Pharisees: Revisiting an Old Problem

Pharisees: Revisiting an Old Problem February 4, 2013

It’s time to revisit the Pharisees, in part because their story needs to be told so we don’t forget and in part because some like to use the “Pharisee” in ways that concern me. It is a standard procedure to say “Pharisee” and mean “legalist, bigot, hypocrite, or picayune meddler into other people’s religious business.” Look at any dictionary. But this is in and of itself a caricature and stereotype, for no one (I hope) would think that all Pharisees have always been religious bigots. Such language spells danger down the road in ways that might surprise us. Even more, we have tended to download anger or extreme disagreement with others onto this term “Pharisee.” So, when I call someone a Pharisee I do not mean anything nice or even charitable. Which, in and of itself is dangerous because no group (well, there are exceptions) is always wrong and always bad.

Martin Luther — and this was all charted out in 1977 in EP Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism — tended to equate the Roman Catholic establishment with the Pharisees of the Gospels. Everyone should read this book, regardless of all the scuttlebutt about his ideas ever since. The invective of Luther against the Roman Catholics in the 16th Century then was downloaded onto the Pharisees of the New Testament.

Here’s the problem: the impact of our use of Pharisee is that we have learned to call all Jews and anyone we think is too conservative a “Pharisee.” This can get very close and often actually is anti-Semitism.

Now another point: this kind of rhetoric is what is called “labeling.” To label someone is to put them in a category, or a box, or a corner, and then slap a sticker on their head so we know what to think and how to think about such a person. Labeling is inherently unChristian, and it is what Jesus fought against constantly — and this means we have to see what Jesus meant by “Pharisee” and what he didn’t mean by “Pharisee.”

So, I am asking for the many who are still using “Pharisee” in the old-fashioned “religious bigot” sense to be much more careful. I won’t give names, but I’m seeing it on blogs and in books in a way that 15 years ago would have not been the case.

A brief look at what Josephus, a 1st Century AD Jewish chronicler, has to say about the Pharisees. Josephus takes two pictures of the Pharisees, one in Bellum Judaicum (=BJ) book 2 (162-4) and one in Jewish Antiquities (=Ant), book 18 (12-15). I’ll limit my comments here, and the goal is for us (1) to have a more accurate view of the Pharisees so we can (2) speak more intelligently and respectfully of this ancient, revered, and respectable form of Judaism.

“Jewish philosophy,” he says, “takes three forms… the first school are called Pharisees, of the second Sadducees, of the third Essenes” (BJ 2.119).

1. They are considered the “most accurate interpreters of the laws” (BJ 2.162).
2. They are the leading sect of the Jews (BJ 2.162) and “extremely influential among the townsfolk” (Ant 18.15).
3. They attribute everything to Fate and to God (BJ 2.163; Ant 18.13).
4. Proper behavior is most human responsibility but partly Fate (BJ 2.163).
5. Every soul is imperishable but the soul of the good alone passes into another body while the soul of the wicked suffer eternal punishment, and that there will be rewards or punishments in the afterlife on the basis of behavior (BJ 2.163; Ant 18.14).
6. They live simply (Ant 18.12)
7. They live according to the commandments that their doctrines teach (Ant 18.12). [No doubt a reference to their concern with teaching and unfolding what the Bible says.]
8. They are respectful of elders (Ant 18.12).
9. Their influence is great enough that prayers and rites of worship are according to their teachings (Ant 18.15).

Now, let’s put this together. According to Josephus, the Pharisees are the most influential sect of the Jews and their first characteristic is that they are devoted to the Torah (Law), to its interpretation, and to living life as closely as possible according to the Torah. They believe in a cooperation between Fate (his Greek-sounding category for God’s sovereignty) and human will, but clearly lay emphasis on human will.

