No and Yes on the Pharisees

From Derek Leman:

There are several reasons why the Pharisees are misunderstood:

  • Josephus, who was a Pharisee, exaggerated their power and influence
  • The later rabbis (third through sixth centuries), whose origins were in the Pharisee movement, exaggerated their power and influence when writing about the first century
  • The other parties (Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians) all ceased to exist after 70 CE
  • Yeshua clashed with the Pharisees on some matters of Torah
  • Un-careful reading of the Gospels leads people not to notice the Sadducees and chief priests were the main villains, not the Pharisees.

Here are some important truths about the Pharisees:

  • They tended to be middle class, some working as scribes and other in various occupations.
  • They tended to be urban, not rural.
  • Their numbers were never large.
  • Their origin was as a political party in the days of the Maccabees.
  • They had some popularity because they stood against Rome in some early clashes.
  • They were a sort of fraternity with a common interest in reforming Israel by increasing zeal for the Torah.
  • Their beliefs were the closest of all the parties to the views of Yeshua and the apostles.
  • In the early days especially, and the later rabbis corrected this tendency, they emphasized ritual over love and justice and mercy.
  • You should no more judge Judaism by the things Yeshua criticized about the Pharisees than you should judge any Christian group by the ideas or behavior of some.
  • If Yeshua was commenting today, he’d have many sharp criticisms for various Christian sub-groups that might make the Pharisees look good by comparison.
  • The synagogues were run by common Jews, elders in the various towns.
  • The rabbis of later centuries, whose origins were from the Pharisees, did not become the recognized leaders of Judaism until the sixth century.
  • Synagogues in Israel in Yeshua’s time were not places of power, but learning and piety, and they were not led by Pharisees.
  • Most Jews did not follow the growing list of traditions the Pharisees were coming up with out of a desire to see Israel come closer to God.
  • The 613 are biblical commandments, not man-made rules of the Pharisees.
  • Yeshua had positive things to say about some Pharisees. Nicodemus seems to have become a disciple. Of one Pharisee Yeshua said, “You are not far from the kingdom.”
  • Many Pharisees believed in Yeshua after the resurrection, and one of them was Paul.
  • Paul continued to say, “I am a Pharisee,” the rest of his life and never repudiated this identity.
  • The Pharisees who thought more like Shammai were probably more violent in their manner of dealing with threats to Israel’s renewal.
  • The Pharisees who thought like the gentler, more tolerant Hillel outnumbered the Shammaite Pharisees.
  • Paul the persecutor was probably in the more militant Shammaite wing.
  • The Pharisees were a minority on the Sanhedrin and the Sadducees called the shots.
  • The Temple did not run according to the wishes of the Pharisees; if it had, this would have been a vast improvement and would have made the Temple much more in keeping with what Yeshua believed.
  • The Pharisees in Yeshua’s time lived in Judea and had not spread much into Galilee.
  • Yeshua believed the Pharisees did not keep the Torah enough and said his disciples had to surpass them.
  • A large part of Yeshua’s critique was that the Pharisees should have seen loving God and people as the highest priorities of Torah.
  • Yeshua expected his disciples to outdo the Pharisees literally in loving God and people.

So why would Pharisees come up to Galilee to check Yeshua out? Why would they sometimes follow him around and find reasons to criticize his disciples?

They cared deeply about Israel getting right with God. They wanted to see Messiah come and had a notion of Messiah and victory over Rome that Yeshua came to teach against.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    “Paul the persecutor was probably in the more militant Shammaite wing.”

    If he was taught under Gamaliel, who probably more in the Hillel wing, would Paul not more likely be there as well?

  • Marshall

    If Yeshua was commenting today, he’d have many sharp criticisms for [people I disagree with, people who disagree with me].

  • MatthewS

    Very interesting and helpful list.

    With apologies for going right to the negative, I would be interested in hearing more from Derek on this one: “If Yeshua was commenting today, he’d have many sharp criticisms for various Christian sub-groups that might make the Pharisees look good by comparison.”

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    MatthewS:

    Great question. His sharp criticisms concerned people who prioritized poorly in their practice and/or teaching of holiness. I think examples of modern religious people doing this very thing abound (putting “belief X” or “ethical issue X” above lovingkindness and repair of the world). If I state any specific example, I risk offending someone (as per Marshall’s comment).

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Rick:

    I initially thought the same thing, following the historical chain from Hillel to Gamaliel to Paul. But my first introduction to the idea that Paul may have belonged to the Shammaite camp came from N.T. Wright (I think in The NT and the People of God). He suggested that what we know of Shammai in rabbinic lit fits better with the militant activity of Paul than what we know of Hillel. As for Gamaliel, no reason to think all who studied under him were Hillelites. And we’ve no idea if Paul was a longtime student or if he could have studied only briefly with him.

