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Pharisees and Rabbinic Judaism

Although the early rabbinic sages likely emulated the Pharisees, the precise relationship between the two groups is difficult to reconstruct.

Illumination of Rabban Gamaliel from the Sarajevo Haggadah
Illumination of Rabban Gamaliel from the Sarajevo Haggadah

The relationship between the Pharisees and the later rabbis is not easy to define. Conventional wisdom says that the rabbinic movement was born of the Pharisaic sect. But the writings of the rabbis do not explicitly substantiate that connection. It takes a discerning eye to assess the nature of the historical connection between the two groups.

Since the Middle Ages, Jews and Christians generally have assumed that the first rabbis were Pharisees. That assumption is supported by a good deal of evidence. Like the Pharisees, the rabbis claimed to maintain a sacred tradition of scriptural exegesis. The Mishnah, the earliest record of the rabbinic legal tradition known as halakhah, approvingly cites select opinions ascribed to the Pharisees (m. Yadayim 4:6-8). Later rabbinic sages espoused teachings on fate, free will, and the afterlife ascribed to the Pharisees in the New Testament and by the contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. They even recalled Pharisaic personalities of the first century C.E. such as Gamaliel and his son Shimon as founders of the rabbinic discipline (m. Avot 1:16-18; see Acts 5:34-39; Josephus, Life 190-91).

While modern reader may easily draw these connections, neither the authors of the Mishnah nor their successors acknowledged that their intellectual forerunners were Pharisees. The silence of the rabbis regarding their supposed Pharisaic lineage is no less significant than the circumstantial evidence supporting it. Why might the earliest proponents of the rabbinic movement have wished to obscure their connection to Pharisees if that connection indeed existed?

Many contemporary scholars of early Judaism suggest that the earliest rabbinic sages, though once Pharisees themselves, did not wish to implicate themselves in the volatile politics of their sectarian forerunners. The Pharisees had been among those Jewish parties whose agitation against Judea’s Roman administration contributed to the outbreak of the disastrous revolt of 66-73 C.E., including the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Those who survived the war reinvented themselves as rabbis to efface their new movement’s sectarian pedigree without purging their minds of what they deemed its more valuable cultural effects. They thus chose neither to draw attention to their Pharisaic pedigrees nor to deny it.

Although our earliest surviving record of rabbinic Judaism lays no clear claim to the legacy of the Pharisees, the perception of their cultural continuity with the authors of the Mishnah is today maintained by Jews of all sorts. Traditional Jews depict the Pharisees as religious conservatives and laud their efforts to guard the Torah from popular neglect. Liberal Jews highlight the Pharisees’ willingness to augment the written Torah with innovative interpretations of its laws; for them, the Pharisees are champions of religious reform. Consequently, the diverse culture that evolved from the practices and beliefs of the ancient rabbis remains deeply indebted to their memories of the Pharisees even if the sectarian roots of their movement are difficult to trace with precision.

  • Joshua Ezra Burns

    Joshua Ezra Burns is an assistant professor in the Department of Theology at Marquette University. A specialist in classical Judaism, he is the author of The Christian Schism in Jewish History and Jewish Memory, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.