A few more ideas from Josephus:

At various points in history they had more power than at others, but that they wanted to be in charge. (Neusner said they moved from “politics to piety.”) Neusner’s theory is less persuasive today, and most adhere to a more moderate position: the Pharisees had power at times, but wanted it most of the time, but never significantly withdrew from society to form table fellowship groups. Which means their “influence” is probably overrated by Josephus: sometimes, yes; othertimes, not so much.

When it comes to Torah obedience, the Pharisees were “democratizers” in the sense that they tried to make the Torah practicable for all (by interpreting and applying it). The Sadducees focused more the priestly obligations to the Torah. The Essenes were more rigorous and sectarian in their interpretation and practice of the Torah. Which means, in pretty stereotypical and simplistic terms, the Pharisees were the “liberals,” the Sadducees the “conservatives,” and the Essenes the “radicals.”

The Pharisees passed on their teachings from generation to generation through an oral tradition. (Everyone did this; there was no other way; they didn’t codify and write these traditions down until the 3-4th Century AD, in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, and then a century or two later, in the Talmuds.) See Ant 13.297.

They followed the food laws and purity laws in the Torah, but it is unlikely they were as strict as the priests in the Temple. They washed their hands ceremoniously before they ate. They weren’t that far from the Zealots in essential beliefs and practices. (Many have suggested that the Zealots are an extreme form of Pharisaism.) They conflicted with the Sadducees sometimes over Temple regulations. It is likely that they formed associations with one another; that they ate with another and followed their customs when they did; that they frowned upon eating with those who flaunted the normal eating customs of the Jews.

Now to Jesus, and some highlights of what Jesus says about the Pharisees.

Gospel evidence, tilted as it is toward their conflict with Jesus, and that “tilt” means we tend to lean with the tilt so we see all Pharisees as they are presented in the Gospels, which as I say, has some clear (negative, labeling) tilt.

1. Pharisees, with others, opposed John and Jesus for their kingdom ministry (Matt 3:7).
2. Pharisees had a “righteousness” that Jesus said was inadequate (Matt 5:20).
3. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for eating with the wrong sorts (Matt 9:11).
4. Pharisees had a different fasting routine (Matt 9:14).
5. Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcising demons in allegiance with Satan (Matt 9:34).
6. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their sabbath practices (Matt 12:2).
7. Pharisees wanted Jesus to attest to his vocation with a sign (Matt 12:38).
8. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their lack of handwashing before meals (Matt 15:1-20).
9. Pharisees taught things Jesus thought were contrary to God’s will (Matt 16:6, 12).
10. Pharisees tested Jesus’ “theology”/”practice” on divorce (Matt 19:3).
11. Pharisees wanted Jesus put away (Matt 22:15) and Jesus knew it (Matt 21:33-45).
12. Pharisees were accused of hypocrisy by Jesus (Matt 23).
13. Pharisees are nearly absent in the trial scenes of Jesus. [They did not have the power to put him to death.]

Here are some global observations:

1. Pharisees were focused on the whole Bible (Torah), its interpretation and practice. This is why Paul says in Phil 3:5: “as to the law, a Pharisee.” To say one was a Pharisee was to make a claim on a certain kind of interpretation of the Torah.
2. Pharisees opposed different interpretations and practices of the Torah, and this led them into conflict with John, with Jesus, with Jesus’ followers, and with others who differed from them (like the Sadducees).
3. Pharisees were specific and careful in their interpretive practices, and they apparently passed on their interpretations to one another (and anyone who cared to listen and know) by word of mouth and argumentation.
4. Pharisees thought they were right in their interpretations.

So, here is a thumbnail definition of the Pharisees: “a Torah movement (group) deeply devoted to knowing, interpreting, and applying the whole Torah to the life of Israel in order to restore the fortunes of Israel.”

(Now this last part, “in order to…”, I have added because I’m sure they had some sort of purpose in wanting everyone to live according to the Torah. This is not my view; it is standard, even if not held by all scholars.)

