Have you ever been labeled a Pharisee? I have never known the tag to be intended as a tribute to broadminded and benevolent ideas. Instead, it is used as a slur. Usually the snap is on anyone who theoretically imposes their puritanical legalism on others. 

That word “Puritanical”— another prevarication, hitherto a smear designed to ridicule Christians committed to holy living. At one time Puritans were known as “devout” heroes, pioneers who fled Europe to escape persecution. Later they were rebranded as totalitarian prudes. Assault on the Puritans persisted posthumously until recently, when the “new” NeoCalvinists revived interest in the works of Jonathan Edwards; the siege will undoubtedly resume once the restless NeoCals become bored and pursue a new interest. Yet, in spite of everything that has been done to defend the Puritans, most portrayals are habitually mocking and negative. Synonyms are as follows: “severe, strict, fanatical, narrow, stiffnecked, grim, authoritarian, intolerant, and bigots” The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy, was a classic depiction often quoted to describe them.

You decide: Is he a Puritan or Pharisee?

Prior to writing this article, I typed “Pharisee” into a search engine. The results were astounding.  There were a few exceptions, though the large part blacken the Pharisee as legalistic Christ-killers and archenemies of Jesus. Most people think of them as the antagonists in the Gospel story.  Villains! An online definition characterized the Jewish sect as “self-righteous, hypocritical, or a sanctimonious person.” Indeed some of them were; but the same could be said of any activist.

The designation “Pharisee” is often incorrectly used, notably based on the assumption that Tolerance and Phariseanism are antonyms. But categorizing all Pharisees this way is a coarse misrepresentation. What may surprise you is that the best evidence bears out that this is an inversion of fact. Philosophically they liked to think of themselves as broad-minded; in action and deed they were quite benevolent. 

Puritans and Pharisees are not corresponding religious sects; no, that is not what is alleged here. Rather, the point being said is that their entire histories have not been rightly told in popular media.  Sadly, there were bad men in these parties, just like there were in the Crusades or the American Civil War.

But what do you think about Nicodemus?  He was a good Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin mind you, and disciple of Jesus.  We have no reason to think he ever left the movement either.

Lifting strawmen from the broader historical context is a serious informal fallacy. Historically, propagandists will use a villain’s behavior to portray the scoundrel’s entire organization as evil and corrupt. This is a type of ad hominem which, if left undefended, disgraces an entire company based on the action of a few. Strawman arguments were (and still are) used repeatedly against the Pharisees.  History has not been kind to them as a result.

An excellent example of association fallacy is found in the story of a man named Herschel Grynszpan.  You can read about it here.

If the constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history, as we are told to believe, then I will to do my part to repair the damage done to the reputation of the Pharisees.


In Hebrew “Pharisees” are the “Separated Ones¹.” To be precise they were those men who had taken the Levitical vow of purity which kept them apart. Apart from what or whom is not entirely clear. The Hasmonean rulers, the Gentiles, licentiousness, and the non-Pharisaic Jews have all been suggested as possibilities. The desire to separate probably reflects the same predisposition found in any syncretistic world where religious norms, culture and values are threatened; some American Christians whose desire is preserve western culture share a similar tendency.

Take note that all true believers in Christ are “separated ones,” for we are those who are called out ones, set apart – summoned to be holy!

How they got their start is shrouded in mystery. The word “Pharisee” is not found in the Old Testament. The name does not seem to be earlier than the time of the Maccabean Revolt in the second century B.C. The author of II Maccabees, who was evidently a Pharisean scribe, announced that the objective of the Pharisees was a call to salvation: “Unto all are given the kingdom (of God), the Priesthood, and the Heritage.” The theme is no different than that we find elsewhere in the Bible.  The Pharisees thought each individual Jew ought to worship God and to commune with Him in prayer directly without any priestly intercession, for all of Israel was “a nation of priests.” This language the 16th century Reformers also used of themselves.

Pharisees sometimes sound like Luther

The Pharisees were democratic successors of the religious ideas of the “Men of the Great Synagogue,” who adopted the motto, “raise up many disciples and build a fence around the Torah.” Eventually they succeeded: about 150 years before the destruction of the Temple, Simeon ben Shetach wrestled control of the Sanhedrin from the aristocratic enemies of the Pharisees, known as Sadducees, and proclaimed to the nation that the Torah was the heritage not only of the priestly elite, but also of every single person in the congregation. They sound a lot like Martin Luther, do they not? As a result, even a humble Carpenter of lowly origin was permitted to read the Torah out loud in His synagogue.

They were a progressive bunch, establishing what amounted to universal and free education for the young in every Jewish community— ideas not heard of until that time and one not duplicated anywhere until the introduction of free elementary schools in the United States during the 19th century.  Jesus, perhaps, attended one of these schools and it was there, I speculate, that the Lord, then aged twelve, “… increased in wisdom…” and later “… all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers…” It should not go unnoticed that the young Jesus’s acute insights astonished His learned professors, who were master logicians (the Pharisees, according to Josephus, established a fairly sophisticated method of logical reasoning).

Given their piety and public witness to the Law they enjoyed great esteem and authority among the people. Furthermore, they were more accessible than the Sadducees to non-Jews, particularly Persians and Greeks. Pharisaism advanced a religious-social revolution that worked toward the inner transformation of Jewish life. The effects of its democratic and institution of the synagogue and houses of study were felt not only in Judea, but in the remotest places in the then known world, where, with a following of a mere ten Jews², congregational life could be initiated anywhere.

The democratic innovations of the Pharisees were met with stern opposition from their opponents (the Sadducees) who constituted the hierarchy of upper-class Temple priests. The elite Sadducees also formed the political ruling-class and were owners of choice real estate. And the Sadducees, not the Pharisees, were the fundamentalists in regard to religion. They were absolute in their ideas concerning power and authority. The Sadducees thought of themselves as Scriptural literalists (it can be argued that they were not).  Fearful of any change whatsoever they consequently considered only the Five Books of Moses as canonical. Ironically, their random decrees were juxtaposed with Scripture, and paradoxically these became a canon of sorts too — although the Holy Books of the Prophets and the Writings were not considered canonical by the Sadducees. Over the course of time many edicts were issued through the supreme legislative-judicial tribunal, which the Sadducees dominated most of the time. Naturally, the Sadducees installed their people as commanders in the Judean army and used it to enforce their laws. Having control of the Temple and its militia was critical to protecting their economic “interests” – principally the Temple treasury. The Sadducees had become deeply entrenched in strategic positions of authority so that the Pharisees could not rid the country of them — Caiaphas and Annas, as examples, were High Priests.

Founded Practical Theology? The Pharisees beat him to it.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees accused each other of wrongful interpretation of the Torah. The Pharisees genuinely wanted to provide the masses access to the Torah, while simultaneously protecting the Holy Book from harm by constructing emblematic “fences.” They became prolific expounders of the Law; but, in doing so, they espoused a liberal explanation of the Scripture and made adaptations of its Laws to the changing conditions of life. They set out to comment, analyze, and interpret (and reinterpret) Torah to meet every possible case and contingency in life with an industry and persistence that would have done credit to Friedrich Schleiermacher.

This contrasts with the Sadducees who liked to think that their own understanding of Scripture adhered more strictly to the letter of it. When it became necessary to make new legislation the Sadducean priests simply issued decrees without looking for support in the Torah, whereas the Pharisees held a hermeneutic principle which was known as Oral Law. Oral Law, the Pharisees believed, could solve any conceivable problem, given human behavior or religion or culture – anything and everything – and they accomplished this by conceptually blending a Bible verse to support it. 

The Pharisees were not a political party as such, but they were laypeople, who considered themselves a godly body among their fellow citizens. They were a movement much in the same way the Evangelical Religious Right or the Tea Party in America is an ideological movement, and not a political party.  Some do not like calling the Pharisees a sect either, but prefer to think of them as the dominant force within Judaism. Indeed, they did exercise enormous power. Josephus writes that the Pharisees were the most influential of the three major Jewish sects in the first century A.D. In fact, they became powers in the land during the reign of Janneus’s widow, Alexandra (76-67 B.C.), who permitted the Pharisees to do as they liked in all matters. Although she despised the Pharisees, for they participated in a revolt against her husband, she tolerated them in order that they would organize the nation favorably toward her.

