The Myth of those Evil Pharisees

I’ve been wanting to tackle this one for a while now, and a recent sermon I heard forced the issue in my mind. As a result of the harsh portrayal in the New Testament of these teachers of Jewish law, the very name Pharisee has become synonymous with hypocrisy and self-righteousness.We even invented a word to describe this attitude- “Pharisaical.” We have developed a very black and white view of them, and when they make an appearance in scripture, even the most Biblically illiterate people know that they’re the bad ones- raging hypocrites who thought themselves to be far morally superior than everyone else and who were the epitome of holier-than-thou. But I would contend that it is detrimental for us to hold this view of them. Not only is it factually and historically unfair, but it skews and negatively affects how we view scripture.

So who are these guys? Well, they are the product  of the chasm left during the the second temple period [intertestamental period] from about 400 B.C. onward. Because here’s the thing- when you’re a people in exile, you aren’t allowed to have kings, you don’t have a temple, and the priestly class becomes the teachers who give instructions on the law. In this time  you start to focus on what makes you uniquely Jewish, and you ask yourself what are God’s commandments and His words.  Suddenly the commandments which distinguish you as Jewish become gain primacy, and you will want to become careful about unique things like Sabbath keeping and dietary restrictions, because that gives you boundaries and an identity.  There are tons of socio-cultural religious developments affecting the state of their exile from Persian religious influences to accelerated Hellenization to the breakdown of  religious mores, and many people sought ways to protect themselves from this.

The result of renewed desire to be distinctly Jewish resulted in the serious the call to be Jewish, and so the people searched to find ways to practically implement the scriptures. That will give birth to the Pharisees. They were the pastors of the people who were orthodox in their theology and serious about how to put this stuff into practice in daily life.  They found themselves asking, “How do we keep the Sabbath? What is work? What isn’t work? How do we define these things within the framework of distinct Jewish life?” And then they began to hammer out some answers. They wanted to bring about the sanctification of all the people of Israel so that they could once again be the true people of God.

In the intertestimental period the Pharisees were the ones cautiously resistant about Hellenization and were the conservatives of the day. They tried to answer the question, “How can I follow the law and be a man who is distinctly Jewish while avoiding being secularized and Persianized?”.  Furthermore, they were penitential by nature. They wanted to get right with God then get serious about being right with God. People have this idea that the Pharisees were super strict ultra-radical law followers, but the reality is that they had a broad and  lenient interpretation of the law and tradition. The strict traditionalists were the  zealots, and the looser types were the Pharisees. Not only that, but comparatively they had lower levels of strict purity than the Essenes and the Sadducees. In fact, Pharisees represented a liberalizing tendency. It was a “How can I keep all the demands of the law and yet live a normal, cultural, and politically engaged life?” sort of attitude. They were the rulers of the day. Everyone looked up to them. How do we apply the Bible in a way that works? Truth be told, they had no problems twisting and tweaking the law if it furthered their traditions.

As well, they were highly regarded by the people. The Sadducees were the ones who were the Aristocrats. They tended to be wealthy and held powerful positions, including that of chief priests and high priest, and they held the majority of the 70 seats of the ruling council called the Sanhedrin. They worked hard to keep the peace by agreeing with the decisions of Rome [Israel at this time was under Roman control], and they were more concerned with politics than religion. Because they were accommodating to Rome and were the wealthy upper class, they did not relate well to the common man, nor did the common man hold them in high opinion. On the flip side, you had the beloved Pharisees. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen, and therefore were in contact with the common man. The Pharisees were held in much higher esteem than the Sadducees, and though they were a minority in the Sanhedrin and held a minority number of positions as priests, they seemed to control the decision making of the Sanhedrin far more than the Sadducees did because they had the support of the people. The Pharisees were said to love one another and had charity and consensus, whereas the Sadducees were aggressive and harsh with one another. In short, they were the good guys.

Further warning , we shouldn’t go into reading of the New Testament as having the Pharisees being two dimensional bad guys, because we have some examples of some pretty swell Jesus-loving ones, such as Niocdemus and Jospeh of Arimathea. Because here’s the thing, Jesus’ conflict with his contemporaries was not so much over the doctrines of the Pharisees, with which he was for the most part in agreement, but primarily over the understanding of his mission. While Jesus disdained the hypocrisy of some Pharisees, and in fact aggressively and vigorously attacked it,  he never attacked the religious and spiritual teachings of Pharisaism. In fact, the sharpest criticisms of the Pharisees in Matthew are introduced by an unmistakable affirmation, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” [Matt. 23:2-3]  The issue at hand is one of practice. For the most part, the content of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees was not a problem. As it were, much of Jesus’ teaching, for example the Sermon on the Mount, is consistent with that of the Pharisees and later Rabbinic thought.

Many people have failed to realize that the Pharisaic religion was divided into two separate schools – the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. The group that Christ continually took to task in the New Testament was more than likely the school of Shammai – a faction that was very rigid and unforgiving in their outlook. And although Pharisees were frequently the adversaries of Jesus, the reality is that not all their interactions were hostile. Pharisees asked Him to dine with them on occasion [Luke 7,11,14] and He was warned of danger by some Pharisees [Luke 13]. Additionally, it appears that some of the Pharisees [including Nicodemus] believed in him, although they did so secretly because of the animosity of their leaders toward Jesus. Later on, some Pharisees would become believers, while other non-believing ones would be an aid to Paul and defend him against the Sadducees.

That having been said, I’m not an apologist for the Pharisees. I’m not going to say that they were really good guys and were just completely misjudged and misunderstood. Not at all. Some of the things they did were terrible, and oftentimes the burdens they laid on people were oppressive to the point of despairing to death. A lot of them were hypocritical. A lot of them were self-righteousness and surely all of them believed that their actions merited God’s favor. And somewhere in the desire to unpack the law to help their fellow Jews, they lost themselves. I’m not defending their actions. I’m just saying that we can’t smear them all and paint them all as hated, reviled, hypocritical, self-righteous and arrogant men who looked down on everyone and who evilly went about sticking and pointing their fingers in everyone’s faces while they cackled maliciously. That’s not the case. We have this stereotype that all pharisees were hypocrites; all pharisees were arrogant; and all pharisees were self-righteous and obsessive about the letter of the law. That’s not true. They were loved, revered, respected as the most expert and accurate expositors of Jewish law, and were viewed as humble and righteous men by the people. At the very least, when reading about them in Scripture, let us try to view them through that lens primarily and through the reality of their sins and faults later.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of those Evil Pharisees

  1. Jesus did identify their teaching as dangerous, Matthew 16:12, “Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

      • My point was that you said in the post that there teaching was not condemned, only their practice, but Jesus clearly condemned their teachings as well. Yes, He did say “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” [Matt. 23:2-3], but I think in that context He is saying that they do preach many true things from Moses, don’t reject those things, even though they don’t obey the very things they teach. Everything they did or taught was based on works, not faith, “they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Romans 9:32).

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