  • Kristen

    I find this fascinating. Especially this:
    “The rabbis of later centuries, whose origins were from the Pharisees, did not become the recognized leaders of Judaism until the sixth century.”

    I’ve seen a lot of talk about ‘Rabbi Jesus’ or taking rabbi traditions and trying to interpret scriptures with this knowledge. For example saying that before a boy was 13 (or some young age) they’d have to pick a rabbi to follow. So some say that the 12 disciples were most likely young boys when Jesus called them. It seems like a very strange interpretation to me.

    So did rabbi’s even exist in Jesus’ day?

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    I agree with everything Derek listed above.
    My understanding from David Instone-Brewer, a 2nd temple scholar, is that the local judges of an area were mostly from the Pharisees and it was important to know which ones were from the school of Hillel and which from the school of Shammai as only the former would allow an “Any Matter” divorce. So while the great Sanhedrin was dominated by Sadducees, the local sanhedrins (where most of the legal stuff was decided) were dominated by Pharisees, so their influence was important in ways where judicial rulings impacted people’s lives.

  • Marshall

    I think very likely he would have sharp criticisms for all of us. Especially me. No one is righteous, no not one.

  • Ray

    Thanks for this assessment, Derek. Many Christians (including me) have a lot of sharpening to do in better understanding the socio-religious world of Jesus, especially in connection with the Pharisees & Judaism in general. Your post helps us towards that.

    One comment: you mentioned that “an un-careful reading of the Gospels leads people not to notice the Sadducees and chief priests were the main villains, not the Pharisees.” I think I get where you are going with that, but all the synoptics (and one could possibly see this in John as well) explicitly reference the Pharisees as the religious group who are the first to conspire against Jesus and seem to be the drivers of the “death plot” (at least early on) of how to get rid of Jesus, even if they turn it over to the more politically powerful later on (cf. Matthew 12:14; 21:45, 22:15, Mark 3:6, and Luke 6:11) – frankly that seems fairly “villainous” to me.

    However, I think it’s passages like these, plus the fairly continual negative picture painted of the Pharisees throughout the gospels (especially Matthew), that leads many to so quickly write off Pharisaism wholly and to stereotype all Pharisees as the main “bad guys” – without the proper understanding that Pharisaism is not bad in and of itself. I agree with you that we need to come to a better understanding of the Pharisees and see that Jesus was not anti-Pharisee or anti-Judaism or anti-Torah.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    Their origin was as a political party in the days of the Maccabees.

    Politics and religion were insufficiently distinguished for this sentence to have any ancient equivalent, but it gets at something extremely important and not very well understood. To the extent that this is true, it is also the case for the Yahad of the sectarian DSS, the larger Essene/Enochian movement, and the Saduccees as well. The negotiated Hellenism arrived at by the ruling Hasmoneans was traumatic for many 2nd temple groups, who likely split into the divided sects that we take for granted (as did Josephus) at just this time. Views on temple practice, legal interpretation, priestly appointments, and, especially, the calendar of Sabbaths and festivals adhered to by these groups diverged, tearing apart whatever unity the scholars’ phenomenon, Second Temple Judaism, ever had in the first place. It’s unfortunate for us that Josephus had so many excellent reasons to skirt around these issues in his published works, because I’m sure there was a lot he knew that he doesn’t tell.

  • scotmcknight

    Nor any reason to think he had to stick with the Hillelitic viewpoint, nor that the later Hillelitic view is the same as Gamaliel’s kind of Pharisaism.

  • scotmcknight

    Kristen, not as they did later and there’s lots of “cool” stuff said like this that has very little evidence supporting it (or more often none) from the 1st Century.

  • scotmcknight

    Ray, but their presence in the last week is greatly reduced.

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Kristen:

    About Jesus being a rabbi. First, dismiss the idea of rabbi as clergy leading a congregation in Jesus’ time. Second, dismiss the idea of Jesus belonging to the formal schools in Judea and/or studying under such pro to-rabbis as Hillel. Third, dismiss the idea of a group of Torah scholars to whom the whole community looked for answers.

    Now, what are we left with in terms of Jesus being a rabbi. It means some disciples attached themselves to him and considered him their teacher. It was not an official position, but could just as well be rendered Master, as in a title given out of deference by a group. On occasions when others outside his group called him rabbi (such as Nicodemus) they may have been showing genuine respect or they may have been acting in a condescending manner (hard to say with Nicodemus).

