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)
- 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 , 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.