Who were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees is the name of a Jewish religious party in biblical times. They were both religious leaders and involved in national politics. The Pharisees held seats in the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin.

The Pharisees were teachers and pastors, what the Jewish people today call Rabbis. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, they received the backing and goodwill of the common people. Jesus agreed with some of what they taught. Mark 12:28-34 gives an example.

From where did the Pharisees come?

The word Pharisee means separated. During the historical period between the Old and New Testaments (about 400 years), some Jewish priests, scribes, and teachers who became known as Pharisees were against assimilating with non-Jewish people or even being friends with them. They developed codes of ethics (things you can and cannot do) and wrote them out in literature that became known as the “Tradition of the Elders.”

Why did Jesus have trouble with some Pharisees?

There is nothing wrong with trying your best to be faithful to the Lord’s instructions in the Bible. Some Pharisees, however, separated themselves too much. These Pharisees took some biblical teachings and added their own thoughts and lifestyle ideas to them. These often got so complicated that the Pharisees themselves couldn’t practice their own rules and regulations.

Jesus opposed “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9 NIV). They developed an attitude we call hypocrisy — saying one thing and doing something different.

Jesus told a story about how one Pharisee acted: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector [a Roman government employee]. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:10-13).

That Pharisee did some things right:

  • He went to church.
  • He was not a “robber, evildoer, or adulterer.”
  • He did not work for the Roman government (considered collaboration with the enemy in those days).
  • He supported the church financially.
  • He followed the rules of his religion.

But he also did some things wrong:

  • He “stood by himself.” He made sure he wasn’t “contaminated” by those he considered less significant than himself. That’s known as bigotry and prejudice today.
  • He had a wrong attitude: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”
  • He insulted the tax collector right inside the church! — “Or even like this tax collector.”

Some specific problems

It was these wrong attitudes that Jesus denounced. Jesus picked up on some specific problems caused by what we call today “pharisaical attitudes.” Matthew 23 has a list.

  • Offered pious prayers while in their business dealings ejecting “widows” (poor people) from their homes.
  • They taught people these same wrong attitudes. “You travel land and sea to win one proselyte (convert), and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
  • They were conscientious about religious ceremonies but forgot about “justice and mercy and faith.”
  • They were careful to look and act piously, but “inside” (their minds and hearts) were “full of extortion and self-indulgence.”
  • People think they are good examples, “but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

Did Jesus get along with any Pharisees?

There were some Pharisees who became followers of Jesus. The most well-known are Nicodemus (John 3) and Joseph of Arimathea who provided a gravesite for Jesus (Mark 15:32).

  • Some Pharisees warned Jesus about a plot to kill him (Luke 13).
  • A few invited Jesus home for a meal (Luke 7) —a risky thing for Pharisees to do in those days.
  • A few Pharisees even protected the early Christians in the Sanhedrin itself (Acts 5).
  • The Apostle Paul, the most notable Christian in the Early Church, notes that he had been “concerning the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). He was, “Advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).

What does this have to do with me?

Hypocrisy is never the way to go. Some people judge others for what they wear, what they drive, what church they go to, how often they pray, what version of the Bible they read, and with who they associate. Remember, being perfect on the outside and flawed on the inside gets you nowhere with the Lord!