What you never knew about the Pharisees


The world of Jesus and the apostles


To interpret the New Testament, it is essential that one have an understanding of the world of the founders of Christianity. Because it has lacked this, the Christian church has misunderstood much of the New Testament, and arrived at several incorrect assumptions including:


Jesus and the apostles were rejecting Judaism and its Law, and starting an entirely new religion.

Paul was anti-Semitic.

All “Jews” and “Pharisees” persecuted and crucified Jesus.

The Jews have rejected their Messiah, so the Christian church has replaced Israel in God’s plan.


All of these commonly held beliefs within Christianity are either untrue, or at best partially true. To address them properly, we must first go back to the time of Christ and take a look at the world Jesus and the apostles lived in.


In the years before the rise of Rome, the Jews, after centuries of captivity, finally won their freedom from a tyrannical Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes, one of the greatest despots of the ancient world. (You can read about this struggle if you get a Catholic Bible and go to the books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees.) The belief among the Jews was that God had punished Israel by delivering it into the hands of occupying nations for its failure to follow the Law of Moses. Now, with their freedom finally won, some key leaders of the Jews resolved that they would never again come under bondage from their rebellion, and so they determined they would follow God and honor His commandments so that Israel would know His blessings rather than His curses and punishments. In its zeal to observe the commandments, the nation gave birth to several fanatical groups dedicated to promoting holiness. At the forefront of this movement was a group that came to be known to us as...


The Pharisees


The word Pharisee means “pure,” or “separated,” and was an apt term for this group of ultra-Orthodox men who distanced themselves from the unrighteous while they established many extraneous commandments in connection with their pursuit of holiness. In the time of Jesus, there were several thousand Pharisees in Israel led by two main schools of philosophy:


The School of Shammai. It is difficult for us, in our culture, to comprehend the structure of the theocratic government of Israel in the time of Christ. But the most important group in Israel was the Pharisees who sat under the teachings of a rabbi named Shammai, who founded his school shortly before Jesus was born. The closest example in our world to understanding them would be to equate them with Mullah Omar and the Taliban, for they were ultra-conservative religious fundamentalists with a pathological devotion to obeying hosts of man-made traditions and commandments. Most believed, among other things, that the Hebrew descendants of Abraham were the only people beloved of God, and that no other people were of value in His sight. Salvation was thus only available to Jews--and so, in their early days, the Shammaiites wouldn’t even welcome Gentile converts to Judaism.


This attitude caused Pharisees from the school of Shammai to hate all Gentiles, and left them with little regard even for Jews who didn’t follow them. (In one case, nearly attacking the sage Hillel for bringing a sacrifice to the Temple on a day they disapproved of.) In the days of Shammai, so passionate was their hatred of Gentiles that around 10 AD, Shammai passed 18 edicts specifically meant to force separation between Jews and Gentiles. The specifics of all these edicts have been lost, but among them was a prohibition of entering the house of a Gentile lest a Jew thereby become defiled, and even eating with or purchasing food from a Gentile was forbidden.


Because of Shammai’s influence, these edicts became laws of Israel. Thus, when you read, for instance, of Peter being criticized for entering the house of a Gentile and eating with him, this criticism traces itself to the edicts passed by this school, which were apparently being followed by the Christian Jews in the earliest days of the church.


The school of Shammai, which was politically proactive, also had close ties to the infamous zealots, a group of fanatics who favored armed revolt against Rome. It’s critical for you to note that virtually every time you see Jesus or the apostles in strife against what the Bible labels as “Pharisees,” it is almost certainly referring to Pharisees or ex-Pharisees from the School of Shammai. Even before he became a Christian, Paul would have had many differences with his fellow Pharisees from this school, which would be the dominant influence in Judaism until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.


Of lesser influence in Israel was...


The School of Hillel. The school of Hillel was far more liberal, and its founder was renowned for placing people and justice at the heart of Judaism, whereas Shammai stressed strict observance of religious laws.*


* To give one example of just how legalistic Shammai was, Jewish history records that when his daughter-in-law gave birth to a son during Sukkot--when the people built tabernacles to stay in for that Festival--Shammai tore the roof off the daughter-in-law's room, and had the bed covered over with boughs so his newborn grandson wouldn't be in technical violation of a commandment! In another incident, he even had to be shamed by his fellow rabbis into allowing a hungry child to be fed during a period when the Jews were required to fast.


