Another Look at the Pharisees
A third-century rabbi, reflecting on the past history of his people, remarked, “Israel went into exile only after it became divided into twenty-four sects.”1
Although we cannot be sure of the exact number, there can be no doubt that at the time of the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.) Judaism was divided into many sects. Modern historians also uphold his view that the downfall of the Jewish state was the direct consequence of its internal disunity.
Jesus encountered a number of different religious groups within the body of the Jewish people to whom He came as Messiah. There were Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians, plus the vast majority of common people who belonged to no religious sect at all.2 The most famous group he encountered, however, was the Pharisees. While the membership of the Pharisees only totaled a few thousand, their influence was felt far beyond their numbers. Often associated with the scribes, who were professional scholars in the Jewish law, the Pharisees received the most stinging rebukes Jesus ever issued. At least seven times in Matthew 23 Jesus pronounced the following condemnation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He condemned their rapaciousness, their selfishness, their inward spiritual emptiness, and their emphasis on scruples while neglecting the big matters of justice, mercy, and faith.
The excoriating denunciations have resulted in the word Pharisee entering the English language as a synonym for hypocrite. For example, consider the following definition of pharisaic in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, p. 1344: “pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without actually being so; hypocritical.”
Needless to say, these denunciations of the Pharisees by Jesus have not been unnoticed by Jewish scholars. They have charged that Jesus and the early church writers have presented a false caricature of the Pharisees that is not consistent with what we now know to be true of them.3 One of the reasons why there is such sensitivity in this area is that the Pharisees were the only Jewish sect that survived the devastation of 70 A.D. Therefore, the reconstructed Judaism of the second and third centuries which became the basis for subsequent Jewish belief and practice was, in essence, based on the pharisaic beliefs and practices of pre-70 A.D. Without apology, modern Jewish scholars will affirm that Orthodox Judaism is essentially pharisaism.
Did Jesus unjustly criticize the Pharisees for sins of which they were not guilty? It is the purpose of this article to examine this sect a little more closely by looking at what the Pharisees said about themselves.
In addition to the New Testament, there are descriptions of the Pharisees in Josephus and in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Flavius Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, described the group as (1) being meticulous about observing the law, both in its written and oral forms; (2) affirming the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body; and (3) having greater influence on the common people than the other sects.4 It is the pharisaic emphasis on the oral law, called the ‘tradition’ in the Gospels, with which Jesus had the greatest conflict (Mt. 15:1-9).
Talmudic sources state that there were different kinds of Pharisees – seven to be exact.5 (1) The “shoulder” Pharisee wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them. (2) The “wait a little” Pharisee always found an excuse for putting off a good deed. (3) The “bruised” Pharisee shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and knocked into walls, bruising himself. (4) The “hump-backed” Pharisee always walked bent double, in false humility, (5) The “ever-reckoning” Pharisee was always counting up the number of his good deeds. (6) The “fearful” Pharisee always quaked in fear of the wrath of God. (7) The “God-loving” Pharisee was a copy of Abraham who lived in faith and charity. Therefore, even the Pharisees criticized themselves. At least six of the seven Pharisees were bad, according to their own estimation. Therefore, when Jesus castigated the Pharisees for hypocrisy and false piety, He was only pointing out what the Pharisees recognized about their own members.
Doubtless there were good Pharisees, who lived up to their ideals. The seventh group, the “God-loving” Pharisees, may have been in a minority, but they do appear in the New Testament. In Luke 13:31 we read, “The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart from here; for Herod will kill thee.” This passage shows that even among the Pharisees there were those who admired and respected Jesus. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who became believers in the Lord Jesus, were probably Pharisees, as well as Saul, known later as Paul (Jn. 3:1; 7:50; 19:38-39; Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:5). Therefore, Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees was not universal but was consistent with the Pharisees’ recognition that they often fell far short of their ideals.
Another factor should also be kept in mind. In the generation prior to Jesus, there lived two great Pharisees, each of whom led a school of thought in Jerusalem – Hillel and Shammai. These two schools of Pharisees represented two distinct currents – the progressive and the conservative. Generally speaking, Sammai followed a more rigid and harsh interpretation of the law. While Hillel propounded a freer. More liberal interpretation of the law’s demands.
The Talmud records the following incident, which is characteristic of the differences between the two.6 A heathen came to Shammai with the request to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. He was chased away for such a foolish notion. When he approached Hillel with the same request, instead of being chased away, he was told, “What is hateful to you, do not unto your fellow man. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary – now go and study.” Paul, the pupil of Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, stated this idea in a more positive way, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Gal. 5:14).
This conflict between the strict and freer pharisaic interpretations of the law is also reflected in their question to Jesus regarding divorce, “The Pharisees also came unto him, testing him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (Mt. 19:3). A hot topic of debate among the disciples of Hillel and Shammai was what constituted grounds for divorce. Shammai taught that only gross indecency could ever justify putting away one’s wife. Hillel had a much broader interpretation of the causes for divorce, involving all kinds of real and imagined offenses, including an improperly cooked meal!
It is interesting that the Judaism which survived the Temple’s destruction followed the Pharisees’ approach to the law, rather than the Sadducees’. But among the pharisaic schools of thought, the Hillel interpretation dominated Judaism in later days.
The point of all that has been said is the following: In condemning the Pharisees, Jesus was not condemning the entire group, but only the bad ones, even though they may have constituted a majority of the membership. Furthermore, Jesus’ condemnation of some of the pharisaic practices may reflect the stringent, hyper strict scruples of some schools within the Pharisees – Shammai’s teaching, for example.
All of this points out the importance of reading and interpreting the New Testament in the light of its Jewish background. When attention is paid to that background, error can be avoided and a deeper appreciation of its truths emerges to the 20th-century, Western reader.
- Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 29c.
- See the author’s article, “The Common People Heard Him Gladly,” Israel My Glory, October-November, 1979.
- See the discussion in Jewish People and Jesus Christ, Jacob Jocz, pp. 17-21.
- Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII,1.
- Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 14b; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 22b.
- Babylonian Talmud, Shabbot 31a.