The Pharisees: Those in the first century who followed God.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 December

Nowadays it’s just another synonym for “hypocrite.” Just like, all too often, “Christian.”

Pharisee /'fɛr.ə.si/ n. Adherent of a first-century denomination of the Hebrew religion, which emphasized the widespread teaching of the Law.
2. A hypocrite. [Thanks to Jesus’s regular condemnation of hypocrites among the Pharisees.]
[Pharisaic /fɛr.ə'seɪ.ɪk/ adj., Pharisaism /fɛr.ə'seɪ.ɪz.əm/ n.]

People nowadays don’t really know much about the Pharisees—other than that they opposed Jesus an awful lot, and that he called ’em hypocrites right back. