Ancient history New Testament

Were the Pharisees Bad People?

Those who seek to make Jesus look good by making the Pharisees look bad are engaging in bad history.

The Pharisees are often portrayed as bad people that serve as foils for the New Testament Jesus. Indeed, the Gospels depict them in an especially bad light. But history suggests that common narratives may be flawed—and that religious stereotypes are unfair to contemporary Jews. In this interview, Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine discusses why many historians think that the Pharisees are misunderstood.

Learn more about the Pharisees in the multidisciplinary publication edited by Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Levine.

The book cover for "The Pharisees" by Amy-Jill Levine.
The Pharisees is a multidisciplinary reevaluation of the ancient Jewish group.

Background: Creating the Jewish Annotated New Testament

My co-editor, Marc Z. Brettler (Duke University), and I are now working on the 3d edition of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT). The revised edition (based on the NRSVue translation) features new contributors and essays, including an essay specifically on the Pharisees, as well as additions to previous notes.

The work details first-century CE Jewish history, ethics, beliefs and practices, and offers glimpses of how Jews have understood the New Testament and its major figures (e.g., Jesus, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Paul, Judas Iscariot) over two millennia.

By naming and then correcting the frequent antisemitic interpretations of the New Testament texts, the JANT serves—and ideally will continue to serve—as a source for Christian preaching and teaching.

Listen to Amy-Jill Levine explain why what we don’t know about the Pharisees can hurt us.

What is the typical stereotype about Pharisees?

In much of the Christian imagination, beginning with the Gospels, the Pharisees (with a few notable exceptions) represent hypocrisy, misogynism, elitism, xenophobia, the letter of the law rather than on the Spirit, and generally everything that Christians, and by extension, everyone, does not like.

It was easier to lambaste the Pharisees.

Conversely, Jews have, since the Middle Ages, recognized the Pharisees as the predecessors of Rabbinic Judaism: The Pharisees encouraged the Jewish people to increase the sanctity of their lives and fully to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Several things made the Pharisees respected teachers for Jews:

  • Their concern for practice
  • Their flexibility in Torah interpretation
  • Their living among the people rather than retreating to the Dead Sea
  • Their reputation according to Josephus for living simply rather than ostentatiously
  • Their egalitarian rather than inherited status

Why is that stereotype wrong?

Scholars, attempting to locate the origins of the Pharisees in their name, concluded that since “Pharisee” meant “separated,” the Pharisees separated themselves from other Jews whom they regarded as impure and ignorant.

However, the etymology may not be correct. Instead, the word may instead mean “interpreters.” Nor does word-origin necessarily tell us about the group in question. Finally, our sources do not depict the Pharisees as separated from others.

To the contrary, the Gospels show them in synagogues, as hosting Jesus at dinner, and as teaching the people. When Matthew states that the Pharisees “cross sea and land to make a single proselyte” (23:15), the impression is not one of separation but of active engagement with fellow Jews to help them better to follow Torah.

Jesus tends to make Torah observance stricter.

Josephus also talks about the popularity of the Pharisees among the masses despite not being a fan. (Josephus thought people should look to the inherited roles held by priests rather than to the Pharisees.)

The Pharisees’ concern for ritual washing (see Mark 7//Matthew 15) is not unique to them. Archaeological studies of lower Galilee show extensive bathing pools (Hebrew: miqva’ot), chalk stone vessels that, unlike ceramic vessels, do not convey impurity, and other markers of Jewish identity.

How did they end up with their reputation from the Gospels?

The New Testament gives us a positive image of Pharisees, from Paul himself to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel to Gamaliel in Acts 5. But the Gospels’ placement of Pharisees as negative foils to Jesus reflects historical disagreements over such matters as:

  • Priestly privileges. The Pharisees favored extending priestly privileges to non-Priests, but Jesus did not approve.
  • Divorce. The Pharisees permitted it under certain circumstances, but Jesus rejected it.
  • Sabbath observance. The Pharisees wanted to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy (and so refrain from work), but Jesus “works” on the Sabbath by doing miraculous healings.

The Gospels, written at least a generation after the death of Jesus, recognize the Pharisees—and for John’s Gospel, all the “Jews”—as the rivals to their teachings. We can track an increase in anti-Pharisaic rhetoric as we move from Mark to Matthew to John. Scholars debate the presentation of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts as to how intense the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric is.

Pharisees disagreed among themselves.

While most Jews chose to follow the Pharisees, the Gospel message received wider welcome in the non-Jewish world. For the followers of Jesus, first Jewish and then among the nations, the Pharisees served as the major rival to their teachings even in places where there were no Pharisees.

They were the rivals because their lenient and egalitarian interpretations made sense, because they were also part of the community, because they really did practice what they preached, and because they knew very well what their tradition taught.

For many Christians, instead of taking seriously Jesus’s demands regarding monetary distribution, separating spouses in light of the immanence of the final judgment, risking capital punishment (which is what “Take up your cross” means), it was easier to lambaste the Pharisees as the more demanding.

What primary sources contradict the idea that the Pharisees were hardline nationalists?

