Who were the Pharisees?

The name “Pharisee,” often gets a lot of bad press because of Jesus’ criticism, which we will shortly examine. Historically, they proved to be great people; the gentle Hillel, who taught the “Golden Rule,” was certainly one of its best examples of Pharisaic ethics and piety. The same could be said of numerous other great teachers of the 1st-2nd century. Their wisdom can be found in the ancient Jewish tract of “Pirke Avoth,” The “Ethics of the Fathers.”

Some of their wise aphorisms include:

Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly. They said three things: (1) “Be prudent in judgment, (2) “Raise up many disciples,(3) “Make a fence for the Torah.”

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the great assembly. He would say: “On three things does the world stand: (1) “On the Torah, (2) “and on the Temple service, (3) “and on deeds of loving kindness.”

Antigonos of Sokho received [the Torah] from Simeon the Righteous. He would say, (1) “Do not be like servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward, (2) “but [be] like servants who serve the master not on condition of receiving a reward. (3) “And let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

There are hundreds of examples found in this wonderful work and I would encourage you the reader to study these texts if you really wish to understand who the Pharisees were.

But were all those who purported to be Pharisees such noble souls? Not quite. For the record, there were Pharisees who obviously did not excel in the area of religious ethics—much like we see in the Haredi world today! This should not come as a great surprise to any of us because it is a lot easier to be observant of Halacha minutia than it is to be an ethical human being. Various moral lapses within both the Haredi and Hassidic communities painfully illustrate that developing an expertise in Jewish law is absolutely meaningless unless it engenders personal piety in the sphere of human ethics. The human face demands we treat all people with respect and dignity–this was the great lesson of Hillel, who taught: “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your fellow man.”

Now back to our original topic…

“Pharisee” probably comes from the Hebrew word prš meaning “expositors.” They were among the very first individuals who championed biblical interpretation (Jastrow). However, it is also possible the name prš might also mean “separate,” “detach.” Thus the Pharisees were probably the separated ones,” whose commitment to Jewish law and ritual set them apart from everyone else. However, Pharisaic piety pales in comparison with the Essenes  whose scrupulous observance of the purity laws make the Pharisees seem almost “secular.”

The Pharisees began as an essentially a lay group that originally made up one of the Hasidim of the Maccabean era. By during the time of the Maccabean revolution was over the Pharisees opposed the priestly kings of the Hasmonaean dynasty. By the time John Hyrcanus I usurped the High Priesthood, the Pharisees objected to his attempt to be the High Priest—even though they had no qualms about him serving as a national leader (See Josephus, Antiquities, XIII, 288-298).  Apparently, their objection took a violent path and as a result Jannaeus condemned 800 Pharisees to die on the cross.[1]

Some of the oldest and best descriptions of the Pharisees come from the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions that they were one of three distinctive groups that flourished during the reign of John Hyrcanus I. According to Josephus’ description, the Pharisees differed from the Sadducees (the priestly party) and the Essenes and believed that there were many laws of the Torah had been orally handed down “from the fathers but which were not recorded in the laws of Moses,” which had to be observed; moreover, that there is a delicate interplay between fate and free will, and that every soul is imperishable, with the souls of the good ultimately passing into another body (resurrection) and the souls of the wicked condemned to suffer eternal punishment.[2] As lay leaders, they proved to be very popular with the masses, who observed the tradition in accordance with their interpretation.[3]

Other ancient and rich descriptions come from the New Testament where the Pharisees condemn Jesus for criticizing the teachings of the Pharisees of his time (Mark 7:13).  One of the best criticisms of the Pharisees can be seen in Matthew 23, where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of transforming the ethos of the Torah into an intolerable burden and hardship upon the people. The reduction of the biblical ethics found in the Decalogue and the tendency to create “fences around the Torah,” made Judaism too much of a burden for people to observe.

At this point, it is important to ask whether this critique of the Pharisees was indeed warranted or not. Are there rabbinic traditions that might even substantiate Jesus’ attack on Pharisaic piety? Consider the following ancient rabbinic texts:

The Mishnah in Sotah 3:4 reads: “A foolish saint, a wicked man with cunning, a woman who is a religious hypocrite (perushah) and the wounds of the Pharisees [makkô perûšîm], these wear out the world.” What exactly is meant by the “wounds of the Pharisees,” is somewhat unclear but whatever it is, the expression is clearly derogatory. Basically, these people are singled out because they separate themselves from the ordinary folk, whom they believed did not observe the laws of ritual purity like they did.