Jesus and the Pharisees got into it with one another at a deep, deep level because (1) both were committed to the revelation of God in the Torah, but (2) they differed radically on how to interpret that Torah. Let this be clear, though: they did not differ that it was the Word of God, they did not differ on the importance of Abraham, Moses, David or the Prophets. They differed, and you will know this if you know about The Jesus Creed, because Jesus thought the Torah should be interpreted in light of Deut 6:4-9 and Leviticus 19:18 (Love God, Love others). It is simplistic to talk like this, but it is essentially on target to say that Jesus thought the Torah was about loving God and loving others, and the Pharisees saw the Torah more as a comprehensive listing of God’s will.

(Let me back down a bit: the Pharisees did dispute about what was the most important commandment and the like, but when it comes down to it — and you can see this in Josephus, in the Gospels, and in the Mishnah/rabbinic traditions — they saw the Torah as a comprehensive treasure trove of God’s will, while Jesus thought that treasure trove was to be approached through the Jesus Creed itself.)

So, what they of the charge of hypocrisy?

Five observations, leading to a summary definition of what Matthew (Jesus) meant by “hypocrisy.”

Hypocrisy is…

1. Inconsistency between what one teaches and what one does (23:3-4)
2. Desire for prestige and power and congratulation (23:5-12)
3. Abuse of teaching authority through both false teachings and false practices (23:13, 15, 16-22, 23-24, 25-26, 27-28).
4. Overconcern with minutiae and lack of focus on the major issues (23:23-24, 25-26, 27-28): that is, moral myopia.
5. Inconsistency between appearance and practice (23:27-28).

Put together, Jesus accuses the Pharisees for “hypocrisy” because they had abused their teaching authority by teaching false things, not living according to what they taught, and for the desire for power. In addition, their teaching was a focus on minor issues to the neglect of major issues.

To be “hypocrite” is to be a false teacher who leads both self and others astray from the will of God. The term should not be limited to “contradiction between appearance and reality.”

Should we call anyone “Pharisee”? Be careful, that’s my rule. Think historically, my second rule. If some insist on finding contemporary counterparts to the 1st Century Pharisees, here are more suggestions:

First, use it only for those who are committed to the Torah as a comprehensive explanation for the will of God. (In this sense, it is pretty hard to use for any Christian.)

Second, use it only for those who through the abuse of their teaching authority are leading people astray. (In this sense, it is fit most for heretics.)

Third, never use it as a synonym for “Jews,” “Judaism,” or any other generic Jewish group. It refers only to one group of Jews, and that group eventually morphed into the rabbis but that morphing involved major shifts and moves.

In 1907, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.” There you have a quintessentially view of a Pharisee, someone who both believes in the Torah and who believes its meaning is determined by its interpretive tradition. On the other hand, a Sadducee would simply say, to use Chief Hughes’ terms, “We are under a Constitution.” We don’t need an interpretive tradition for we need only to seek out the original intent.Pharisees were judicial activists; Sadducees were judicial conservationists. Now stick this in your pipe for a puff: Jesus was more critical of the liberals than the conservatives! And I’m willing to bet money that most think Jesus was opposing the conservatives when he took a swat at the Pharisees. Or did Jesus think they weren’t liberal enough or for those who didn’t get their liberalism right? Precisely.

Consequently, the Pharisees built up a body of interpretive tradition, which today is called the Mishnah and the Tosefta, with an even larger body of anecdotal reflection in the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. At the time of Jesus this interpretive tradition was merely oral tradition, but it carried the day. So, this permits us to see the Pharisees as those who both believed in the Torah but who knew it needed interpretation, applications, and it needed to do so along careful lines of thought and procedure.

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  • Superb, and much-needed, Scot. Thanks.

