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Many times in the New Testament, Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Apostles interact with Jewish men called the Pharisees. At other times, the Sadducees are prominent.

Several Pharisees are named in the New Testament; Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea being three. The most famous Pharisee is the Apostle Paul. He says that he is a Pharisee and the son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6) and was taught by Gamaliel himself (Acts 22:3). In Acts 23, Paul stands before the council and causes a fight between the Pharisees and Sadducees based on their differences in doctrine.

23:1 Paul looked directly at the council and said, "Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day." 23:2 At that the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 23:3 Then Paul said to him, "God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit there judging me according to the law, and in violation of the law you order me to be struck?" 23:4 Those standing near him said, "Do you dare insult God’s high priest?" 23:5 Paul replied, "I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, 'You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.'"

23:6 Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, "Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!" 23:7 When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 23:8 (For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)

Who are the Pharisees and where did they come from? What did they believe and how do those beliefs impact our understanding of the New Testament passages where they appear? What are the doctrinal differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

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I like this question (and the self-answer) but I'm wondering if this is really on-topic and constructive. Maybe if it were more tied to the implications in terms of interpretation. –  Jon Ericson Jun 20 '13 at 17:50
Later edited to tie historical question to incident in Acts, so on-topic it seems. –  Davïd Jun 20 at 21:27
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The Pharisees were one of several sects active in Judaism in first century Judea. The other main sects were the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. Of these sects, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the ruling parties. The ruling council, the Sanhedrin, was made up of the top Pharisees and Sadducees (the Sadducees were a priestly clan). Gamaliel being a Pharisee and member of the council means that he is a powerful member of the ruling class.

Characteristics of the Pharisees

  1. The name likely comes from pharash to interpret/separate. This possibly started as a derogatory name from their opponents which the Pharisees adopted with pride.
  2. They were popular amongst the common people who held them in high esteem as the authoritative interpreters of the Tanach (Josephus Antiquities 18:15; 288; War 1:107-114; 2:162-163, 166). Many of the Pharisees came from humble beginnings themselves and did not bar anyone from their ranks based on station in life. In fact, to prevent making the Torah a spade, early Pharisees had a day job.
  3. They had a strong missions movement and many sought to bring gentiles under the "wings of the Shekinah" (BT Shabbat 31a). See also Frederick Miller Derwacter, Preparing the Way for Paul, 25; Robert M. Seltzer, "Joining Jewish People from Biblical to Modern Times" in Pushing the Faith, 49.
  4. They had no priestly duties. This was a lay order of teachers. Their power base was the synagogue. They attempted (and mostly succeeded) to cultivate harmonious relationships with the common people. Sadducees were aristocrats.
  5. Creators/perpetrators of oral torah. Mishnah Avot traces the oral torah from God to Moses, Joshua, elders etc. The Torah is then passed through the prophets to the founders of the Pharisees and then to Simeon the Just, who was also a priest. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah.
  6. Their beliefs separated them from the Sadducees in significant ways. The Pharisees believed in a. bodily resurrection of the dead to eternal life of rewards or judgement and punishment, b. angels, c. messiah, and d. a cosmological eschatology where God reigned supreme (Josephus Antiquities 13:171-173; 18:12-15; War 2:164-165; Acts 23:6-9). The last was very connected to their beliefs in the Messiah.
  7. They sometimes controlled the Sanhedrin but only rarely. After A.D. 70, they were the sole members of the Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, even when out of power, the Pharisees were able to exercise considerable influence because they had the support of the masses (Antiquities 13:288, 296, 298; 18:12-17). Josephus goes so far as to say that if the Sadducees did not follow Pharisaic traditions in public and legal proceedings, the people would not put up with them (Antiquities 18:17). Even when they did not control the majority of seats, the head Pharisee was co-chair of the Sanhedrin. His titles in this capacity were Av bet Din (Father of the House of Judgment) and Nasi (Prince). The Pharisees were known for their leniency in judgment (Antiquities 13:294), whereas the Sadducees were known or their severity in doling out punishment (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 5; Antiquities 20:199). This is seen in Acts 5 where the Sadducees are ready to execute some of the Apostles, but Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, co-chair of the great Sanhedrin stops them. The sentence is reduced to flogging.
  8. They could travel outside of Israel and were greeted as honored guests in the synagogues they visited but they were not in direct control of them. Out of Israel, synagogue rulers were not rabbis or pharisees. Many were women outside of Israel. No oral Torah was used in Greco-Roman synagogues.
  9. The Pharisees formed normative Judaism as they were the only sect left standing after the Temple was destroyed. The Sadducees lost their power base and their power, the Essenes disappeared, and the Zealots were destroyed or otherwise defeated. The Pharisees became the rabbis.
  10. Their successors, the rabbis, created rabbinic literature including the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, and Midrash.


