Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The Pharisees (from the Hebrew perushim, from parash, meaning "to separate") were, depending on the time, a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews that flourished during the Second Temple Era (536 BCE70 CE). After the destruction of the Second Temple, Pharisaic Judaism came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism, and then, simply as Judaism. The social standing and beliefs of the Pharisees changed over time, as political and social conditions in Judea changed; it is thus impossible to understand the Pharisees without understanding their historical context.

More specifically, the Pharisees were one of the successor groups of the Hasidim (the "pious"), an anti-Hellenic Jewish movement that formed in the time of the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes ( 175 - 163 BCE). The first mention of them is by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, in a description of the four "schools of thought" (that is, social groups or movements) into which the Jews were divided in the 1st century CE. The other schools were the Essenes, revolutionaries, and the Sadducees. The Essenes were apolitical; the revolutionaries, such as the Sicarii and the Zealots, emerged specifically to resist the Roman Empire. Other sects emerged at this time, such as the Christians in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt. The Sadducees and Pharisees began earlier, as political factions in the Hellenistic Hasmonean period of the Second Temple era. At no time did any of these sects constitute a majority; most Jews were non-sectarian. Nevertheless, these sects are emblematic of the different responses of Jews to the political, economic, and cultural forces that characterized the Second Temple era.

For most of their history, Pharisees defined themselves in opposition to the Sadducees. Conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees took place in the context of much broader conflicts among Jews in the Second Temple era that followed the Babylonian captivity of Judah. One conflict was class, between the wealthy and the poor. Another conflict was cultural, between those who favored hellenization and those who resisted it. A third was juridico-religious, between those who emphasized the importance of the Temple, and those who emphasized the importance of other Mosaic laws and prophetic values. This conflict practically defines the Second Temple Era, a time when the Temple had tremendous authority but questionable legitimacy, and a time when the sacred literature of the Torah and Bible were being edited and canonized. Fundamentally, Sadducees and Pharisees were divided concerning the third conflict, but at different times were influenced by the other conflicts. In general, whereas the Sadducees were conservative, aristocratic monarchists, the Pharisees were eclectic, popular, and more democratic. The Pharisaic position is exemplified by the assertion that "A learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest." (A mamzer is an illegitimate child.)

Table of contents
1 Background: The Religion of Ancient Israel
2 Pharisees in the Second Temple Era
3 Pharisees in the Rabbinic Era
4 Pharisaic Principles and Values
5 "Pharisees" and Christianity
6 References

Background: The Religion of Ancient Israel

The religion of ancient Israel, like those of most ancient Near Eastern societies, centered on a Temple, served by a caste of priests, who sacrificed offerings to their god. Among the Children of Israel priests claimed descent from Aaron of the tribe of Levi, and were believed to have been chosen by God to care for the Tabernacle.

In ancient Israel, as in most ancient Near Eastern societies, the institution of the priesthood was closely tied with the monarchy. The religious authority of the priests was institutionalized with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem around 950 BCE, and when the high priest Zadok anointed Solomon king. At that time priestly power was legitimated and constrained by the monarchy, controlled by the House of David of the tribe of Judah. During the First Temple Era (from around 950 BCE to 586 BCE), the priests were limited to their work in the Temple; political power officially rested in the hands of a king who ruled, ideally, by divine right.

In most ancient societies sacrifice was the only form of worship. Unlike many other religions of the time, however, the Children of Israel had sacred texts (later edited into the Torah, or Five Books of Moses) which contained moral stories and teachings, as well as laws, which provided all people with ways to worship their God in the course of their everyday lives. Prophets, inspired by God and by the values and teachings embodied in the sacred texts, however, often criticized the king, elites, or the masses and provided another potent political force.

Both the Temple and the Monarchy were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and most Jews were sent into exile.

Pharisees in the Second Temple Era

In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and in 537 BCE, inaugurating the Persian period of Jewish history. Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple (completed in 515 BCE). He did not, however, allow the restoration of the monarchy, which left the priests as the dominant authority. Without the constraining power of the monarchy, the authority of the Temple was amplified. Around this time the Sadducee party emerged as the party of the priests and allied elites; the name Sadducee comes from Zadok. Nevertheless, the Second Temple had been constructed under the auspices of a foreign power, and there were lingering questions about its legitimacy. This provided the condition for the development of various sects (including Josephus's "schools of thought"), each of which claimed exclusive authority to represent "Judaism," and typically shunned social intercourse, especially marriage, with members of other sects.