While Hillel’s followers acknowledged that the Jews were God’s special people, they willingly accepted Gentile converts to Judaism in the belief that the God of Abraham allowed all to worship Him who would turn from idolatry. When you read about Hellenistic Jews--or about Jews with Greek names--this was the school whose rabbis would typically have accepted these Gentiles into the Jewish faith. (This school, however, was not specifically a Hellenistic movement.)


Soon after the time when Jesus, at age 12, was in the Temple astonishing the priests with his wisdom, Hillel (with whom Jesus may have been interacting) died and was eventually succeeded by his grandson Gamaliel, who was Paul’s tutor. Modern-day Judaism traces its roots to the teachings promoted by the followers of Hillel who survived the destruction of Jerusalem and began codifying their teachings around 200 AD.


Hillel was so wise that even two sayings we commonly attribute to Jesus were supposedly coined by Hillel before his death, and were being quoted by Jesus in the Gospels. These were the Golden Rule, along with the summary of the Law and the prophets (Love God with all of your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself). Whenever you see Jesus interacting positively** with the Pharisees (for instance, with Nicodemus or the rich young ruler), he is probably interacting with Pharisees from the school of Hillel.


A good example of the differences between Hillel and Shammai can be seen in the many cases where “the Pharisees” watch Jesus to see if He will heal someone on the Sabbath. We can reasonably surmise that these are Shammaiites by the fact that the school of Shammai viewed attending to a sick person on the Sabbath as work, while the school of Hillel viewed this as a good deed that was permissible on the Sabbath.


Another example of the struggle over Jesus between both schools is seen in John 9:16: “Therefore said some of the Pharisees (probably from the school of Shammai) This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day. Others (probably from the school of Hillel) said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them.


On the one hand, you can see the school of Shammai rejecting Jesus outright while Pharisees from the school of Hillel aren’t sure. This also helps illustrate the philosophical differences between the two schools, with the Shammaiites holding to a legalistic requirement that absolute rest must be observed on the Sabbath, while the Hillelites are open to the idea that healing is a good deed, and thus permissible on the Sabbath.


In another case, Matthew 19:3 clearly shows Pharisees from the school of Hillel ‘testing’ Jesus on the question of divorce, which they allowed for almost any reason. Despite knowing this group is specifically trying to trick Him, Jesus avoids the tongue-lashing He delivers to Shammaiites in chapter 12 (calling those Pharisees a “generation of vipers”) and merely answers the question.


** This is not to say that the school of Hillel was without problems. Among them was the fact that the Pharisees could not divorce themselves from the idea that they were righteous men because, in their view, they followed God's commandments--some sincerely, some hypocritically. This caused them initially to reject the ministry of John the Baptist, and by this to ultimately be removed from the plan God had for them even before they rejected Christ (Luke 7:30). Hillel, for all his good qualities, also expressed the view that only the sages who followed the commandments were the true people of God, but where he and Shammai would have differed is that Shammai would have held the sinful masses in contempt, while Hillel would have hoped they could have been encouraged to embrace righteousness.


The Pharisees also favored the rich over the poor because of the prevailing attitude that poverty was a sign of the curse of God, while prosperity was believed to show the approval of God on one's life. (This, despite the fact that Hillel was himself a relatively poor man.)


The attitude sometimes carried over into the Sanhedrin's legislative abilities, and so the Pharisees were known on occasion to abuse the right given them under the Law of Moses to enact laws clarifying points that the greater Law did not directly address. This had the effect, in some cases, of subverting the principles of the Law to favor those of wealth and power, something Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. An example is Hillel's institution of the prosbul, which overturned the requirement of debts being forgiven or property having to be returned to its original owner during Sabbath years. Hillel's well-meant intention was to help the less fortunate who were finding that their fellow Jews would not loan money to them as a Sabbath year approached, and the thought was that by exempting certain transactions from being canceled upon arrival of such a year, needy Jews would have a greater chance at receiving help. The foreseeable result, of course, was that some who got into debt never found a way out, and were kept in bondage to the lender, or else their land effectively passed to the creditor, despite the fact that the Torah forbade it.


