Bible Background: The Pharisees

Who were Christ’s most vocal opponents?  Why did they oppose Him?  What made them tick?  Were they really as bad as they seemed?

Throughout the gospels, we read about different people groups that played a significant role in the land of Palestine during the first century.  These people influenced the culture in which Christ ministered, and He tailored His messages in order to both reach and respond to these groups.  Learning more about these people can add greater detail and deeper understanding to our study of the gospels.  What follows is a thumbnail sketch of the first of these groups–the Pharisees.


  • The Pharisees were an important Jewish party during the late inter-testamental and New Testament periods.
  • The Pharisees numbered close to 6000 and lived throughout Palestine.
  • There is debate over the origin of the term “Pharisee.”  Some contend that the term is derived from the Hebrew perusim, meaning “separatist.”  Others argue that the term is more accurately taken from the Hebrew parosim, meaning “specifiers.”
  • The Pharisees are thought to have descended from the Hasidim, a group of faithful Jews connected to the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids during the inter-testamental period.
  • The Pharisees were the strictest sect of Judaism.  They were known for their piety and careful attention to the oral laws.
  • According to Josephus, the Pharisees were regarded as the most accurate interpreters of the Law.
  • The Pharisees were aggressive in promoting their views and attracting adherents to their teachings.
  • The Pharisees established a strong base of popular support among the masses.  This served as the foundation for their influence, which was centered in the synagogues.
  • Though not primarily focused on political issues, the Pharisees voiced their opinions in the political arena and participated in the Sanhedrin.
  • The Pharisees tended to be educated and sought to advance their interests through involvement in councils and coalitions.

Doctrinal/Political Beliefs

  • While all religious sects amongst the Jews of the New Testament period were zealous for the law, the Pharisees attached particular significance to the keeping of the oral law as contrasted with the written law.
  • The Pharisees opposed the Sadducees on a number of doctrinal and political issues.  Perhaps the most significant dispute resulted from the Pharisees exalted view of the oral laws.
  • The Pharisees viewed the supplemental and explanatory materials of the oral tradition (which developed and grew during the exilic and post-exilic periods) as having the same degree of inspiration and authority as the Torah.
  • They believed that by arduously observing the innumerable and exacting injunctions of the oral law, they protected themselves from any possible violation of God’s written law.  This resulted in meticulous concern over legal minutia.
  • Despite their rigid legalism in regard to the oral traditions, not all Pharisees held to a conservative interpretation of the Torah.  Among the Pharisees, there existed both conservative and liberal schools of interpretation. Some scholars contend that a number of the questions posed to Jesus by the Pharisees were the result of a dispute between these two interpretive schools.
  • The Pharisees anticipated the promised Messiah and the kingdom of righteousness He would inaugurate.
  • While the Pharisees believed in the sovereignty of God, they considered man accountable for his actions.
  • The Pharisees embraced an elaborate hierarchy of angels and demons.
  • The Pharisees held that the soul of an individual exists eternally.
  • The Pharisees taught that only the righteous man would be resurrected and that sinners would be damned to eternal punishment.
  • The Pharisees believed in the equality of men and opposed the political rule of an aristocratic class of elites.

Response to Christ

  • In its initial stages, Christ’s ministry gained little more than the passing interest of the Pharisees.
  • As the Pharisees learned more of Christ’s Messianic claims, their opposition toward Him grew in its intensity.
  • The Pharisees rejected Christ’s ministry because His claims of Messiahship were so central to His message.
  • Christ criticized the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He castigated them for focusing on outward displays of righteousness while ignoring their inward corruption (Matthew 23:25-28) for giving special attention to the traditions of men while rejecting the commandments of God (Mark 7:9; Matthew 15:3), and for their prideful stance in regard to their own righteousness (Luke 18:9-12).  These charges angered the Pharisees and motivated, in part, their plans to destroy Him.
  • The Pharisees denounced Jesus for his association with sinners (Mark 2:16), for His failure to observe the accepted practices for fasting (2:18), for His violation of the Sabbath traditions (2:24, 3:2), for His teachings on divorce (10:2-9), etc.
  • The Pharisees rejected both lines of evidence that testified to Christ’s Messiahship (His words and His work), attributing His miracles to the power of Beelzebub.  As the leaders of the nation, their rejection represented the nation’s denial of Christ as its rightful King (Matthew 12:22-32).

Resources for Further Study

  1. Green, J., McKnight, S., and Marshall, I.H. (eds.) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downsers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1992)
  2. Tenney, Merrill C.  New Testament Times (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1965)
  3. Tenney, Merrill C.  The Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1975)
Trey Garner
Trey Garner is the Pastor of Children's Ministries at Faith Church. He has been married to his wife Deb since 2001. They have two children named Noah and Lauren. Originally from Texas, Trey appreciates barnwood, armadillos, and Blue Bell Ice Cream.