One of the earliest of these competing sects was the Pharisees, who had its origins in a relatively new group of authorities -- scribes and sages. The end of the Babylonian Exile saw not only the construction of the Second Temple, but the canonization of the Bible as well. Although the priests controlled the monarchy and the Temple, scribes and sages (who would later come to be addressed as rabbi, "my master") monopolized the study of the Torah, which was read publicly on market-days, a practice which was institutionalized after the return from the Babylonian exile. These sages developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside of the Holy Writ, and identified with the prophets (Biblical political and religious reformers who came from other tribes than Levi). The rift between the priests and the sages developed during the Hellenistic period, when the Jews faced new political and cultural struggles.

The Hellenistic period of Jewish history began in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. By the 2nd century BCE. Judea was subject to the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire. Generally, the Jews accepted foreign rule as long as they were only expected to pay tribute, and otherwise allowed to govern themselves. Conflicts arose when Antiochus Epiphanes began a program of forced helenization with the support of the priestly aristocracy -- many of whom began to turn away from the practice of circumcision (the sign of the covenant between God and the Children of Israel) in order to exercise in the gymnasion. When Antiochus pillaged the Temple and ordered sacrifices to Greek gods, Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, priests of the Hasmon family, led a bloody revolt. After defeating the Seleucid forces, Judah's nephew John Hyrcanus established a new monarchy in the form of the priestly Hasmonean dynasty in 152 BCE -- thus establishing priests as political as well as religious authorities. Although the Hasmoneans were heroes for resisting the Seleucids, their reign lacked the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty of the First Temple Era. It was around this time that the sages and scribes congealed into a political party known as the Pharisees, or "separatists." This term may owe to their rejection of Hellenic culture or to their objection to the Hasmonean monopoly on power.

The political rift between the two parties became evident when Pharisees demanded that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai choose between being king and being High Priest. This demand led to a brief civil war that ended with a bloody repression of the Pharisees, although at his deathbed the king called for a reconciliation between the two parties. Alexander was succeeded by his widow, Salome Alexandra, whose brother, Simeon ben Shetah, was a leading Pharisee. Upon her death her elder son, Hyrcanus, sought Pharisee support, and her younger son, Aristobulus, sought the support of the Sadducees.

The conflict between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus culminated in a civil war that ended when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BCE and inaugurated the Roman period of Jewish history. Pompey ended the monarchy and named Hyrcanus high priest and ethnarch (a lesser title than "king"). In 57 BCE Hyrcanus was deprived of all political authority. Ultimate jurisdiction of Judea and the Galilee was given to the Proconsul of Syria, who ruled through two Idumean brothers, Phasael (who served as military governor of Judea) and Herod (who served as military governor of the Galilee). In 40 BCE Aristobulus's son Antigonus overthrew Hyrcanus and named himself king and high priest. Herod fled to Rome, and, with the support of Marcus Antonius and Octavian, secured recognition by the Roman Senate as king -- confirming the termination of the Hasmonean dynasty. After Herod died, Augustus designated one son tetrarch of the Galilee, and another son ethnarch of Judea (including Samaria and Idumea). After 6 CE Judea was governed indirectly by a Roman prefect or procurator, and directly by a Roman-appointed high priest.

It was during this time that the Sanhedrin was established. In 57 BCE the Proconsul Cabineus established five regional synhedria, or councils, of 23 elders, to regulate the internal affairs of the Jews. The Sanhedrin was a legislative council of 71 elders chaired by the high priest, that interpreted Jewish law and adjudicated appeals, especially in ritual matters. The specific number of councils, members of councils, and their powers actually varied depending on Roman policy.

During this period Judea and Galilee were effectively semi-autonomous client-states. Rome was content to receive tribute, although some emperors considered installing a statue of themselves or a Roman god in the Temple. For the most part, Jews were willing to pay tribute, although they complained when it was excessive, and absolutely refused to allow a graven image in their Temple. The primary tasks of the tetrarch and high priest were to collect tribute, convince the Romans not to interfere with the Temple, and ensure that the Jews not rebel. There is a record of only one high priest (Ananus, in 62 CE) being a Saducee, although scholars generally assume that the Sanhedrin was dominated by Saducees. The Pharisees were politically quiescent, content to study, teach, and worship in their own way. Although popular, they had no power.

