UBC Community, Partners, and Alumni Publications

Pharisees OConnor, M. John-Patrick


The Pharisees are an early Jewish sect dating from the late Hellenistic period to the end of the first century CE. Our primary evidence for this group derives from the Jewish historian Josephus (d. ca 100 CE), early Christian literature, and the later Tannaitic literature. According to Josephus (War 2.8; Ant. 13.5.9; 13.10.6; 18.1.2-6), the Pharisees are one of three "philosophical sects" of the Jews, who "are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public" (War 2.8.14; trans. Whiston). The group appears to have formed sometime during the Hasmonean period (ca. 140 BCE) as an influential party among a majority of the Jewish people. As a political entity, they appear to have gained popularity in response to the Sadducees and the Hasmonean High Priest John Hyrcanus, securing political leverage under Salome Alexandra. The Gospel sources offer a polemical portrayal of the Pharisees at odds with the early Jesus movement (Matthew 23:1-39), often engaging in ritualistic dispute with Jesus and his disciples (Mark 7:1-23). In other early Christian sources, the apostle Paul identifies himself with the Pharisees (Acts 22:3; 23:6; Philippians 3:5; Galatians 1:14), and elsewhere, is depicted as actively persecuting members of the early Jesus movement (Acts 8:1-3). In these sources, a positive portrayal of the Pharisees may be found in the figure of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-42), who persuades the Sanhedrin to show mercy to followers of Jesus. The term Pharisee may derive from the Hebrew word "to separate" (perushim); however, this etymology has been recently questioned (Rivkin, "Who Were the Pharisees?"). The sectarian boundaries of the Pharisees were determined by a commitment to food and purity rituals laid out in Oral (e.g., "tradition of the fathers") and Written (e.g., the Torah) traditions. Their belief system consists of monotheism, an afterlife (of both reward and punishment), the immortality of the soul (especially in contrast to the Sadducees), and resurrection for the righteous. In the literary evidence, Pharisees are often characterized as the leading experts in interpreting the law and, according to Josephus, less stringent in rendering punitive judgement than the Sadducees.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution 4.0 International

Usage Statistics