According to the Talmud in tractate Sotah, King Jannai1 is recorded as saying to his wife’, ‘Don’t be afraid of Pharisees and the non-Pharisees; fear only the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri (see Num. 25:14) but they expect a reward like Phineas’.

It may well be that Jesus was speaking specifically about this class of Jewish leaders who delighted as appearing to the masses as “pious folk,” but in reality has little and no regard for the  people whom they were supposed to care for.

It is interesting that in practice, Jesus follows a view of Shammai with respect to divorce (Mat. 19:3-9); Shammai believed that divorce should never be given frivolously, unless the person has defiled the marriage through infidelity.

Compare this with the concluding Mishnah of tractate Gittin (9:10)

A The House of Shammai say, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity,

B “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything (Dt. 24:).”

C And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish,

D “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything.

E R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she,

F “since it is said, And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes (Dt. 24:1).”[4]

Another important area where Jesus differs with the Pharisees was with respect to the Sabbath; in Mark 2:27, Jesus asserts that the Sabbath exists for the good of humankind, not vices versa—therefore, healing is permitted on the Sabbath. Curiously, the Mishnah eventually taught that the Sabbath may be violated for the sake of saving a human life. I am inclined to think that this change in the Halacha may have been due to Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath that champion human life over the ritual observance of the holiest day of the week. Preserving human life must forever remain more important than any ritual.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the rabbis who rebuilt Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem seem to have avoided associating themselves with the name “Pharisee,” embarrassment on the part of these direct heirs of the spiritual legacy of pharisaism. Perhaps those who witnessed the destruction realized that ritual without ethical excellence is much like a body without a soul. It seems to me that Jesus’  critique of the pseudo-Pharisees of his time could have struck a deep chord. The Temple was not destroyed because its priests failed to properly observe the laws of ritual purity and piety–but because of the sin of “causeless hatred,” and only an attitude that stresses “causeless” and “indiscriminate love” will ultimately pave the word toward its Messianic destiny. I sincerely believe that Jesus, Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and numerous others, all tried their best to convey this timeless lesson to the post-destruction era…and now you know the rest of the story!

[1] Antiquities of the Jews xiii, 380–83; The Jewish War i, 96–8.

[2] Josephus, The Jewish War ii.162-163, 3.374; Antiquities xiii, 171-173, XVIII, 166.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 487.

4 thoughts on “Who were the Pharisees?

  1. Anders Branderud says:

    A logical analysis of the earliest manusscripts (including the logical implications of the research by Ben-Gurion Univ. Prof. of Linguistics Elisha Qimron of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT) of “Matthew”, implies that Ribi Yehoshua was a Perushi (Pharisee). Ribi Yehoshua was called a Ribi and only the Perushim had Ribis.

    It is essential for any Christians reading your blog to know: “No one can follow two polar-opposite masters — the authentic, historical, PRO-Torah 1st-century Ribi from Nazareth and the 4th-century (post-135 C.E.), arch-antithesis ANTI-Torahapostasy developed by the Hellenists (namely the Sadducees and Roman pagans who conspired to kill Ribi Yәhoshua, displaced his original followers and redacted the NT).” (quote: http://www.netzarim.co.il)

    It is mitzwah to make havdalah between Ribi Yehoshua and the counterfeit anti-Torah Jesus.

    Anders Branderud

  2. Yochanan Lavie says:

    I heard a Karaite explanation that Pharisee comes from Parsi, i.e. Persian. It reflects the rabbinic traditions from Persian Babylonia and according to the Karaites, undue influence from Zoroastrianism. I don’t think they’re correct in their etymology, but it’s an interesing take.

  3. Dan Weisberg says:

    Excellent article, thank you Rabbi!

    It appears that the populist Pharisees that Josephus describes eventually became an ossified, elitist class disconnected from the people. This would explain Yeshua’s (Jesus’) discontent with them.

    This also explains why they subsequently decided to drop the word “Pharisee”, rebranded themselves as Rabbis, and reconnected with the Jewish people who were traumatized and leaderless after the Temple’s second destruction.

    > Karaite explanation that Pharisee comes from […] Persian. It reflects the rabbinic traditions from Persian Babylonia and according to the Karaites, undue influence from Zoroastrianism.

    A Persian influence would explain the Pharasaic belief in resurrection which appears to have originated in Zoroastrianism. However Karaitic scholar Nehemia Gordon states the term Pharisee comes from Hebrew and means “separated ones”.

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