Jesus and the Pharisees


In discussing the relationship of Jesus to the Pharisees, I have divided this work into three parts:

1. The Pharisees, their background and beliefs

2. The Pharisees' opposition to Jesus

3. The Lord Jesus's opposition to the Pharisees

The Pharisees, their background and beliefs

The Pharisees first appeared in the second century B.C. They appear to have originated from a group called the Hasidim (God's loyal ones). By about 135 B.C. they were known as Pharisees (the separated ones).

The Pharisees were the keepers of the Mosaic law (The Torah). They believed that having guardianship of this law was proof that they were God's chosen people, to whom the Messiah would come. They believed that the Messiah would be an earthly king, a son of David whom God would raise up. He would establish an earthly kingdom, freeing them from Roman rule.They also believed that in order to remain in favour with God, the keeping of the torah was essential.

In the "New Bible Dictionary", H. L. Ellison says,

"Basic to the Pharisees conception of religion was the belief that the Babylonian Exile was caused by Israel's failure to keep the Torah (The Mosaic law), and that its keeping was an individual as well as a national duty."

Because of this, the experts of the law set about "hedging" the Mosaic law with precepts so as to make its violation almost impossible. They also added to these laws and precepts, customs which had been handed down through the years. They took these precepts to such extremes that the original intent of the written law was often lost, having been made of no effect by the oral laws and traditions which they had brought in.

H. L. Ellison says,

"All these developments together with thirty one customs of immemorial usage formed the oral law."

To the Pharisee, keeping the law (both written and oral) was everything. The condition of a person's heart towards God was unimportant. Because of their strict adherence to levitical laws of purity, they kept themselves separate from gentile sinners (on whom they looked down), for fear of being defiled.

In his book "New Testament Survey", M. C. Tenney says,

"They were separatists, or Puritans of Judaism, who withdrew from all evil associations and sought to give complete obedience to every precept of the oral and written law."

The Pharisees placed great importance on Temple worship, but they had no personal relationship with God. Their worship was merely formal religious observance. This strict observance of the written and oral law (the latter often negating the former) and formal religion while paying no attention to the motives of the heart, led to self righteousness and hypocrisy. When the Pharisees met Jesus, a clash was inevitable.

The Pharisees' Opposition to Jesus

In order to understand the Pharisees' opposition to Jesus, it is necessary to see how they viewed Him from the standpoint of their beliefs.

The Messiah

The Pharisees believed in a Davidic king. They did not believe that he would be Divine. They believed that he would be ruler over Israel the Jewish nation, not a friend of Gentiles and sinners.

The Law and the Sabbath

The Pharisees were totally convinced that their laws (both written and oral) and religious observances were correct. The idea of the Messiah breaking these laws was unthinkable to them.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus violated many of their oral laws. He mixed freely with tax collectors and sinners, making Him ceremonially unclean (Luke 7:39). He ate and drank with them, and was called a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). He ate with ceremonially unclean hands (Luke 11:38). He broke their Sabbath laws by healing people, and gleaning corn to eat (Luke 13:14, Matthew 12:1-2). He forgave peoples' sins, which to the Pharisees was blasphemy (Luke 5:21). He also freely criticised the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and self righteousness (Luke 11:37-52).

In the Pharisees' eyes, Jesus was guilty of law breaking and blasphemy. The idea of Jesus criticising them was an outrage (Luke 6:11). They also saw Him as a threat to their popularity and their authority over the people (Luke 13:17). Because of this they plotted to kill Him.

Throughout His ministry they questioned Him, trying to catch Him in His answers in order to hand Him over to the Roman Governor (Luke 11:53). In the "Dictionary of the Bible", D. Eaton says,

"They put testing questions to Him, e.g. as to the way of inheriting eternal life (Luke 10:25ff), as to the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34ff, Mark 12:28ff), and as to the law of divorce (Matthew 19:3, Mark 10:2)."

The Lord Jesus’ Opposition to the Pharisees

Throughout His ministry, Jesus was openly opposed to the Pharisees. He denounced them publicly for their hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, and evil ways. The Pharisees had been entrusted with the guardianship of the Torah which was God's gift to Israel.

The law was intended to enable the Israelites to live righteous lives. But the Pharisees had corrupted the law. Disregarding any ethical considerations and being devoid of mercy, they imposed an intolerable burden of legal observance upon the common people. Life for the Jews became slavery to the legal precepts invented by the experts of the law.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being careful to appear righteous on the outside, while inside they were full of greed and wickedness. In the "Dictionary of the Bible", D. Eaton says,

"That which defiles a man is the evil condition of his own heart (Matthew 15:11ff, Mark 7:14ff). No action is of any moral worth unless it is the expression of the inward disposition."

Jesus called them blind guides who had shut the gates of heaven so that neither they nor the people could enter. He constantly attacked them for hypocrisy, calling them fools.

"But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these things ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee." (Matthew 23:13, 23:23-26)

However it must be said that not all Pharisees were hypocrites. There were some who were sincere righteous people. When Nicodemus genuinely sought the truth, Jesus gave grace and instructed him in the way of Salvation (John 3: 1-21).

In "New Testament Survey", M. C. Tenney says,

"Not all of them were hypocrites. Nicodemus, who earnestly sought out Christ during His earthly ministry and ultimately shared with Joseph of Arimathea the responsibility of burying Jesus's body was a Pharisee."

But to the self righteous, Jesus spoke in parables so that they would not understand (Matthew 13:11-15). On many occasions Jesus made reference to His Divinity, and asserted His authority over the Pharisees (John 10:33, Matthew 12:8).

Referring to their plans to kill Him, He compared them to tenants of a vineyard who wanted to kill the owner's son, in order to steal his inheritance (Matthew 21:38). Finally, knowing what the consequences would be, He declared that He was the Son of God.

This was too much for the Pharisees to bear. How could this man be the Son of God, a man who broke their Sabbath laws and ate with sinners? To their minds it was inconceivable.

"This is blasphemy!" they said.

"Crucify Him!" the people cried.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus had told them the truth.

Such was their blindness and hardness of heart that, when God came to them, they did not know Him.

Copyright © S. H. Venour 1998-2013 All rights reserved.

Jesus and the Pharisees was first published in 1990. Updated and revised for the web 1998.


Ellison H. L., New Bible Dictionary, IVP, Leicester, 1982, Second Edition

Eaton D., Dictionary of the Bible, T+T Clark, Edinburgh, 1900

Tenney M. C., New Testament Survey, IVP, Leicester, 1987

All Scripture from the Holy Bible, King James Version
reproduced by permission of the Crown's patentee,
Cambridge University Press

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