From a Hebrew root meaning ‘separated’; so, according to Origen and other Fathers, Pharisees were ‘those who separate themselves’. It is held, but disputed, that they were the Hasideans of 1 Macc. 2: 42; 7: 12 f. (see hasidim). They are mentioned by Josephus as one of the Jewish ‘sects’ together with Essenes and Sadducees.

Pharisees appear frequently in the NT. Paul describes himself as a former Pharisee (Phil. 3: 5) and as such observed the Law dutifully and attacked the followers of the Nazarene Jesus who were posing a challenge to his Pharisaic tenets and way of life. But Paul does not refer to Pharisees in his letters either as special opponents or as leaders of the Jewish community; it is possible that they did not live in Galatia—the area to which Paul's most polemical anti‐Jewish letter was addressed.

Much that is written in the gospels about the Pharisees reflects controversies between Church and synagogue and does not accurately represent the conditions prevailing in Palestinian society before 70 CE. Of the four gospels, it is Mark which gives the most reliable picture. In that gospel, the Pharisees are brought into the narrative only when Jesus is in Galilee or ‘beyond the Jordan’—except at Mark 12: 13. There are disputes about fasting (2: 18), Sabbath observance (2: 24), and divorce (10: 2). In Jerusalem (12: 13) Pharisees are joined with supporters of Herod Antipas and are thus shown to be a well‐connected political group who are determined to defend that kind of Jewish community which Jesus threatened and which could be outside Pharisaic control. The scribes (e.g. Mark 12: 28) were not identical with Pharisees, but because they had social control the Pharisees associated with them. Scribes were students and expositors of the Law, whereas Pharisees were concerned with people's performance of the Law.

The Pharisees of Matthew are the victims of Church/Synagogue controversy after 70 CE. They are the zealous advocates of a Judaism which contrasts with the interpretation of the Law ascribed to Jesus. Pharisees are contrasted too with the standards expected of Christian leaders in the second Christian generation. They are viciously attacked for failing to be sincere practitioners of their own religion (Matt. 23: 3) and they are unhistorically identified with the scribes (23: 13, 23, 25, 27, 29).

Luke is more careful: he distinguishes Pharisees from the scribes (Luke 11: 37 and 45). He is also rather ambivalent about Pharisees, for on the one hand there are friendly Pharisees who invite Jesus to meals (11: 37; 14: 1) and in Acts (15: 5) there are Christian Pharisees, in line with Luke's view that there is a continuity between Judaism and the Church; it is Luke who repeatedly mentions Jerusalem as the place of revelation. And as members of the Sanhedrin Pharisees are sympathetic when Paul is on trial (Acts 23: 9). On the other hand, Pharisees are rich, whereas Luke emphasizes Jesus' preference for the poor (6: 20); Pharisees preside over dinner parties, whereas Luke records Jesus' compassion for beggars who eat the scraps which fall off the table (16: 21).

The gospel of John portrays the Pharisees as constantly suspicious of Jesus; in union with the high priests they are Jesus' adversaries. They appear to be government officials and teachers of the Law. They are located in Jerusalem (John 1: 19–28) where residents of the city turn to them as bureaucrats charged with matters of public order (John 9: 13).

The evidence of Josephus, the gospels, and post‐70 CE rabbinic writings, in the light of critical scrutiny, yields an impression of Pharisees as a literate group, socially above the peasant class but below and dependent on the governing class; subordinate officials, educators, and judges. They appear in every era from the Hasmonean period until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. They could be regarded as a sect with gradualist reforming intentions, Fabian rather than revolutionary, and seeking alternatives in accordance with divine revelations. They welcomed novel beliefs such as resurrection of the dead and had a strong interest in updating laws regarding tithing, ritual purity, and Sabbath observance. They were less attracted to regulations surrounding the Temple, which was more of a Sadducean preserve.