In this post we look at the Pharisees and Jesus. Our goal here is not to provide an exhaustive listing of everything, but to list some highlights of what Jesus says about the Pharisees. Tomorrow’s post will examine what the word “hypocrite” means, and then on Tuesday we will look at some suggestions on how to use the word “Pharisee” today.
But, I begin with this: Josephus tells us that there were about 6,000 Pharisees at the time of Herod. Which means they were not numerous. Which also means that it is inaccurate to equate Judaism with Pharisees.
Gospel evidence, tilted as it is toward their conflict with Jesus:
1. Pharisees, with others, opposed John and Jesus for their kingdom ministry (Matt 3:7).
2. Pharisees had a “righteousness” that Jesus said was inadequate (Matt 5:20).
3. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for eating with the wrong sorts (Matt 9:11).
4. Pharisees had a different fasting routine (Matt 9:14).
5. Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcising demons in allegiance with Satan (Matt 9:34).
6. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their sabbath practices (Matt 12:2).
7. Pharisees wanted Jesus to attest to his vocation with a sign (Matt 12:38).
8. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their lack of handwashing before meals (Matt 15:1-20).
9. Pharisees taught things Jesus thought were contrary to God’s will (Matt 16:6, 12).
10. Pharisees tested Jesus’ “theology”/”practice” on divorce (Matt 19:3).
11. Pharisees wanted Jesus put away (Matt 22:15) and Jesus knew it (Matt 21:33-45).
12. Pharisees were accused of hypocrisy by Jesus (Matt 23).
13. Pharisees are nearly absent in the trial scenes of Jesus. [They did not have the power to put him to death.]
Here are some global observations:
1. Pharisees were focused on the whole Bible (Torah), its interpretation and practice. This is why Paul says in Phil 3:5: “as to the law, a Pharisee.” To say one was a Pharisee was to make a claim on a certain kind of interpretation of the Torah.
2. Pharisees opposed different interpretations and practices of the Torah, and this led them into conflict with John, with Jesus, with Jesus’ followers, and with others who differed from them (like the Sadducees).
3. Pharisees were specific and careful in their interpretive practices, and they apparently passed on their interpretations to one another (and anyone who cared to listen and know) by word of mouth and argumentation.
4. Pharisees thought they were right in their interpretations.
So, here is a thumbnail definition of the Pharisees: “a Torah movement (group) deeply devoted to knowing, interpreting, and applying the whole Torah to the life of Israel in order to restore the fortunes of Israel.”
(Now this last part, “in order to…”, I have added because I’m sure they had some sort of purpose in wanting everyone to live according to the Torah. This is not my view; it is standard, even if not held by all scholars.)
Tomorrow I will post on the meaning of Hypocrisy, but let me make one anticipatory remark: Jesus and the Pharisees got into it with one another at a deep, deep level because (1) both were committed to the revelation of God in the Torah, but (2) they differed radically on how to interpret that Torah. Let this be clear, though: they did not differ that it was the Word of God, they did not differ on the importance of Abraham, Moses, David or the Prophets. They differed, and you will know this if you know about The Jesus Creed, because Jesus thought the Torah should be interpreted in light of Deut 6:4-9 and Leviticus 19:18 (Love God, Love others). It is simplistic to talk like this, but it is essentially on target to say that Jesus thought the Torah was about loving God and loving others, and the Pharisees saw the Torah more as a comprehensive listing of God’s will.
(Let me back down a bit: the Pharisees did dispute about what was the most important commandment and the like, but when it comes down to it — and you can see this in Josephus, in the Gospels, and in the Mishnah/rabbinic traditions — they saw the Torah as a comprehensive treasure trove of God’s will, while Jesus thought that treasure trove was to be approached through the Jesus Creed itself.)