharisees understood Stephen to have spoken against the law of Moses. They turned violently against the Christians, and in fact it was a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who led the persecution (Acts 6:13-14; Acts 7:57-58; Acts 8:3; Acts 23:6).

After the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70, the Sadducees and the smaller Jewish parties died out. This left the Pharisees in full control of the Jewish religion. A separate Pharisee party was no longer necessary, for Judaism as a whole now followed the Pharisee tradition.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Pharisees'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​p/pharisees.html. 2004.
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