December 10, 2023
In the gospel for the 31st Sunday, Jesus takes on the Pharisees. But just what is Pharisee? The Pharisees were a religious group of Jews that arose to become more devoted to the practice of the Jewish religion. Unlike the Sadducees who came from the priestly class, the Pharisees were lay people.
GBTW: Just what is a Pharisee? Commentary for the 31st Sunday 7

Just what is a Pharisee?

In the gospel for the 31st Sunday, Jesus takes on the Pharisees. But just what is Pharisee? The Pharisees were a religious group of Jews that arose to become more devoted to the practice of the Jewish religion. Unlike the Sadducees who came from the priestly class, the Pharisees were lay people.

The Pharisees probably had their beginning during the exile when sacrificial worship was no longer possible due to the destruction of the temple. The Pharisees were more a part of what we might call a rabbinic tradition where people were taught and reflected on the Law, or the Torah.

If we could see the Pharisees arising due to the destruction of the Temple, their focus on teaching and observing the Law, we can also see the challenges for the Sadducees, a priestly class. By the time the gospels come around, we see instances where the two groups were linked, as the Temple had been rebuilt.

The Pharisees were a mix of a political and a social group. Like many organizations, there was a “scale” which described the group. At the time of Jesus, there were some who were largely unconcerned with the political state, believing they were left free to zealously practice and live out their Jewish faith. At the other extreme were those who believed that only if all of society zealously practiced the Law would their lives become truly free.

What is important to note in all instances of the Pharisees was the desire to live authentically and seriously the Jewish faith, especially that of the Law. This dedication to living out the Law comes from the societal realities at the time the Pharisees were founded. The faith was in a shambles, and there was the increasing desire of the Jews to want to be just like everyone else.

Because of this, there was the desire to fit in, and to have no practices that would cause them to stand out. This desire came both from the political leaders of the day, and at the same time from the motivation of many who simply wanted to be good citizens.

It also came at a time when the place of sacrificial worship had become impossible due to the Exile of the Jewish people to Babylon, and from the destruction of the Jewish Temple. The Pharisees arose at a time when synagogue worship was becoming more common.

Another aspect of the religion and thought of the Pharisees was the increase in a belief in a spiritual world. Pharisees accepted the existence of angels and spirits. They believed in a resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected these concepts because they only held that the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament were divinely inspired. They rejected anything that came after.

Seen in this way, the Sadducees could be seen as the more conservative and traditional of the religious parties in the time of Jesus, due to the insistence that the Torah was the only inspired text. The Pharisees, on the other hand, accepted later writings as inspired as well. (While a little simplistic, think how Sadducees thought of the Torah in the way we today might view the gospels.)

Both groups, though, would have considered the goal to live a more serious and authentic faith. It was the case there was a need for those Jews in the time of Jesus to think about what it meant to be Jewish. Both groups also saw value in the emphasis on returning to a more serious and authentic expression of Jesus. And much of the time, both groups found themselves having difficulty with Jesus and his teachings.

Sadducees and Temple Worship

The Sadducees were known for the desire to preserve Temple worship. They viewed themselves as those whose task it was to preserve tradition. The traditional beliefs and practices were essential to the understanding of the Jewish Law, and they provided an important mark of identification for those who kept the Law.

This was an important task, especially given that there were many competing influences in terms of the practices of the faith at the time of Jesus. There was a concern about just how far those who advocated a development of the faith might go.

It was also important insofar as it was connected to the covenant between God and the Chosen people. This was the ultimate promise made by God that culminated in the fulfillment brought about by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Paschal Mystery.

Pharisees and Synagogues

The Pharisees advocated some development of the Jewish faith. They considered other books of what we might call the Old Testament to also be inspired. As mentioned above, they embraced an understanding of a spiritual world that included beliefs in angels and an afterlife.

However, they also criticized Jesus for what they believed was his disregard for the Law. He healed on the Sabbath, he and his disciples picked grain on the Sabbath, and did not always follow the rituals important to observance of the Law.

The Pharisees did however, provide an understanding of worshiping God that moved from the Temple into synagogues or even homes. This became especially important after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A. D., when the Temple worship was no longer possible.

The Scribes, Elders and Chief Priests

In a way, the scribes were considered to be the official interpreters of the Law. As synagogue worship became more common, it became necessary for there to be a preservation of the religious practices and beliefs. Remember that during the time of Jesus describing the Jewish people was not easy. There were the Jews in Jerusalem, in Israel, and in what was called the diaspora, or those Jews who remained where they were living during the Exile.

The elders were those men who were considered experts in the Law and the practice of the faith. They held authority in the community, and as we encounter them in the gospels, they oppose Jesus, perhaps most especially because of the concern that his interpretations of Judaism might cause they weakening of Judaism or the leading of people away from Judaism altogether. Their existence can be seen all the way back to the time of Moses.

Looking at the Old Testament, the role of priest was limited to the tribe of Levi. Aaron was a priest, and would be considered the original chief priest. In the time of Jesus, the chief priests were probably those who kept the day to day affairs of the Temple going, and were in service to the High Priest, the one who was, as the name implies, the leader.


In thinking about the Pharisees, life is really kind of a “mixed bag.” They were zealous about the faith, and they were serious in following Yahweh. At the same time, they could be selective with the laws they emphasized, and they were fond of the privileges they enjoyed.

They do serve to help us to see that the teaching of Jesus was radical indeed, and his role as the Messiah was different than what was expected. It was not too much of a stretch to see that Jesus’ interpretation of the Law could be viewed as a radical departure from tradition.

The challenges of the Pharisees concerned losing their way. While on the one hand they were serious about keeping the Law, it could also be said they became a little selective about which aspects of the Law to keep.

They also became influential in helping the Romans to keep the peace in their most troublesome province. The desire for independence and self-rule caused a state of some tension. The Pharisees, and other religious leaders formed an uneasy partnership with the Romans. Teachers like Jesus caused the potential for unrest. So opposing teachers like Jesus were important.

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