  • Stephen W

    With regard to “contemporary counterparts” – surely the modern use of “Pharisee” is to draw a comparison, not a direct correlation? The meaning and usage of words changes over time – whatever “Pharisee” may have meant originally, it doesn’t follow that it can’t be adapted and applied differently now:

    1) “Use it only for those who are committed to the Torah as a comprehensive explanation for the will of God.” Surely using it to draw a comparison with any Christian who believes that Scripture is a comprehensive explanation for the will of God is just as valid? The point being “We know what God’s will is because we have the true interpretation of scripture” – seems a reasonable comparison to me.

    2) “Use it only for those who through the abuse of their teaching authority are leading people astray.” Surely this is rather subjective? Seems to me that a lot of Christians accuse a lot of other Christians of this!

    3) “Never use it as a synonym for “Jews,” “Judaism,” or any other generic Jewish group.” Agreed.

    That said, and having argued about its modern application, I think a better argument is that we should always avoid calling anyone “Pharisee” as it’s clearly not meant in a polite way.

  • Gary Lyn

    I appreciate this attempt to understand the Pharisees in their historical context. But could we expand the exploration further. Weren’t there various schools of thoughts and perspectives even within the Pharisaic movement? I know some Jewish writers today who understand the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as an intra-party conflict. They see Jesus as offering a different understanding of the place of Torah in the life of Judaism but still able to be part of the movement.

  • scotmcknight

    Gary Lyn, yes I’d agree with the stream of thinkers who see a Shammaitic vs. a Hillelitic wing, both thoroughly committed to the above factors but with different emphases.

  • I tend to think that had Jesus live today, he would have said something like, “beware the leaven of the Evangelicals (or Pentecostals…or Charismatics…)”. If we were to put people into boxes, I think we should remember that Paul was a Pharisee. He never said “I USED to be a Pharasee,”, but “I AM a Pharisee”. In Jesus’ arguments with the religious leaders, it’s evident that He agreed more with the Pharisees than the Sadducees, and even defended their view against that of the Sadducees at one point in the issue of life beyond death. One might even argue that Jesus, as a Pharisee, was criticising the Pharisee movement from inside in the same way as an Evangelical might, the direction of the Evangelical movement.

  • Scot – Thanks for this fair and reasonable summary.

    Because “Pharisee” has been so often misused to mean either “intolerant” or “legalistic” (each the chief sin of their own circles of Christianity”), I agree that we should move away from its pejorative use, however, I feel like you may have missed, ever so slightly, the core of Jesus’ citicism of the Pharisees. The things you mentioned in your definition of hypocrisy are all true, but I would say that the core heart level issue that Jesus condemns seems to be our tendency to say “I see,” and to presume that our unique vantage point enables us to correctly label and judge others according to it. It is a an attitude of the heart that fearfully clings to its own understanding and is unwilling to give ear to or break bread with those who disagree. It is a conviction that relationship with God depends on holding the correct beliefs about specific things coupled with the subconscious suppression of the panic that rises when our own lack of understanding and control is brought to light by our introduction to things we have not seen. At its root the reason that Jesus condemned the Pharisees (which, as you’ve shown us here is not the same as Pharisaism) is that they acted as blind guides, stopping up their eyes and ears (literally!) when confronted with new ways of seeing.

    I like what you said about pharisees actually being a more liberal divisiion within Judaism. If we think of “Pharisee” like i said above, then it does at first seem especially applicable to those who are “too conservative” and unwilling to consider new ideas, but in reality jesus’ condemnation applies just as strongly to the progressive who has turned his back on and turns his nose up at these and is unwilling to open their eyes to potential truth in old ideas.

    Moving forward, if these terms are to be used at all, I think that perhaps it is important to avoid using them to label people, and stick with using them to describe behaviors and ways of thinking. We should also be clear that we are not talking about the Jewish Pharisee sect itself, but are using “pharisaical” simply to allude to the parts of the biblical narrative in which Jesus uses the pharisees to warn against heart level tendencies that are present within each of ourselves.