The Pharisees were very influential in Judea. Their impact can be seen in the courts, the synagogues (which they administered), and the common people. The Pharisees often used parables to teach and trained the common people in how to learn from parables (approximately 2,000 parable are found in the Rabbinic literature). Every time Jesus tells a parable, He is trusting the people to interpret as the Pharisees taught them. Jesus and Paul often taught in synagogues (Luke 4:16 "as was His custom" and Acts 9:20; 13:14; 18:4).

The New Testament apostles are like the pharisaical messengers called sheleqim or "sent ones." Indeed, Jesus refers to himself as one sent from the Father (John 20:21) and sends the Apostles out by that authority.

The Pharisees put together rules of hermeneutics that the rabbis after them used and Jesus himself applied in his teachings (Every "how much more so" from Jesus is an application of qal v'komer Matthew 6:26, 30; 7:11. He also uses hekesh in Matthew 22:37).

The impact of the Pharisees on first century Judea cannot be overstated as they shaped every aspect of it.

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This builds on Frank Luke’s answer, especially Characteristic #4. Citations will follow later, P.G.; I’m not near my library at the moment.

The Pharisee interpretation of the priestly Temple service was that it serves as a symbol and an ideal of Man’s duties to God, rather than being that duty. Along with a focus on the study of the Law came an effort to incorporate the lessons from Temple service into daily life. This change of focus allowed the Pharisee way of life to survive the destruction of the Temple.

Their defining characteristic was chulin al taharas hakodesh, everyday life conducted with the purity required for the sacred. Just as the priestly portion could only be eaten in a state of ritual purity, so too did the Pharisees (wherever possible) eat their daily food in such a state. Similar to the way the priests washed/purified/sanctified their hands and feet before Temple service, Pharisees ritually washed/purified/sanctified their hands before prayer, study, or even eating. (Washing before eating in particular was so widely accepted by the followers of the Pharisees among the common-folk, that anyone neglecting this was assumed to be non-Jewish, or at least grossly non-observant.)

Observance of many Pharisee ordinances was easily visible, and could be imitated by people who otherwise ignored the more central aspect of the Law. As Alexander Yannai I told his wife Shalomtzion, “Have no fear of the Pharisees nor the Sadducees. Fear the hypocrites who pretend to be Pharisees; they act like Zimri and demand reward like Pinchas.” (Sotah 22b.) The Pharisees themselves categorized several species of this hypocrisy, including the sort who make a show of their alleged piety or claim to have fulfilled their duties—these they classified as “those who bring destruction to the world”. (Ibid.)

(A cheap propaganda trick thus available to rabble-rousers was to broadly accuse all Pharisees of this hypocrisy, making the audience of common-folk feel superior.)

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The introduction of rules apart from the given ones to the purpose of displaying an outward appearance of obedience necessarily lead to a system of hypocrisy. People tend to be impressed by such humility. Critique was most likely in place and much needed. –  hannes Jun 22 '13 at 18:50
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