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?

  • 1
    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. Jun 20, 2013 at 17:50
  • Later edited to tie historical question to incident in Acts, so on-topic it seems.
    – Dɑvïd
    Jun 20, 2014 at 21:27
  • Minor point: Joseph of Arimathea is not identified as a Pharisee although it is likely that he indeed was one. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret follower of Jesus. He also assisted Nicodemus (a known Pharisee) in burying Jesus' body. Apr 17, 2023 at 15:08

3 Answers 3


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.

  • IMHO, some of the NT accusations against the Pharisees belong more properly to the Sadduccees. The Sadduccees did not believe in life after death, or punishment after death. They were entrenched in the Temple service and their members frequently bribed their way to become High Priest. In the final 100 years of the Temple, many were high priests, and barely lived a year after their appointment. Babl. Tal. Yoma 8b-9a (suggesting short life span because of their sins). Note all of the Gospels hold the trial of Jesus at the home of the High Priest, not at the Sanhedrin. Aug 11, 2014 at 14:31
  • Another example of how the NT seems to mischaracterize the Pharisees is in Matt. where Jesus instructs his followers to follow the teachings of the Pharisees to the letter, but to not do as they do. Had the sentence stopped there, it would have been a quotation of Jewish law, which teaches that one cannot learn law by watching individuals b/c they may have a special circumstance to be stricter or lenient at that moment. Bava Basra 130b-131a. The clause stating the Pharisees are hypocrites seems to undermine the force of Jesus' teaching, and implies it was a subsequent change in the text. Aug 11, 2014 at 14:44
  • @BruceJames, some of Jesus' interactions with Pharisees are positive and some are negative. The Talmud (Sota 22b) says there were 7 types of Pharisees, and most of those types were negative (definitely 5, maybe 6). Some read the God Quaker as negative, others as positive). Some of those types certainly are hypocrites: the shoulder wants his good deeds to be seen, the bruised closes his eyes to keep from seeing women (and thus be tempted) and walks into walls, the humpback walks in false humility.
    – Frank Luke
    Aug 11, 2014 at 15:05
  • Frank, I assume from your bio that you are studying the Mishna and Gemara. You probably have noticed that these sources are brutally honest about the personalities of many of the rabbis (Rabbi Meir in particular). Yet, I see nothing resembling in these writings that in any way resemble their descriptions in the NT (which in almost all cases never names an individual Pharisee known to history). The exception is the praise for Rabban Gamliel in Acts, which closely resembles his description in the Mishna. Aug 11, 2014 at 16:31
  • 1
    Regarding the use of the term perushim, Pharisees, my personal conjecture: Josephus implies that was the term in use at the time. The Talmud was written some centuries later at which point the libelous definition might have taken root, so that word was avoided. Alternatively, the term might have been used as a political identifier both for the Rabbis and for the unlearned folk who followed them, so a more narrowly-defined word (chaver, a “fellow” of the study-hall) was used instead. Aug 14, 2014 at 15:09

This builds on Frank Luke’s answer, especially Characteristic #4 (“This was a lay order of teachers”).

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.)

(The preceding explanation is adapted from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary to the Biblical passages regarding the Temple service.)

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 called “a plague of Pharisees” and classified as “those who bring destruction to the world”. (Ibid. 20a–22b)

(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.)

  • 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, 2013 at 18:50

As my comments to Frank Luke's answer indicate, I strongly disagree with him. He cites Sotah 22b as source for a description of "what is a Pharisee" without realizing that this is not a term the rabbis used to describe themselves. A perush in that context is someone who separates themselves or an ascetic. The description there is talking about five categories of perushim who try to pretend that they are righteous, and put on airs, but do so for the wrong reasons. The last two categories describe sincere folk, however.

What the NT calls "Pharisees" are the rabbinic leaders of the late 2nd Temple period. They believed that they were the caretakers of the Law -- both the written Torah and the Oral tradition that God passed on to Moses and was handed down generation to generation through memorization and teaching. See Mishna Avos, Chapter 1. The tradition that they passed on assumed life after death, reward and punishment from the Divine after death, in the efficacy of prayer. As historian Max Dimont notes in his book, Jews, God, and History (Simon & Schuster 1962), p. 89, "they were responsible for introducing the elasticity into Judaism which made possible its survival in the times of stress ahead."

Says Dimont:

The Pharisees represented the middle-ground of Jewish religious thinking. They were exceedingly tolerant in their religious views, totally different from the New Testament picture painted of them as narrow-minded bigots....Whenever two intrepretations of the Law -- the Torah -- were possible, they chose the more lenient view.

Dimont, at p.98.

Among the greatest Pharisees was Hillel the Elder who introduced a version of the Golden Rule 100 years before Jesus, saying that the Torah law could be summarized by saying: "What is painful to yourself, don't do to others; the rest [of the Torah] is commentary, now go and study." Bably. Talmud Shabbos 31a.

The two other movements of Judaism at that time were the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Sadducees were a group that believed that no law existed that the Five Books of Moses, i.e. the Torah, did not specifically teach. Accordingly, they did not believe in life after death, nor post-death reward and punishment. Their movement put great emphasis on the Temple, with many priests among them paying bribes to the Roman-appointed king of Judea in order to get appointments to the position of High Priest. Bably Talmud Yoma 8b-91. Unlike the Pharisees, they were not opposed to the Hellenization of the Jewish people. Dimont at p 88. The Sadducees did not survive the destruction of the Temple.

The Essenes, from the rabbis' perspective were quite extreme separatists. The Essenes were highly messianic, believing that the redemption of the Jewish people, and the destruction of its enemies, including the Romans, was in their immediate future. Of them, Josephus said,

"They [the Essenes] reject pleasure as an evil, but esteem continence and the conquest of our passions to be virtue."

Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.120.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.