Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Pharisee, meaning "separated." In N.T. times, a member of one of the major religious parties of the Jews. The party originated in the second century B.C. in protest over collaboration between some Jews and the Greek rulers. The Pharisees emphasized strict and detailed conformity with the law and the traditions. In Acts 23:6-10 there is an account of a major difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Matt. 5:20; ch. 23; Mark 2:16; Luke 7:29-30; John 11:46; 18:3; Phil. 3:4-6.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Pharisees, a group of specially observant and influential Jews, mainly in Palestine, from the second century b.c. to the first century a.d. The name is obscure. It may mean ‘separate ones’ in Hebrew, referring to their observance of ritual purity and tithing, or less probably ‘the interpreters,’ referring to their unique interpretations of biblical law. The Pharisees are described by two first-century sources, the nt and the historian Josephus, and also by rabbinic literature, which covers a broader period of time. Each literature gives a different account of the Pharisees and modern descriptions differ widely depending on which sources are accepted and how conflicts are resolved. The picture of the Pharisees derived only from the Gospels and formerly accepted as historical, that they were little more than legalists and hypocrites and were culpably blind to Jesus’ message, has largely been discredited as early Christian polemic against Jewish and rabbinic leadership. The interpretation of the Pharisees as religious liberals emanated from modern Jewish apologetics and is ill suited to antiquity. Though a comprehensive and secure description of the Pharisees eludes us, some insight can be gained from each of the ancient sources. According to Josephus: Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century who wrote for non-Jews in Greek, calls the Pharisees a ‘choice [of life]’ and a ‘philosophy.’ He gives some general characteristics of the Pharisees in contrast to the Sadducees and Essenes; he recounts some of the activities and influence of this group; and he mentions occasional influential Pharisees.

According to Josephus, the Pharisees were the group most influential with the people, were noted for their accurate and therefore authoritative interpretations of Jewish law, and had their own traditions and way of life to which they were faithful. They had a simple standard of living and cultivated harmonious relations with others. On the issue of free will, a distinguishing factor among Greek philosophies, Josephus places the Pharisees between the Essenes and Sadducees because they accepted the influence of both fate (or providence) and free will on human actions. They believed that the soul survives death and is punished or rewarded with another life. Though Josephus acknowledges the Pharisees’ prominence and even claims to be one in his Life, he criticizes their total power over Queen Alexandra (76-67 b.c.), their opposition to other rulers, and their attacks on their enemies. He often refers to their reputation as accurate interpreters of the law, without affirming it himself. Some Pharisees incited opposition to the government, though others worked with the chief priests to keep order. In the first century Josephus says they numbered six thousand.

At no time do we learn how one ‘joined’ this group and what was required to stay in it. It may have been like a Hellenistic school, teaching a way of life, or a political, social faction competing for recognition and power within Judaism, or a sect separating itself from the parent body. The Pharisees exhibited various tendencies at different times, so they probably changed over the two centuries of their existence as different persons and groups from the Pharisees exercised diverse roles in society.

In the nt: In the nt the Pharisees play the role of Jesus’ opponents and are almost always cast in a negative light, because they are presented as proponents of a way of living Jewish life that differed from Jesus’ way. They are associated with the scribes alone (in Matt. and Luke) but seldom with the elders, chief priests, and scribes, who are the leaders in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were zealous observers of the law, prominent among the people and especially concerned with ritual purity, tithing food according to ot law, and correct observance of Sabbath. These are typical sectarian interests. They were learned in the law and sometimes contrasted with the Sadducees from whom they differed especially on resurrection (Acts 23:1-8; in Mark 11:18-26 Jesus agrees with the Pharisees against the Sadducees). When Paul wishes to identify his own place in Judaism, he says he is a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5; Acts 23:6). Yet, in the Gospels the Pharisees are condemned as hypocrites (Matt. 23) because they are used as opponents of Jesus. In general, the Gospel writers, who wrote several decades after Jesus, manifest little accurate and consistent knowledge of Jewish leadership and groups from the period before the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70.

In Rabbinic Literature: Rabbinic literature, which in its present form dates from a.d. 200 and later, contains three types of data. The laws associated with the names of pre-70 Pharisees and with the schools of Shammai and Hillel, first-century Pharisaic leaders, concern ritual purity, tithing, and Sabbath observance, sectarian concerns that also surfaced in the Gospels. These laws may be accurately attributed to them, according to the contemporary scholar J. Neusner. Stories about these Pharisaic leaders present them as authoritative and dominant figures in Jewish society, religion, and politics. But since the rabbis who wrote these stories traced their lineage to the Pharisees, it is likely that they portrayed the Pharisees in their own image two or three centuries later. Another group of rabbinic texts speak of the ‘separatists’ (Heb. perushim), often presumed to be the Pharisees. But sometimes this term refers to dissidents who are clearly not Pharisees, and sometimes it refers to ascetics. In passages where the Pharisees are contrasted to Sadducees, the Pharisees are scholars who accept the written and oral law. They are the leaders who set the law for Jewish society and the judges who enforce it. Yet this portrait fits the rabbis after a.d. 70 rather than the Pharisees in the Temple period.

Though a full history and description of the Pharisees is impossible, some characteristics are probable. The Pharisees had their own traditions on how to live a life faithful to the Judaism to which they were devoted. Their internal rules were sectarian with an emphasis on ritual purity, food tithes, and Sabbath observances. They were admired by the people and functioned at least some of the time as a social and political force against foreign and hellenized Jewish leaders (i.e., those Jewish leaders who were sympathetic to Greek language and culture). Some or all were learned in the law and some were politically powerful.

Bibliography Bowker, J. Jesus and the Pharisees. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1973. Neusner, Jacob. From Politics to Piety. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Rivkin, E. The Hidden Revolution. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1978.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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