The Pharisees' Historical Role in Shaping Christianity and Judaism

As a requirement for survival, every religious group must find a source of authenticity to lend credibility to its teachings. The most common method is an appeal to history. For modern Jewish sects, mimicking the Pharisees grants a historical connection to traditional Judaism, while permitting some contemporary leeway. Although Pharisaism is scorned by many Christians, much of the latter's theology shares similarities to the earliest known writings of the former. The Babylonian captivity, the Diaspora, and the subsequent formation of this sect established a critical link between modern Jewish thought and Christian doctrine. To better understand this assertion, we will need to look at the history and development of the Pharisees. Next, we will consider an overview of Pharisaic thought before finally reviewing the foundations of Christianity.

While the word "Pharisee" is conventionally used as an insult [1], a literal translation of the name is "separatists" [2]. Scholars are uncertain whether "separatists" is derogatory -- having been coined by their adversaries -- or denotes the group's breaking away from the immorality of their day. Further, there is no written record of their origin [10]. At best, our earliest sources that mention the Pharisees come from Josephus, the New Testament, and the Rabbinic Literature -- all biased writings in their own regard [15]. Moreover, only the last two decades have witnessed an academic effort at finding the origin of the many Jewish sects.

General consensus among scholars maintains that the Pharisees surfaced during the Diaspora as a means of keeping the Jewish culture alive [15,8]. One author goes so far as to say that the theology and religion of this culture reflects psychological factors such as "suffering, exile, or massive loss" [6]. In this case, we recognize that hopelessness arose during the Babylonian captivity as Jews struggled to keep their identity. Despite the belief that the Pharisees were born under this time period, the earliest, undisputable mentioning of the sect comes from Josephus, who stated that the group gained prominence under Maccabean rule [15].

While Josephus held Pharisees in high regard [2], their contemporaries did not look upon them as favorably. The Essenes claimed that they offered false interpretations and subsequently wrote in their Dead Sea Scrolls that they spun spiders' webs of lies [21]. Jewish historian Nicolaus said that the Pharisees prided themselves too much [2]. And we have all heard of the many arguments and insults that Jesus has thrown their way. Despite these negative impressions, their doctrines became the foundations of modern Judaism [4].

At the time of 70 A.D., the Jewish community was comprised of many sects and brotherhoods [26]. After the destruction of the Second Temple, however, the Pharisees were the only group to survive through the generations. Their teachings became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism [11,15]. In fact, every modern interpretation of Judaism claims Pharisaism as its ancestor. Even the early members of Reform Judaism saw themselves as the true Pharisees of their day -- modifiers of the Law to accommodate changing needs [9]. In order to see how the Pharisees achieved such a prominent role, we need to now consider the philosophies of the group.

Realizing that Judaism should be a mobile religion that could not be tied to any particular area, the Pharisees took the Bible out of the Temple and brought it into local synagogues and people's homes [15]. They did away with the Temple cult that existed at that time and made a connection with the Lord by focusing on the individual. They produced the Mishnah and the Talmud as a means of explaining the Law [25] and stressed that divine revelation came from both the written and oral Torah [16]. One scholar states that the Pharisees, with their emphasis on the authority of both the written and oral Law, are similar to the Catholic's claim that Papal leadership is equal to biblical commandment [15]. Their philosophy eventually formed the core of most Christian teachings.

They featured prayer as an alternative to sacrifice; they believed in the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body; and they diligently studied the Torah [5,10]. They believed in an after life and taught that redemption came from faith, repentance, and good deeds [12]. Although Christianity states that salvation comes from God alone, Paul wrote, "Faith without works is dead." By adapting the Law to new situations, the Pharisees maintained a reputation of being progressive thinkers. By focusing on religious actions rather than political affiliations, they managed to keep out of trouble during times of civil strife.

As noted above, the earliest mentioning of the Pharisees came from the same time period as the Maccabean regime. While they enjoyed a brief interlude as a favored party under Queen Alexandra's rule [23], they split from the Hasmoneans during the dynasty's infighting for power [9,8]. Instead of vying for political glory, they believed in a separation of religious groups and government organizations [16]. They focused on scholarship and intellectual pursuits as their main drive [15]. Their absences from positions of secular authority would serve as a saving grace during the Roman occupation. Later, Christians would call for a separation of Church and State, while still recognizing the sanctity of government by saying, "Render unto Caesar."

One of the reasons of the Pharisees' withdrawal from politics was their obsession with purity. According to Poirier, their stress on cleanliness with inanimate objects closely resembled their views of the body [19]. Their division of cups into exterior and interior mimicked their view of the body. It is no small consequence that Jesus would divide external purity such as hand washing from internal defilements such as slander. The Pharisees took purity away from the priests and made it a responsibility of each individual [20]. They also extended cleanliness to all aspects of daily life such as eating, prayer, and reading the Torah. Ever so concerned with purity, the group maintained that people should cleanse themselves before praying. Similarly, Jesus once said that no one may make an offering to God if he has a quarrel with another person. The pharisaic teachings that were adopted by Christians extend far beyond the realm of purity. Much of the latter's doctrine is borrowed from the former's writings.

