The Pharisees: Bad Guys or...?
It is human nature to want to neatly categorize and label ideas – as well as people! It’s not that we mean any harm by such an exercise; it just seems to make things more manageable, at least in theory, if not in reality.
This desire to identify and categorize often results in a “hero and villain” mentality whereby good and bad are falsely personified.
The Pharisees of the first century are one such group. They are often depicted by Christians as opponents of Jesus [in other words “the bad guys”], while the disciples and other Jewish people who followed Jesus are seen as “the good guys.” On the other hand, most Jewish people who are not Christians see the opposite! Their premise is: the Pharisees were right in not accepting Jesus [now they’re “the good guys”], and the apostles and all Jews who embraced Jesus were certainly wrong.
Both Jewish and Christian commentators bear out these assessments:
“The Pharisees (literally, ‘Separated Ones,’ in a ritualistic or a derogatory sense)… They scrupulously observe the rabbinic as well as the Mosaic law.”
Robert Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981, rev. ed., pp. 47–48
The Pharisees are understood to have made “so many absurd rules that the law became a moral millstone to the pious rather than a gift from God…they came to equate knowing God by being a member of their group.” (John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986, pp. 36–37)
“No group in history has had a greater injustice done to its fine qualities and positive virtues than have the Pharisees through parts of the Gospels.” (Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1956, p. 24)
While most scholars would agree with one or the other extreme cited above, there are a few who are balanced in their view:
“Although many of the Pharisees were so introspectively intent on obedience to the: Law that they often became fussily self-righteous, there were many among them who were truly virtuous and good men… Nicodemus, who honestly sought out Christ… Joseph of Arimathea… the moral and the spiritual standards of Pharisaism may have tended towards self-righteousness… but they were high in comparison with the average of their day.” (Merrill C. Tenney, The New Testament, A Survey, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953, p.138)
Inasmuch as the Pharisaic tradition of Jesus’ time was the precursor of [rabbinic Judaism today, it is imperative for understanding that we compare and contrast Yeshua’s teachings to the Pharisees of his day.
The life and message of Yeshua cannot be divorced from the Pharisaic party which represented mainstream Judaism at that time. Yeshua often concurred with the Pharisees’ beliefs. He also challenged some of what the leading party taught. And when the occasion demanded it, he had an astonishingly unique message of his own.
Where Yeshua agreed with the Pharisees
The Pharisaic party took a centrist position on many issues. One worth noting was the tension between the sovereignty of God and human freedom, a perplexing, pressing question still much debated today. The Sadducees represented the “privileged class” of the nation. They held to a strong position regarding God’s sovereignty and transcendence. The Essenes were religious people who had become non-conformists in Judean society and were at the other end of the spectrum on this issue. They isolated themselves in desert communities where they greatly emphasized a certain personal freedom. They taught that man had great initiative in conditioning God’s behavior.
The middle of the road position was espoused by the Pharisees: “It has pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done, so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously.” (Josephus, XVIII, 1, 3)1
One of the most important religious leaders of the second century C.E. was Akiva (first century C.E.-135 C.E.), who began the huge task of codifying the mass of religious tradition. He said, “All is foreseen but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:16)2
Israel’s Outside Literature, known today as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, also expressed this position: “For man… cannot add to, so as to enlarge, what has been prescribed by Thee” and “Our works are subject to our own choice and power to do right or wrong [is] in [our] hand.” (Psalms of Solomon 5:6; 7:7)3
Yeshua supported that same position, as evidenced by his statement:
“But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.”
On the one hand, we note the phrase, “as it has been decreed,” regarding the death of Yeshua which was determined from the beginning. At the same time, we see woe to the person who chooses by his actions to actually betray the Messiah. The Pharisees never attempted to solve the problem of the seemingly mutually exclusive free will of man versus God’s pre-ordained decrees. Rather, they set them side-by-side as factors to be reckoned with in many of life’s situations. Yeshua did likewise.
A second issue on which Yeshua and the Pharisees found agreement was the doctrine of the resurrection. The Sadducees accused the Pharisees of manufacturing this doctrine which could not be proven from Torah. The Pharisees felt strongly that this belief could be substantiated. Rabbi Jacob stated:
“This world is like a vestibule before the world to come: prepare thyself in the vestibule that thou mayest enter into the banquet hall.”
