Rise of the Pharisees Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Pharisees advocated a flexible Judaism that incorporated aspects of Hellenistic civilization and accommodated cultural changes that resulted from Palestine’s incorporation into a broader Mediterranean world.

Summary of Event

Although many older scholars associate the beginning of the Pharisees with Ezra (c. 425 b.c.e.), current scholarship more accurately places their advent in the reign of the Hasmonaean John Hyrcanus (135-104 b.c.e.). After securing independence from Syria, Hyrcanus had himself designated high priest in addition to the title of king. A group of pietists were hostile to the innovation of uniting in the person of the monarch both sacerdotal and secular functions. His control over religion was particularly objectionable since he was neither of a priestly family nor of the House of David. Hyrcanus, John Shammai Hillel Zadok John the Baptist, Saint Jesus Christ

The objectors called themselves Pharisees, derived from the Hebrew equivalent of “separatists.” Those in official religious positions who allied themselves with the government and the status quo were chiefly priests who served in the temple, members of the family of Zadok. They were called Sadducees. The Pharisees, on the positive side, sought a creative adjustment to the changes brought to Palestine by the impact of Hellenistic civilization following the conquest of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.). The Pharisees, in short, were rebelling against the old order that had prevailed in Palestine from the time of Nehemiah and the canonization of the Pentateuch, around 400 b.c.e., to the revolt of the Maccabees (167-142 b.c.e.).

The Pharisees sought to recognize second century developments both in doctrine and practice by supplementing the Scriptures or the written law with an oral law as developed by qualified teachers and rabbis. In this way, the Bible would remain a flexible book allowing its legal structure and ideological message to adapt to the changing intellectual, social, and economic needs of the times.

The Pharisees stressed newer concepts of God, the individual, and life after death. God was universalized as Lord of all peoples and all lands, an idea welcome to the many Jews outside Palestine and conducive to the conversion of Gentiles. The Pharisees placed greater emphasis on individuals and their needs by encouraging the spread of synagogue worship, where study and personal involvement supplanted the sacrifices and the impersonality of the temple. A more direct emphasis was laid on the individual through the consolatory doctrine of immortality and resurrection of the dead.

As time passed, divisions appeared within the ranks of the Pharisees. An early cleavage developed between conservatives and liberals. Although both factions agreed that piety was expressed through strict observance of both the written Law and oral tradition, Shammai stood for extreme rigor, while Hillel was more lenient and adaptable to changing conditions. Their attitudes were formalized by their students into schools which generally split on important issues.

Tightening of Roman control over Palestine about the beginning of the common era brought more diverse reactions among Pharisees. Around 6 c.e., the Pharisee Zadok joined a Galilean militant, Judah, to organize a body of intransigent patriots called Zealots, who were determined to end Roman domination by direct action.

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. 38-93 c.e.) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (written fourth century b.c.e.-first century c.e.) reveal still another kind of Pharisaism, that of the Essenes, an extreme pietistic group that lived in monastic communities. After surviving a rigorous novitiate, members practiced celibacy, held property in common, and lived in seclusion from the troubled Hasmonaeans and the Roman occupation.

Reacting differently to the unsettled times were the “apocalyptists” such as John the Baptist, who believed that a new world order was imminent. The Baptist, seeing himself the forerunner of the Messiah, summoned the people to repentance and purification by immersion in the River Jordan. His most famous initiate was the Galilean Jesus Christ, reputedly the son of a Nazareth carpenter. His claim of Messiahship and his criticism of the Pharisees as hypocritical in observing vain legalism and ritualism brought him into a fatal clash with the faction.

The Pharisaic development of Judaism through the oral tradition established a new sensitivity to change on the part of the ancient religion. From this movement emerged the main stream of Jewish life as it developed in the Mishnah and the Talmud. The approach of the Sadducees was buried forever.


The faith of the Pharisees lay in their attempt to understand God’s will, their ideas on revelation, divine justice and mercy, their prayers, ethics, and devotion to the study of Scriptures. The key to understanding the Pharisees is their theory of Torah as given in the Pentateuch. They correctly understood it not as a static, legalistic corpus tailored to a given situation, but rather as a deposit of faith which would deepen spiritual life and impart a strong sense of personal responsibility in a current process. The Pharisees may be seen as challenging the monopoly of the priests in behalf of a universal and democratic priesthood of the people; the synagogue’s prayer and study were to be open to all in preference to the temple’s sacrificial and priestly system, which centered about a faithful few.

The Pharisaic movement derived from a conflict between rural and urban Jews, a conflict that appears in all advanced civilizations. The differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees regarding the oral tradition, resurrection, angelology, and providence arose not from academic and theological conflicts but from social and economic factors—conflicts between patricians and plebeians that date back to the time of Samuel. Samuel represented the plebeians, while Saul, betraying the rural classes to which he belonged, joined the patricians. The opposed aspirations of the patricians and the plebeians eventually crystallized into the parties of the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The messages of the prophets show them as representatives of peasants’ rights which were being exploited by the patricians of Jerusalem. The Pharisees continued this prophetic strain especially in Jeremiah and 2 Isaiah but now directed it toward the urban plebeians. Proclaiming freedom to all in the cities, they were asserting, as certain prophets had asserted, equality for all social classes. The Pharisees were unique as a religious group because they achieved great influence without sacrificing their individuality or compromising their principles.

Although the Pharisees themselves limited their concerns to Israel alone, they ultimately became mentors to all humankind through their role as a determinative force in the formation of Christianity and Islam. The ideas that Paul and his fellow apostles carried to the world came from Pharisaism. The Pharisaic influence on Islam is seen as even more important. Despite the low ebb of Judaism in the seventh century c.e., there was sufficient energy left in ancient Pharisaism to kindle the spirit of the Prophet Muḥammad (c. 570-632 c.e.), and so transform ignorant idolators into ardent monotheists. Pharisaism was successful not because of its promise but because of its fulfillment of redemption from urban enslavement. Pharisaism was prophecy in action.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neusner, Jacob. The Rabbinic Traditions About the Pharisees Before 70. Boston: E. J. Brill, 1997. A meticulous compilation of literary references within rabbinic literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saldarini, Anthony J. Pharisees, Scribes, and Saducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2001. An insightful study of the role of Pharisees and Saducees in their society and their relation to other religious movements of the time. Includes indexes and a glossary of sociological terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stemberger, Günter. Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Saducees, and Essenes. Minneapolis, Minn. Fortress Press, 1995. Discusses the religious climate in Israel around the turn of the first millennium c.e., first discussing the literary sources and then establishing the teachings and history of the Pharisees and Saducees.
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Categories: History