Pharisees: Bad Guys or Bad Rap?

Jeff Spector christianity, history, Jesus, Mormon, obedience, orthodox, religion, theology, thought 25 Comments

One of things that bothered me when I joined the church and started studying the New Testament was the way the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes were depicted.  They are portrayed as bad guys in the Gospels being scornful and hostile to the Savior.  But upon examination and study, is that really the case? I say no.

For example, just from the Gospel of Matthew are these comments about the Pharisees:

Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him. But awhen Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all; (Matthew 12:14 – 15)

aAnd when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet. (Matthew 21:45 – 46)

But woe unto you, ascribes and bPharisees, chypocrites!  for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  for ye adevour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater bdamnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell athan yourselves. Woe unto you, ye ablind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? (Matthew 23:13 – 17)

Who were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees or Perusim, (separatists) constituted the largest Jewish party following the return from the Babylonian captivity. They strongly embraced the concept of separatism from the non-Jewish people because of their superiority as God’s chosen people.  The Pharisees were the “Puritans” of their time (Talmage, “Jesus the Christ, “pg. 66).  They strongly held to the observance of the Oral Law as well as the Torah (the written law).  “They attempted to direct their activities to the masses whom they sought to influence according to the traditional doctrines.” (Cecil Roth, The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia [New York City: New American Library, 1980], pg. 424)

The basic tenets of their beliefs were:

  • Pre-existence of Spirits
  • The reality of reward and punishment
  • The necessity for individual self-denial
  • The immortality of the soul
  • Resurrection of the dead

These Jewish beliefs were mostly abandoned as Christianity embraced them as fundamental tenets.  “The Pharisee tradition became the norm for later [current] Rabbinic Judaism.” (Roth, pg. 424)

Why Did They Keep Questioning the Savior?

Throughout the Gospels and particularly in the gospel of John, the Pharisees, Scribes and Jews are portrayed as continually questioning the Savior on His Teachings. (See Matt. 12:38-45; 15:1-11: John 8:52-59: 10:24-38, for examples).  In many cases, these Jews were comparing the Savior’s teachings with those of own revered Rabbi’s teachings and the traditions.  They were less interested in the Savior’s answer than in convincing themselves that they were followers of the most learned Rabbi. In fact, Jesus specifically chastises them keeping the traditions in violations of the Commandments of God. (John 15:1-11).

There is a tradition among Jews of debate about doctrine and practice of the Law. The Talmud is volumes of commentary on the Law written in a format of discussion, disagreement and argument. If you would like to see it in English, click here. So, for me, it is not at all that unusual to read this kind of discourse in the Gospel between Jews. So while many Christians would condemn the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes for their lack of respect, I see it as very normal. While it is clear that those in conversation do not receive a spiritual witness that Jesus is the Christ, they are paying Him respect by even having the discussion.

Another key point to make is that, at that time, there were many Rabbis and other learned men that were promoted as the promised Messiah. But, needless to say none of them were the true Savior of the Jews. Because of the continuous enslavement and occupation of the Land of Israel, “It comes, therefore, as no surprise to find that all Israel in the days of Jesus were looking for a temporal Deliverer, for a Messiah born in the lineage of Abraham and David, who, sitting on the throne of their greatest king, would free them from personal and national bondage and vanquish their enemies….

“Such a Deliverer, such a Messiah, as they envisioned, would not only restore the kingdom to Israel, but would also return the dispersed of that great nation to their original inheritance in their promised Canaan. All Israel again would find residence on the soil that once was theirs.” (McConkie, Mortal Messiah, 1:43)

In reality, however, the Messiah’s kingdom was to be eternal and over the whole earth including both Jews and Gentles, with freedom from the enslavement of sin and deliverance to life eternal.

According to information in Wikipedia under “Pharisee,” “Some scholars believe that those passages of the New Testament that are most hostile to the Pharisees were written sometime after the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 [5], at a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah, see also Rejection of Jesus. At this time Christians sought most new converts from among the gentiles, and needed to explain why converts should listen to them rather than the Jews, concerning the Hebrew Bible. They thus would have presented a story of Jesus that was more sympathetic to Romans than to Jews. It was only after 70AD that Phariseeism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism.”

So, in my mind, I see the Pharisees as the unfortunate victims of their traditions, their teachings and “their blindness [that] came by looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14) rather than the combatants as portrayed in the Gospels.

