Christ curses the Pharisees. Etching by F.A. Ludy after J.F. Overbeck, 1843.

The Pharisees were one of the three main groups within Judaism in New Testament times, of which the Sadducees and the Essenes were the others. Pharisees were the most numerous, distinguished, and popular sect among the Jews; The three principal sects are supposed to have originated about 150 years before Christ, and nothing is said of them in the Old Testament.

They derived their name from the Hebrew word pharash, which signifies “separated,” or “set apart;” because they separated themselves from the rest of the Jews to superior strictness in religious observances. They boasted that, from their accurate knowledge of religion, they were the favorites of Heaven; and thus, trusting in themselves that they were righteous, despised others, Luke 11:52; Luke 18:9; Luke 18:11 .

Most of the Pharisees came from the working classes and tried to preserve traditional Jewish practices from the corruption of foreign ideas and political ambition. The Sadducees came mainly from the wealthy upper classes. Their chief concern was not with following tradition, but with using the religious and social structures of Jewish society to gain controlling power for themselves.

Mentions in the Bible

The Pharisees were mentioned ninety-eight times in the New Testament, either collectively or as individuals, all but ten times in the Gospels.

Main Belief of The Pharisees 

Their leading tenets were the following:

  • that the world was governed by fate, or by a fixed decree of God;
  • that the souls of men were immortal, and were either eternally happy or miserable beyond the grave;
  • that the dead would be raised; that there were angels, good and bad;
  • that God was under obligation to bestow special favor on the Jews;
  • and that they were justified by their own conformity to the law.

Among the tenets inculcated by this sect, we may enumerate the following: namely, they ascribed all things to fate or providence; yet not so absolutely as to take away the free will of man; for fate does not cooperate in every action, Acts 5:38-39. They also believed in the existence of angels and spirits, and in the resurrection of the dead; Acts 23:8.


The Pharisees emphasized the responsibility to keep the law in all aspects of life, not just in temple rituals. In this the Pharisees supported the traditions that the teachers of the law (the scribes) had developed and taught. The scribes had expanded the law of Moses into a system that consisted of countless laws dealing with such matters as sabbath-keeping ( Matthew 12:1-2;  Mark 3:1-6;  Luke 13:10-14), ritual cleanliness ( Matthew 23:25;  Mark 7:1-9), fasting ( Luke 18:11-12), tithing ( Matthew 23:23) and the taking of oaths ( Matthew 23:16-22 ).

Being members of such a strict party, many of the Pharisees regarded themselves alone as being the true people of God, and kept apart from those who did not follow their beliefs and practices. The name ‘Pharisees’ meant ‘the separated ones’ ( Acts 15:5;  Acts 26:5; cf.  Galatians 2:12).

The Pharisees criticized Jesus for not keeping their laws ( Matthew 12:10-14;  Matthew 15:1-2;  John 9:16), but Jesus condemned the Pharisees for not keeping God’s law. They were more concerned with maintaining their traditions than with producing the kind of character and behavior that God’s law aimed at ( Matthew 5:20;  Matthew 15:1-10;  Matthew 23:23-26). They were concerned with outward show more than with correct attitudes of heart. They wanted to impress people more than please God ( Matthew 23:2;  Matthew 23:5;  Matthew 23:27-28).

Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees caused them to hate him. They even cooperated with the Sadducees (the priests) to get rid of him ( John 11:47-53;  John 18:3). Although the Sadducees had the chief positions in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Council that condemned Jesus), many Pharisees were Sanhedrin members. At least one of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, became a believer in Jesus ( John 3:1;  John 7:45-52;  John 19:38-40; see Sanhedrin ).

Other beliefs and practices

While lawkeeping was the Pharisees’ main concern, other distinctive beliefs added to the tension in their relationship with the Sadducees. The Pharisees, for example, believed in the continued existence of the soul after death, the resurrection of the body and the existence of angelic beings, whereas the Sadducees did not ( Matthew 22:23;  Acts 23:8).