Shammai, meanwhile, went even further in favoring the wealthy, holding the view that only the rich should be taught the Scriptures, saying: "Don't instruct a man unless he is wise, meek, and the son of wealthy parents." (Babylonian Talmud supplement Aboth de R. Nathan A3.)


While Jesus was frustrated over the Pharisees’ conscious denial that they were sinners because of their perceived obedience to the commandments, philosophically He and the school of Hillel did have much in common, just as an evangelical Christian might relate in many ways to a conservative politician, although there might still be major differences between them. Paul, it must be remembered, was from the school of Hillel and rabidly anti-Christian. Gamaliel, in contrast, appeared to be somewhat tolerant of the Movement, and the fact that Paul relates that he sought out the High Priest for the authority to persecute Christians rather than his own tutor, who headed the Sanhedrin, may suggest there was disagreement between Paul and Gamaliel on how to handle the followers of Christ. However, since Jesus got on well with some key members of the school of Hillel, coupled with the fact that He twice quotes Hillel, He must have found some good in the school, unlike that of Shammai which He regularly opposed.


Despite this, the Gospels show that the school of Hillel as a whole ultimately rejected Christ, although this appears to have been motivated by the fact that He laid too many theological bombshells on them by claiming to be God in the flesh, and so--perhaps reluctantly--the key members of the school of Hillel rejected Him because they just couldn’t make the transition in thought from a rabbinic to a Christian understanding of what the Messiah would be. In contrast, the school of Shammai simply rejected Him out of spite and bitterness.


Now as the years passed, Israel was again brought under subjection to its enemies--this time Rome--and the response in the minds of many of the Pharisees was to presume that this was God’s punishment for Israel’s failure once again at obeying the commandments with enough zeal. Thus, they became even more fanatical at keeping the Law, formulating hosts of rules and regulations created with the intention of regulating every aspect of Jewish life in the belief that this would guarantee their obedience to the commandments and either result in God’s freeing the nation or else sending the promised Messiah who would deliver the nation from bondage. Thus, the Pharisees in many ways became the Thought Police of Israel, forcing the ordinary citizens to observe their customs so that Israel would regain its independence.


While they had no direct oversight of the Temple, the Pharisees controlled the synagogues, and this was the base of their power.


Now someone might say: “Well, I believe the Bible as written, and you seem to make a distinction between these two groups while it doesn’t, so I think they were all bad!”

I have no problem with someone who takes the Bible at face value. My point is not to say that the Bible offers untruths about the Pharisees, but that a surface reading of what it says paints a distorted picture if one doesn’t know the full background of the times.


We can prove this by the case of Pontius Pilate. If all we had was the Gospels to go by, the picture we would probably draw from him was that he was basically an honorable ruler who sincerely made every attempt to keep an innocent man from being crucified. The truth is, non-Biblical history shows he was a despot so extreme in his cruelties that even Vitellius, the Syrian governor in authority over him, expelled him from office. (Then, after being ordered back to Rome to face charges, he committed suicide.) In the one instance we see of his life, however, the Gospels show that--probably from the influence of the Holy Spirit temporarily neutralizing any demonic influence on him so that mankind alone would be responsible for the Crucifixion--he acted in an almost compassionate manner.


After the Pharisees, there was one other important group in Israel...


The Sadducees


The Sadducees take their name from the priest Zadok who supported Solomon against Adonijah when he attempted to appoint himself King of Israel. (See the 1st chapter of 1st Chronicles.) Unlike the Pharisees, who were made up of both rabbis and influential lay people, the Sadducees were priests who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish worship. They rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees, and had a number of odd religious beliefs that included denying the reality of spirits, the Resurrection, the existence of Satan, the supernatural, miracles, and a coming Messiah. In the time of Jesus, the head of the Sadducees was the priest Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas. So influential was Annas that six of his sons or near relatives occupied the position of High Priest in the Temple during his lifetime. Annas and his cronies were effectively the local Mafia in Jerusalem, and were hated by the people for their abuses. They were so unpopular that some Jewish writings from the 1st century survive that reveal the feelings the common people had for them:


Woe is me for the house of Boethus!