An unfortunate component of religious history has been that the word "Pharisee" has come to mean "hypocrite" [26]. The Pharisees were pious in their practices and were well respected for their observance to the Law. Their ideas led to two of the world's monotheistic religions. By sidestepping the priests so that the individual could strive for purity [20,22], the Pharisees set the tone for Martin Luther's emphasis on the priesthood of believers. Before Jesus had given the Golden Rule, Hillel -- one of Pharisaism's most influential thinkers -- summarized the Torah by saying, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man" [26]. Christian writers in the first century C.E. adapted much of their adversary's apocalyptic tradition. The Pharisees were the first to "develop innovative ways of envisioning (the) human encounter with the transcendental world" [6]. They took the Torah to be pre-existent and heavenly. Likewise, the Son of Man became transcendent. The first chapter of The Gospel of John tells of The Word that became flesh. Christians also adopted the Pharisaic penchant for proselytizing.

According to Matthew 23:15, Pharisees sent missionaries to seek Gentile converts to Judaism [10,13]. Missionaries under Hillel were very successful at winning over non- believers until Roman Christians made their activities illegal and forced Judaism to become a closed religion [14]. Despite current dogma, Jesus actually embraced many of the Pharisaic teachings; he only opposed hypocritical practices [7,3,18,24, see Matt. 6:1- 8]. According to one author, Jesus agrees with the Pharisees that "God's work in human history is happening precisely through the life and destiny of this people of Israel" [17].

Jesus not only respected the Pharisees, but several of their members supported him in kind. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were sympathizers [26, see Luke 13:31]. Even Paul, the famous writer of Christianity, had once been a Pharisee [15]. The two sides may have had disagreements, but they certainly held mutual respect for each other. A tragedy of modern religion occurred when both Jews and Christians failed to recognize their common ancestor. Through the historical development of the Pharisees and their abundant teachings, both religions have enjoyed a unique intellectual background. The real credibility for both groups will come when they accept their common beginnings.


[1] "A Bone to Pick with our GOP Pharisees." The Houston Chronicle. Apr. 8, 2002; pA22.

[2] Baumgarten, A. I. "The Name of the Pharisees." Journal of Biblical Literature. 102:3 (1983); pp411-428.

[3] Bruce F.F. (Ed.). The International Bible Commentary. Revised ed. Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan P House (1986).

[4] Cohen, Arthur and Paul Mendes-Flohr (Eds.) Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs. New York: The Free P (1987).

[5] Eckstein, Yehiel. What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism. (Waco, Tx: Word Books). 1984.

[6] Ellens, J. Harold. "Psychological Aspects of Biblical Apocalypticism." Pastoral Psychology. 51:2 (Nov. 2002); pp157-163.

[7] Ehrman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford UP (2000).

[8] Gundry, Robert. A Survery of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan P House (1994).

[9] Ilan, Tal. "The Attraction of Aristocratic Women to Pharisaism During the Second Temple Period." Harvard Theological Review. 88:1 (1995); pp1-33.

[10] "Jewish Parties in the New Testament." In Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent Butler. Nashville, Tn: Holman Bible Publishers (1991). pp791-794.

[11] Kanter, Shamai. "Pharisees." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life. 144 (Jun/Jul 2004); p6.

[12] Kass, Frederic. "Article Abets Myths About Jewish Clergy." Columbus Dispatch. Apr. 17, 1999; p17A.

[13] Kenner, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans PC (1999).

[14] Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Il (1993).

[15] Knigh, Gregory. "The Pharisees and the Sadducees: Rethinking Their Respective Outlooks on Jewish Law." Brigham University Law Review. 1993:3 (1993).

[16] Neusner, Jacob. The Pharisees. (1985).

[17] Ortberg, John. "Pharisees Are Us." Christian Century. Aug. 23, 2003; p20.

[18] Peterson, R. Dean. A Concise History of Christianity. 2nd ed. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth PC (1999).

[19] Poirier, John. "A Reply to Hyam Maccoby." Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 76 (1999); pp115-118.

[20] Regev, Eyal. "Pure Individualism: The Idea of Non-Priestly Purity in Ancient Judaism." Journal for the Study of Judaism. 31:2 (2000); pp176-202.

[21] Schiffman, Lawrence. "The Pharisees and Their Legal Traditions According to the Dead Sea Scrolls." Dead Sea Discoveries. 8:3 (2001); pp262-272.

[22] Schwartz, David. "Kingdom of Priests." In Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs. Eds. Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr. New York: The Free P (1987). pp527-534.

[23] Sievers, Joseph. "Josephus, First Maccabees, Sparta, the Three Haireseis --- And Cicero." Journal for the Study of Judaism. 32:3 (2001); pp241-251.

[24] Smedes, Lewis. "Who Are We to Judge?" Christianity Today. Oct. 1, 2001. p70.

[25] Stoutenburg, Dennis. "Book Reviews." Journal of Biblical Literature. pp376-379.

[26] Varner, William. "Jesus and the Pharisees: A Jewish Perspective." Institute of Biblical Studies (Deptford, NJ).