Who were the “Pharisees?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

Anyone familiar with the Scriptures has heard of the characters known as the “Pharisees.” Exactly who were they? Why do they appear in the Bible?


The Pharisees numbered only about 6,000 during Christ’s earthly ministry. Although a relatively small sect of Judaism (Jewish religion), they were the most influential group in the nation Israel. The name “Pharisee” is from the Hebrew word “parash,” meaning “separated ones.” However, they preferred the title “chasidim,” or “pious ones.”

Josephus, the famed Jewish historian who lived A.D. 37–100, reports they arose in Israel during the 400-year-long intertestamental period (between the ministries of Malachi and John the Baptist), roughly 150 B.C. They were they successors of the Hasidim, religious Jews who allied with the Maccabees during the fight to be liberated from Syrian oppression (166–142 B.C.). Some sources claim the Pharisees first appeared during the reign of Jewish leader and high priest John Hyrcanus (ruled circa 135–105 B.C.).

Now, we can move on to God’s Word.


The Pharisees—along with the Sadducees—are first found in God’s Word in Matthew 3:7. John the Baptist addresses them as “vipers,” for they resemble their spiritual father Satan (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2). According to the Bible study principle of “the law of first mention,” this first instance of the word sets the tone of the Scriptures as touching them. They are some of the bitterest opponents of the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s will for the nation Israel, especially in the Four Gospel Records (Matthew through John) and the Acts period.

Pharisees appear by name nearly 100 times in the King James Bible. One particular fault of theirs is religious hypocrisy: they pretend to be God’s people and servants but are anything but. Jesus warned, “In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not (Matthew 23:1-3).

Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul, was a Pharisee. Alluding to his former life, he shares: “[All the Jews] Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5). Pharisees were strict in their observance of religious rules and regulations, to the point they underscored outward performance (“going through the motions”) instead of inward faith (believing in and relying on God’s Word).

Pharisees refused to be water baptized of John the Baptist, demonstrating their unbelief, their rejection of Jesus as Messiah: “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him” (Luke 7:29-30). The Pharisees asked silly questions to challenge John the Baptist in John 1:19-25. According to Luke 5:17-21, Pharisees doubted Jesus was God: they accused Him of blasphemy because He forgave sins. Pharisees were also known for their dedication to frequent fasting and prayers (Matthew 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:53). Some would pray for as long as three hours at a time—just for the public to notice and praise them!

In modern English, the adjective “Pharisaism” is applied to a self-righteous person. This is rooted in Scripture, as the Pharisees considered others as “sinners” but they themselves as sinless (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32; Luke 7:36-43; Luke 15:1-2). It was feigned (pretend) righteousness—self-righteousness—and certainly not enough to please God (Matthew 5:20). They did not seem themselves in need of a Saviour, and they did not desire to have Jesus Christ reign over them as the rightful King of Israel. Hence, they rebelled against Him at every possible opportunity.

Jesus describes a Pharisee most graphically in Luke 18:9-14: “[9] And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: [10] Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. [11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. [12] I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. [13] And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

The Pharisees stressed outward performance, particularly washing hands to make them ceremonially clean according to rabbinical tradition (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23). Ignoring their sin problem, they overlooked their need for internal cleansing. They took the Word of God—the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, at the time—and set it aside so they could retain their religious tradition. Their authority was not the Scriptures alone, but rather the interpretations of men (oral tradition). The Lord Jesus Christ thus warned His disciples of the dangerous doctrine (teaching) of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6-11; Mark 8:15).

Pharisees were fanatics as touching the observance of other rabbinical traditions. For example, they complained when Jesus’ poverty-stricken, hungry disciples plucked corn (grain) to eat on the Sabbath Day. Oral tradition forbade such a practice, although the Word of God had taught them to be merciful (and not cold-hearted religious extremists)! See Matthew 12:2, Mark 2:24, and Luke 6:2. Regarding Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were outraged that He did not observe their rabbinical rule (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). According to Jewish religious tradition, no medical aid was to be rendered on the Sabbath unless it was a life-threatening condition.

The Pharisees operated with the desire to attract the attention and praise of others. Read this excerpt from Matthew chapter 23: “[4] For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. [5] But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, [6] And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,…. [13] But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. [14] Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. [15] Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”

“[23] Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. [24] Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. [25] Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. [26] Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. [27] Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. [28] Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Read all of Matthew chapter 23 in your own time. Also, see the companion passage, Luke chapter 11, verses 37-52.)