Josephus’s account of the Pharisees wants his readers to conclude that the Pharisees were great in number, and perhaps we should read his words at face value and assume that in his time they were.  He writes: “the Pharisees have the multitudes on their side … they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people … they have so great a power over the multitude.” He speaks in one place of about 6,000 Pharisees and later about 4,000 Sadducees. Furthermore, the notoriety given to the Pharisean leaders in the New Testament has, as an inference, that they were numerous when, actually, other evidences available conclude that they were relatively few in any generation. It has been estimated that there were only 5 to 10,000 Pharisees in their entire history, spanning two centuries. Nonetheless their reach was far: eventually they counted in their constituency scribes, lawyers, teachers of ethics and morality, liturgists, and expounders and interpreters of religious doctrines and ritual laws.  Pharisaism must be seen as a movement which drew from all walks of life. While Josephus reports that the Pharisees were great in number, I take this to mean they had secured the hearts and minds of the majority of the population.  Whether they were an innumerable sect or that they represented basically the theology of the masses we are not certain.

Unlike the Sadducees, the social organization of the Pharisees did not always follow strict class-lines. It is true that some of them were wealthy and therefore moved about in upper circles; yet the greatest number of them came from humble origin. Many were from poor stock, devoid of pedigree, and earned their living not from teaching, which they did “for the sake of the Kingdom,” but from ordinary trades such as tent-making. Like the Puritans, the Pharisees held productive labor with moral dignity. Manual work, in and of itself, was an honorable calling of God.

The earliest Pharisees would have applauded their work (to an extent)

Other important teachings of the Pharisees include high regard for the elderly, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, divine reward and punishment in the afterlife, a view of divine providence that allowed for the freedom of human will, the existence of angels and spirits, and the coming of a Messiah. In addition, the Pharisees systematized works of mercy and charity toward the poor. The Pharisees, in theory at least, would have applauded the New Testament command to visit the sick, clothe the naked, comfort the mourner, and cheer up the brokenhearted. Much of the social outlook of the early Christians was modeled on theirs. Yet, there is little evidence to suggest that these were exclusively Pharisaic beliefs.  To the best of our knowledge these ideas were the common heritage of most Jews.

They spoke the language of the people and became emotionally involved with the ordinary trials and aspirations of those around them. As one would expect, the well-bred Sadducees would have none of this. They both feared and despised the Pharisees for electing themselves as social sponsors and religious mentors of the working class.

Despite their strengths, one does not need to look far to see their faults. The best and worst of people were the Pharisees; but in the best there was a narrowness and fanaticism from which their misguided enthusiasm gave rise to the worst.

What started as something spiritual denigrated into literalness and formality, and consequently found their greatest opponent in Jesus Christ.

To be continued …


Ausubel, Nathan. The Book of Jewish Knowledge, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. ©1964
Bridger, David. The New Jewish Encyclopedia, New York: Behrman House Inc. ©1962
Dowlet, Tim. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. ©1977
Editor Not Stated. The Encyclopedia of the Bible, Englewood Cliffs (NJ): Prentice-Hall, Inc. ©1965
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House ©1984
Gentz, William T. The Dictionary of the Bible and Religion, Nashville: Abingdon Press. ©1984
Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews (translated by William Whiston), Peabody (MA): Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. ©1987
Packer, James I. The Bible Almanac, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers ©1980
Reiser, Marius. Jesus and Judgment, Minneapolis: Fortress Press ©1997
The Bible (New American Standard, except where stated otherwise)

¹  פרושים  PR: perushim

²  Ten members was the required quorum for holding public worship

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  1. The Random Thinker April 11, 2011 at 10:35 AM #

    I usually have trouble with longer posts, but this one kept my intrest.

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