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Ray:

    Yes, thanks for correcting what was probably an overstatement on my part. I was eager to correct a mistake and was careless in wording my point. I could have said, “. . . not to notice the Sadducees and chief priests were the chief instruments of his execution, while some Pharisees instigated against him.”

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Donald:

    Much respect to David Instone Brewer. I should be shot for not having read his book. I’ve even persuaded more than a handful of people to buy his books on Jesus and the divorce issue. Yet I’ve not read them. Are you quite sure (I’m dubious) that he gives the idea Pharisees dominated the elders and justice systems of Judea and Galilee? I’d have a hard time believing he would say that even about Judea. Very dubious about Galilee.

  • Jean

    I’m sure there’s a relevant theological issue in here somewhere, but with Rome burning all around us, to burn calories debating the role of Pharisees in 2nd temple Judaism, or even Jesus view of them, in my opinion is a waste of time, except perhaps for those who have mastered the rest of the Gospel. Isn’t there something else we could discuss that might help expand God’s kingdom, bring unity to the Church or facilitate maturity in Christ?

  • Jim Harris

    This entire teaching is in direct opposition to Y’shua’s words in Matthew 23. Y’shua is not ambiguous on the issue; he accused them of blocking the path of seekers. Luke 11:52 clearly opposes any idea that the Pharisees were honest seekers.

  • Kristen

    Gotcha. I thought as much but wasn’t sure. Thanks!

  • Kristen

    That’s what I thought rabbi meant originally. Thank you so much for letting me know!

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Jean:

    Misunderstanding the Pharisees leads to misunderstanding the Gospels. Primary example: the common reading (stated or unstated) is as if Jesus is the Christian arguing against Judaism. Those who think Jesus opposed Judaism will miss what he actually taught. History has shown how that interpretation went . . . and it wasn’t toward the kingdom.

  • Jim Harris

    Exactly on target. We don’t need a renewal of the Pharisees at this time in history.

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Jim:

    First, I’d like to cite my own comments on one part of Matthew 23 and then make a brief point: “It is not that the Pharisees and scribes are too zealous for Torah. Yeshua, the Galilean, is typical in viewing these Judean teachers as ignorant of Torah’s true meaning. Principles for disciples from these first four woes include the following. The way of life we live and teach others must first be about true knowledge of God. The Torah must not become a system of minutiae or self-glorifying stringencies. The Torah must serve its larger goal: making people good, increasing justice, binding people in love to God, and creating a community of servants. Only applying the Torah according to this essence is really following Torah. It is the “spirit” of Torah that must guide us in keeping Torah. That this was the essence of Yeshua’s Torah teaching is confirmed by reading the letter of James, Yeshua’s brother and the greatest interpreter of his ethic.”

    It is possible to read Jesus’ criticisms in Matthew 23 and not read into them dozens of false ideas like “Jewish traditions are bad” or “all Pharisees were hypocrites.” It is possible to believe that many Pharisees became disciples in Acts. I rather think church history has shown that Pharisee-hating has led to Jew-hating. I’m not alone by any means in calling for a balanced view.

  • Jim Harris

    He was against any group that blocked the path of honest seekers. We see a lot of that today. That’s why the Oliver Discourse begins with the warning against false teachers coming in Y’shua’s name.

  • Jean

    Derek:

    Thank you for responding. I think the issue you raise is valid, but is not the issue that is the focus of this blog. People on this blog seem to be debating whether Jesus objected a little or a lot to the teachings of the Pharisees. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because at the end of the day, they did not love their neighbor as themselves. They were focused on the outside of the cup, not on the inside.

    I’m not an historian on the development of anti-Semitism, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that the Jewish leaders (who primarily were from the Sadducees) condemned Jesus rather than the Pharisees. However, regardless of the relative role of the Jews vs. Pilot, anti-Semitism is not warranted in any event because (1) this was God’s plan and (2) Jesus asked God to forgive them.

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Jean:

    I consider it certain that many Pharisees did love their neighbors as much as any Christian today. Jesus’ disputes were inter-Jewish arguments. But when Christians in our time make generalizing statements, even when they seem to be quite innocent as in your case, they are off the mark and sound as if “all Pharisees were unloving.” Not true at all. Some, according to Jesus, were close to the kingdom and some, such as Paul, became disciples.

  • Jean

    Paul became a disciple because of an encounter with Jesus. Paul spent considerable ink correcting Jews on the efficacy of the law to justify a person.