The “Outside Books” tell the story of a mother whose seven sons suffered martyrdom rather than compromise their faith. Her counsel to her last son before he died was:
“Do not fear this butcher [Antiochus Epiphanes], but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”
II Maccabees 7:295
Yeshua also had to deal with the Sadducean denial of the resurrection. When they tried to ensnare him with a question regarding the hypothetical example of a woman who is widowed and marries the brother of her late husband as to who will be her husband in the world to come, he replied:
“At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”*
Thirdly, both the Pharisees and Jesus were not especially interested in amassing the material goods of this world. Hillel, who presided over the Sanhedrin from 30 B.C. to A.D. 10, once said: “The more flesh the more worms; the more possessions the more care.” (Avot 2:7)6
The Pharisees taught what it means to be unselfish: “What is mine is thine, and what is thine is thine own.” (Avot 5:10)7 The worldly moral is just the opposite, and was condemned by religious leaders as wicked. “What is thine is thine, and what is mine is mine own.”
Yeshua likewise encouraged his followers to be unselfish: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Yeshua taught that true spirituality is to be valued most highly and it is to be found in serving others. His background of poverty enabled him to teach his disciples to live simply and care for the poor.
Fourthly, the Pharisees recognized the need for a balance to life and could enjoy both eating and dancing, and yet giving themselves to fasting and somberness when appropriate. Hillel once commented on the necessary balance between regard for self and the importance of regarding others:
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? and being for mine own self what am I?” (Avot 1:14)8
Yeshua’s life was an example of such balance. He enjoyed eating and drinking with Pharisees (Luke 7:37-50), but on the other hand, he spoke of sacrifice:
“He called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'”
Mark 8: 34–35
There are additional areas of agreement between Yeshua and the Pharisees, such as in the case of observance of most religious customs and ceremonies, but we turn now to consider the differences.
Where Yeshua and the Pharisees part company
The tension between Yeshua and the Pharisees is a persistent theme in the gospels, but it is helpful to understand that the Pharisees differed among themselves in a number of areas. The Messiah’s disagreements with the Pharisees focused primarily on certain religious leaders.
There are seven “wings” in the Pharisees’ “house,” ranging from legalists (those who wore their good deeds before others) to mystics (those who looked inwardly for higher levels of spiritual perfection). Many others took middle positions. In Yeshua’s day, the two prominent groups of Pharisees were the house of Shammai (the legalistic point of view), and the house of Hillel (the mediating view).9
Yeshua challenged many of the rulings by the house of Shammai, as reflected in the gospels, and is therefore frequently regarded as partial to the house of Hillel. The stance Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, took regarding Yeshua’s disciples typified the more moderate of the two positions. Gamaliel advised that they be left alone, stating that if they were not of God, they would fail. If they were of God and the religious leaders attempted to stop them, the leaders would only “find [themselves] fighting against God.” (Acts 5: 38–39)
The areas of major differences between Yeshua and the Pharisees centered on the issues regarding women, the common people (am Ha ‘Ares), and what are referred to as the “harsh traditions of the elders.”
Concerning women, even Hillel, known for his moderation on many issues, once said: “The more women the more witchcrafts.” (Avot 2:7)10
Ben Sirach declared:
“From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die. Allow no outlet to water, and no boldness of speech in an evil wife. If she does not go as you direct, separate her from yourself.”
And another instance of Pharisaic disdain for women in the Outside Writings:
“For from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness. Better is the wickedness of man than a woman who does good; and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.”
Ecclesiasticus 25: 24–26; 42:13, 1411
The gospels indicate that Yeshua held a far different position. Luke, in particular, demonstrates the Messiah’s high regard for women just by virtue of the fact that he spent time in their company.
Rather than saying that sin entered the world through woman, Yeshua emphasized that a man leaves his father and mother to cleave unto his wife. Jesus stressed that women had worth.
