In the biblical history, certain groups and individuals stand out for their distinct roles and teachings. One such group that often emerges in the New Testament is the Pharisees. They are portrayed as influential figures in the time of Jesus, but who exactly were the Pharisees according to the Bible, and what can we learn from their portrayal in the scriptures? In this blog post, we’ll delve into the biblical understanding of the Pharisees, exploring their beliefs, actions, and how they are depicted in the New Testament.
The Origin of the Pharisees
The term “Pharisee” is derived from the Hebrew word “perushim,” which means “separated ones” or “the separated.” The Pharisees were a religious sect in ancient Judaism known for their strict adherence to the Torah (the Jewish Law) and their desire to maintain ritual purity. They emerged as a distinct group during the Second Temple period (circa 515 BCE to 70 CE) and played a significant role in Jewish society.
Pharisees and Their Teachings
The Pharisees were characterized by their dedication to upholding the laws and traditions of Judaism. They believed in the oral tradition, which included interpretations and explanations of the written Law. One of their core teachings was the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6), a concept not universally accepted among Jewish sects of the time. They were also keen on strict observance of the Sabbath, tithing, and dietary laws.
Pharisees in the New Testament
The New Testament offers several references to the Pharisees, often portraying them in a critical light. Jesus frequently engaged with them, and these interactions are recorded in the Gospels. One notable encounter is found in Matthew 23, where Jesus issues a series of “woes” against the Pharisees, criticizing their hypocrisy and outward righteousness while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness:
Matthew 23:23 (NIV): “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former.”
This passage highlights Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees’ external piety without genuine righteousness of the heart.
Lessons from the Pharisees
While the New Testament often portrays the Pharisees negatively, it’s important to recognize that not all Pharisees were the same. Some, like Nicodemus (John 3), approached Jesus with genuine curiosity and a desire to learn. However, the Pharisees as a group are a cautionary example of how religious adherence can devolve into hypocrisy and legalism.
was paul a pharisee
Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, is one of the most prominent figures in the New Testament of the Bible. He played a pivotal role in spreading the teachings of Christianity, particularly to the Gentiles. To answer the question, “Was Paul a Pharisee?” we must explore his background and transformation.
Paul was indeed a Pharisee before his conversion to Christianity. In his own words, he describes his background as a Pharisee in his letter to the Philippians:
Philippians 3:5-6 (NIV): “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
This passage emphasizes Paul’s commitment to Pharisaic traditions and his zealous adherence to the Jewish Law.
Perhaps one of the most well-known events in the New Testament is Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. This transformative experience led to his conversion from a zealous Pharisee who persecuted Christians to becoming a fervent advocate for Jesus Christ.
Acts 9:3-5 (NIV): “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.”
After this encounter, Paul’s life took a dramatic turn, and he devoted himself to preaching the Gospel of Christ.
Paul’s Christian Ministry
Following his conversion, Paul became a key figure in the early Christian church. He embarked on missionary journeys, wrote many of the New Testament epistles, and played a crucial role in formulating Christian theology. His background as a Pharisee was integral to his understanding of the Jewish Law, and he often drew upon this knowledge to explain the relationship between the Law and salvation through faith in Christ.
Paul’s transition from being a Pharisee to a Christian leader marked a profound shift in his beliefs. He began to emphasize that salvation is not achieved through strict adherence to the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ. This theological transformation is evident in his letters, where he articulates the concept of justification by faith.
Romans 3:28 (NIV): “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
In summary, while Paul started his religious journey as a Pharisee dedicated to the Jewish Law, his encounter with Christ led to a remarkable transformation. He became a central figure in the early Christian church, emphasizing faith in Christ over strict legalism. His life and writings continue to influence Christian theology and the understanding of salvation by grace through faith.
The Pharisees in the Bible were a religious group known for their strict interpretation of the Law. They played a significant role in the New Testament, where they are often critiqued for their hypocrisy. As we reflect on their portrayal, we are reminded of the importance of genuine faith, mercy, and justice in our own spiritual journeys.