The Pharisees: My Response to the New Barna Study

The Pharisees: My Response to the New Barna Study May 1, 2013

The new Barna study asks this question: “Are Christians more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees?” Historians know this question is a question about the Torah practice of Jesus vs. the Torah practice of the Pharisees. In other words, it’s a question about how best to observe Torah — Jesus’ Torah theology vs. the Pharisees’ Torah theology. Unfortunately, the word “Pharisee” in this survey means “hypocrite” so the real question is Are Christians less or more hypocritical and more or less loving toward those who are different? Those are better questions.

Here’s the big idea: there are no fewer hypocrites among Jesus’ followers than there are among Jews, than among Muslims, than among Hindus, than among atheists. Hypocrisy is a human problem not a Jewish problem or a Christian problem. Because it is a human problem it is a problem for all of us.

What does the word “Pharisee” mean in your church?

Every time someone calls someone a Pharisee ask two questions: Are you talking about a specific form of Torah observance? Are Christians just as prone to hypocrisy as Jews?

Here’s my response, which reposts some revised an earlier post because we need to get better at the use of this term “Pharisee.” It seems I need to remind us of this problem three or four times a year.

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. Paul, after all, remained a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). 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 Sanders’ book, regardless of all the scuttlebutt about his ideas ever since.

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” in order to overpower someone with moral status. 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 often strains the wisdom of Jesus and becomes 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.”

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, respectable, and Yes sometimes mistaken 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. Josephus saw no inherent religious hypocrisy among the Pharisees.

A few more ideas from Josephus who described the Pharisaism known to the apostle Paul:

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 “progressives,” the Sadducees the “conservatives,” and the Essenes the “radical separatists.”

The Pharisees passed on their teachings from generation to generation through an oral tradition. (Everyone did this; there was no other way; the Pharisees 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. The Gospel evidence tilts toward their conflict with Jesus.

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.]

If you add “Some of the…” at the beginning of each sentence you will have some historical nuance.

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. Paul did not see himself as a hypocrite because he saw himself as a Pharisee. He saw his pre-Christian Pharisaism as an incomplete form of Torah observance now that Christ has come.
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 alone; 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. If a Christian treats the Bible as a treasure trove of Torah then one might find analogies in such beliefs and practices. Structurally what seems most analogous in the Christian world is the traditions that have developed, say, among Roman Catholics or among the Eastern Orthodox or among some kinds Presbyterians or Lutherans or evangelical fundamentalists wherein a very clear boundary is set between themselves as the pure group and all other outsiders.

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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  • Mike M

    Jeez Scot: don’t you leave no stone unturned? Your exposition is fantastic and ultimately practical. Jesus didn’t hate Pharisees. He hated their hedges that prevented people from living the kingdom life.

  • phil_style

    Thanks Scot.

  • Thanks, Scot!

  • Justin

    I have to disagree on this one, and would submit that you are missing the forest through the trees. The essential feature of the Pharisees is captured in your summary of their hypocrisy at the end, not their theology. I suppose you could argue that theology comes into play – but primarily in the sense that Jesus’ sacrifice turns our conventional wisdom about how to relate to God upside down – our righteousness is filthy rags. Jesus’ two greatest parables – Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan – were both responses to the pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisees. I think if you come away with the idea that this is an abstruse theological debate about interpreting the Torah that has little relevance to modern Christians, then I think you probably got it wrong.

  • scotmcknight

    Justin, my contention is not to whitewash the Pharisees but to resist — by documentation — the equation “Pharisee = hypocrite” and “hypocrite = Pharisee.” Example: if you say “pedophile” every time you see a Roman Catholic priest we’ve got them wrong. I want to humanize the Pharisees and give an accurate depiction of what they were like. Anything else is blatant stereotyping.

  • scotmcknight

    Why do you not include “teachers of the law” in Luke 15? Why do you call the “teacher of the law” a Pharisee for the Good Samaritan?

  • GaryLyn

    Great exposition Scott. The equation of Pharisee=hypocrite has always been bothersome to me as well and the Barna study only furthers the problem. I have read some Jewish religious writers who understand the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as an internal conflict…that is, Jesus was, in many ways a Pharisee who offered his own, very different understanding of Torah obedience.

  • Jim

    Scot: Thank you for this. I have always tried to give the Pharisees their due in my preaching but one Sunday I must have unintentionally run a little roughshod over them. Unknown to me, a Messianic Jew was in attendance and was likely about as sensitive to the issue as I had been insensitive. He walked up to me after worship, pointed his finger and said: “You, sir, are an anti-Semite.” I was mortified but learned my lesson to be careful whenever I speak about the Pharisees…and anything else.

    Fortunately, we were able to talk through it and work it out but it was a great lesson. Thank you..this one is going in the files.

  • I’m not quite sure I understand your point here: “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.)”

    Is this how Paul saw himself? This thought seems to go against the over generalization that you were fighting against with ‘hypocrite.’

    Loved the article and I find myself often trying to maneuver people away from the hypocrite is synonymous with Pharisee mindset.

  • Justin

    Hi Scott,

    Good question about teachers of the law. I guess because the two are conflated by Jesus so often that I do that myself, but I’m no New Testament scholar. Were the teachers of the law generally Pharisees?

    I think the Pharisee = hypocrite contention is basically correct. Yes, in theory you could have Pharisee theology and be humble and merciful, but that’s not what they were in Jesus’ day, and that’s how we remember them.

    I think the major problem with the Pharisees are that we are too quick to label other people as Pharisees while we deem ourselves true to the spirit of Jesus. Pride is probably the toughest struggle for most Christians – certainly myself included – and reading through the Gospels and Jesus’ encounters with them is always convicting in a fruitful way for me.

  • RJS

    This is an interesting post.

    I’ve never looked at “Pharisees” and thought Jew or RCC. I’ve actually tended to think fundamentalist, or even evangelical (despite the fact that I would and still do classify myself as evangelical).

    Sometimes – in fact far too often – this has led to unhealthy finger pointing (eg. “look at those fundamentalist hypocrites”), but it has also led me to ask when I am on the wrong side of Jesus’s finger pointing.

  • scotmcknight

    Justin, the answer is No and that is why we need to pay attention to details. Why, many of us ask, does someone see the “teachers of the law” as Pharisees in Luke 10? Because we’ve stereotyped the prototypical religious Jew as a Pharisee. But Josephus tells us there about 4-5000 Pharisees in the 1st Century Jewish world.

  • I remember early in ministry listening to a sermon I preached and thinking, “geez that sound’s anti-Semitic.” It really struck me how easy it is to make false equivocations for rhetorical purposes. It is important that we realize these were real people with genuine motivations and not foils and macguffins for good sermon illustrations. Thanks Scot!

  • Glenn

    Excellent post! I know both Jewish people and Messianic Jews who follow Rabbinic Judaism and would consider themselves as part of the Pharisee’s tradition as it has developed in history. Pharisee is not a negative term for them. I would urge others to follow your advice in how one uses this term.

  • Justin

    Hi Scott, the phrase “Pharisees and teachers of the law” is used repeatedly through the NT. So clearly there is some association. I will freely admit to never looking into it before now, but my quick googling says that teacher of the law is a formal position. I surmise that Pharisees were probably the dominant school of thought among them.

    But setting that aside, I think you are focusing on the wrong thing. If you are reading the parable of the Prodigal son and the seven woes and thinking “interesting insight into a 1st century theological debate” then you reading it wrong. Wouldn’t you agree?

  • scotmcknight


    Yes, of course, but I’ve not said such a thing. Matt 23 focuses on the “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, so in that context I’d focus on both their hypocrisy and our tendency to hypocrisy. Your suggestion is not at all what I would teach in those context, though I would be quick to point out that Jesus is not speaking simply of Jews or of Judaism or of all Pharisees. On Luke 15 I’d focus on Pharisees and scribes and their boundary marking by Torah observance that blocked sinners from access. On Luke 10 I’d not call them Pharisees without warrant.

    We don’t know that Pharisees were the dominant party or school of thought. Their influence fluctuated.

  • Justin

    I’ve been reading the comments and I think some of this debate is simply equivocating over the meaning of the word Pharisee.

    Suppose that Calvinists all of sudden starting getting really hard-hearted. They came up with some Biblical guideline for a “proper” duty to the poor and they scrupulously did that even as they condemned the poor for their immoral behavior. Then over time, “Calvinist” would become associated with religious hypocrisy. Some charismatic preacher might start a revival in Christianity as a response to “Calvinism” and this new revival might grow very popular and people over time would forget all about the original meaning of Calvinism.

    And then after a couple hundred years, some blogger might write a post explaining that although we associate Calvinists with hypocrites, that’s actually false. Calvinism is really just a theology about man’s role (or lack thereof) in forming a belief in Jesus. I think that’s more or less what’s going on here with the Pharisees.

  • Justin

    I think that’s the wrong reading of Luke 15. Jesus’ response to their boundary making was to tell the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the parable of the prodigal son is about pride. It is, of course, about the elder brother. I think if you make Luke 15 about a doctrine of who goes to a feast then you miss the real lesson about pride and how to connect to God.

  • Scot,
    Thanks. I’ve always intuited that the Pharisees were far more faithful and human than contemporary usage allowed. This is a great post.

    Re: revisiting this usage. Just mark your calendar for the next few posts in 2013!

  • Very helpful, brother. Thanks.

  • Chuck

    In a certain sense, I’m not sure it matters what Pharisee means biblically or historically because as the word is used today it more or less refers to a Christian who is either (distastefully) more conservative than the speaker or one who makes other Christians feel inferior on some point. In other words, I’m not sure people really care who the Pharisees actually were or what Jesus’ beef with them was, they just know that a Pharisee is a stand-in for the kind of Christian it’s okay to look down on for the self-righteousness we ascribe to them. I’ve sometimes thought, somewhat facetiously, that Pharisees are our favourite biblical characters because they are the only people Christians can feel superior to without guilt.

  • norman

    We have had this discussion before and I believe it comes down to a contextual understanding of the big picture that Christ and Paul were pushing against Torah as practiced by 2nd T Judaism. We have to be careful of not underplaying the removal of Mosaic Torah or we are likely in jeopardy of neutering the prime intent of what Christ and Paul were instigating.

    Either we believe Paul that Mosaic Torah needed to be replaced or we don’t. If we are ambiguous about the subject then IMHO we may be watering down the purpose of Messiah to effect the change needed for effective relationship with God.

    The practice of Mosaic Torah is equated by Paul as an example of “works of the flesh” which contrast to “life through the Spirit” which is a requirement now to be in right standing with God.

    Paul’s examination of the “Mosaic Torah” and its problem is taken back to its origins in the Garden with Adam and Eve when they usurped the correct way of walking with God. He is essentially saying that “the works of the flesh” which he equates to “Mosaic Law Keeping or its equivalent” is what drove the need for Messiah to rid us of that methodology and thus Christ became the 2nd Adam that endures eternally. The story in the NT is that this overthrowing of the temporary “guardian” Torah was the hidden mystery found within the OT prophecies.

    I think once you can conclude what the prime intent of Messiah was expected to do in the eyes of the NT authors then we are in position to better evaluate the interactions of Pharisees, teachers of the Law etc. in their literature. I don’t think we need to compromise to the point of embracing “2nd Temple Judaism again as practiced by the Majority of the Jews at that time or even many first century Jewish Christians. That doesn’t mean that one can’t embrace their piety and devotion to God though which can become confused with “works of the flesh”. Leading a life of purity should always be the idea whether by Mosaic Torah followers or Messiah Torah followers. Hebrews chapter 11 provides insight into the concept of right standing by patriarch’s and Jews before the arrival of Messiah and it was simpler than strict Mosaic Torah legalities.

    I will mention that the consolidation of Jews and Christians after AD70 illustrates a Pharisaical and Essene/Messiah type permanent split. The goals of both groups just did not coincide together as they apparently had for centuries albeit with tension.

    Having said all this I do believe that Scot’s nuanced understanding of groups of people is important to emphasize and not generally label them. However it’s easier said than done when people feel called to defend their faith positions. I also do believe that some modern day Messianic Jews are tending to go back toward practicing the constituent elements of Mosaic Judaism for the sake of Heritage when there is a danger in conforming too closely back to what was set aside. Paul lays out his discussion in Galatians and Romans 5-8 pretty extensively regarding this issue.

    Concerning Scot’s discussion of liberalism and conservative; I think Jesus was a revolutionary who preached a return to the old days of “wisdom” which would have been what the activist Jews has pushed aside for their version of religion. The fall from the Garden story effectively reflects this view in Genesis as well and was an undercurrent theme throughout Judaism.

  • GREAT article Scot, thank you!

    I appreciate how you’ve pointed out the problem of stereotyping and how, in Christianity, we completely miss some key facts. I’ll add a few of my own observations:

    1) The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, angels, the afterlife, reward and punishment etc. (And the Sadducees did not). What we neglect is that they held this before there was any Christian or Christianity.
    2) According to my understanding, the Pharisees were a separatist group that only ate with each other, or those considered as scrupulous as they were, and since table fellowship was the highest form of intimacy, their invitations to host Jesus for meals is quite significant.
    3) God had revealed to the Jews that there would be a future Servant – Messiah – that would uphold His Word (the Torah and Prophets) when he came. Jews knew he’d “Strengthen” God’s Word by correctly interpreting it.

    Therefore, the fact that Jews who were expecting the Messiah would question Jesus extensively is both understandable and appropriate under the circumstances. They weren’t supposed to just take a messianic candidate’s word for it (and that would have been problematic too, since Jesus liked to keep that on the DL a lot!) and God had clearly instructed them what to do with someone who comes to lead the Jews away from the Torah!

    Anyway, I find that issue ignored and unappreciated.

  • Oh I forgot to add:
    When Jesus says “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” I believe he is affirming them, not being sarcastic and snarky.

  • Ray

    @Ruth – How do you see that as affirming? Seems Jesus is declaring that the so-called righteousness of the Pharisees (which they make sure is on display for all to see) is not “good enough” for and is uncharacteristic of life in God’s kingdom. I don’t see affirmation in that at all. I’m also thinking here of Matthew 23:1-4, where Jesus says similar things to his disciples: do what the Pharisees preach, but don’t be like them (thus launching into his charges of hypocrisy).

    Along these lines, it seems that the over-generalizations of the historical Pharisees today is simply based on the generalizations and broad strokes painted of the Pharisees in the gospels themselves. In other words, the Pharisees get cast wholly in a negative light today because the gospels themselves present a consistent negative picture (without Nicodemus and Paul, it would be virtually 100% negative). There are no qualifications – for example, In Matthew 23, Jesus doesn’t say “Woe to some of you because you are hypocritical (while others of you are righteous and on the right track).”

    Having said that, I do agree with Scot that we need to exercise caution and maturity before labeling and stereotyping, whether contemporary or historical groups. As he said, not all groups are all bad all the time. Scot, would you say then that the use of “Pharisees” (and “teachers of the law”, etc.) in the gospels is used as a sort of trope for a religious stance that misses the mark of what Jesus is preaching (a la Jesus Creed)?

    In this sense, it seems the core issue Jesus is responding to against the Pharisees is the condition of their heart, which is apparent in their failure to understand and live by the core of the Law, as Jesus exemplified. Their doctrines and adherence to the Torah were not sufficient to give them a heart that beat in rhythm with God’s. Only the Spirit is able to give us such hearts (thus Romans 7-8). Thus life in the Spirit is not in competition with the principles of Torah. Rather life in the Spirit fulfills Torah principles (“principles” being those deeper theological impulses that drive and undergird the specific laws of Torah that help God’s people live righteously in that specific cultural context). Seems the Pharisees had missed these deeper theological principles in the Law, all the while trying to keep the Law faithfully.

  • This was a helpful and insightful analysis, so thank you. I pastored a church not too long ago which had a larger-than-usual percentage of those I would consider religious Pharisees today (holding to many of the 13 Scriptural examples you give and all of the global observations, though also strong in the hypocrisy, too). I did not bring about transformation of the church or their lives by seeing them that way. It was only when I preached a sermon about what it means to be a Pharisee and had to research what a Pharisee actually was that I began to see them for who they really are and why those tendencies are prevalent. The religious impulse to preserve the traditions and enforce ritual observance of the law and interpret it in ways that justify those behaviors is actually quite commendable, but it easily leads to pride and hypocrisy. But one is not automatically the other, and we shortcircuit our ability to reconcile people to God and prevent progress in community when we presume they’re the same thing.

    I came away from that study and sermon admiring the Pharisees for their zeal and commitment and realizing that they were trying to do what I want every good church member to do, they were just misguided in spirit and application as to how they went about trying to do it. I think the way Paul commended the Athenians on Mars Hill for their altar to an unknown god so he could introduce Him is apropos here – we don’t build bridges by tearing people down, we help people change when we understand why such things are important to the person and then help them see a better way. As you say, the particular religious branch wasn’t the problem; it was the human condition problem of hypocrisy. The emphasis on minutiae, moral myopia, and prestige/pride and related abuses are tendencies we can all fall to when we are convinced that we alone are right in our interpretations and it’s our job to enforce them at all cost.

  • ao

    Justin (#17),

    I think you’ve understood the phenomenon going on here correctly, which I think just underscores Scot’s point. In your scenario, it would be unfair and potentially harmful to characterize Calvinists in such a way.

    It’s true that language is always evolving, the meaning of words change over time, and we don’t *always* need to provide a corrective by highlighting the original meaning of a word. Some harmless examples are the word “lyric” or “literally”. The dictionary definition of these words have evolved to the point where they can mean the exact opposite of what they originally meant. I’m not sure it’s worth writing posts about revisiting the origins of these words.

    Ethno-cized words, on the other hand, can be much more harmful. I hear people all the time use phrases like “gypped”, “Indian Giver”, or “Mongloid” without any awareness of the negative ethnic stereotypes associated with those words. I put using “Pharisee” to mean “hypocrite” in this category.

  • @Ray (#25)

    First, the Pharisees were a reform movement attempting to bring the Jews back to faithful observance of Torah, which is God’s Word and direction for them. So, this is a good thing.

    Second, Jesus is talking to Jews in his remarks, so I’m not advocating that non-Jewish Christians are to follow their Torah observance, but his remark is illuminating to Jewish people. Additionally, he is giving these Jews a benchmark in his remarks about the Pharisees. They were very pious men, and not as you’re characterizing them. Jesus has strong words for them because he was basically one of them in many regards.

    It was an in house and very Jewish way of interaction. Notice how he has virtually nothing to do with the Sadducees, except for saying in Matt 22:

    “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

    You say: “Their doctrines and adherence to the Torah were not sufficient to give them a heart that beat in rhythm with God’s.”

    Agreed. Torah properly interpreted as Messiah did, is based on loving God with all one’s heart, soul and strength, and loving one’s fellow… known as the Sh’ma and V’Havta and Lev 19:18.

    “Only the Spirit is able to give us such hearts (thus Romans 7-8). Thus life in the Spirit is not in competition with the principles of Torah.”

    But since the Church, ostensibly made up by those with that “Spirit” that gives us the ability to follow Him, is in no way free of the same charges leveled against the Pharisees (and far worse when one examines the the 2000 years of anti-Semitism, persecution and slaughter of Jewish people) what is our excuse? What is our remedy?

  • Ray

    Thanks for your reply Ruth. You mention that the Pharisees (as a reform movement) were “very pious men”. Piety (at least performative, outward piety for which the gospels characterize the Pharisees) is not the same thing as true righteousness, according to Jesus. Isn’t this Jesus’ whole point in the SOTM? All the talk about praying in public, fasting, etc.? Thus, that is why I am trying to figure out how Jesus is affirming the Pharisees in the SOTM or elsewhere. Yes, he affirms their teachings in at least a couple of places (Matt 23:3 & 23:23) but he does not affirm their examples or behavior.

    Again, I am basing my assessments on how the gospels paint the Pharisees as a whole, not taking into account extrabiblical historical accounts that describe the Pharisees.

  • Ray

    By the way, I should note that I don’t see Jesus as being anti-Pharisee (as some co temporary Christians mis-understand). In other words, I don’t see his message as being “you have to stop being a Pharisee in order to follow me.” (Clearly we have 2 examples to the contrary in Nicodemus and Paul). But just because he’s not anti-Pharisee does not necessarily mean he affirms them, as you put it. In fact, I think that’s what they were looking for – affirmation from this gifted and superb rabbi. But, he wouldn’t give it to them, which is part of what got him killed.

  • Ray,
    It’s true that one can “follow all the rules” and yet do it with a rotten heart and God is not fooled. Just like one can “feel” very compassionate for another, or hold a certain belief, and yet do nothing about it. Is that “better”? I don’t think so.

    My point is that Jews are instructed to perform certain commandments and to live within specific guidelines. Don’t forget, their subjugation by foreign rule, first Babylonian, then Greek, and finally Roman, was not as it was supposed to be; they’re supposed to have self-rule, and they didn’t because they weren’t following Torah. So I’m saying the Pharisees were a positive movement to get Jews back to following the precepts God gave them to live by. We tend to diminish this aspect (behavior) in Christoanity and forget how serious God is about it regarding the Jews.

    Interestingly, the first century is known to be a time of very high Torah observance among the Jews. So after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion, they had to reflect on how the destruction could happen at such a time of high observance.

    The conclusion they reached was “baseless hatred.”

    Saying to people they cannot enter the kingdom unless their righteousness EXCEEDS that of the Pharisees, who were very diligent, is an affirming statement. It sets a bar that must be surpassed.

    My point is that God has clear expectations as to how Jews are to live and interact with Him and their world and a “feeling” or “belief” doesn’t replace the need for that behavior. Yet, all of the Torah commandments hang on loving God with everything, an your fellow.

  • Btw Ray:

    If I seem to contradict by saying on one hand they were very observant in the 1st century, and yet at the same time they were suffering horrible atrocities and subjugation by Roman rule, (and Babylonian and Greek before that) and dispersion, it is because they need to do both: obey Torah, and do it with proper motives i.e., loving God and fellow. They were doing one, and not the other.

  • Just a thought about affirming, I can affirm an unbeliever’s compassion without declaring that their compassion makes them righteous.
    I’m with Ruth on this one. Jesus was not declaring them righteous. But he was affirming the heart behind their zeal.
    Norman’s comment is very helpful in understanding this distinction.

  • Sorry, I meant DJSNL’s comment, not Norman’s.
    Norman’s is good as well, but I was referring to DJSNL’s observations.

    Sorry for the confusion. 🙂

  • Ray

    Ruth, Nathanael, et al.,- I’m enjoying the dialogue here. Thanks for your thoughts & insights.

    Ruth, I agree with your historical assessment about how the Pharisees came to be, that they were an attempt at reform, etc. You wrote that “the Pharisees were a positive movement to get Jews back to following the precepts God gave them to live by”. I also certainly agree that God is serious about devotion to the Law – even Jesus affirms that sentiment. Again, I want to be clear I’m not suggesting an anti-nomian, anti-Pharisee Jesus or reading of the gospels, as some Christians mistakenly believe.

    However, as I read it, while the Pharisees may have begun with the intention of a reform movement in devotion to God and the Law, by the first century their zealous devotion and interpretations of Torah had evolved into a religious system that, ironically, seemed to be antithetical to some of the core principles of Torah. We see how this religious system is characterized in the gospels, and it is not positive. It promotes hypocrisy, not true righteousness. It is burdensome and oppressive. It is about religio-societal positioning and power. It revolves around zeal, not grace and mercy. It does not lead to true righteousness – if anything it does just the opposite.

    Jesus did not affirm this religious system. Instead he criticized it and exposed it for being of Satan, not of God. Jesus was not against the Pharisees, teachers of the Law, etc. – he does not outright reject them or where they are coming from – for example he doesn’t rail against their zeal and devotion. But he does say it is completely misplaced/misdirected (The Law is not bad, rather it is how they have used the Law).

    But I just don’t see how Jesus is affirming them, since these religious groups embodied this religious system (which I assume is why they get all the negative treament in the gospels and get “labeled” or “generalized”). Again, they want to be affirmed by Jesus – this would be a form of self-justification for them. But Jesus won’t do it. Perhaps in the end we just have a difference of understanding in what “affirms” means.

  • Well stated!

  • Jewish halachah is an important issue here, and for me it’s vital to keep in mind who the “players” are i.e. Jews talking to Jews. Jesus complains NOT at their keeping of the Torah, nor of the traditions they have taken on, such as tithing dill and mint which is NOT a commandment, btw, and he affirms that extra measure as well, what he does it severely criticize them for putting the halacha (a necessary thing to have) and traditions ABOVE the Word of God, which is a danger in Christianity as well, but isn’t as obvious when one is fully absorbed in it. (For surely we put our pet theologies above God’s Word all the time, we just think we’re right.) So my take is that he wanted them to see the “spirit” of the Torah, not disregard it as we sometimes argue for in Christian paradigm, but to keep it, with the eye on love for God and love and compassion for their fellow.

    I find further support for this position due to the fact that he has nothing to say to the Sadducees who take a literal, sola-scriptura position, except that they don’t know anything.

  • Ray

    “So my take is that he wanted them to see the “spirit” of the Torah, not disregard it as we sometimes argue for in Christian paradigm, but to keep it, with the eye on love for God and love and compassion for their fellow.” – Well said, Ruth. I fully agree. This disregard for/misunderstanding of Torah is so widespread in Christianity. I’d say it is just as prevalent in my tribe (Churches of Christ), due mainly to a sort of dispensational view of history – Law of Moses is old covenant, thus replaced by Jesus, Spirit, etc. under the new covenant. Torah is no longer important. Thus no longer studied (seriously, no one knows what to do with the Torah. It’s just ignored). Only applies to Jews, etc.

    With this paradigm, you can see why the Pharisees wholly get stereotyped (teachings and all), and why Jesus is (wrongly) perceived as rejecting the Pharisees and their law-keeping, which is perceived as legalism and works-righteousness.(If you knew my tribe from the inside, you’d see how ironic this all is.). I appreciate this discussion on the Pharisees because it helps me think through better how to teach a better understanding of Torah, halakha, Pharisees, etc.

  • Hi Ray, agree, and I appreciate our conversation too! I’ve been writing about my paradigm shifts lately on my blog and you may find something useful there.

  • Great Article, Scot. Funny thing is, I literally just finished reading again Ed Sanders’ “Judaism …Grand Christian Abstractions” article when I learned of yours here.

    You bring up a good point about labeling. Jesus was really good at it. In my article on gossip (Biblical Theology Bulletin, Nov2012, Vol. 42 Issue 4, p204-213) I spend some time unpacking just how aggressive Jesus is in his sustained attack on the Pharisees in Mt 23 – labeling and attempting to shame the Pharisees with his words and his behavior.


  • It’s Luke’s fault. 7… 10… 18…

  • James

    “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
    –Matthew 23:3

  • Yehiel Poupko

    The entire conversation about the Pharisees (sic) is quite beside the point. As troubling as it may be for some to visit reality, it is a place that summons us all. It is the year 5773 or 2013 in the common era. What my forefathers the Perushim, the Distinctive Ones, accomplished in their reception and transmission of God’s revealed Oral Torah to Moshe at Mt. Sinai is realized in the lived life of the Jewish People, our return to sovereignty in the ancient homeland. Their teaching of the Mitzvot vouchsafed our endurance against all odds in Christian Europe. God kept His Promise to my parents the Patriarchs and Matriarchs because we kept our promise to God to keep the Mitzvot. This is the magesterial achievement of the Perushim. In all these not one Christian prediction about the Jewish people has come true. We still live this life and those Jews who do not, still remain affirming of the Covenant of Peoplehood. Those who held on to ancient Christian attitudes about the Perushim and transfered that to all Israel have witnessed the massive decline of Christianity in Europe. Had they secured the welfare of the children of the Perushim from 1933-45 in Christendom the Churches of Europe would now be filled.

  • Daniel Ruben

    I think [French-Algerian-Jewish philosopher] Jacques Derrida, he of “differance” and “deconstruction” referenced the Pharisaic tradition often, especially eg in his essay “Edmond Jabes & The Question Of The Book”: “The Law then becomes Question and the right to speech coincides with the duty to interrogate, The book of man is a book of question. ‘To every question, the Jew answers with a question’ (Reb Lema).” Perhaps the Pharisee is in some way analogous to the modern day poststructuralist (postmodernist): forever interpreting and reinterpreting the Canon in earnest search of the origin and the original significance, sometimes sucked into a vortex of endless minutiae, a certain species of overt “postmodernist” has a definite tendency and unfortunate proclivity towards “political correctness” as opposed to shall we say, what is really honest; but in the end, the problem with poststructuralism is that in all its ever-expanding complexity and wisdom and text it finds at the end well, nothing, really. Nothing as profound and simple as, say, “Love God and your neighbour as yourself.” I see the exact same symptom in Protestant —> evangelical —> fundamentalist Christianity. Instead of the Canon we have an endlessly expanding exegesis and gloss by an uncountable host of pastors and preachers of innumerable different denominations sermonising on Sundays. All claiming equal authority in the democracy. But is it really just small talk in closed circles that’s never heard?

  • Daniel Ruben

    The whole notion of the two commandments to love God with all your strength and to love your neighbour as yourself strikes me as ambiguous. 1) Strength is not equally divided; some are stronger than others, others are weak 2) although “love of self” is presumed as given no one ever talks about what that means. Maybe we should read Mark 12:30-31 in reverse. Maybe the reason there’s so much hypocrisy out there is because most people are so shattered and ruined they have no idea in the first place what it means to really love oneself. I certainly couldn’t tell you what that means. How can you possibly love your neighbour or God if you have no sense of self-worth?

  • Jack Daniels

    I’ve a more formal response to a portion(s) of Scot’s fine article at this url:

  • NorrinRadd

    “Love” does not mean “feel warm and fuzzy about.” People always “love” themselves, in that we try to do things that make us “feel good,” and to avoid things that make us “feel bad.” Even people who are miserable and twisted to the point of harming or killing themselves are “loving” themselves by attempting to avoid some other pain. So when Scripture tells us to “love your neighbor,” it means, “Do things that benefit others.” It’s not talking about how we “feel” about them. Even unhappy people, unless dissociated from reality to a literally psychotic extent, have some understanding of treating others beneficially. Of course God needs nothing from us, hence we can’t “benefit” Him, which is why some places in the Synoptics the two Commandments are folded into one, why Paul repeatedly cites only “Love your neighbor” as the only Commandment needed to satisfy the Law, and why John’s only Commandment is the “new but not new” Commandment to “Love one another.”