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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Pharisees

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The Pharisees (ôÌÀøåÌùÑÄéí, Φαρισαῖοι) were a religious sect among the Jews, probably originating in Maccabaean times.

1. The name.-Perûshîm has generally been interpreted to mean ‘separatists.’ In a recent work, however, Cesterley suggests another view. He points out that the Pharisees were the popular party; that one of their precepts was, ‘Separate not thyself from the congregation,’ and that they reproached the Sadducees as the separatists. He finds it more probable that the name means ‘expounders.’ In support he quotes Josephus, who says of the Pharisees that ‘they are those who seem to explain the laws with accuracy’ (BJ_ II. viii. 14), and asserts that in Rabbinical literature the root p-r-sh is constantly found used in the sense of ‘explain,’ ‘expound,’ or ‘interpret,’ in reference to Scripture which is explained in the interests of the Oral Law (Cesterley, Books of the Apocrypha, p. 131 f.). The view is certainly interesting and worth consideration. But it seems to the present writer that all the arguments by which it is supported admit of an easy answer, and that the balance of probability inclines towards the familiar view that ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separatist.’

2. General position of Pharisees in the 1st cent. a.d.-In this article we confine ourselves to the period from the times of Christ to the close of the 1st century. For the previous history of Pharisaism and the development and character of its tenets and practices, the reader must consult HDB_ and DCG_. At the opening of our period we find the Pharisees noted for piety, learning, and strict observance of the Law. They were held in high esteem among the people (Jos. Ant. XIII. x. 5, 6, XVII. ii. 4). Almost up to this point, indeed, they might be regarded as a people’s party, the champions of popular rights against the aristocratic Sadducees. They were the party of progress. Against the Sadducees they represented a living faith, and their theology was simply orthodox Jewish doctrine. They preached a religion for the people and conducted a missionary propaganda (Matthew 23:15). At this time they had little direct political power, though they held some seats in the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:34; Acts 23:6). But such was their influence with the people that the ruling Sadducees were largely amenable to their advice (Jos. Ant. XVIII. i. 4). Passionately devoted to the Law as they were, they interpreted and applied it in a more tolerant, generous sense than the Sadducees (Ant. XIII. x. 6, XX. ix. 1). No doubt it was among the Pharisees that the best type of Jewish character and piety was found. But in the Gospels it is clear that the Pharisees, the popular party, were drawing themselves apart into a new aristocracy, and that the party of progress had become rigidly conservative. Every one of their own interpretations of the Law was stereotyped. Their traditions were regarded with greater veneration than the original Law. In the accumulated mass of precepts all sense of proportion was lost. All true spirituality was in danger of suffocation under the complex of ritual and ceremonial.

3. Pharisees and foreign domination.-Pharisaism attained its fullest development while there was a mere semblance of national independence, and nearly all civil power had passed from the Jews. No doubt this circumstance was of considerable importance in enabling pious Jews to distinguish between a Church and a nation (see Bousset, Religion des Judentums, p. 62 f.). How the Pharisees regarded the rule of Herod and the Romans it is difficult to judge. On their attitude to Herod two different views will be found in HDB_ iii. 827 and Bousset (op. cit. p. 62 f.) respectively. The statement in the former that they abhorred Herod is too dogmatic (see Jos. Ant. XV. i. 1). Probably we should say that, while they were not enamoured of the rule of Herod, they submitted to it as a necessary evil. As to their attitude to Rome, matters are even less clear. We know that they discussed whether tribute should be paid (Matthew 22:17 ff.). Further, the party of the Zealots who agitated for the overthrow of Roman power were an off-shoot from the Pharisees. Though Josephus is desirous of representing them as a distinct party, he is compelled to admit this (Ant. XVIII. i. 1, 6; BJ_ II. viii. 1). We may take it that certain of the Pharisees favoured political action, others deprecated it. The former were the Zealots, who were responsible for stirring up the great revolt which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem, and involved the disappearance of the last shreds of Jewish national independence.

4. Effects of the Fall of Jerusalem.-This catastrophe, so calamitous in itself, came to the Pharisees, as to Jewish Christians, really as an emancipation. If the Church was henceforth free from serious Jewish persecution, and the distraction of Judaizing propaganda, the Pharisees were free of their conflict with the Sadducees, who disappeared with Temple and priesthood. The Jews ceased to be politically a nation, but in reality they had ceased to be that long before. Judaism as a Church, a religious system, was not seriously affected by the loss of the Temple. For long the priests as a class had been declining in favour. For long the real centre of religious life had been not the Temple but the Synagogue. Many influences had conspired to produce this result, but we cannot discuss them here (see Bousset, op. cit. p. 97 ff.). It was the great service of Pharisaism to Judaism that it had so developed Jewish piety that the loss of the Temple was more of a relief than a disaster. The Pharisees set themselves more diligently than ever to the development of the Law. In two particulars the fall of the city seemed to harden Pharisaic tendencies.