He even came to the defense of a woman caught in the act of adultery, charging her accusers to cast their stones only if they themselves were without sin. (John 8:7) Women were a part of the band of disciples, both as ministers and as students of the Messiah. (Mark 15:40,41; Luke 8:1-3; 10:42; John 4:7-27)
The am Ha ‘Ares** (lit. “the people of the land” or common people) and the Pharisees were in contention. One of the mandates of the Pharisees was: “A Pharisee may not eat with an am Ha ‘Ares.” (Berakot 43b)12
Yeshua challenged this attitude in word and deed. After Levi (Matthew) became a follower of Yeshua, he gave a banquet and invited his former “coworkers” – tax gatherers who were considered the dregs of society. Yeshua attended the gathering because these were the very people who needed him the most. His compassion prompted much criticism by certain religious leaders whose question was more of an accusation: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30)
Another major difference between Yeshua and the Pharisees was his concern over some of the harsh rulings on the “traditions of the elders.” In many ways, his lifestyle was consistent with Pharisaic interpretations: he attended synagogue services during the week as well as on Sabbath days (Luke 4:16). He observed the blessing before the meals. (Berakot 3:3–4)13
There were other traditions, however, which Yeshua broke. For example, he healed people on the Sabbath. That was when the greatest numbers of people could hear his message and see his miracles, and it was his best opportunity to help people. When an indignant synagogue official berated Yeshua for healing a woman on God’s holy day, Jesus replied that if, according to the Law, an ox or donkey can be unleashed and led away for water on the Sabbath, then could not this poor woman, “whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:16)
His point was that human need takes precedence over sterile rules. Rules were designed to help people revere God, rather than themselves becoming the object of reverence. Yeshua insisted upon recognizing exceptions to tradition. He cited the example of David fleeing to Nob, where he asked for the consecrated bread from the holy place of the sanctuary to feed himself and his men. Even though common people were not to eat of the bread, the priest complied. (Matthew 12:3,4; I Samuel 21:1–6)
Yeshua’s unique message and work
Yeshua often agreed with Pharisaic teaching, and on a number of occasions he challenged these leaders. There were other occasions when he neither agreed nor challenged, but simply showed himself to be unique by what he said and did.
His unique message
When Yeshua taught, people immediately were struck by a difference in the way he spoke. They compared him to other religious leaders, and the record indicates that “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:28–29) What caused people to assess his manner of teaching as such?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua prefaced each point of his message by saying: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,” or, “You have heard that it was said.” (Matthew 5:21,27)
The people heard religious speakers on many occasions, and were accustomed to hearing: “This rabbi said this,” and, “That rabbi said that,” and then the teacher would reach a conclusion by combining the sayings of the various religious leaders.
Yeshua differed radically from this formula when he followed the phrase: “You have heard it said” with the words: “But I tell you….” (Matthew 5: 22, 28, 32, 34 and 39)
Everyone, and particularly the am Ha ‘Ares, was quick to observe this difference and many responded to the authority of Yeshua’s message. He spoke with conviction, quoting from the Written Law (Tenach), and people recognized that he was speaking with power on behalf of God.
Different parties sent their representatives to Yeshua, attempting to trap him with his own words. The Pharisees and Herodians tried to ensnare him by asking what one should do regarding the poll tax. The Sadducees tried to draw him into an argument concerning the validity of the resurrection. A master of Mosaic Law inquired of the Messiah as to which was the greatest commandment in the Law. Yeshua’s answers repeatedly reflected the wisdom of the Torah. (see Matthew 2:15–40)
Finally, Jesus posed a question of his own to some of the Pharisees. Jesus inquired that if Messiah is the son of David: “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’?” (Matthew 22:43; Psalm 110:1) The question placed the religious leaders on the horns of a dilemma and since they had no answer forthcoming, “from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:46)
Yeshua’s stature increased as people heard his unique message and his unique way of answering those who objected to his claims.
Yeshua may have been the greatest communicator in the world, but what truly made him stand out was the work which he did.
1. His authority over the elements of nature
Yeshua and his disciples had entered into a boat to cross the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. A storm arose and the boat was tossed by the suddenly menacing waves. The disciples began to row furiously in an attempt to reach the shore. Their efforts availed not, so in desperation, they awoke the Messiah who had been sleeping in the midst of the storm. He rose, faced the winds and rebuked the sea surging at the boat. Immediately, the wind collapsed and the sea became glassy calm. Jesus’ disciples could only marvel and ask: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Matthew 8:27)
2. His control over the unseen world
When Yeshua and his disciples arrived in the country of the Gadarenes (Garinim), they were met immediately by two demon-possessed men who were exceedingly violent. The demons sneered and snorted, “What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matthew 8:29)
We should note that there are two sides of the unseen world, one, where God presides and the angels minister; and the other side–the kingdom of Satan. The demons immediately knew who Yeshua was, and begged that he not cast them into the abyss of torment then but that he cast them into a herd of swine instead.
Here we see the Messiah’s unique control over casting demons out of those in whom they resided.
