Who were the Pharisees?

One of the recurring main characters throughout the New testament is the group called “Pharisees“. Common misconceptions regarding this sect of Judaism has led to a lot of confusion in Christianity.  The so called “Vipers” or “Hypocrites” according to Yeshua (Hebrew name of Jesus), represent the Old Testament and God’s “so-called” archaic Laws in lots of Christian minds. If you believe that the Pharisees were the ones who kept God’s Commandments perfectly, and Yeshua came and loosened these archaic Laws, I would like to showcase some “irrefutable evidence” from the Word of God to suggest otherwise.

Let’s start by asking a few questions about the pharisees? Who were they? Were they the ones who obeyed God’s Commandments & Laws in Yeshua’s time? Did Yeshua really condemn them because they were keeping God’s Commandments? Was Yeshua getting rid of the Commandments of God along with the Pharisees who kept them?

Let’s review some facts about the pharisees first, using the Bible as our guide

  • The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism – Acts 26:5
  • The Romans had given them the power and place/authority that they held – John 11:48
  • They had power over the Synagogues – John 12:42
  • They had their own officers and guard – John 7:32; 18:3 / Mat 26:65,66
  • Some pharisees wanted to protect Yeshua – Luke 13:31
  • Some pharisees were waiting to accuse Yeshua – Luke 11:53,54
  • They had disciples of their own – Mark 2:18
  • They traveled to make disciples  – Mat 23:15
  • They did not keep God’s total Law – Mat 23:23
  • They had their own law/doctrine/teaching – Mat 16:12, Mar 7:8, John 7:51
  • Their disciples had power to cast out evil spirits – Mat 12:27
  • They had many customs/traditions like washing of hands – Mark 7:3,5, Luke 11:38
  • Paul was a pharisee – Philip 3:5, Acts 23:6; 26:5
  • There was a division amongst them about Yeshua being righteous or sinful – John 9:16
  • The 1st century church contained believers who were from this sect – Acts 15:5

Looking at the above scriptures, a few things should become clear to you:

  1. Not all Pharisees were hypocrites. Some even believed Yeshua was Messiah(Acts 15:5)
  2. Pharisees obeyed something other than God’s Law/Commandments, often called “Traditions of the elders” or “Traditions of men” (Mat 15:2,3,6/ Mar 7:3,5,8,9,13/ Gal 1:14/ 1Pet 1:18)

What proof is there to say that they did not keep God’s Commandments?
Let’s read Mat 15:1-20. The pharisees questioned why Jesus’ disciples did not eat with washed hands(Mat 15:1,2). Jesus replied by how they were breaking GOD’S LAW, by keeping the TRADITIONS OF MEN(Mat 15:3) and adding to God’s Law. This whole event revolved around the washing of Hands, and whether or not it makes you unclean(Mat 15:20). Mar 7 talks about the same event. The Pharisees asked why Jesus’ disciple are not keeping the “traditions of the elders“(Mar 7:5). They laid aside the COMMANDMENTS OF GOD to keep the TRADITIONS OF MEN(Mar 7:8,9). They broke GOD’S COMMANDMENTS because of their TRADITIONS(Mar 7:13). Paul kept these traditions before he beleived in Yeshua(Gal 1:14)

The Pharisees believed in another Law, other than the written Law of Moses, called the “Oral Law”. They believed that the “Oral Law” was passed down from Moses to Joshua, and to the Judges after them, and that the Pharisees were the keepers of this extra Law. This “Oral Law” is what was called “The Tradition of the elders” at that time, mainly because each Rabbi/Teacher of the Sect of Pharisees would teach the Oral Law to his students “Orally”, and these Teachers of the Law could add to this Law. This “Oral Law” has now been written down, and is available as a book called the “Talmud”. You can read more about the “Talmud” in any Encyclopedia. The Orthodox Jews, who you see clad in black with hats and beards, live by this “Oral Law” additionally to the “Written Law of Moses”. Even today, they do not eat unless they keep the tradition of washing the hands.(The “washing of the hands” is not in the Old Testament. It is not part of God’s Law). And their are many traditions like this, that I will not go into. If you want to learn more about the Pharisees and their traditions, I recommend that you watch this video. The Orthodox Jews could be called the Pharisees of the modern era, because they are keeping the same traditions. A Rabbi or teacher of the sect of the pharisees could make a law that would be added onto the “Oral Law”, making it a tradition or what they would call a “Law”. They believed that they had the authority to make and change Laws as they pleased, and that not even God or Prophets like Elijah could stand up against them. (I highly recommend that you watch the video linked above, to understand more about this Oral Law and who the Pharisees really were).