Comments

comments

Comments 25

  1. “So, in my mind, I see the Pharisees as the unfortunate victims of their traditions, their teachings and “their blindness [that] came by looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14) rather than the combatants as portrayed in the Gospels.”

    I agree, right up until they begin to conspire to kill Jesus. Then I think they cross a line from tradition to malice/hatred that should have had no place in the Law.

  2. I think both are true, the Pharisees were the power structure, so those who abused it would be Pharisees (or members of the opposition). Twenty years ago or so, all the corruption in government would have been Democrats, now, Republicans. It Italy it would be pretty much Catholics.

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    To Adam and Stephen,

    I am not going to deny the complicity of some Jews in the death of Jesus. But, you have to understand the power structure that existed at that time. Mainstream Jews like the Pharisees were not that involved with it because it would have meant they were in league with the Romans and they generally despised them.

    The Roman occupation of the land of Israel resulted from an alliance between Rome and the Maccabees after a long history of occupation of the Jewish land by Greece, Egypt and Syria. The alliance, however unequal, did offer a measure of freedom to the Jews. The orders of the priesthood were recognized, the official acts of the Sanhedrin were held binding by Roman Law and the Jews were allowed freedom to worship so long as they did ridicule the Roman gods. (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 61) The Romans did not generally interfere with Jewish religious matters. The presiding high priest, however, was chosen from the Herodians, a party of Jews closely aligned with Herod which held Pharisaic views but was sympathetic to Rome.

    To follow your example, Stephen, you don’t paint all democrats and republicans as corrupt and guilty because a few of the members of their party are in fact that way. So, you don’t condemn all the Pharisees and blame them for the death of Jesus when a few might have been involved. After all, Crucifixion was a Roman form of torture and death. Also, killing one’s opposition was common back then as it is in some circles today.

  4. In my mind, I don’t think the Pharisees were engaging Christ in doctrinal disagreements as much as practical obedience to law disagreements and balance of power agreements. Christ challenged the laws added to the Mosaic Law in order to protect someone from breaking the Law, and Christ’s miraculous and charismatic power threatened the fragile balance of power between the ruling body of priests and their Roman governors. The blasphemy thing (when Christ claims he is the Son of God and Messiah) is the tipping point for the Pharisees, who felt justified by the Law in confronting heresy of this magnitude.

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    SteveS,

    You are on to something there and I agree. but, the “Messiah of the Month” club was real and some of Judaism’s most revered Rabbis promoted themselves or their favorite guy as the Messiah, but none were put to death in the same manner as Jesus, to my knowledge. They were typically discredited. Jesus’ situation was definitely different. I am not sure the Gospels really capture the essence of what that different situation really was. Maybe it is the “Son of God” claim.

    The bias against the Jews comes on a bit too strong for me.

  6. I largely agree. At BYU I had a Judaism and the Gospel class (commence sniggering, if you wish) where the professor pointed out that

    1) The vast majority of early Christian converts of the Pharasaic tradition; and

    2) In point of fact, while the Pharisees were a major (dominant?) component of the Sanhedrin, it was the chief priests (ie Sadducees) who ultimately sicced the Romans on Jesus.

  7. I think Christians have the duty to own up to historical anti-Semitism that has existed because of Matthew, the most strongly anti-Jewish of the Gospels. Not that Matthew can be blamed for all Western cultural anti-Semitism, but it can’t be denied of the Gospels it is the most strongly critical. I think the “Jewish establishment” no doubt stood in contrast to the Kingdom of God Jesus preached in His day. Yet I think the sentiment of anti-Pharisaism is a greater reflection of the Matthew community. By the time the Gospel was written the Temple had fallen and Pharisaic Judaism was the dominant Jewish power class. For sure, the early Jewish Christians would have experienced some persecution and rejection from this establishment; I think it fair to say it colors what has been attributed to Jesus.

    Jews today still reject Caiaphas, and on the other hand we have the positive example of Saul’s mentor Gamaliel in Acts. Even if the Pharisees did deserve the strong rejection Matthew portrays, it is better to focus on the legalistic ideology than the nation of Israel, IMO.

  8. My understanding was that there were political issues that prodded the Pharisees into rejecting Jesus but there were also religious disagreement. The Pharisees had developed a code of conduct that required compliance to the 614 thou shalts and thou shalt nots. The message was that if one completely adhered to the law, they would be welcomed into heaven in the next life. It was a message of works and personal empowerment regarding salvation. Christ’s message was that one could not get to heaven on the basis of adherence to the law. It required that the individual ‘repent and come unto Christ.’