Woe is me for their club!

Woe is me for the house of Hanan! (Annas)

Woe is me for their whisperings!

Woe is me for the house of Kantheras! (Caiaphas)

Woe is me for their pen!

Woe is me for the house of Ishmael!

Woe is me for their fist!

For they are the high priests;

Their sons are the treasurers;

Their sons-in-law are the temple-officers;

And their servants beat the people with clubs!


--Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 57a.


The Sadducees also had a group within them known as the Herodians, who had ties to King Herod, and sought to return the Herods to full control of the land.


While the Sadducees were few in number, their control of the Temple, along with their wealth, gave them an important position of authority within...


The Sanhedrin


The word Sanhedrin refers to a religious court. In the time of Christ, there were two Sanhedrins operating in Jerusalem, the first of which was a 23-member court run by the Sadducees that handled local affairs. Acts 5:25 shows this group and the Great Sanhedrin coming together to discuss the problem of the Christians.


Its larger counterpart, the Great Sanhedrin, was comprised of 70 elders with a president, who in the time of Jesus was Gamaliel. The Great Sanhedrin functioned much like a combination of the Senate and Supreme Court, and most of its members at the time of the Crucifixion were Pharisees from the school of Shammai.*** You will note in the Book of Acts that Gamaliel, the president of the Great Sanhedrin, encouraged tolerance of the Christians, but because he and his followers were outnumbered by Sadducees and Shammaiite Pharisees, the Great Sanhedrin ultimately elected to persecute the Christians. At the trial of Jesus before the elders of Israel, Gamaliel (and certainly Paul) may not have been in Jerusalem, although the circumstances that would have prevented this would have been extraordinary. The quorum held to try Jesus was hurriedly assembled and included almost across the board members who were either Sadducees, or else Pharisees from the school of Shammai, while possibly only Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea represented the school of Hillel. The outcome was inevitable, especially because of the threat Jesus posed to the Sadducees.


In their view, this man was an unparalleled danger standing in direct contradiction to their theology across the board. For one, he is casting out devils the Sadducees deny exist. He miraculously resurrects Lazarus just three miles from Jerusalem in the presence of numerous witnesses including hostile Pharisees, and--worst of all--he presents himself at the Temple during Passover when the city swelled to over a million Jews, and declares he is a Messiah the Sadducees deny is coming. Thus, in their own self-interest, the Sadducees, more so than the Pharisees (some of whom certainly did want Jesus dead), forced the issue of trying and slaying Jesus.


Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the Sadducees, and not the Pharisees...


Arranged with Judas to betray Christ (Matt. 26)

Set a guard at the tomb (Matt. 27)

Arrested the apostles (Acts 5)

Gave letters to Paul authorizing the persecution of the church in Damascus (Acts 9)


*** In the time of Hillel and Shammai, both men co-chaired leadership of the Great Sanhedrin, with Hillel heading the body during times of general assembly and Shammai holding the position when the body met as a court of law. If this tradition held over to the time of the Crucifixion, and if it was the Great Sanhedrin that put Christ on trial (unlikely), someone from the school of Shammai might have overseen the tribunal during the trial of Jesus without the need of Gamaliel’s presence. That, or Caiaphas may have presided over the meeting.

