A casual reader of the Gospels usually sees the Pharisees as Jesus' implacable enemies. After all, they often accused him of breaking the Laws of the Torah and Jesus frequently denounced them as hypocrites and worse. In John 5, we are told that they wanted to kill Him, and in chapters 8 and 10, they tried to stone Him.

However, the honorific term "Rabbi" was generally a pharisaic title, and Jesus was referred to multiple times as Rabbi. (e.g. Mark 9:5).

Additionally, at one point a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod Antipas was trying to kill him.

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31)

At least one Pharisee, namely Nicodemus, defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does? (John 7:50-51).

Joseph of Arimathea, a Sanhedrin member who was a "secret disciple" (John 19:38) was also most likely a Pharisee.

A Pharisee in Capernaum invited Jesus as a guest of honor in his home

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. (Luke 7:36)

In the 20th century interpreters began to question whether gospels' portrayal of the mutual animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees is an anachronism. Religious historians point to the fact that in Jesus time, the Pharisees held diverse opinions on most matters of Jewish law and it was only later that the rabbis began expelling Jewish Christians from synagogues. In their view, the gospels' portrayal of the Pharisees reflects the reality of a later generation.

Later, scholars such as Jacob Neusner explored the Jewish Jesus in his book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. Hyam Maccoby went even further in his book Jesus the Pharisee. In his multi-volume study of the historical Jesus A Marginal Jew, John P. Meir undertook a monumental re-evaluation of Jesus and the Jewish culture of his times.

Some scholars today thus believe that Jesus debated the Pharisees not so much as an outsider but as an active participant in arguments that the Pharisees themselves discussed, including such unresolved issues as: the paying taxes to Rome, washing hands before eating, healing on the Sabbath, when divorce is allowed, relations with Gentiles, the coming of the Messiah, and whether there will be a resurrection of the dead.

So how universal was the Pharisees' opposition to Jesus. Is it possible that Jesus himself was a type of Pharisee?

2 Answers 2


Jesus was not a Pharisee, but that didn't mean He disagreed with them on everything

Jesus' education certainly would have been influenced by Pharisaic thought, including Hillel (as exemplified by Matt. 7:12), but no, Jesus was not a Pharisee like Saul was. In fact, one of the criticisms of Jesus by His opponents was that He was a common outsider (e.g. Matt. 13:55), not a formally trained scholar.

Jesus explicitly rejected some of the oral traditions that were central to contemporary Pharisaic teaching (e.g. Mark 7:6-13).

Was there overlap between the teachings of the Pharisees and the teachings of Jesus? Of course. In the debate on the resurrection, for example, Jesus' teachings were much closer to the views of the Pharisees than the Sadducees. However, the Christian message departed sharply from Pharisaic thought in that not everyone would have to wait until the end of the world for the resurrection.

That said, and as noted in the OP, Pharisaic thought was not monolithic. The 2 major Pharisaic schools of thought in Jesus' day were Hillel & Shammai, and they had plenty of their own in-house disagreements. There evidently were some Pharisees who accepted that Jesus was their awaited Messiah, but plenty who did not.


Major branches of Judaism in the early 1st century

  1. Pharisees
  2. Sadducees
  3. Essenes
  4. Zealots

(there were other smaller groups, and subgroups, but this is a good high-level summary).

Different Gospel authors preferred different terms when referring to the Jewish leaders. John often just calls the leaders "the Jews" (which is sensible if he's writing in Ephesus), but Matthew (writing earlier, for a Jewish audience) uses far more specific terminology.

The Gospel of Matthew in particular speaks to an audience that does not need to have Jewish concepts explained to them. Bernard Orchard (see The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels? pp. 233-234) assembled a list of conspicuously Jewish features found in the Gospel of Matthew, a few of which include:

  • It makes conscious connection between the Old Testament and the New
  • Focus on the Law of Moses and temple ritual
  • The Gospel of Matthew expects it readers to be familiar with the views and customs of the groups named as the scribes, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. The author never explains who these groups are—the audience is expected to already know.

One of the principal themes of the Gospel of Matthew is that you can be a good Jew and believe in Jesus. Indeed, it goes further than that—Matthew argues that if you are a good Jew and believe the Old Testament you should believe in Jesus, because the Old Testament prophesied of Him. However, the Gospel of Matthew does not indicate that one needs to adopt the views of the Pharisees (or Sadducees, Essenes, or Zealots) in order to be a good Jew--because Jesus was teaching a message that was different from what the leaders of any of these groups were saying!