    In my opinion, Christ’s message was one that stripped the rulers and law makers of their authority and relevance, both politically and spiritually. There was no need for a bureaucracy when you could go directly to the source.

  9. Spektator (#8): “In my opinion, Christ’s message was one that stripped the rulers and law makers of their authority and relevance, both politically and spiritually. There was no need for a bureaucracy when you could go directly to the source.”

    Interesting thought. Honest question coming up: where does that leave an organization like the Church, with its priesthood, its ordinances, its heirarchy, its concentration on works, etc.? Was Christ subverting only the established spiritual institution of his day, or was he subverting all spiritual institutions?

  10. Many Bible scholars date the Gospels, particularly Matthew, Luke, and John, as being written after the destruction of the temple. With the destruction of the temple came the destruction of the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Essenes, and other Holy Land centered Jewish traditions. The only remaining Jewish tradition was Pharisaic. The Christians writers were concerned with distinguishing and justifying themselves from Jewish community. They were also trying to appear respectable to the Greeks and Romans. Thus, the tendency was for the Gospel writers to minimize the Roman participation in the crucifixion and to maximize the capability of the Pharisaic Jews who were their main remaining critics.

    What impresses me the most, however, about studying the Pharisees in the New Testament is how much we modern Mormons are like them. I have heard and admit that I have given prayers in church designed to impress. Matthew 6:5. We admire those wealthy Saints who are openly generous with their contributions. Matthew 6: 1- 4. We encourage each other to dress to impress others with our worthiness by the wearing of white shirts, ties, and suits, or dresses with hose to Church. We tend to multiply rules especially those about the Sabbath such as no television or friends over on Sunday or by adding chocolate and caffeinated soft drinks to the Word of Wisdom. We seek to impress each other by our knowledge of the scriptures and how righteous we our in our Gospel Doctrine classes. I image that our non-Mormon Christian friends could find much about us that resembles the Pharisees. I find much about myself that resembles the Pharisees.

  11. I saw an interview with a Rabbi recently who basically said Jesus was essentially a bad (unobservant) Jew. It’s an interesting perspective, and not without merit. Imagine this in an LDS context. Would you accept a messianic figure who drank alcohol, wore tank tops, swam on Sunday and said the church leaders were teaching you to be too uptight with all their ticky-tack rules? “Mellow out, man” says this hypothetical Jesus. Sorry, I just like to picture that :). It is interesting to wonder whether Christ was subverting all organized religion in favor of spiritual principles we should emulate. There was a faith community of followers around him, but there was definitely no 3-hour block, no scouting committee, no Super Saturday.

    “There was no need for a bureaucracy when you could go directly to the source.” Many of our church leaders have said we are entitled to revelation, so long as it is either 1) within our own stewardship, or 2) doesn’t contradict revelations of those above us in the hierarchy. This greatly limits the scope of personal revelation, of course. Try making this point at church, and you might be viewed as questioning the brethren by some well-meaning LDS pharisee.

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    Ron,

    good post! it is hard to know if the Pharisees were really puffed up and pious like they are depicted or a caricature based on the new testament editors views. Much the same way that we LDS are viewed by some of our Christians friends as being very works-oriented.

  13. Jeff Spector, Interesting post. Thanks.

    Hawkgrrrl; Many of our church leaders have said we are entitled to revelation, so long as it is…within our own stewardship…

    While this is commonly stated I do not believe that it is actually doctrine, at least I cannot find scripture or words of prophet to support it.

  14. You’re correct. The first verse says it all. Any time a group of people get together to deside how they are going to question me; to trick me, so they can kill me or destroy me. The first thing that comes to mind is “those guys and their kidding” or “people just don’t understand them”.
    You people need to open your heart to what you read and not be as the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Don’t puff your self up and out of a glory of heaven.
    But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye adevour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

    It’s only damnation. 🙂

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    Hawk said,

    “I saw an interview with a Rabbi recently who basically said Jesus was essentially a bad (unobservant) Jew. It’s an interesting perspective, and not without merit.’

    Well, that is one of the great things about Judiasm. you can beleive almost anything you want. So in the mind of that particular Rabbi, He might have been.

