This post is written in response to “Freeing the Church from Pharisee Influence“, but also to Christians in general. As a scholar on first-century Judaism and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), I get pretty tired of people beating up on the Pharisees. I’m also a Christian and I want people to read the New Testament appropriately. And so, I decided to write this article.
When you think of a “Pharisee,” what do you think? Here’s a definition that I pulled from dictionary.com:
- a member of a Jewish sect that flourished during the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE and that differed from the Sadducees chiefly in its strict observance of religious ceremonies and practices, adherence to oral laws and traditions, and belief in an afterlife and the coming of a Messiah.
- ( lowercase ) a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.
Today, Christians use the word “Pharisee” mostly in the second sense. We use it to describe a hypocritical and self-righteous person (or group). We also think that Jesus totally opposed the Pharisees and that they mostly just got in his way. In this article, I want to reclaim their reputation and have you re-think who they were and how they are related to Christianity.
But first, we need to get something out of the way. When the Gospels says something like “The Pharisees came to Jesus and…” do not immediately assume that this is a group representative of all Pharisees and that whatever these people say will be exactly what they all believed. Does every Christian believe the same thing? What about everyone in a single denomination? Don’t assume they represent the views of all Pharisees. The truth is that first-century Judaism was a complex conglomerate of what scholars call multiple “Judaisms.” Consider first-century Judaism more of a spectrum than a single, uniform entity. So this means that when Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites,” he is not indicting the whole bunch. Rather, he is calling-out a specific sub-group.
Second, yes, there was some real tension between Jesus and certain Pharisees, enough that some of them wanted to kill him (e.g. Mk 3:6). Most Christians, however, stop there and don’t realize that this was not the entirety of Jesus’ relationship to the Pharisees. This article will go into his relationship with them in greater detail.
Where Did the Pharisees Come From?
After the return from the Babylonian, the people were falling more and more in line with Greek (Hellenistic) culture. This was a primary impetus for the Maccabean revolt (ca. 165 BCE). The Greek rulers were slowly trying to squelch Judaism by outlawing its practices (circumcision and Sabbath being the two big ones). A group of Jews known as the Hasidim responded by revolting, kicking out their oppressors, and rededicating themselves to following the law (a good thing!). However, it wasn’t long before their new Jewish rulers became as Hellenized as the Greeks they had just kicked out. In response to this, a group split off from the Hasidim who wanted to maintain traditional Jewish practice and observance of the law. This group would become known as the Pharisees, probably from the Hebrew word perushim, meaning “separatists”.
The Pharisees Wanted Everyone to Know Torah
One of the groups of people we owe the most to, religiously speaking, are the Pharisees. Why? Because their main mission was the educate the people. They believed that the people should hear the law and be able to follow it. Why? Because the entire people, not just the priests, are under God’s admonition to be holy (Ex. 19:6). They believed that everyone should take this seriously, and so did Jesus! (Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16) This is why they built synagogues in every town. This is why they wanted to read they law every day in the synagogue. They believed that understanding of Judaism wasn’t just for the religious elites, but it was for everyone. Basically, they wanted to give the Bible to the people! The idea that every person can be holy, can follow the commands of God, is directly carried over into Christianity.
The synagogue, run by Pharisees, was also specifically for the people. Evertt Ferguson writes that, “The synagogue was the center of community, religious, and social life for the Jewish people.” It functioned as a meeting place, school, house of worship, and house of judgment for administering community justice.
Basically, the Pharisees are the “good guys” who care deeply about your average, everyday folk.
Jesus was Respected by (at least some of) the Pharisees
Yes, it’s true, Jesus clashed with the Pharisees on many occasions, but Jesus was also respected by the Pharisees. He was apparently respected enough that they warned him of a plot to kill him in Luke 13:31. If they all really hated him and were diametrically opposed to him, they could have left well-enough alone and just let Jesus die, but they didn’t. Obviously not all Pharisees wanted Jesus dead.
Jesus had Pharisee Disciples
The New Testament specifically mentions two prominent Pharisees:
- Nicodemus, who defended Jesus in public: “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, ‘Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?’“ – John 7:50-51
- Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38), was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mk. 15:43)
However, we also know that many Pharisees followed Jesus around as disciples (John 9:40). And we also know that in the early church there were many believers who “belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5). It doesn’t say “used to belong” or “were formerly Pharisees”, but rather that they actively identified as Pharisees.