Matthew 9:34 shows us the Pharisees were bitter enemies of Jesus, falsely accusing Him with: “He casteth out devils through the prince of the devils.” That is, they publicly labeled Christ as a partner of Satan! It is no mystery why they wanted Jesus out of the way. He was “competition,” and they desired the attention for themselves. “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples” (Luke 19:39). Read this context. They did not like Jesus being praised because the crowds were ignoring them!

The Pharisees frequently questioned—yes, opposed—Jesus. As touching the issue of divorce, for instance, they used a captious question to make Him look foolish (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-9). Moreover, they mentioned numerous other topics, hoping to trip Him up in His words so He would discredit Himself (Luke 11:53-54). In Matthew 22:34-40, a Mosaic Law “scholar” of the Pharisees asks Jesus a trick question as concerning what is the great commandment. Pharisees constantly sought signs (miraculous demonstrations), outright ignoring the numerous others Jesus had already performed (Matthew 12:38; Matthew 16:1; Mark 8:11)! They were also materialistic, ridiculing Jesus after He spoke out against their greediness: “And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him” (Luke 16:14).

While the Pharisees and Sadducees were diametrically opposed in doctrine (see our companion “Sadducees” study linked at the end of this article), they united with each other in their absolute hatred for the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 16:1, both sects challenge Him to perform a special kind of miracle. He refused, for they were not willing to believe anyway.

The Pharisees despised Christ so much they actually conspired to put Him to death! “Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him” (Matthew 12:14). “And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (Mark 3:6). As we can see, the Pharisees also allied with the “Herodians” (a political group instead of a religious group—see our related study linked at the end of this article). Later, the Pharisees sent some of their students with the Herodians to ask Jesus a trick question regarding paying taxes to the Roman government (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17).

Jesus was aware the Pharisees were scheming to put Him to death, and He informed them of it in a parable—which convicted and angered them (see Matthew 21:33-46). On another occasion, the Pharisees sent officers to arrest Jesus in the Temple, but failed (John 7:32-44). Later, in chapter 8 of John, they dare Jesus by bringing an adulteress to Him for her to be condemned. Also, He has some more harsh words for them throughout the rest of the chapter! They manifest their unbelief again in verse 13: “The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true.”

In chapter 9 of John, Pharisees persecute the blind man whom Jesus just healed. They do not believe the man was actually cured of anything, and they refuse to believe on Christ too! When the Lord Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the Pharisees respond by wanting to capture and kill Jesus once again (John 11:46-53,57). In chapter 12, we see more of the Pharisees’ complaints: “The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.” Verses 42-43 now, and notice how they tyrannically suppress Jews in the synagogues from sharing their testimonies of faith in Jesus as Christ: “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

The Pharisees assembled a mob to accompany Judas Iscariot at Christ’s arrest, as John 18:3 reveals. Even after His death, the Pharisees challenged Jesus in denying He would really rise from the dead. Joined with the chief priests, they called Him a “deceiver” (Matthew 27:62-63; cf. John 7:45-47).

As far as Scripture is concerned, some Pharisees became believers in Jesus Christ. One was named Nicodemus (John chapter 3; cf. John 7:47-50), and another was Joseph of Arimathaea (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51; John 19:38). As we mentioned near the beginning of this study, the Apostle Paul was a former Pharisee, trained under Gamaliel, a rabbi of the Pharisees (see Acts 26:5; Philippians 3:5; cf. Acts 5:34). However, it is unclear whether Gamaliel ever trusted Jesus Christ. Acts 15:5 speaks of some of “the sect of the Pharisees which believed.” Their names are not revealed though.

The Apostle Paul, in the late Acts period, stood on trial before Pharisees and Sadducees (Acts chapter 23). From verse 8, we learn the Pharisees believed in resurrection, angels, and spirits (the Sadducees did not). Verse 9 indicates some Pharisees were “scribes”—copyists and teachers of the Old Testament Scripture. (See our related “scribes” study linked at the end of this article.)

In closing, there are many such “Pharisees” in Christendom today. They value oral tradition, so much so that they gave it equal authority to the Scriptures—and even discard Scripture for sake of keeping their tradition. Also, they place emphasis on meticulously observing religious rules and rituals as opposed to faith in God’s Word. In these two senses, they are the modern Roman Catholics. As formalism corrupted ancient Judaism, so it perverts the Church the Body of Christ today. Incidentally, modern Orthodox Judaism is based on the doctrines and rules of the ancient Pharisees.

Also see:
» Who were the “Sadducees?”
» Who were the “scribes?”
» Who were the “Herodians?”