All three groups, despite their differences, had two things in common: they all believed that a man was declared by God to be righteous based on his obedience to the commandments, and they didn’t believe they were sinners because of their often sincere zeal in obeying those commandments.****


**** In Jewish thought there were three classes of people: The unrighteous (who were predestined for hell), the sinners (the average people who needed to come into full compliance with the commandments), and the righteous (or saints), who followed the commandments. Of these groups, only the righteous had their names written in the Book of Life. When Jesus warns that someone who calls his brother “raka” is in danger of hellfire, He is referring to someone, who, in a Calvinistic manner, labels a fellow Jew as predestined to be one of the rashim--the Unrighteous who are bound for hell and have no hope of repentance. Beyond that, this train of thought was itself flawed in that it missed the fact that all are ultimately sinners, and that the only true tzzadikim--“righteous ones”--are those who are justified by faith in Messiah apart from obeying the commandments. But this does help us understand the philosophical viewpoint of the religious leaders at the time, and how that those who would be accepted by God would have to divorce themselves from the thought that obedience to the commandments was the direct foundation of how one gained eternal life.


Pharisees in the Book of Acts


The Sadducees begin to disappear from Scripture after the Crucifixion, although they were a major supporter of persecuting the church. From the beginning of the ministry of Paul, however, most of the problems in the church trace themselves to Pharisees that had been brought up in the school of Shammai. Some of these actually converted to Christianity, and when you read in Acts about some “Pharisees which believed,” this passage speaks of those who were primarily from the school of Shammai. These Pharisees kept their philosophies and opposed Gentiles coming into the faith despite Peter’s revelation with Cornelius in Acts 10. However, they were outnumbered by other proselytes from the school of Hillel, and thus Gentiles were accepted as converts.


The biggest argument within the church during this period centered on whether the Gentile converts needed to convert to Judaism, become circumcised, and obey the Law of Moses--or whether they could be accepted by God solely by their faith in the Messiah alone, apart from keeping the Law. The conclusion by James and the other elders in the Christian Sanhedrin they formed was that the Gentiles should only observe some basic commandments and become a part of the church without need of being circumcised.


Christian Pharisees from the school of Shammai adamantly opposed this decision. In their view, Jesus was a Messiah only for the Jews, and Gentiles had no place in the church. Nor did they necessarily believe that one could be saved only by faith--for they still held to the idea that righteousness and salvation was directly tied to obeying the commandments of the Law.*****


Their solution, in protest, was to form cliques and send out representatives to the Gentile churches overseen by Paul, teaching new converts that they must become circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. This probably wasn’t done out of a sincere disagreement with Paul, but these Judaisers taught this doctrine to the Gentiles with the specific intention of causing them to become disillusioned and drop out of the church.


***** Pharisees from the school of Hillel would have had an easier time with this concept, although they too would need to change their way of thinking. Further, to get an idea of how inflammable the concept of Gentiles being allowed salvation was, read Acts chapter 22, in particular verse 22. You will notice that as Paul speaks to a hostile crowd of Jews (made up primarily of Shammaiites), they listen patiently as he declares that Jesus is the Messiah. Only when he claims that God sent him to the Gentiles does the crowd instantly explode and seek to stone him on the spot!


You can see the fruit of the actions of the Judaisers in the Book of Galatians. Paul goes absolutely ballistic over the fact that the Galatians have left the understanding of salvation through faith in order to start practicing circumcision and obeying the Law of Moses as instructed by these Shammai-taught Pharisees. He even goes so far as to wish these former Pharisees who interfered with his converts would emasculate themselves! Despite this, Paul himself never divorced himself from his Pharisee upbringing in the school of Hillel. In fact, in Acts 23:6 Paul states “I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees.” In Greek, this is written in the continuing present tense, showing that Paul is asserting he continues to be a Pharisee, not that he had once been a Pharisee! The error on the part of Christianity (and Judaism) has been in failing to realize that Paul was simultaneously moving in two different worlds: a Torah-observant Jewish world, and a non-observant Gentile world; and Paul’s writings to the latter leave some with the false impression he was teaching that Mosaic Law has no place in Christianity for anyone.


As time progressed, the church became so filled with Gentiles and with Jews who were not adherents to the teachings of Shammai that the influence of the Judaisers waned until it died out altogether, although some of these Pharisees were probably absorbed into the Ebionites, a Christian-Jewish sect that accepted Christ as Messiah but rejected the writings of Paul. They survived in Judea until Constantine.