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Jean:

    Your statement about Paul spending a lot of ink correcting Jews is the kind of generalization I was saying is unhelpful. It seems to me you could understand Paul and Jesus better by reading about their Jewish lives and ways of thinking. Yet you started this thread by saying learning Jewish context was a waste of time. I think you are demonstrating precisely why it is not a waste of time.

  • Jean

    Derek: I didn’t write that learning Jewish context is a waste of time. The important thing for people of our time to understand in my view is how we learn from Jesus and the NT writers to avoid the exclusionary and / or works righteousness impulses that we humans seem to have built in to our DNA. You may have the last word. Good night.

  • Norman

    Biblically the Pharisees often represented the contrived
    aspirations of those who sought relationship with God outside of His Wisdom. It’s the model that is being presented
    biblically as the problem of many faithful Jews then, just as many of us misguided
    Christians today miss the mark relationally.

    You have to be careful in attempting to become an apologist for
    that Pharisee model that is being presented biblically without IMHO
    backtracking away from the Gospel message that was revolutionary for many of
    the faithful and devout of those times.
    If that Pharisee model had not needed correcting to a large extent then
    it would not have been the issue it was presented as it was historically.

  • Jim Harris

    Why work so hard at avoiding the obvious meaning of scripture. No where and no way would I say that all Jewish traditions are bad. What God ordained is perfect and doesn’t need our additions. This whole thing comes across as jibberish in light of Y’shua’s clear unmistakable words. He told the Pharisees that they were blocking access to Yahweh and pronounced 8 very clear woes upon them. His entire ministry was against a backdrop of the Pharisees hounding him. According to Y’shua, they had no interest in truth (see Luke 11:52). Why do we need them? Why don’t we teach people to compare scripture with scripture instead of teachings that have failed? The whole argument fails to separate the things and the system Yahweh set up and the Jews from those who Y’shua fought. It’s almost blasphemy to put words in Y’shua’s mouth. He made his points very clearly.

  • Jim Harris

    Your phrase: “Yeshua, the Galilean, is typical in viewing these Judean teachers as ignorant of Torah’s true meaning” reveals the real nature of the problem. Y’shua didn’t operate as a Galilean. Y’shua operated as the Son of God. Y’shua was not in the least confused about the Judean view of the Torah. Do you believe that Y’shua is the son of the living God?

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Jean:

    You said, “with Rome burning all around us, to burn calories debating the role of Pharisees in 2nd temple Judaism, or even Jesus view of them, in my opinion is a waste of time.” So, yes you did say it was a waste of time. And your understanding of Judaism appears to be that our way is the very legalism Paul argued against. I am sad that this view of Judaism (the Old Perspective on Paul) continues to be the dominant view of Protestants.

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Norman:

    It seems true that there was a tendency in the Pharisee movement Jesus encountered to prioritize ritual purity practices and tithing. They were seeking revival through an increase in Torah. Note that most of what Jesus’ Pharisee opponents believed and practiced was good. That is why some of them were able to see that Jesus was the one sent by God. But your description “sought relationship with God outside of his wisdom” is misleading. They were scripture-soaked.

  • Carl Kinbar

    It is important to distinguish between the honorific “rabbi”, the title “rabbi” that was later used in Judaism, and the term “rabbi” in common use today.

    The first examples of anyone being called “rabbi” is found in the gospels and is used only of Jesus. The best of contemporary scholarship understands this as an honorific meaning “teacher.” Later on in the New Testament, Jesus is never referred to as “rabbi” and it was not yet a title indicating smicha (ordination) as a Torah scholar.

    In early Judaism (after the destruction of the Second Temple) “rabbi” was used as a title whenever individual rabbis are named. They were scholars of Jewish law.

    Today, Orthodox Jews continue to understand the term “rabbi” to refer to a Torah scholar. More commonly, most people think of a rabbi as the Jewish equivalent of a pastor.

    The take away is the Jesus was not, and was not referred to as, an ordained rabbi.

    [BTW, the Acts of the Apostles sahows that the Sadducees were the main opposition to the young Jesus movement. Instead, there was a high degree of overlap between the theologies of the Pharisees and the Jesus movement. Myriads of Pharisees (not Sadducees) became Yeshua-believers.]

  • Marshall

    Sharp, but always to redeem, never to condemn.

  • http://OurRabbiJesus.com/ Lois Tverberg

    Thanks, Derek, for sharing. Good article.

    Kristen, you might also be interested in my article, “Can We Call Jesus Rabbi” at http://ourrabbijesus.com/articles/can-we-call-jesus-rabbi .