3. He forgave sin
When Yeshua came back to the side of the Sea, to Tiberias, a paralytic was brought to him for healing. He proclaimed in the presence of everyone, including some religious leaders: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
The Messiah immediately sensed the hostility of some of the religious leaders and responded by saying: “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” (Matthew 9:5) Yeshua was pointing out that whoever has the authority to heal has also the authority to forgive sin. Thus his authority to heal people of all diseases was an indicator of his ultimate authority to forgive sin.
4. He can give life
Matthew gives a climactic story of Yeshua’s uniqueness. A synagogue official had asked Yeshua to come to his home and heal his daughter, but when he arrived, the girl had already died. Yet Jesus made a peculiar announcement: “The girl is not dead but asleep.” (Matthew 9:24) The crowd derisively laughed, amazed that he would make such a pronouncement when everyone knew better.
Nevertheless, Yeshua escorted Peter, James, John and the parents of the girl into the inner chamber where her body lay. He said: “Talitha koum!” (Little girl, I say to you, get up!) And she did! (Mark 5:41–42)
Jesus’ unique ability was also demonstrated when he told a dead man who was about to be buried: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” Once again, his command was obeyed. (Luke 7:14)
Jesus’ power to reach beyond the grave was dramatically seen when he stood in front of the tomb and called in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43) Lazarus, who had been dead for days, came forth in the wrappings with which he had been buried. Even more dramatic was the fact that Jesus rose from the dead himself, three days after his crucifixion.
Yeshua’s unique work compares to God’s miraculous power on that first Passover night when he demonstrated that he, not Pharaoh, was the one who gives life, and that he, not Pharaoh, was the one with the ultimate power to take life as well. Yeshua displayed the same uniqueness, demonstrating attributes which only God possesses. It is no wonder that thousands of Israelis responded to him.
Jesus was more than a merely wise or profoundly philosophical person, sometimes agreeing and other times disagreeing with religious leaders of his day. His uniqueness and his ability to do what no other leader could do had a powerful impact on the people to whom he ministered.
We have cited areas of agreement as well as disagreement between Yeshua and the religious leaders of his day. Many times the New Testament writers emphasized the differences more strongly than the similarities. However, they were functioning as iconoclasts, tearing down false images which could prevent the common people from hearing a message they so desperately needed.
Believers in Jesus need to recognize that the Pharisees were not “the bad guys.” They were not at odds with Jesus every step of the way. Those who don’t believe in Yeshua should realize that he was not entirely out of step with the Judaism of his day. The two are not diametrically opposed.
But what of Yeshua’s uniqueness? No one on the face of this earth can escape his claims, or say that he was just a good rabbi, for what rabbi would dare to say:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Twice in the history of Israel God broke through from beyond to present himself to us: at Sinai when he gave the Law to Moses, and again, in the person of Yeshua the Messiah. When he came, he had agreements as well as disagreements with the religious leaders then in authority. Perhaps the same would be true if he came and observed some of our rabbis today. But when we are faced with the claims of Yeshua, the most important point is not how often he agrees or disagrees with what is taught in the Jewish community. His unique claims and authoritative power are the things with which we must grapple. We cannot place him in juxtaposition with the Pharisees of yesterday or the Jewish community of today, and simply choose sides. Yeshua is in a category by himself, and we must either accept or reject him on that basis.
*This was an argument from the tense of the verb, “I am.” Yeshua maintains that the Scriptures do not speak of the Patriarchs as ceasing to exist or the tense would be, “I was the God of….”
**In recent times that term has come to mean “ignoramus,” which reflects the lack of educational opportunities for those living apart from towns. However, in Jesus’ time the term meant “common person.”
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. W. Whiston, tr., (Philadelphia: Winston, n.d.), 530.
- The Mishnah H. Danby, ed., (London: Oxford, 1933), 452.
- The Pseudepigrapha, Vol 2., R H. Charles, ed., (London: Oxford, 1913), 637, 639.
- The Mishnah, Op Cit., p. 454.
- The Apocrypha, (New York: Nelson, 1957), 236.
- The Mishnah, Op. Cit., 448.
- Ibid. 457.
- Ibid. 447.
- These two well-known religious leaders amongst the Pharisees were the last of the great pairs, living in the first century B.C.
- The Mishnah, Op. Cit. 448.
- The Apocrypha, Op. Cit., 139,159.
- Zeraim, Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino, 1948), 266–267.
- The Mishnah, Op. Cit., 4.