The Pharisees’ belief in the resurrection was probably one reason for their favorable attitude to Christians in the early days of the church. They did not object to multitudes of people believing in the resurrection of Jesus. Although the Sadducees angrily opposed the Christians, the Pharisees seem to have regarded the Christians as sincerely religious Jews with orthodox beliefs and practices ( Acts 2:46-47;  Acts 4:1-2;  Acts 5:12;  Acts 5:17;  Acts 5:25-28).

Another belief of the Pharisees, also in contrast to the beliefs of the Sadducees, was that all events were under the control of God, and no person had independent right to interfere with what God had decreed. They therefore thought it wise not to oppose the Christians, lest they oppose a movement that had God’s approval ( Acts 5:34-39).

This attitude of tolerance towards Christians changed suddenly when the Pharisees understood Stephen to have spoken against the law of Moses. They turned violently against the Christians, and in fact it was a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who led the persecution ( Acts 6:13-14;  Acts 7:57-58;  Acts 8:3;  Acts 23:6).

Our Lord’s Relationship to the Pharisees

1. Pharisaic Attempts to Gain Christ over:

The attitude of the Pharisees to Jesus, to begin with, was, as had been their attitude to John, critical. They sent representatives to watch His doings and His sayings and report. They seem to have regarded it as possible that He might unite Himself with them, although, as we think, His affinities rather lay with the Essenes. Gradually their criticism became opposition. This opposition grew in intensity as He disregarded their interpretations of the Sabbatic law, ridiculed their refinements of the law of tithes and the distinctions they introduced into the validity of oaths, and denounced their insincere posing. At first there seems to have been an effort to cajole Him into compliance with their plans. If some of the Pharisees tempted Him to use language which would compromise Him with the people or with the Rom authorities, others invited Him to their tables, which was going far upon the part of a Pharisee toward one not a ḥābhēr . Even when He hung on the cross, the taunt with which they greeted Him may have had something of longing, lingering hope in it: “If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him” (  Matthew 27:42 King James Version). If He would only give them that sign, then they would acknowledge Him to be the Messiah.

2. Reasons for Pharisaic Hatred of Christ:

The opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus was intensified by another reason. They were the democratic party; their whole power lay in the reputation they had with the people for piety. our Lord denounced them as hypocrites; moreover He had secured a deeper popularity than theirs. At length when cajolery failed to win Him and astute questioning failed to destroy His popularity, they combined with their opponents, the Sadducees, against Him as against a common enemy.

3. Our Lord’s Denunciation of the Pharisees:

On the other hand, Jesus denounced the Pharisees more than He denounced any other class of the people. This seems strange when we remember that the main body of the religious people, those who looked for the Messiah, belonged to the Pharisees, and His teaching and theirs had a strong external resemblance. It was this external resemblance, united as it was with a profound spiritual difference, which made it incumbent on Jesus to mark Himself off from them. All righteousness with them was external, it lay in meats and drinks and divers washings, in tithing of mint, anise and cummin. He placed religion on a different footing, removed it into another region. With Him it was the heart that must be right with God, not merely the external actions; not only the outside of the cup and platter was to be cleansed, but the inside first of all. It is to be noted that, as observed above, the Pharisees were less antagonistic to the apostles when their Lord had left them. The after-history of Pharisaism has justified Our Lord’s condemnation.

Famous Pharisees in the Bible

Mentions of Pharisees occur in the four Gospels as well as the book of Acts, with in most (but not all) cases, the Pharisees are in conflict with either Jesus or the early Christians. Three famous Pharisees mentioned by name in the New Testament were the Sanhedrin member Nicodemus (John 3:1-15), the rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), and the apostle Paul. 

After the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70, the Sadducees and the smaller Jewish parties died out. This left the Pharisees in full control of the Jewish religion. A separate Pharisee party was no longer necessary, for Judaism as a whole now followed the Pharisee tradition.

Compile from BiblePortal Wiki