Biblical Pharisees and Jewish Halakhah

Good guys with bad press, says scholar Roland Deines

This article was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


Were the Biblical Pharisees really as bad as the New Testament makes them seem? Professor Roland Deines thinks not. Photo courtesy Roland Deines.

The common perception of Biblical Pharisees is that they are a bunch of hypocrites. They taught others to follow Jewish halakhah (law) closely and interpreted detailed rules from the scriptures, but their own practice was showy and meaningless—or at least that’s what the New Testament (especially Matthew’s gospel) would lead us to believe. Josephus, too, and even some rabbinic traditions portray the Pharisees in a negative light, according to Biblical scholar Roland Deines of the University of Nottingham (United Kingdom).

And yet, Deines says, the Biblical Pharisees were popular in the first century; they were the people’s party. Why would the people follow a bunch of hypocrites?

As Roland Deines explains in a recent BAR column, the New Testament and Josephus include polemical texts against the Pharisees rather than objective descriptions. In fact, it was the Pharisees’ take on Jewish halakhah that made them so popular.

The strict (and extensive) purity laws of Jewish halakhah made it both costly and time-consuming to follow—putting the Biblical instructions out of reach for most common people. For example, if impurity touched the outside of a pottery vessel, it needed to be broken and the contents thrown away. Instead, the Pharisees interpreted these laws in a way that made purity accessible to more people. According to the Pharisaic interpretation, the inside of the aforementioned vessel remained pure and the contents could still be used.

Although this sort of legalistic interpretation may seem like nit-picking to some, the Pharisees made purity attainable for all of Israel, not just the elite.


For more of Roland Deines’s explanation about the popularity of the Biblical Pharisees and their take on Jewish halakhah, see Roland Deines, Biblical Views: The Pharisees—Good Guys with Bad Press in the July/August 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. This Bible History Daily post was originally published in August 2013.

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As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Jewish Theology and Law
Jonathan Klawans on the divergence of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes

Schisms in Jewish History
Lawrence H. Schiffman’s four-part series on unity and disunity throughout Jewish history.

Making Sense of Kosher Laws

Josephus on the Essenes


Posted in People & Cultures in the Bible, Daily Life and Practice.

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  • Ben says

    There is another very relevant point that should be added to my response to Richard’s post. He apparently considers the Oral Torah maintained by the priests, sagely scribes, and judges of the Great Sanhedrin under Ezra and over following centuries, the Hasidim, the Pharisees, and the Rabbis, to be something inauthentically part of God’s Torah, distorting Moses’s teachings. They were “bad guys,” he says. In this, Richard attacks Jesus’s own views. (I mean the real Jesus, before his teachings were worked over by later non-Judaic editors and made into a vitrolic and hateful attack on the Pharisees, their religion and their authority.) Those are stated very publicly, clearly and firmly. “Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you [Matt. 23: 1-3].'” One must obey them in regard to the commandments, even unto the least jot and tittle of them, or be accounted least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:18-19).

    As for closing out any way to atone for sins, the Pharisees did not do that at all. Basic to the practice of the Jewish religion are the High Holydays, including Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. All Jews of that time, and all religious Jews right up to the present, observe those holy days. In them, it is constantly emphasized that God receives all sinners back into His merciful presence, if they repent (and, where they have wronged another human being, made proper restitution to the victim as stipulated in the Torah, written and oral). So no one can close that way to atone for sins. It does not depend on temple sacrifices, for example — in the synagogues of the diaspora long before the fall of the Temple, amongst those unable to go on distant pilgrimage to the Temple, repentance and prayer, and acts of charity, were already said to effect full return to the Divine Presence and love. That is reiterated in centuries of Rabbinic sayings and in the Talmud that records their teachings.

  • Ben says

    This comment is in response to the post by Richard, August 5, 2014.

    It should be understood clearly that the Pharisees, and the later Rabbis, did not create the Oral Tradition of which they were the recognized and revered authorities amongst most Jews of their day. That Oral Tradition already arose and flourished at the time of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, as the Torah itself makes clear. E.g., Moses is shown in Exod. 18 presiding over cases that were brought before him both before the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and then similarly afterwards. In these case issues were dealt with in accordance with the Torah revelation but in which the application or elaboration was left unclear for these particular persons or problems. In fact, even those without any specific complaint might well inquire concerning how to actually do a Torah commandment. E.g., we are told that one must not work on the Sabbath, but it is not clarified what qualifies as “work.” This has to be explained and was, orally. Every single commandment required such clarification before its full implications could be lived in actuality. Naturally, this was done right from the time of Sinai itself.

    The continuity of this Oral Torah (“Torah” means “Teaching”) down through the subsequent generations was ensured by Moses himself, and was ordained in the Torah. In Deut. 16:18 and especially 17:8-13, this was explicitly described as an essential institution and obedience to the teachers of the Oral Torah in each generation is stipulated as being part of the Written Torah commandments themselves.

    Following the restoration from the Babylonian Exile, Ezra established a Great Sanhedrin to continue this oral teaching and application of the Written Torah. So it persisted down through the later centuries, was sustained by the “Hasidim” who are mentioned in the Books of Maccabees, and their disciples the Pharisees of the late Second Commonwealth period.

  • tapani says

    The Pharisees brought their knowledge to use the common people. Samely Luther teached what he learned in the monastery to his time. The Bible was important compared with our time when every one thinks to be right what they do and say.

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