The Pharisees and the Rabbis: How much continuity?

Jesus and the Pharisees - An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal - Pontifical Biblical Institute

The Pharisees and the Rabbis: How much continuity?


Günter Stemberger
2019-05-08 - 11.45






For a long time it has been the almost uncontested position that the rabbis were the direct heirs of the Pharisaic movement after the destruction of the temple in 70, just under a new name. One therefore traditionally speaks of the 'Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism'. Against this view, there is only a minimal personal continuity between the two groups. Only one rabbi, Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh, is known as descendent of Pharisees: His grandfather Gamaliel (the Elder) is mentioned in Acts 22.3 as teacher of Paul; in Acts 5.34-40 this same Gamaliel is called "a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law." Simon, the father of Rabban Gamaliel, is one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem during the war against Rome, "of a very illustrious family, and of the sect of the Pharisees" (Josephus, Vita 191).

The early rabbis never call themselves Pharisees. Only very late, in the Babylonian Talmud, we find this equation, when some rabbis try to trace back their history to the times of the Temple.

But names are not everything. Is it possible to find lines of continuity in rabbinic institutions and thought? Some regard the synagogue as a typically Pharisaic institution which has been taken over by the rabbis. But there is no real evidence for Pharisaic synagogues nor can the synagogues of the later period be regarded as specifically rabbinic. Regarding prayer in the synagogue, we do not know how central it was in the early decades after 70. For many rabbinic prayers and benedictions, we can point to their antecedents, mainly on the basis of texts from Qumran, apparently not sectarian, but part of a common religious tradition, not specifically Pharisaic.

The central element in the liturgy of the synagogue is the reading of Scripture. The Masoretic text of the Torah which has become widely used in the late Second Temple period, becomes the nearly exclusive text of the rabbis; but here again we have no evidence that Pharisees were responsible for its dissemination.

Nor can rabbinic methods of interpretation of the Torah be traced back to a specifically Pharisaic tradition.

Other aspects adduced as evidence for the continuity between Pharisees and rabbis are the importance of the tradition of the fathers and the Oral Torah, or the idea of the resurrection.

Many elements of the rabbinic halakhah also have precedents in the time before 70, some of them specifically connected with the Pharisees in the gospels (purity, hand-washing, tithing). But here again it is nearly impossible to trace back such halakhot directly and exclusively to the Pharisees.

This is not to say that there was no continuity between Pharisees and rabbis. Against a simplistic notion of a 'Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism' one has to see which points of contact really can be demonstrated. There certainly were more connections than we can show; but they were not exclusive; much was part of a 'common Judaism'. We may not reconstruct Pharisaic thought and halakhah on the basis of rabbinic texts. The year 70 certainly was no radical break; but much which was carried on, was also transformed. This makes it most difficult to evaluate continuity and change.



The conference is organized by the Pontifical Biblical Institute in collaboration with the Pontifical Gregorian University, especially its Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies


Pontifical Biblical Institute
Pontifical Gregorian University - Cardinal Bea Centre.


Generous support has been provided by AJC – American Jewish Committee, CEI – Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, Gregorian University Foundation and Verbum


American Jewish Committee
Conferenza Episcopale Italiana
Gregorian Universty Foundation