Pharisees in the Rabbinic Era

By 66 CE Jewish discontent with Rome had escalated. At first, the priests tried to suppress rebellion, even calling upon the Pharisees for help. After the Roman garrison failed to stop Hellenists from desecrating a synagogue in Caesarea, however, the high priest suspended payment of tribute, inaugurating the Great Jewish Revolt. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE not only put an end to the revolt, it marked the end of an era. It was also a profoundly traumatic experience for the Jews, who were now confronted with difficult and far-reaching questions: How people answered these questioned depended largely on their position prior to the revolt. Revolutionaries like the Zealots had been crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility (the last Zealots died at Masada in 73 CE). Similarly, the Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple cult, disappeared.

The Essenes too disappeared, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the concerns of the times. Briefly, the Essenes were the followers of a group of priests who had essentially rejected the Second Temple. They argued that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, and that obedience to the law represented a new form of sacrifice. Accordingly, the destruction of the Second Temple was of no consequence to them; precisely for this reason, they were of little consequence to the vast majority of Jews. Although their lack of concern for the Second Temple and its destruction alienated them from the great mass of Jews, their notion that the sacred could exist outside of the Temple was shared by Christians and Pharisees.

Christians too, however, were relatively unconcerned with the destruction of the Temple since they believed that Jesus had already replaced the Temple as the expression of a new covenant. When Christians failed to attract a large number of followers from among the Jews -- perhaps because, in the aftermath of the revolt, Jews were afraid that talk of a new king and a new kingdom would provoke Roman wrath, or because most Jews did not feel that the destruction of the Temple signified the abrogation of their covenant with God -- they turned to Gentile converts, distanced themselves from the rebellious Jews, and emerged as a new religion.

Of all the major Second Temple sects, only the Pharisees remained. Although they had accepted the importance of the Temple, their vision of Jewish law as a means by which ordinary people could engage with the sacred in their daily lives, provided them with a position from which to respond to all four challenges, in a way meaningful to the vast majority of Jews.

Following the destruction of the Temple, Rome governed Judea through a Procurator at Caesarea and a Jewish Patriarch. Yohanan ben Zakkai, a leading Pharisee, was appointed the first Patriarch (the Hebrew word, Nasi, also means prince, or president), and he reestablished the Sanhedrin at Javneh under Pharisee control. The rabbis rejected the sectarianism that had dominated Jewish life during the Second Temple Era; Pharisaism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism, which came to be known as "Rabbinic" Judaism. The Rabbinic Era itself is divided into two periods, that of the Tannaim (from the Aramaic word for "repeat," also used to mean "learn"), who wrote the Mishna, and that of the Amoraim (from the Aramaic word for "speaker"), who wrote the Talmud. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and sacrificing offerings at the Temple, Jews gave money to charities and studied in local Synagogues.

When the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter, in 132 CE, some of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin supported a rebellion (and, for a short time, an independent state) led by Simon bar Kozeba (also called Bar Kochba, or "son of a star"); some, such as Rabbi Akiba, believed Bar Kochbah to be messiah, or king. This revolt ended in 135 CE when Bar Kochba and his army were defeated. According to a midrash, in addition to Bar Kochba the Romans executed ten leading members of the Sanhedrin: the high priest, R. Ishmael; the president of the Sanhedrin, R. Shimon ben Gamaliel; R. Akiba; R. Hanania ben Teradion; the interpreter of the Sanhedrin, R. Huspith; R.Eliezer ben Shamua; R. Hanina ben Hakinai; the secretary of the Sanhedrin, R. Yeshevav; R. Yehuda ben Dama; and R. Yehuda ben Baba. The Rabbinic account describes agonizing tortures: R. Akiba was flayed, and R. Hanania was burned at a stake, with wet wool held by a Torah scroll wrapped around his body to prolong his death. This account also claims that the rabbis were executed to atone for the guilt of the ten brothers who kidnapped Joseph. It is possible that this account represents a Pharisaic response to the Christian account of Jesus' crucifixion; in both accounts the Romans brutally punish rebels, who accept their torture as atonement for the crimes of others.

After the suppression of the revolt the vast majority of Jews were sent into exile; shortly thereafter, Judah haNasi edited together Tannaitic judgements and traditions into the Mishna, one of the key texts of Rabbinic Judaism.

Pharisaic Principles and Values

At first the values of the Pharisees developed through their sectarian debates with the Sadducees; then they developed through internal, non-sectarian debates over the law as an adaptation to life without the Temple, and life in exile, and to a more limited degree, life in conflict with Christianity. These shifts mark the transformation of Pharasaic to Rabbinic Judaism.