Did they really teach something different or in addition to God’s Commandments?
They taught doctrines of men INSTEAD OF the commandments of God (Mat 15:6,9, Mar 7:7)

But did they break and teach to break God’s Commandments?
Let us go back to Matthew 15 to see how they added to God’s Commandments.
In Mat 15:3-6 and Mar 7:10-13  Yeshua asked the Pharisees, Why do you disobey the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honor your father and mother: and, He that curses his father or mother, let him die. But you say, Whoever that says to his father or his mother, It is a gift/Corban(Meaning an Offering), by which you profit, he does not have to honor his father or his mother, he is free. In this way, you have made the commandment of God “of none effect by” your tradition. What was Yeshua trying to explain here? He said that God’s Commandment was clear. We have to honor our parents. How do you honor your parents? By taking care of them and bringing honor to them by who you are. But what were the Pharisees tradition saying? A person could tell their parents, that whatever he uses to take care of the parents, is a gift/offering to God, and not have to take care of his parents. Has God ever said that we should give offerings to Him while our parents suffer? Does giving to God free us of taking care of our parents? The Pharisees had said that the offering was more important than taking care of your own parents. This is how they broke God’s Law. By adding to it and taking away from it. Which God specifically said not to do(Deut 4:2, 12:32, Prov 30:6). This is how they made God’s Commandments “of none effect” or worthless. By putting “Traditions of Men” above “God’s Commandments”.

The main thing to understand, is that the teachings of the Pharisees, was not the Commandments of God.

Yeshua taught to obey God’s Commandments.(Mat 5:19, 19:17, Joh 12:50). He also taught His disciples to beware of the Doctrines/teachings of the Pharisees.(Mat 16:11,12)

Some think that the “Washing of hands” is in the Old Testament. And Yeshua is abolishing those Old Laws. I would ask such a person to find exactly where the “Washing of hands” is mentioned in the Old Testament before you make up your mind.

I have purposely kept the argument between Yeshua and the Pharisees about the Sabbath (Luke 6, Mat 12, Mar 2:23), out of this study. (This will be covered in a Study that is done solely on the Sabbath, in the near future) Though, I would like to point out, that just like the “washing of hands”, another one of the Laws written in the “Talmud”, the “Oral Law” of the Pharisees, is specifically how one should not even pluck corn on the Sabbath Day.

In conclusion, I hope you have adequately understood the following:
The pharisees did not adhere to God’s Commandments.
They did not represent the Old Testament or God’s Laws.
Yeshua’s arguments with the pharisees does not mean He was going against Gods’ Law.
The pharisees had a Law of their own.
They broke God’s Commandments through keeping their own Laws

Even though the objective of today’s study is not to find answers to whether Yeshua freed us from the Old Testament Laws or whether He upheld God’s Law, I would note, learning who The Pharisees were, is one of the keys to getting rid of a lot of misunderstandings about Yeshua, His Teachings & God’s Commandments.

32 thoughts on “Who were the Pharisees?

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    1. rameshdesilva Post author

      Dear Ruth,
      The Sanhedrin was made up of the sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees as seen in Acts 23:6. But it is clear that the Pharisees were the stronger of the 2, as we see the Pharisees opposing Yeshua more so than the Sadducees. Even Christ’s words confirm this.
      Joh 11:47,48 Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.
      Joh 12:42 Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue:

      Be a blessing to everyone around you!

    1. rameshdesilva Post author

      Sadly some of the same ideas have spilled over into the protestants as well. Till we move away from man-made laws towards God’s Law, we will all be covered by Isaiah’s words which Yeshua quoted “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

      1. Mike Payne

        Perhaps we are all guilty of intejecting false notion along with God’s program for salvation. We all fall short of interpreting God’s word because we’re guilting of looking at it through our own preconceived lenses–there’s a built in bias in each one of us and we must realize this–it’s very subtle. Finger pointing isn’t the anwser to this sin problem–redemption in Christ is and our personal responsibility to his call in our lives. Through his grace God redeems our defective character traits so that we might reflect more of our heavenly Father’s perfect love in us as well. He gives his children the gift of his Holy Spirit to carry out the these things because apart from our Lord we can’t carry out his commandment to properly love and forgive those who have hurt us in offenses done to us past or present. Finger pointing originated in the garden of eden and continues to this day. We can always pick apart and be critical of others-some of it correct as well, but at the end of the day we must let God be judge of our bothers and sisters who we deem to be in error because he sees the bigger pic that we can’t and is just as active in therir lives as he is in ours. We all seek to grow in his grace and imperfectly so, but his grace is sufficien because he looks upon the heart and not on merely our words. It is Christ who will make his servant stand. All of us will have to stand before Jesus in the end and give an accounting of our walk with him, but in the mean time we can share in His Kingdom here on earth together without be overtly critical of one another until the Son of Man appears. The world will know we belong to Christ or Messiah through our love working through faith in him as our ultimate goal is to glorify him in our lives and his mission together.
        Love and blessing

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