References to the Pharisees occur widely throughout Jewish and Christian literature of the first two centuries CE. Josephus lists them as one of the main Jewish parties emerging during the Hasmonean period (War 2.8.162–63; Ant. 13.5.171–73; 18.1.11–15). The New Testament portrays them principally as opponents of Jesus and the early Christian movement (Mark 3.6; 7.1; 10.2; Matt. 23; John 11.47), although it is from their ranks that Paul comes (Phil 3.5; Acts 23.6; 26.5). Rabbinical literature contains many references to pĕrûšîm, partly as those who were opposed to the Sadducees and partly as those opposed by the sages and the rabbis.


Greek pharisaioi and Hebrew pĕrûšîm can both be loosely transliterated as “Pharisees.” The root prš in Hebrew can mean “to separate”; this may indicate that they were seen as sectarians (but by whom?) or that they sought holiness by the avoidance of what was unclean. Possibly the name was given to them by Sadducees, who thought of them as opposed to their ways.


The Pharisees' origin lie in the period of the Maccabean revolt (166–159 BCE), where we hear of the emergence of a group of Jews zealous for the Law, the Hasideans (1 Macc. 2.42), who opposed the way in which the high priests were accommodating to the intrusion of Hellenistic ways into Judaism. This renewal movement spawned not only the Pharisees but also the Essenes. It is likely that the Pharisees saw the establishment of the Hasmonean monarchy (140 BCE) as an opportunity for national renewal and the restoration of true observance of the Law. Certainly, unlike the Essenes, they remained in Jerusalem after the usurpation of the high priesthood by the Hasmoneans (152 BCE). They probably shared the popular enthusiasm for the successful campaign for Jewish independence, recorded in 1 Maccabees 14.27–49, when a great synagogue of the Jews conferred the kingship and the high priesthood on Simon. Interestingly there is no sanction for such a synagogue, or assembly, in the Pentateuch, and this may have been justified by the oral tradition of the elders that the Pharisees cultivated. The Pharisees thus have their origins in a popular movement based on scribal traditions for interpreting the Law. They legitimated the Hasmonean monarchy by allowing it to control the Temple and subsequently sought to influence the monarchy both at court and in the Sanhedrin, the council in Jerusalem that was the continuation of the great synagogue. In this they were by no means always successful, falling foul of John Hyrcanus (134–104) and Alexander Jannaeus (103–76) but being restored to favor by Salome Alexandra (76–67). As their authority at the royal court diminished they sought to influence the people through the local courts and synagogues where they enjoyed considerable success. They were not a uniform movement; over the years different schools of interpretation of the Law grew up around different teachers, notably Hillel and Shammai. After the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE) they emerged as the leaders, under Jonathan ben Zakkai, of the academy at Jamnia, which laid the foundation of rabbinic Judaism.


Central to their teaching is the belief in the twofold Law: the written and the oral Torah. What this in effect meant was the recognition of a continuing tradition of interpretation of the Law in the debates and sayings of the elders. Ultimately this would itself be written down in the Mishnah; but even then there was a continuing tradition of debate that found its documentation in the Talmud. Thus while some sources portray them as legalistic, it is perhaps fairer to say that they had a zeal for legal debate and for keeping alive the tradition of meditation and study of the Law. Importantly this also meant that they were able to relate the Laws to new areas of life not already dealt with, as well as to introduce new institutions such as the synagogues and schools.

They also seem to have been involved in the beginning of a concentration of purity rules and regulations that would subsequently play such an important part in the Mishnah and Talmud. In this way they began to relocate the center of holiness in the home and the local community. This prepared the way for the transition from a Temple state to a communal piety that could survive the destruction of the Temple.

The Pharisees also believed in the resurrection and in future rewards and punishments. They did not believe all received their just deserts in this age; only in a future age when God acted decisively to establish his rule would justice be done. This radical expectation of a new age indicates something of the revolutionary nature of the Pharisees that has often been overlooked. Once they themselves gained power, albeit in communities that were localized and that operated under the general protection of Rome, such radical hopes could be allowed to recede, although they would not disappear altogether.

See also Judaisms of the First Century CE


John Riches