One belief central to the Pharisees was shared by all Jews of the time: monotheism. This is evident in the practice of reciting the Shema, select verses from the Torah, at the Temple and in synagogues. The Shema begins with the verses, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." According to the Mishna, these passages were recited in the Temple along with the twice-daily Tamid offering; Jews in the diaspora, who did not have access to the Temple, recited these passages in their houses of prayer (in Greek, proseuchai). After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis established that Jews both in Judea and in the diaspora must pray twice a day, and include in their prayers a recitation of these passages.

According to Josephus, whereas the Sadducees believed that people have total free will and the Essenes believed that all of a person's life is predestined, the Pharisees believed that people have free will but that God also has foreknowledge of human destiny. According to Josephus, Pharisees were further distinguished from the Sadducees in that Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead.

It is likely that Josephus highlighted these differences because he was writing for a Gentile audience, and questions concerning fate and a life after death were important in Hellenic philosophy. In fact, it is difficult, or impossible, to reconstruct a Second Temple Pharisaic theology, because Judaism itself is non-creedal; that is, there is no dogma or set of orthodox beliefs that Jews believed were required of Jews. Josephus himself emphasized laws rather than beliefs when he described the characteristics of an apostate (a Jew who does not follow traditional customs) and the requirements for conversion to Judaism (circumcision, and adherence to traditional customs). In fact, the most important divisions among different Jewish sects had to do with debates over three areas of law: marriage, the Sabbath and religious festivals, and the Temple and purity. Debates over these and other matters of law continue to define Judaism more than any particular dogma or creed.

Not one tractate of the key Rabbinic texts, Mishnah and the Talmud, is devoted to theological issues; these texts are concerned primarily with interpretations of Jewish law. Only one chapter of the Mishnah deals with theological issues; it asserts that three kinds of people will have no share in "the world to come:" those who deny the resurrection of the dead, those who deny the divinity of the Torah, and Epicureans (who deny divine supervision of human affairs). Another passage suggests a different set of core principles: normally, a Jew may violate any law to save a life, but in Sanhedrin 74a, a ruling orders Jews to accept martyrdom rather than violate the laws against idolatry, murder, or adultery. (Judah haNasi, however, said that Jews must "be meticulous in small religious duties as well as large ones, because you do not know what sort of reward is coming for any of the religious duties," suggesting that all laws are of equal importance). In comparison with Christianity, the Rabbis were not especially concerned with the messiah or claims about the messiah.

Fundamentally, the Pharisees created a form of Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to mundane activities in order to sanctify the every-day world. Moreover, this was a more democratic form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively; whose leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement. In general, the Pharisees emphasized a commitment to social justice, belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and a faith in the redemption of the Jewish nation and, ultimately, humanity. Moreover, they believed that these ends would be achieved through halakha ("the way"), a corpus of laws derived from a close reading of sacred texts. This belief entailed both a a commitment to relate religion to ordinary concerns and daily life, and a commitment to study and scholarly debate.

The commitment to relate religion to daily life through the law has led some to infer that the Pharisees were more legalistic than other sects in the Second Temple Era. This is not true -- the Saducees interpreted the Torah literally, and the Essenes governed themselves through elaborate rules and regulations (Josephus does claim that the Pharisees were the "strictest" observers of the law, but he likely meant "most accurate"). It is more accurate to say they were legalistic in a different way. In some cases Pharisaic values led to an extension of the law -- for example, the Torah requires priests to bathe themselves before entering the Temple. The Pharisees washed themselves before Sabbath and festival meals (in effect, making these holidays "temples in time"), and, eventually, before all meals. Although this seems burdensome compared to the practices of other sects, in other cases, Pharisaic law was less strict. For example, Biblical law prohibits Jews from carrying objects out of their houses on the Sabbath. This law prevented Jews from carrying cooked dishes to the homes of friends for festive meals. The Pharisees decided that adjacent houses connected by lintels or fences symbolically constitute one house, so that people could carry objects from building to building.