  • Robby – Yeah, sort if what I was thinking. This “leaven” seems to be something akin to a rigid groupish identity that defines itself by (and labels others by) what it does not do/allow and who it does not include. We must be actively aware of our own biases and allow ourselves to be humbled by what is true even when it comes from outside our way of thinking.

  • Pat

    Your explanation Scot reminds me much of some of the divisiveness in the Church today between various tribes such as conservatives vs. progressives or evangelicals vs. mainliners, etc. Both groups are earnest in their desire to serve the Lord but at times, we can slip into denigrating one another and misrepresenting what the other is all about.

  • Scot:

    Thank you for this. As a Messianic Jewish rabbi, it is one of my pet peeves. It is a stereotype that needs to be overcome. Some of the worst preaching I have ever heard has made heavy use of the term “Pharisee” and has contained such clunkers as: “Those Pharisees had 613 heavy laws, but thank God Jesus said we only need two!” (Never mind that the 613 are in Genesis-Deuteronomy or that the hardest two of the 613 are love God and love neighbor).

  • Thanks for the free Bible dictionary article, Scot. 🙂

  • Percival

    That’s a helpful summary with good admonitions to be careful about how we toss around shorthand terms. I have wondered if Jesus was a Pharisee himself, albeit a rebel from within the sect. I think that Jesus didn’t speak as much against the Sadducees because he actually had very little to do with them or their unpopular teachings. They seemed to not be much of a popular force in Galilee, for instance.

    However, I don’t think the terms liberal and conservative are very helpful or enlightening here. I presume the intention is to tweak American conservatives a bit, which is often a fun thing to do but doesn’t make sense to me in this case.

  • Scott, good piece!

    I wrote a piece back in September where I bring up a point I believe is overlooked:

    In the Jerusalem Council, “some of those who had come to trust from the party of the Pharisees”

    Did these “believing Pharisees” stand up and say that it was necessary for those in Antioch to be circumcised and observe Torah? Yes.

    However –
    they also listened and kept still as Barnabas and Paul told about the signs and miracles . . .
    they listened to what Peter had to say . . .
    they listened to what James had to say . . .

    and “they” as part of the entire community there, decided “unanimously” to send the letter that was sent. Pharisees as part of a believing congregation seems to be very hard for some people to accept . . .
    Pharisees as part of a believing congregation in harmony – deciding unanimously – that seems to be more than most people can handle . . .

  • Don Smith

    Thank you Scot: Very important read for me this morning as I am part of a denomination that has traditional distiguished the “conservatives” as Pharisees. Time to drop the labels and live the Creed.

  • Joe Canner

    I agree that we need to be careful about labeling and using perjorative language. It’s also good to be historically accurate when referring to the Pharisees. However, I don’t know that the focus should be on the Pharisees so much as on the behavior that Jesus criticized. Note that at various points he addresses the Pharisees plus the Saducees (Matt 3 & 16), “teachers of the law” (all 4 gospels), and “experts in the law” (Luke 7, 11, & 14). I would also say the parable of the Good Samaritan includes a jab at the priests and Levites. Likewise, we need to root out these same attitudes in our own lives and (as the Spirit leads) in the lives of others. As the saying goes, “if the shoe fits…”

  • As many have already said Scot -great post!

    I just heard a radio pastor last week use the term Pharisee in a derogatory sense (applying it to Christians). I remember thinking “If I hear one more person misuse that term….” lol!

    This is a great summary and I will post it on my face book page!

  • Rick

    Good thoughts. However, it does make my chuckle a bit to see that now the precise target of the term has been defined (liberal/progressive), some here are pushing to stop using the term in the liberal/conservative sense.

  • MatthewS

    I appreciate this corrective and I worry about this term quite a bit.

    Coming from a different angle, I blogged through the book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” ( and found their usage of what Jesus said to the Pharisees to be helpful.

    Scot says: “Second, use it only for those who through the abuse of their teaching authority are leading people astray. (In this sense, it is fit most for heretics.)”