The archaeological record shows that the Jewish people in Galilee and Judea followed practices of ritual purity. Rather than legalistic, the Pharisees were, according to the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the “seekers after smooth things”—the ones who were helping to make Torah easier to follow and so to help the people, under Roman domination, express their own distinct identity.

It is Jesus who tends to make Torah observance stricter: adding to the commandment against murder he forbids anger; adding to the commandment against adultery he forbids thinking about it.

Being intentional regarding diet and dress, observing the Sabbath, engaging in forms of worship, sanctifying daily life—concerns of the Pharisees and of the broader Jewish community—should be looked at not in terms of legal minutiae, but in terms of personal and communal spirituality, multiculturalism, resistance to Roman desires for empire-wide homogeneity. These practices helped the Jewish people to survive over two thousand years.

By debating with the Pharisees about Torah interpretation, Jesus does not remove himself from the Jewish community. To the contrary, one does not debate about something in which one has no investment.

First-century Judaism was quite diverse when it came to specific practices (e.g., handwashing) and belief (e.g., in resurrection of the dead). Jesus and his followers are part of that diversity—as were Pharisees.

How does the role of the Pharisees within the early Jesus movement complicate their portrayal as adversaries?

Paul is a Pharisee, and he never rejects his Pharisaic connections. Gamaliel (Acts 5) speaks up on behalf of Peter and John. Nicodemus, a “leader of the Pharisees,” also speaks up on behalf of Jesus, and he together with Joseph of Arimathea entombs Jesus’s corpse. Acts mentions other Pharisees who joined “the way.”

It is the Christian imagination, aided by the increasing tendency in the Gospels to lump all Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, elders, the people of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin, this generation… the Jews) into a united front against Jesus and his followers.

Why is it important to understand the Pharisees as respected teachers rather than foils for Jesus?

Aside from historical questions, study of the Pharisees is increasingly necessary because of the uptick in antisemitism. To malign the Pharisees is, whether intended or not, to malign the Jewish tradition and so Jews.

When Gospel passages about Pharisees are proclaimed to the Christian faithful in Churches on Sunday morning, readings will either inculcate or reinforce negative impressions not just of Pharisees, but also of Jews.

When little children sing in Vacation Bible School, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee, ‘cause they’re not fair you see,” the seeds of bigotry are planted.

When letters to the editor in major newspapers use “Pharisee” as a derogative term, and the papers—so careful to avoid other ethnic, racial, gendered, etc. terms—find no problem with publishing this defamation, the seeds can be seen to sprout into noxious weeds.

Thus, the study of the Pharisees is not merely a matter of historical curiosity, it addresses the increasing antisemitism harming the world today.

How much influence did the Pharisees exert over practices in the Second Temple?

Josephus, who is not a Pharisee, testifies to their influence and respect among the people. Paul presumes that the non-Jews in Philippi know something about Pharisees. And the Gospels and Acts indicate some popular influence.

However, practices and beliefs we associate with Pharisees—such as concerns for Sabbath observance and ritual washing, anticipation of resurrection of the dead, acceptance of both fate and free will—were also general Jewish practices and beliefs.

What is their relationship to the Sages (aka Rabbis) of the Mishnah?

The rabbis of rabbinic literature do not self-identify as Pharisees, but we can see some connections when we look at the concerns associated with Pharisees in the New Testament, with the opponents of the community responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the writings of Josephus, and in rabbinic literature.

While some scholars, such as Jens Schröter, see Jesus as taking a more flexible approach to the Torah (e.g., concerns for purity, diet, the Sabbath) than did the Pharisees, others, such as myself, see Jesus as offering a stricter interpretation.

For example, rather than abrogate laws concerning ritual purity, Jesus restores people to purity. Nor was purity a major issue for Jewish life: childbirth, ejaculation, menstruation, skin disease, contact with human corpses all create impurity: it is part of the life cycle.

How have Christian portrayals of the Pharisees as “hypocrites” influenced modern usage of the term?

In his address to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in May 2019, Pope Francis said:

Among Christians and in secular society, in different languages the word “Pharisee” often means “a self-righteous or hypocritical person.” For many Jews, however, the Pharisees are the founders of rabbinic Judaism and hence their own spiritual forebears… Often, over the course of time, that [negative] image has been attributed by Christians to Jews in general. … One of the most ancient and most damaging stereotypes is that of a “Pharisee,” especially when used to cast Jews in a negative light.

Pope Francis

His comments about avoiding such damaging rhetoric, both on the Vatican website and in our essay collection, have made a difference in some Catholic teaching.

How has the conversation about Pharisees changed now that there is more engagement with the idea that Jesus was a Jew?

While the idea that Jesus was a Jew has filtered into collective consciousness, I find that my Christian friends tend to add qualifications: he was a marginal Jew, he was the only Jew concerned with health care, the poor, women, gentiles, etc.

Since most Christians have not studied the history of Second-Temple Jewish practice and belief, their stating that Jesus was a Jew usually has very little content to it.

Perhaps if more people understood that Jews did then, and do now, disagree on how to follow Torah, they would be able to recognize his debates with Pharisees as something normative within Jewish life rather than a rejection of it.