During the Second Temple era, when Jews were divided into sects, Pharisees did not insist that all Jews follow their rules; each sect had its own interpretation of the law. Each sect claimed a monopoly on the truth, and discouraged marriage between members of different sects. Members of different sects did, however, argue with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these sectarian divisions ended. The Rabbis avoided the term "Pharisee," perhaps because it was a term more often used by non-Pharisees, but also because the term was explicitly sectarian. The Rabbis claimed leadership over all Jews, and added to the Amidah the birkat haMinim, a prayer which in part exclaims, "Praised are You O Lord, who breaks enemies and defeats the arrogant," and which is understood as a rejection of sectarians and sectarianism. This shift by no means resolved conflicts over the interpretation of the Torah; rather, it relocated debates between sects to debates within Rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisaic commitment to scholarly debate as a value in and of itself, rather than merely a byproduct of sectarianism, emerged as a defining feature of Judaism. This tradition of study and debate reached its fullest expression in the development of the Talmudim, elaborations of the Mishnah and records of Rabbinic debates and discussions, compiled around 400 CE in Palestine and around 500 CE in Babylon.

Pharisaic wisdom was compiled in one book of the Mishna, Pirke Avot. The Pharisaic attitude is perhaps best exemplified by a story about Hillel the Elder, who lived at the end of the 1st century BCE. A man once challenged the sage to explain the law while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."

"Pharisees" and Christianity

One sign of the Pharisaic emphasis on debate and differences of opinion is that the Mishnah and Talmud mark different generations of scholars in terms of different pairs of contending schools. Around the time of Jesus' birth, the two major schools were those of Hillel and Shammai. After Hillel died in 20 CE, Shammai assumed the office of president of the Sanhedrin until he died in 30 CE. Followers of these two sages dominated scholarly debate over the following decades (although the Talmud records the arguments and positions of the school of Shammai, the teachings of the school of Hillel were ultimately taken as authoritative).

In the 4th century CE, Christians canonized a "New Testament" consisting of texts written between 60 CE and about 150 CE, which spell out a "new covenant" and provides the case for its basis in the Bible. In the "New Testament" the ruling Pharisees of his time (the house of Shammai) are often represented as being the ideological foes of Jesus.

An important binary in the New Testament is the opposition between law and love. Accordingly, the New Testament presents the Pharisees as obsessed with man-made rules (especially concerning purity) whereas Jesus is more concerned with Godís love; the Pharisees scorn sinners whereas Jesus seeks them out. Because of the New Testament's frequent depictions of Pharisees as self-righteous rule-followers, and because most scholars agree that the gospels place the blame for Jesus' crucifixion on a large faction of Pharisees, the word "pharisee" (and its derivatives: "pharisaical", etc.) has come into semi-common usage in English to describe a hypocritical and arrogant person who places the letter of the law above its spirit. Jews today, who ascribe to Pharisaic Judaism, typically find this insulting if not anti-Semitic.

Many non-Christians object that the four Gospels, the scriptures of a religion seeking to separate from Judaism, are likely a very biased source concerning the conduct of the Pharisees. Some have argued that Jesus was himself a Pharisee, and that his arguments with Pharisees is a sign of inclusion rather than fundamental conflict (disputation is the dominant narrative mode in the Talmud). Jesus' emphasis on loving one's neighbor, for example, echoes the teaching of the school of Hillel (Jesus' views of divorce, however, are closer to those of the school of Shammai). Others have argued that the portrait of the Pharisees in the New Testament is an anachronistic caricature. For example, when Jesus declares the sins of a paralytic man forgiven, the New Testament has the Pharisees criticizing Jesus' blasphemy. But Jewish sources from the time commonly associate illness with sin and healing with forgiveness, and there is no actual Rabbinic source that questions or criticizes this practice. Although the New Testament presents the Pharisees as obsessed with avoiding impurity, Rabbinic texts reveal that the Pharisees were concerned merely with offering means for removing impurities, so that a person could again participate in the community. According to the New Testament, Pharisees wanted to punish Jesus for healing a man's withered hand on the Sabbath, but there is no Rabbinic rule according to which Jesus had violated the Sabbath. According to the New Testament the Pharisees objected to Jesus's mission to outcast groups such as beggars and tax-collectors, but Rabbinic texts actually emphasize the availability of forgiveness to all. Indeed, much of Jesus' teaching is consistent with that of the Pharisees. Some scholars believe that those passages of the New Testament that present a caricature of the Pharisees were not written during Jesus' lifetime but rather sometime after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, at a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah. At this time Christians sought most new converts from among the gentiles. They thus presented a story of Jesus that was more sympathetic to Romans than to Jews. Moreover, it was only after 70 CE that the Phariseeism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism. For Christian leaders at this time to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Old Testament Covenant, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism.