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.