(a) Their attitude to the common people.-We noted how even in the time of Christ the Pharisee looked down upon the ’am haarets. Piety to the Pharisee was associated with culture. The people who knew not the Law were accursed (John 7:49). This tendency towards an exclusiveness of culture increased, and the breach widened between the Pharisee and the ’am haarets. The dealings of the Pharisee with the ’am haarets were as strictly limited and carefully regulated as his dealings with the Gentiles. Bousset (op. cit. p. 167) quotes a dictum of a certain Rabbi Eleazar, which forbids all transactions with the ’am haarets, makes the murder of an ’am haarets under certain circumstances permissible, and declares that the hatred of the ’am haarets is greater than that of the Gentiles against Israel.

(b) Their attitude to the Gentiles.-As we have noted above, at one time a missionary propaganda was carried on among Gentiles. Manifestly this was in opposition to the Pharisaic tendency towards exclusiveness, and it was the latter that conquered. The increasing restiveness under the Roman domination which culminated in the great war was a decisive factor in this struggle of principles. Probably a short time before the fall of the city eighteen points of difference between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, all dealing with relations with Gentiles, were decided in favour of the Shammaists, the more rigid school. One of the decisions forbade the learning of Greek (Mishna, Shabb. xiii. 6; see H. Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, Berlin, 1856, Eng. tr._, ii. [London, 1891] 131 ff.). We may take it that this ended all missionary enterprise, and that after the fall of the city the exclusive tendency reigned supreme.

5. Pharisaism and Christianity.-In saying what was the attitude of Pharisees to Christianity, we are in danger of arguing from isolated and therefore perhaps exceptional cases. In the Gospels we find that while Jesus carries on a sharp polemic against the class, He has friendly relations with individuals (e.g. Simon the Pharisee), and that, on the other hand, certain of the Pharisees (e.g. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) were friendly towards Him. Arguing from the known tendency of the Pharisees to be moderate in judgment, and from the definite illustrations of it which we have (Acts 5:34 ff; Acts 23:9), we may hold that as far as the persecutions in Jerusalem are concerned, the main responsibility at least does not lie on the Pharisees. On the other hand, in the case of Stephen we know that Saul the Pharisee ‘was consenting unto his death’ (Acts 8:1). Saul also on his own confession was specially strong in urging persecution (Acts 26:9-11; cf. Acts 8:3). And outside Palestine it cannot be doubted that the Pharisee scribes were instigators of popular tumults against Christians.

When we remember that the Pharisees with all their faults were the leaders of Jewish piety, and the orthodox theologians, it is clear that it is difficult to overestimate the part they played in preparing the way for Christianity. St. Paul was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, and what would Christianity have been but for him? It was the Pharisees who settled the OT canon, and the Christian Church accepted it. Pharisees developed the Messianic hope, distinguished the Church from the State, taught a religion that was independent of priests and Temple, developed doctrines of immortality, resurrection, and judgment to come, that with only little modification passed into Christian theology. The best of the Pharisees understood the inwardness of the Law as Jesus taught it, and some of His most characteristic sayings are to be found in almost identical form in the sayings of the Rabbis. The missionary propaganda did incalculable service in preparing for that of the Church. The Pharisaism of the best period, when it was a progressive, democratic, missionary movement, became the inheritance of Christianity.

Pharisaism, or something very like it in its degenerate form, was imported into the Church by Jewish Christians (see Ebionism). St. Paul is meritorious not more as the Apostle of the Gentiles than by the fact that he, a former Pharisee, saw so clearly the danger of this incipient neo-Pharisaism with its exclusiveness and ‘desire to be under the law,’ and combated it so successfully. While the statement in the JE_ (ix. 665) that in the Gospels the word ‘Pharisee’ has been substituted for an original ‘Sadducee’ in the denunciations of Jesus is to be mentioned only as a curiosity, according to the evidence we possess, it has to be said that the Church paid back with interest the persecutions and calumnies she suffered from the Jews. How soon this anti-Judaism began, and to what extent if any it is present in the NT writings, are problems that require investigation.

Literature.-The only authorities are the Gospels, Acts, and Josephus (passages referred to above). From a mass of Rabbinical writings, a few details may be gathered which add little to our knowledge. Works on the Pharisees and Sadducees are numerous. We need refer the reader only to E. Schürer, HJP_ II. ii. [Edinburgh, 1885] 1 f.; W. O. E. Cesterley, The Books of the Apocrypha, their Origin, Teaching, and Contents, London, 1914; W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums in neutest. Zeitalter, Berlin, 1903; also to articles in HDB_, DCG_, EBi_, JE_, EBr_11.

W. D. Niven.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Pharisees'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/pharisees.html. 1906-1918.

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Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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