    But, if I had to choose……. 🙂

  16. SteveS asked:

    “where does that leave an organization like the Church, with its priesthood, its ordinances, its hierarchy, its concentration on works, etc.? Was Christ subverting only the established spiritual institution of his day, or was he subverting all spiritual institutions?”

    As I read your question, I was reminded of the definition of the church found in D&C 10:67-68:

    “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.
    Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.”

    I believe this was the original core of the message that Christ presented in the meridian of time and also at the time of the latter day restoration. Where does the priesthood structure, the organization, and the rigidity come from? You can either believe that Christ restored the ‘church’ and it associated structure, or you can believe that He came with a message of the core gospel and ‘inspired’ men built the structure around it. I used to think that the former was the case, but I am more inclined to believe that much of what we see today is constructed by man.

    I believe this is consistent with the message of the above quote. When it comes down to it, our salvation is not dependent on other person or any organization. It depends on our willingness repent and come unto Christ.

  17. Is a person allowed to receive revelation only about their ‘jurisdiction’ or is one allowed to receive revelation about all things?

    In Alma 12:9-10, the direction is given that we should seek the mysteries of God.

    “…he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.”

    I have pondered this question for a long time. What does it mean to know the mysteries of God in full? There is a common theme among the great men of the scriptures as to the knowledge they were given. Men like Lehi, Nephi, Enoch, and the brother of Jared were all given the privilege of seeing everything in the earth from beginning to end. I would say that is a good definition of a knowledge in full.

    “… if it so be that they repent and come onto him. For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost…” (1 Nephi 10:18-19)

    Nephi states, associated with this scripture, that this knowledge is available to ‘all those who diligently seek him.’ I don’t think that leaves anyone out…

  18. It seems the Pharisees constructed their system of rules to help Jews practically live their law, but this intention changes nothing in terms of their theological distance to Jesus.

  19. Howard: Hawkgrrrl; Many of our church leaders have said we are entitled to revelation, so long as it is…within our own stewardship… “While this is commonly stated I do not believe that it is actually doctrine, at least I cannot find scripture or words of prophet to support it.” I’m not sure which half of the statement you are disputing.

    That we are entitled to revelation: Bruce R. McConkie said “I say that we are entitled to revelation. We talk about latter-day prophets; we think in terms of prophets who tell the future destiny of the Church and the world. But, in addition to that, the fact is that every person should be a prophet for himself and in his own concerns and in his own affairs.” There are many more if you go to lds.org and search under “personal revelation.”

    That it is limited to our stewardship: JS said “It is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instructions for those in authority, higher than themselves; therefore you will see the impropriety of giving heed to them; but if any person have a vision or a visitation from a heavenly messenger, it must be for his own benefit and instruction; for the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom.” Also found in the D&C (28 and 43:1-7).

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    john,

    Is it not much easier to follow a set of rules than to listen to the Spirit for direction? Attend the Temple once a month, pray three times a day, read scriptures for at least 15 minutes a day, etc. Love thy neighbor is a bit nebulous.

  21. Thanks Hawkgrrrl and Spektator, I have been looking for the source of the notion that personal revelation is limited to us and our families.

    Jeff, 21 sums things up nicely!

  22. #18 – Spektator, there is a big difference between “knowing all things” / “understanding the mysteries of God” and receiving revelation for specific counsel outside one’s stewardship. I could have a vision every bit as all-encompassing as those you reference and still not have any right to tell another individual what to do in his or her calling or family, for example.

  23. 23 – Ray

    Yes, you are absolutely correct. If you read Alma 12 carefully, it contains a strict prohibition of sharing sacred information. I guess I wonder what your interpretation of ‘all things is’

  24. I am quite certain that the pharasies are modern day fundamentalist who act like they do and honor Jesus with their lips but their heart is far from him. Not all; but some. Isn’t it werid that the same people who condemn Jesus now seem to praise him? Jesus predicted that not every who called him Lord was going to heaven as a true believer. Jesus said to know them by their fruits. And he commanded them to repent. Repentance is what Jesus wants more than anything in the world. Not empty works or self-righteous condemnation; but sincere repentance. I have much to repent of and I have asked Christ Jesus to pardon my transgressions and errors. But what can I say if Christ declares me innocent I shall be! I shouldn’t be too judgemental but I am at times so I can only trust in Christ for my redemption and exaltation.

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