Jesus' message does not fit neatly into any of the contemporary Jewish philosophies--at times it had overlap with them--but it was a disruptive message, not a continuation of the status-quo debates (one does not generally get executed for carrying forward the status quo).


History is written by the winners

It is worth pointing out that after AD 70, only the Pharisees retained any significant power, and the Jewish records come down to us principally through them.

As a result, the quotations we have from rabbis skews towards rabbis of the Pharisaic tradition. "Rabbi" may have been a title more commonly used by the Pharisees (or it could be a bit of sampling error), but it was not exclusive to the Pharisees.

Scholars regularly seek out bias in Christian writings to a degree that they do not apply to other writings. Prior to the 19th century, the most typical approach was that the New Testament was studied as a means of understanding what happened in the past. The Tubingen school, starting especially in the 1830s, flipped that around and started using their philosophical worldview as a means of reinterpreting the past, and making the New Testament fit into their revised history.

Because the Tubingen school's philosophies have exerted such a tremendous influence on New Testament studies over the years, a large portion of scholarship takes as its default position that if a Christian source disagrees with a Jewish or pagan source, it is the Christian source that is wrong.

But as it pertains to the situation in Judea & Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew is an earlier source than Josephus, Tacitus, the Mishnah, or any other major source against which it is often compared. It is a text that historians ought to take seriously.


There are two questions asked here - What was the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees? And - Was Jesus a type of Pharisee?

Let me start with the second question, because the answer to it will help sort out the first one.

There were some similarities between Jesus' teachings and those of the Pharisees. At a few points, they were close, yet Jesus had an extraordinary knack of still challenging some aspects even of those commonly-held beliefs. Where there could appear to be a bit of overlap was in the future state of the dead, involving immortality of the soul, plus reward and retribution after death. The rabbinic schools of Shammi and Hillel might have been delighted at Jesus' exposition of the rich man and Lazarus dying and finding themselves in vastly different post-death states of awareness (Luke 16:19-31). Also, the Pharisees were champions of human equality, though Jesus outshone them in that respect (especially with his regard for women!) The Pharisees had an emphasis on ethics rather than theology, but while Jesus was utterly ethical (so that nobody could accuse him of wrong-doing - John 8:46), his theological teaching was inseparable from his ethical teaching.

Did that amount to Jesus being 'a type of Pharisee'? No more than the Pharisees' agreeing with Confucius on some points would make them Confucians!

The so-called 'Golden Rule' is found in negative form in rabbinic Judaism, but also in Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And this demonstrates my point that even where Jesus agreed with the Pharisees here, he had a unique 'take' on the principle on how to treat others. Confucius (circa 500 years before Jesus was born) said not to do to others what you would not want to have done to yourself; but Jesus turned that negative into a positive command - "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

I suggest that the uniqueness of Jesus is such that he could no more be said to be a type of Pharisee than the Pharisees could be said to be a type of Confucianist.

This leads into your main question about how Jesus and the Pharisees related to each other. The gospel accounts shows that Jesus got the Pharisees' attention from an early age (questioning the Temple 'doctors'/teachers, they being astonished at this 12-year-old's questions - Luke 2:42-49). Then, when his public ministry began, they again took note. Jesus also took note of them, and from his comments to them, it soon becomes clear that they were not relating to him as the foretold Messiah. Yes, a few individuals did, but as a group the Pharisees decided quite early on that he was a false Messiah, and so they began to oppose Jesus.

Despite the animosity between the Pharisees and other groups, they laid their differences aside in order to band together to get Jesus killed. Quite early on in his Galilean ministry, some began to plot Jesus' downfall (see Matthew 12:10 as one instance) Then, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, some Pharisees and Herodians joined to try to catch Jesus again (see Mark 12:13). When that failed, the Sadducees had a go (vss.18-27). That seemed to be a turning point, for after Jesus fielded the last question we are told, "And no man after that dared ask him any question" (Mark 12:34).

From the parallel account in Matthew, we further learn that Jesus told the crowds to do what the Pharisees said, but not to do what they did, launching seven woes against them (Matthew 22:34 - 23:36). The gloves were off. This was because the Pharisees (as a group) refused to acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah. They would not relate to him as the Son of God, proven by this:

"Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him" (Matthew 26:3-4).

The question might best be turned around and put as, "What was the relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus?" It's their attitudes that need to be examined in light of a steadfast refusal to relate to Jesus as the foretold Messiah.

  • Good answer, upvoted +1 Aug 23, 2022 at 16:48
  • 1
    @Hold To The Rod ditto for yours (done before I posted my answer).
    – Anne
    Aug 23, 2022 at 17:10

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