    This is the sense in which I sometimes apply it, but also with an eye to those who may not be heretics but who hide behind Scripture while abusing their position. Someone coined a term, “nothing butters”, meaning people who claim to hold to “nothing but” the Bible. Some “nothing butters” are wonderful people but a subset of them can be specifically susceptible to abusive leaders. If you attempt to cite scientific research, psychological terminology, or even rules of good logic, you are likely to be rebuffed that these things are not “God’s Wisdom”, or some similar term. For them, you need to work with teachings and images that are explicitly Scriptural.

    My life has been affected by such teachings and people, and I am involved with many people who are emerging or have recently emerged from such a background. For example, a counselor certified by this association: explained to a victim of spiritual and physical abuse that the only problem they needed to worry about was their own sin, which they claim reduces down to lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, or pride of life. There was a lack of comprehension and compassion for the trauma resulting from abuse; instead, that counselor re-interprets trauma through the grid of the victim’s own lust of flesh, lust of eyes, or pride of life, adding shame and pain to hidden wounds. This, while an abusive leader or parent is given wide berth. I give this specific example and link to help give a sense that it’s not merely 2 local kooks somewhere down in redneck-ville but an active and ongoing reality.

    I don’t want to misuse the term, either historically or theologically, but when you are searching Scripture for truths to apply against spiritual abuse, the attitude of the Pharisees in carefully keeping up appearances and in tithing precisely on their mint and cumin while neglecting the “weightier matters of the law”: justice and mercy, Jesus’ rebukes to them really jump out. For a different example, consider church leaders who style themselves as holy or as keeping a higher standard while actively covering up sexual abuse committed against vulnerable members of their church.

    Perhaps part of the corrective could be to use Jesus’ rebukes and statements where they reasonably apply today, but not to label an abusive leader or parent as a “Pharisee”?

  • Norman

    I believe this issue with the Pharisees is not an issue that can be covered over in simplistic contemporary arguments. The crux of the problem is twofold in my opinion. First we have a messianic coming that had been projected for hundreds of years by those within late first temple and throughout 2nd Temple Judaism seeking a change in the approach to walking with God in Righteousness. This tension erupts fully with the coming of Christ in seeking a throwback to the simplicity of Jewish Wisdom literature principles that Christ emphasizes. He drives this point home in the recorded discussion found in the NT in which he says that the simplicity of the Gospel is essentially the two Commandments; namely loving God above all else and loving your neighbor as yourself. There was however a strong belief that we see in the OT that priestly rule was inept and corrupted and had perverted the purity and essence of Wisdom teachings. That observation cannot be overlooked nor set aside.

    Secondly there was a strong undercurrent and belief that Judaism itself taught that those who shed the blood of God’s faithful and innocent would receive retribution from God for those innocent. So when certain Jewish or Gentile individuals killed and persecuted the faithful they were in practice bringing God’s condemnation upon themselves. All we have to do is read Matt 22-25 to see how Jesus taught about this issue concerning the times of tribulation that was coming upon the faithful as we see come about in the book of Acts. This was a special period of revolutionary change taking place and it was not unexpected as one can see in the 2nd temple literature that lays out the outline of what to expect.

    Paul himself along with other NT writers condemn the Jews who rejected what was being understood to be the revealed truth and which rejected Mosaic Law and its implications of a works based approach. The Law although Paul says was good could not be managed by the Human spirit and needed to be set aside in order to depend upon God to sustain His faithful ones. This was a battle that Paul fought with his Jewish brothers over and over again even within Christian circles and it’s tension continued for many centuries and in fact there are still relics of that still permeating Christian experience today.

    It is often difficult IMO to define the wall of separation that ancient Judaism encountered when its traditional approach met the Gentile world that Paul was attempting to set free. We really need to be careful in overly defining legalism because Paul says that God’s grace toward the strong and the weak will lift them both up through Christ shed blood (Rom 14). Paul may have strived mightily to move the bar away from legalism but he also accommodated the Jews in the Spirit of Grace (1 Cor 9:19-23.)

