The ancient historian Flavius Josephus identifies four rival religious philosophies among the Jews at the time of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.
- Their name is often thought to derive from “separatist.”
- The Pharisees sprang from the Hasidim, the pious group who joined the Maccabean revolt looking for religious freedom.
- They were the intellectual elite, not the aristocratic wealthy elite.
- Chief feature: The Pharisees had the reputation of excelling in their observance of religion and as exact keepers of the law. They were religiously progressive, constantly refining the oral law, which they thought was as binding as the written law.
- They were a small but influential party (approximately 6000 during Herod’s time according to Josephus).
- They emphasized God’s sovereign government of the universe and overruling of human disobedience so that divine will triumphs.
- They insisted on individual as well as communal adherence to the strict standards of the Mosaic law in every detail.
- They built an “oral law” — an interpretation of the written law that implies acceptance of the “tradition of the elders” as authoritative for religious life along with the Scriptures.
- They practiced great care in matters of ritual purity, food laws, sabbath laws and tithing.
- Pharisees were the forefathers of the rabbinic movement.
- They were popular with the people and thus a political force to be reckoned with.
- They looked for a Messiah who would reinstate a righteous kingdom under God.
The Jewish Talmud (Sota 22b) acknowledges the existence of 7 kinds of Pharisees*:
- The “wait-a little” Pharisee always has an excuse for putting off a good deed.
- The “bruise” or “bleeding” Pharisee, in order to avoid looking at a women, shuts his eyes and stumbles against the wall so as to bruise himself and bleed.
- The “shoulder Pharisee wears, as it were, his good deeds ostentatiously upon his shoulders, where all can see them.
- The “hump backed” Pharisee walks about stooped over in mock humility.
- The “ever-reckoning” Pharisee is continually counting up his good deeds to balance them against his bad deeds.
- The “God-fearing” Pharisee stands in awe and dread of God.
- The “God-loving” Pharisee is a true son of Abraham and a genuine Pharisee.
*adapted from Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H. Stern 1992 p. 69-70.
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary: Pharisees
Bridgeway Bible Dictionary: Pharisees
Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Pharisees
Fausset Bible Dictionary: Pharisees
Holman Bible Dictionary: Jewish Parties in the New Testament
Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible: Pharisees
Kitto’s Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature: Pharisees
Morrish Bible Dictionary: Pharisees
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Pharisees
McClintock and Strong: Pharisee
The Nuttall Encyclopedia: Pharisees
The Jewish Encyclopedia: Pharisees
Alfred Edersheim: Chapter 15 Relation of the Pharisees to the Sadducees and Essenes, and to the Gospel of Christ
Who were the Sadducees?
Who were the Zealots?
Who were the Essenes?
Where to next?
Background & History
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