The 7 Kinds of Pharisees

The Pharisees in History

The Pharisees represented the predominant grass-roots religion of Judaism during the first half of the 1st century A.D. They were members of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form. They rose to national prominence during the reign of Herod the Great in 37-4 B.C. During this time, they opposed Herod to his face. They refused to take an oath of loyalty to him and the Romans. On account of this, the Jews applauded them. In the eyes of the Jews of the time, these Pharisees were seen as the “freedom fighters,” the heroes of Jewish liberation, brave men, who helped to preserve the religious integrity of the people of God. This made them to be the “people’s party.” On account of this heroism, in later history, they looked like the “Veterans of Foreign Wars.” Hence, they traced their history back to being “heroes of liberation.” Their influence was felt far beyond their numbers, for only about one in ten people in Palestine were official members of the Pharisees. Religiously, they accepted the Scriptures as God-given, and were careful Old Testament students. They kept the ceremonial laws, championed tithes, and emphasized the study of the Old Testament.

These people wanted to live pure, separated lives, separating themselves from the am hares, the “people of the land,” or the “worldly” people. They demanded radical commitment to the laws of purity and tithing. They tended to relate only to the other members of their “brotherhood.” They had regular meetings, and were organized under the leadership of a scribe. External behavior and "appearances" were important to them. Even the Jews themselves recognized their hypocrisy and false piety.

They were always recruiting for a “few good men.” Some were quite militaristic in opposition to the Romans. They had a sense of racial superiority. They were negativistic, bigoted, prejudiced and full of hate. They were literalists and were separatists. They had spies and informants. On occasions, they would even revert to murder, as in the case of Jesus. They were the “moral policemen” of society. They looked down condescendingly and censoriously on the “worldly” people. They were ritualistic, formalistic and liturgical. There was great fear in missing the regulated times of prayer.

Kinds of Pharisees

In the Jewish Talmud, there was a list of seven kinds of Pharisees. The first is the “shoulder” Pharisee, who wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them. It is not surprising that they would fast with ashes on the forehead. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you (Matthew 6:16-18). Also, in Matthew 23:4, Jesus repudiated, them in these words: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

The second is the “Wait-a-little Pharisee,” who was always procrastinating and finding an excuse for putting off a good deed. This type of Pharisee would want to wait to see how a situation played out before acting in any matter. This type of Pharisee liked the prestige brought about by being a religious leader, but didn’t like what it actually required. Jesus responded to this group in this way: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’ (Matthew 23:5-7).

The third is the “blind” (bruised or Bleeding) Pharisee, who closed his eyes to avoid looking at a woman and ran into a wall and bruised himself. This type of Pharisee was typified by the idea of him walking with his head down or turned away to avoid looking at, or bumping into women (who might be on their menstrual cycle) or other unclean folks. So, because they weren’t looking where they were going, they would end up bruised or bleeding from their avoidance of small things (cleanliness laws) – all the while forgetting the more important laws. In view of this, Jesus refers to some Pharisees as ‘blind guides’, possibly referring to this type of Pharisee. Hence, he said: “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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24)

The fourth is the Pestle or “hump-backed” Pharisee, who always walked bent over in false humility. Similar to the Blind Pharisee, the Pestle Pharisee was known for walking around with his eyes averted for the purpose of avoiding visual temptations. Avoiding temptation is one thing, but this type of Pharisee’s heart was wrong, because it was the importance of making a show of his avoidance of temptation (and piety) which was to be criticized. In response to this situation, Jesus said: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28)

The fifth is the “ever-reckoning” Pharisee, who was always counting up the number of his good deeds. He was always keeping score – trying to make sure that his good deeds always outnumbered his bad ones. He wanted this so that God would be in his debt with the attitude of God owing him something for being good. Their belief was truly one of works-based righteousness. Hence, Jesus said: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!” (Matthew 23:29-32)

The sixth is the “God-fearing” or timid Pharisee who was terribly afraid of the wrath of God. He had great reverence and respect for God, it was out of fear of punishment, he made sure to follow all of God’s commands in order avoid curses from God and, ultimately, hellfire. Unlike the previous types of Pharisees, both his belief and practice were correct, but his motivation was out of fear of God. It is possible that Jesus’ expressed woe in Matthew 23:13 is directed at this spirit of fear that then prevents others from enjoying the eternal life provided by God. Hence, Jesus said: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13)

The seventh one is the God-loving Pharisee, who was like Abraham. This type of Pharisee was considered to be the ideal – a person who obeyed God out of true love and affection for Him, as in the manner of Abraham. A minority of Pharisees were believed to have been of this type, though Pharisees from the School of Rabbi Hillel (who died just prior to Jesus’ ministry) may have comprised a majority of this type of Pharisee. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Paul (and most likely Gamaliel, as well, from both Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts) were all Pharisees who would have fit into this category.