The most famous Pharisee disciple of Jesus, however, was Paul. Years after realizing that Jesus is the Messiah, Paul declares “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). Ever catch that before? Years after actively becoming part of the Christian movement, Paul still considers himself a Pharisee!
Jesus Agrees with the Pharisees on Important Issues
Think that Jesus never agreed with the Pharisees? Think again. When a Pharisee came up to him and asked him a question, Jesus responds, the Pharisee agrees, and Jesus commends him:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. — Mark 12:28-34
A few notes should be made here. First, I know it says “teacher of the law,” but this is basically a term for a Pharisee. The fact that Jesus and the Pharisee here agree on one of the biggest issues in first-century Judaism (“what is the greatest command?”) is incredibly important. Jesus also agrees with the Pharisees on a host of other issues, including that there will be a resurrection.
Jesus Supports the Pharisees
What did Jesus think of the Pharisees as teachers of the people? Did he think that they should listen to them?
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” — Matt 5:20
Is Jesus being sarcastic here? Is he saying we must be better than the scumbag hypocrites? Is he saying that since we can’t be legalistically perfect, we need grace? No, no, and no. He’s being totally serious! Your righteousness has to surpass the BEST of the BEST. According to Jesus, unless you actually try to follow God with all of your heart, soul, and strength, you’ve got no place in the Kingdom. That’s hard to swallow. (Note: I’m not saying that you can work your way to Heaven. I am saying that God wants partners, not admirers.)
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” –Matt 23:2:
Here, Jesus tells his followers to listen to the Pharisees and to do what they say! Most Christians unfortunately focus on the rest of the chapter in which Jesus lambastes the Pharisees with the (in)famous “seven woes against the Pharisees.” His remarks are perhaps the most scathing against them in the entire New Testament. So why would he admonish his disciples to follow the Pharisees and then rip them up? Good question. Let’s dig a little deeper.
But What About All Those Disagreements that Jesus had with the Pharisees?
The main reason we see so much conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is because when the Gospels were being written, the early Church was in the process of differentiating itself from Judaism. When Christianity as a movement was in its infancy it was considered a sect of Judaism (even by those within it). However, as time went on, conflict grew between those who believed in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and those who didn’t. Within the synagogue, this friction took hold as trying to show whose interpretation of the Torah was better, Jesus’ or other Pharisees’. Thus, the Gospels were all written to show how Jesus’ interpretation of Torah differed from his Pharisee counterparts. However, note that these differences make up a small fraction of their overall shared theology. Jesus agreed with 99% of Pharisee interpretations of Torah. When Jesus is asked about divorce, he sides with Rabbi Shammai (ca. 50 BCE – 30 CE). When Jesus is asked about the greatest command, he sides with Rabbi Hillel (ca. 110 BCE – 7 CE). Yes, you read that right, Hillel had those two commands picked out as the greatest before Jesus was born! The New Testament abounds with examples where Jesus is asked a question and he gives an answer that agrees with some segment of the Pharisees. In fact, given the religious sects of the time and Jesus’ propensity to agree with the Pharisees, some scholars have suggested that Jesus was probably a Pharisee.
But What About All the Scathing Criticisms of the Pharisees?
