The name Pharisee means “separated.” That much is agreed upon. But scholars debate from what this group separated. Did they separate themselves from the common folk, from the Hasmoneans, from the Sadducees, or from the Hasidim? Further, were the Pharisees a political party or a religious sect? The answers to these questions depend on how one constructs the history of this sect.

We first meet with the Pharisees in Josephus in the High Priesthood of John Hyrcanus when he dismissed them from his government because of a remark made at a banquet. Instead of Pharisees as the dominant political party, Hyrcanus now installed the Sadducees. This hostility was reversed under Queen Alexandra who reinstated the Pharisees in government. This series of events leads us to conclude that the Pharisees were originally a “political action group” (Saldarini’s term) which competed with other like groups, especially the Sadducees, for power within the Hasmonean government. Naturally, the Pharisees were also concerned with religious matters—in a government in which the High Priest was also the king, how could they not?—but political power was the main item on their agenda. Moreover, they seem to have been, usually, the dominant party.

Under Herod the Great this emphasis changed. This was the era of one of the greatest Pharisees, named Hillel. Neusner concludes that Hillel changed the direction of the group from political party to pietist sect. Herod would hardly countenance meddling in his political affairs by a troublesome group of religionists, bent on having its way. Thus, the group retired from politics and devoted itself entirely to matters of halakha.

The Pharisees became a “table-fellowship sect.” They moved from “politics to piety,” where they remained until the Jewish war of A.D. 66. After the war, the Pharisees emerged again as the politically dominant party within Judaism. Thus during the Herodian period (37 B.C.–A.D. 70), the time of Jesus and the early church, the Pharisees were a quietist sect concerned with table fellowship, purity laws, and tithing. In Josephus’s day the sect numbered 6000 members.

During the reign of Herod the Great two great Pharisees, Hillel and Shammai, became the founders of rival schools. The two schools debated the issues most dear to Pharisees (laws of purity, Sabbath, festivals, and table fellowship) almost always disagreeing with one another. Yet in spite of their many disagreements, they apparently did not split into two separate sects but remained merely two schools of interpretation within Pharisaism.

Many of the stories told about the founders of the schools are probably legendary but they may indicate at least something about the two schools. Hillel was said to be less strict and more progressive; Shammai was known as strict and conservative.

The many references in the Mishnah to the two schools demonstrate that Pharisaism was not always the same. It changed not only as it moved through history but as one moved from one school to the next. Thus it is erroneous to characterize all Pharisees as agreeing on all matters of the Torah. As a point in fact, there were at least 10 different variations of the Pharisees.

Many scholars see the origin of the Pharisees and Essenes as follows:


Essenes                                                                                                                        Pharisees                      

The general characteristics of the Pharisees are as follows:

  • Primary among the characteristics was the belief in and devotion to the oral Torah. Both Josephus (Antiquities 13.297, 408) and the New Testament (Mark 7:3) refer to the “traditions” (Greek: παραδόσεις, paradoseis) that the Pharisees followed and which were handed down from their forefathers. The adherence to the oral Torah was the main point of contention between Pharisees and Sadducees.
  • The Pharisees taught the general resurrection of the dead and the retribution of the wicked after death, doctrines the Sadducees rejected (War 2.163; Ant. 18.16; Mark 12:18).
  • They believed in the existence of angels and spirits, which the Sadducees denied (Acts 23:8).
  • Josephus writes something about divine sovereignty and free will that is not totally comprehensible. Some speculate that the Essenes believed in total predestination and absolute divine sovereignty, that the Sadducees rejected these doctrines and that the Pharisees were somewhere in between. God is sovereign, but humans also have free will according to Pharisees (War 2.163).
  • The Pharisees concerned themselves much about dietary and purity laws and about tithing. They wanted to be in a state of ritual purity or cleanness as the priests in the temple and so were meticulous about what rendered the hands and garments unclean and the washing of hands (m. Yadaim 4:6; m. Hagiga 2:7; Mark 7:3). Likewise they ate not only kosher food but only grain from which the proper tithes had already been given (m. Demai 6:6; Matt 23:23).
  • The Pharisees were, according to Josephus, the most popular of the Jewish sects. They had the complete confidence of the masses (Ant. 18.15–17).
  • Finally, we must say a word about the general assumption that all Pharisees were hypocrites, inwardly evil, while appearing outwardly to be pure. Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees (Matt 23) should not be taken as applying to all Pharisees and thus by extension to all Jews. The Pharisees were in the main a pious sect seeking to live out the will of God as best they could. That Jesus strongly disagreed with some of them is clear but he also seems to have been friends with others of this sect.

We can now answer the questions we raised above. From whom did the Pharisees separate? Undoubtedly they separated themselves from the Sadducees. A group as popular as this could not have separated itself from the masses. Were they a political party or a religious sect? Although politics and religion were closely intertwined in ancient Palestine, and even at times inseparable, one can say that the emphasis was on politics before the time of Herod the Great but on religious matters after that.

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