    What wasn’t tolerated or whitewashed was those whether Jew or Gentile that shed innocent blood. I think we do well in recognizing the difficult times that engulfed the times of Christ and the establishment of Christianity and we need to look again at the commonality of the purity of Judaism that we hold in common as God’s faithful. That includes the Muslim as well who look to Abraham in all of our common heritages. Christ embodied YHWH in the flesh which is found emanated in the Wisdom literature of the OT and which all three groups formulate but which we Christians believe is represented by the purity seen within Christ. Of those which much is given much is to be expected. Those who receive much Grace should expect to offer much Grace.

    IMHO the same principles hold eternally, those who shed innocent blood of God’s faithful are the ones we should expect to suffer the righteous vengeance of God but only by the hand of God. So those Christians whether Catholic, Protestant, and those Jews and Muslims who cross the boundary into blood shed or persecution are the ones who are condemned by scriptures. However we need to remember Christ admonishment that to hate ones brother in their heart is to be a murderer in God’s eyes. Our hearts either condemn us or it lifts us up with God in its love of our brothers.

  • SSG

    You are right that uncritical use of the term as an anachronistic vehicle for abuse is very problematic. However, we should also not shy away from asking if there are modern analogues. Or, to put this more in line with the sotm, in what ways am i like the Pharisees? Furthermore, would Jesus commend or criticize those similarities?

  • Jim Killion

    Great blog – it’s time to un-stereotype this group. It is often overlooked, as previously responded, that Paul never gave up being a Pharisee. Also overlooked is the fact that it was a highly respected Pharisee, Gamaliel, that stood up for the early believers. Additionally it was Pharisees that warned Jesus about Herod, Luke 13.

    Soli Deo Gloria

  • Just one thing about Jesus’ warning of hypocricy — Yes, Jesus said the Pharisees were hypocrites, and we, 2000 years later, talking about the Pharisees, say things like, “Yes, weren’t they a load of hypocrites!”

    Jesus was speaking the word of God, and he was right. They were hypocrites — meaning that by God’s standards of righteousness and transparency, they failed. But there’s another side to that. How do we, today, who like to parrot the terms “Pharisees” and “hypocrite”, measure up to those standards? Had we lived among them, with our present perceptions, would WE have recognised them as hypocrites? Or worse yet: could we have received exactly the same criticism?

    It’s one thing for God to say something, it’s quite another for us to assume he meant someone else.

  • Excellent… Christendom (all along its various spectra) needs a lot more of this kind of balanced and responsible reminder against over-simplifying and against name-calling. NT interpretation looks quite different when one has such a sophisticated understanding as this on Pharisees, Saducees, etc. It seems anti-semitism (or even anti-Judaism) becomes more difficult for one practical result.

    As to Jesus and Pharisaic thinking, some scholars have suggested (I think responsibly so) that Jesus may have been a Pharisee himself, at least loosely aligned (Paul apparently was no more than loosely aligned himself, claiming to be a Pharisee). Serious intra-family squabbles do not negate this possibility (who fights more and harder than siblings?). But for those who like to ID their brand of conservatism (and often rigid rules, etc.) with Jesus’ teachings, your analysis rightly suggests that Jesus liberalized even the “liberals” positions. Or, if “individualism” should be identified more with conservatism than liberalism, he balanced the group authority of Pharisaism with the call for individual discernment in the application of the law in a loving manner.

  • JustforQuix

    Well done, Scot. I think a similar cautiousness is deserved for the term “Judaizer” too. Granted, it’s not used as much as a pejorative as “Pharisee” yet it can still support a current of unquestioned contra-Semitism to our worldview. But the evangelical tendency to wash all Bible books together into a uniform “God says… such and such” also has another side effect: it makes God’s worldview primarily the same as our hermeneutic. We should be more delicate and self-reflective about that.