When discussing Pharisees, one thing today’s Christian simply has to understand is that first-century Judaism functioned via testing one anothers’ interpretations of Torah, and making scathing remarks if they didn’t think it was correct. Why? Because they all cared deeply about getting it right! Jesus is simply functioning as part of that society when he disagrees with some detail of a Pharisee’s interpretation. Louis Feldman, a Jewish scholar, writes this about Jesus:
“Matthew’s Gospel is particularly antagonistic to the Jewish establishment. But when Jesus refers to Pharisees as “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13) and a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33), he is berating fellow Jews. Jesus undoubtedly regards his violent language as following the tradition of the prophets when they castigated fellow Jews of their day. In other words, it is a family quarrel. Jesus looks upon himself as continuing the Jewish tradition of self-criticism.” – Louis Feldman 
When you read a passage in the Gospels, and Jesus is criticizing his fellow Jesus (usually the Pharisees), you need to read it as part of an in-house debate. Jesus is an insider, using insider language, to talk about important topics. In fact, the Pharisees themselves were just as brutally scathing to each other as Jesus is to them. Here’s two examples:
- They classified themselves into 7 groups, 5 of which were not at all living up to the ideals of the Pharisees, 1 which was sort-of okay, and 1 which was ideal. The classifications themselves are brutal. Here’s the 5 bad ones (found in Babylonian Talmud Sotah 22b), along with New Testament references for when Jesus used similar (or exactly the same) language:
- Shoulder Pharisee: The “Shoulder” Pharisee paraded his good deeds before men like someone wearing a badge on his shoulder. (Mt. 23:4)
- Wait-a-little Pharisee: He walks with exaggerated humility. According to the Jerusalem Talmud: “He says, ‘spare me a moment that I may perform a commandment.'” This is the “wait-a-little Pharisee”, who begs for time in order to perform a meritorious action. They made a big deal about performing good deeds. (Mt. 6:2-5)
- Bleeding (“bleeding nose”) Pharisee: They were so concerned with being disobedient that they went to ridiculous extremes. This Pharisee would bruise himself walking into a wall because he had to shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman. They are most frequently criticized not for their extremeness, but for laying that extremeness on other people. (Mt. 23:13-15)
- Pestle (Mortar) Pharisee: “[His head] is bowed like [a pestle in] a mortar.” Also known as the “hump-backed” Pharisee, always walking around slumped over, the Pharisee who advertises his holiness lest anyone should touch him so that he should be defiled. (Mt. 23:5-7,27-28, Mt. 6:16)
- The Ever-reckoning (or “accounting”) Pharisee: The Pharisee who was always counting his good deeds to see if they offset his failures. He keeps track of every little good thing he’s done, even down to the smallest minutia. (Mt. 23:23, Lk. 17:20)
- The last two? “The Pharisee from Fear” who does things because he is afraid of God’s retribution, and “The Pharisee of Love” who does everything out of love for God. One might call Paul a “Pharisee of Love” based on his famous exposition on love in 1 Cor. 13.
- In the Torah, Jewish men are required to where tassels on their clothes to remind them of all of God’s commands (Numbers 15:37-40). Some wore large tassels as a way to show off their holiness. In the Mishna we read of a man named “ben Tzitzit Ha-kesset” which means “son of the extremely long tassels” which is clearly a mockery of their external claims of piety. Jesus comments on this too in Matt. 23.
Basically, Jesus’ scathing remarks regarding the hypocrisy of the Pharisees aren’t outliers; they’re the norm for the Pharisees!
Were the Pharisees perfect people? Of course not. However, I hope you now see a few things. First of all, the Pharisees were good people who were actively trying very hard to “get it right.” Second, Jesus had more in common with the Pharisees than not. Third, any time Jesus disagrees with the Pharisees, he is engaging in an in-house debate and using insider language.
But throughout the centuries, we’ve lost this idea that the Pharisees are “the good guys.” Here’s how Roland Deines sums it up:
Because of this self-identification with the Pharisees by a Jewish majority following the rabbinic form of Judaism, Christians, too, saw their Jewish contemporaries as the descendants of the Pharisees of the New Testament and therefore as Jesus’ declared enemies who wanted him dead (cf. Mark 3:6). This reductionist view of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees created age-long tensions and hostilities between Judaism and Christianity and overlooked completely the many elements Jesus and the Pharisees had in common.”
In other words, to list all the reasons why the Church needs to be free from Pharisee influence is overly simplistic and misses the point of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees. Want to know what the point really is? Here it is:
The Pharisees are the good guys who really believe in the Kingdom of God and the power of righteous obedience. That’s us. That’s anyone who takes their faith seriously. The fact is, I’m a Pharisee. I take my faith very seriously and when I encounter Jesus in the text, he reminds me not to miss the heart of God while I struggle to follow his commands. In other words: don’t be so focused on throwing out the bathwater that I miss the baby in the process.
May the Church be full of Pharisees.
P.S. With all that said, a word about the post I responded to is pertinent here. I think the things that Jayson highlighted are still worth pondering. Jesus definitely pushed the Pharisees to take it up a notch. In that regard, Jayson’s post is definitely helpful.
 It should be noted that the exact origins of the Pharisees is not completely known. However, the above is the best and most widely accepted view.
 Evertt Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 575.
 Louis Feldman, “Is The New Testament Antisemitic?” Moment, December, 1990, pp. 32-35, 50-52.
 Roland Deines, “Pharisees” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 1061-1063.