    There are 15 places in the gospels where the word “rabbi” in Greek is used in reference to Jesus. As Derek and Carl said, it was an honorific title rather than an ordained office in his time. But that change occurred only a few decades later. Hillel was never referred to as “Rabbi Hillel” either, even though he’s central to the pharisaic/rabbinic movement. The reason is simply because he lived before the word was used as a title.

    I’ve written a couple books on “Rabbi Jesus” that introduce readers to these topics. The most recent, “Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus,” (Zondervan, 2012) was reviewed on the Jesus Creed blog a few months ago: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/07/28/saturday-book-review-lois-tverberg/

  • http://OurRabbiJesus.com/ Lois Tverberg

    I often wonder if part of the issue between the Shammai and Hillel positions is temporal. Shammai lived a couple decades before Hillel, and the position of the Shammai school is always listed first in rabbinic discussions. Debates are followed chronologically, so the older idea is listed first.

    The Shammites and Hillelites are usually understood as two contemporaneous groups. Obviously, the two houses of study continued to have influence down through the ages. But I wonder if it would be helpful to see the Shammaite position as usually reflecting an earlier, older idea, and the Hillelite position as a moderating response.

  • http://OurRabbiJesus.com/ Lois Tverberg

    “The rabbis of later centuries, whose origins were from the Pharisees,
    did not become the recognized leaders of Judaism until the sixth
    century.”

    So who was leading the Jews for 500 years after destruction of the Temple?

  • http://derekleman.com/musings Derek Leman

    Jim:

    When you say “Yeshua did not operate as a Galilean” you reveal that you do not think he was human. This is a fairly basic point of theology that 100% of Christians agree on. Doceticism and monophysitism have long been labeled as not orthodox.

  • Jeff Martin

    I believe it has been mentioned before on this blog and is common for Dr. Nanos, for example, to say that what Paul was saying was that Jews are still responsible to follow the Law but that Gentiles do not have to.
    Ephesians 2:15 goes against this thinking. Christ has done away with the law with its commandments and ordinances, in order that he might create in himself a new MAN out of both the Jew and Gentile. A new man means a new law.
    Also I want to state I am not opposed to someone following traditional rites, but the idea was to unify people more. It is hard to do that when Messianic Jews create their own churches. Traditions is one thing but to create a separate church, I do not think it is the “new kosher”.

  • Kristen

    Hey Lois, thanks so much for the information!

    Methinks I have to buy your book.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Read his books on divorce. What he says is that when someone sought a divorce, they would need to know what the judges that would rule on it were of the school of Hillel or Shammai, exactly because only Hillelite judges would allow an “Any Matter” divorce. So if they were going for an “Any Matter” divorce, they would need to think ahead and pick 3 Hillelite judges. This whole process only makes sense if the potential judges in the divorce were made up mostly of Pharisees and furthermore that they could be further identified as to which school they belonged to.
    That is why the term “scribes and Pharisees” show up together so many times in the gospels, the scribes would give the relevant Scripture for a question and the Pharisees would give their interpretation of the Scripture based on their oral tradition.

  • http://descriptivegrace.wordpress.com/ James Jordan

    “Un-careful reading of the Gospels leads people not to notice the
    Sadducees and chief priests were the main villains, not the Pharisees.”

    You’re only lumping the Sadducees in with the chief-priests on the assumption that all priests were Sadducees. Your reading of the gospels is as “Un-careful” as anyone else’s.

    And as far as villains go, its not all that likely the chief-priests really had any hand in Jesus’ execution to begin with, despite what the gospels say. Remember that passage in Acts where Paul is attacked in the temple and the Roman soldiers immediately come in and save him? Unless Paul had per-arranged that rescue, then clearly the Romans in the Castle Antonia had a clear view of the inside of the temple. That is, after all, what the commander writes in his letter found in Acts.

    If, then, the Roman soldiers in the castle Antonia acted as a police force for the temple and kept its peace, it is unlikely that Jesus’ “Cleansing of the temple” incident escaped their notice. It is unlikely that he left the temple a free man as the gospels pretend, and more likely he was arrested on the spot and instantly taken out and crucified by the Romans without any involvement by the chief-priests or any other class of Jews. The gospels implicate the chief-priests only out of later Christian anti-Judaism.

  • http://descriptivegrace.wordpress.com/ James Jordan

    “The other parties (Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians) all ceased to exist after 70 CE”

    I think it took a little longer than that, like the second Jewish revolt against Rome in the 100s. Beside that, although the Sadducees ceased to exist, memories of some of their positions may have influenced Karaism a little bit–medieval Rabbanite Jews certainly seemed to think so anyway.


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