The School of Shammai, meanwhile, took a major hit when the revolt of AD 66-70 failed, and when a “heavenly voice” in AD 70 was supposedly heard in Yavneh instructing the Jews to follow the rulings of Hillel over Shammai. Interestingly, the term Pharisee also starts disappearing as the school of Shammai itself starts diminishing to be replaced by the ascendancy of the school of Hillel.


Thus, the influence of the (Jewish) Pharisees in the church withered until it died out. Ironically, many of the Gentiles who would assume leadership of the faith would fall into the same pattern followed by their Pharisee predecessors over the centuries, creating hosts of man-made doctrines meant to force believers into compliance with religious commandments, so we Gentiles are ultimately no better than the Jews who preceded us.


Finally, the greatest tragedy has been in Christianity’s failure to realize who the true enemies of the Gospel really were, and thus Jews throughout the ages have suffered persecution by some “Christians” who were too ignorant to realize that the real enemy died out in the 1st century.

I hope this section on the Pharisees has been enlightening.

Please check page 7 for an interesting follow-up to this article.


Although this site is not specifically one written for Jews about their history, occasionally I have had some Jewish visitors. In Judaism, Hillel and Shammai are viewed somewhat akin to the way Christianity views Peter and Paul, and some Jewish visitors have questioned my rationale for portraying Shammai and his followers in the negative light that I do, and my assertion that they opposed Gentile proselytes. I thought it may be helpful to quote some portions of the Jewish Encyclopedia on the two schools, which, being an Orthodox Jewish work, will obviously not present the New testament as being accurate, but will show part of the basis for my beliefs about the Shamaiites and their legalistic attitudes, and hatred for Gentiles whom they blamed for their problems.

The Jewish Encyclopedia on the differences between the schools of Hillel and Shammai

The Hillelites were, like the founder of their school...quiet, peace loving men, accomodating themselves to circumstances and times, and being determined only upon fostering the Law and bringing man nearer to his God and to his neighbor. The Shamaiites, on the other hand, stern and unbending like the originator of their school, emulated and even succeeded his severity. To them, it seemed impossible to be sufficiently stringent in religious prohibitions.

The disciples of Hillel "the pious and gentle follower of Ezra", evinced in all their public dealings the peacefulness, gentleness and conciliatory which had distinguished their great master....The Shamaiites, on the contrary, were intensely patriotic and would not bow to foreign rule. They advocated the interdiction of any and all intercourse with those who were either Romans or in any way contributed to the furtherence of Roman power or influences.

...Their religious austerity, combined with the hatred of the heathen Romans, naturally aroused the sympathies of the fanatic league, and as the Hilelites became powerless to stem the public indignation, the Shamaiites gained the upper hand in all disputes affecting their country's oppressors.

...As the nations around Judea made common cause with the Romans, the zealots were naturally inflamed against every one of them, and therefore the Shamaiites proposed to prevent all communication betwen Jew and Gentile by prohibiting the Jews from buying any article of food or drink from their heathen neighbors. The Hilelites, still moderate in their reigious and political views, would not agree to such sharply defined exclusiveness; but when the Sanhedrin was called to consider the propriety of such measures, the Shamaiites, with the aid of the Zealots, gained the day....During the discussions that were carried on under these circumstances, many Hilelites are said to have been killed; and there and then the remainder adopted the restrictive porpositions known in the Talmud as the 18 articles. On account of the violence that attended those attachments, and because of the radicalism of the enactments themselves, the day upon which the Shamaiites thus triumphed over the Hilelites was regarded as a day of misfortune.

Graetz on Gentile proselytes and the school of Shammai

In the school of Shammai the Pharisaic principles were carried to the very extreme. It was only due to the yielding disposition of the followers of Hillel that peace was not disturbed, and that a friendly relationship existed between the two schools of such opposite views and characters. The school of Shammai were not only severe in their explanations of the laws, but entertained very stern and rigid opinions on nearly all subjects. They were particularly harsh and repellant toward proselytes to Judaism. Any heathen who came to the school of Shammai requesting to be received into the community might expect but a very cold and repellant reception. The school of Shammai cared not for proselytes....

--Graetz HISTORY OF THE JEWS vol 2


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