How did Pharisaism influence emerging Christian communities under the Pauline mission?

Paul is the apostle to the gentiles. While he is a Pharisee, he is not interested in converting his gentile readers to Judaism and so to becoming Pharisees.

But Paul shares with his gentile congregations ideas known to Pharisees, such as the belief in the one G-d and in resurrection of the dead, the importance of personal sanctity, and the centrality of the Scriptures of Israel (what Jews eventually called the Tanakh and what Christians eventually called the Old Testament) in guiding life and thought.

Were some committed to Paul’s Pharisaic worldview (as opposed to Jesus’s brand of Judaism)?

Pharisees disagreed among themselves on how to interpret Torah, as do the rabbinic sages, and as do contemporary Jews.

We Jews are not just a religion, a group held together by a common belief or creed. We are a people—the Greek term is ethnos, as in a nation or an ethnic group and— like all peoples, we have internal disagreements.

What are some insights from your book you hope will reshape perceptions of Pharisees?

Given the common negative views of Pharisees and the litany, “you might be a Pharisee if…” scholarly and popular perceptions should begin with what we know.

For example, you might be a Pharisee if:

  1. You believe in a combination of fate and free will.
  2. You believe in the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment.
  3. You reject elitism and favor voluntary groups over inherited positions.
  4. You value your traditions, but you also realize they must be reinterpreted in light of new social circumstances.
  5. You want to make it easier and more meaningful for people to engage in their traditions, and you are willing to discuss how to do so.
  6. You care about multiculturalism and maintaining group identity despite assimilationist pressures.
  7. You have been maligned over the centuries for your commitment to your tradition.
  8. You’d have dinner with Jesus.

How can religious leaders and educators ensure that the Pharisees are not used as caricatures?

Anyone who teaches about or preaches on the New Testament’s Pharisees would do well to look at (1) the JANT, (2) The Pharisees, edited by Joseph Sievers and me, and (3) in 2025, a new volume Joseph Sievers and I are writing concerning each reference to the Pharisees in the New Testament.

Here are three quick examples:

1. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

For Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, homilists can note that the Pharisee is a caricature since no one was required to tithe a tenth of everything. Nor is he, contrary to the common reading, offering a standard prayer, and comparisons to the rabbinic shelo asani are inaccurate: the shelo asani concerns not behavior (e.g., stealing, committing adultery) but status (i.e., free/enslaved, man/woman, Jew/gentile).

Homilists in traditions that have forms of intercessory prayer might note the tradition of the zechut avot, the merits of the fathers, to suggest the abundance of merits into which the tax collector might tap. Homilists might even entertain the possibility that both Pharisee and tax collector left the Temple justified [given divine mercy], with the Pharisee now charged with the moral duty of keeping the tax collector from sin, as the Levitical concern for tochekha, rebuke, demands.

2. The woman caught in adultery

Concerning the “scribes and the Pharisees” who “brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them…” (John 8:3), teachers and preachers might begin by noting that the Pharisees are not going to stone her. They are not carrying stones, and the Temple is not a place where trial and execution occur.

They might further note the Pharisaic tendency toward leniency in punishments, as Josephus comments (Antiquities 13.294), and the subsequent rabbinic attempt to abrogate the death penalty.

Good homilies should raise the moral questions: what is the community to do if members sin? How are sinners to be reconciled?

3. Luke 16:14

For a final example, Luke 16:14 states that the Pharisees are “lovers of money” (a conventional invective), and the verse contributed to stereotypes of Jews as usurers developed through Church-based usury laws. From Judas Iscariot to Shylock to Fagin to the Rothschild family to Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros, the stereotype finds new buyers in every generation.

In my classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I met students who thought that Jews ran the American slave trade, control the banks and the media, and plan to rule the world.

Homilists should note the perniciousness of stereotypes, that Jews do not own all the banks and the media, that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a Russian forgery, and so on.

Such stereotypes need to be named and corrected.

The best example I know for correcting antisemitic stereotypes is a more personal one. Picture my children in the front pew, and do not say anything that will hurt them.

And if this is not sufficient, picture me in the back pew. Christians who seek to make Jesus look good by making the Pharisees, and by extension Judaism, look bad to make Jesus look good are engaging in bad history, bad theology, and bad morality.

About the author

Amy-Jill Levine is the Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. She holds a PhD in Religion from Duke University, and is the author of numbers books, articles, and lectures about the Jewish context of the life of Jesus. Notable works include The Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Historical Jesus in Context, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, and The Pharisees.

A headshot of Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar of the New Testament and Pharisees.
Amy-Jill Levine is the co-editor of The Pharisees, a multidisciplinary approach that includes an article about misunderstanding the Pharisees.

Further reading

Misunderstanding the Pharisees resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Were the Pharisees Bad People?”

People sadly will repeat history over and over and in the end paint the enemy as their savior and the actual savior as the devil. Well, the bottom line is that it was the Pharisees that were the main cause for plotting for and delivering the savior to be crucified. Its no wonder Jesus called them sons of perdition (brood of vipers).

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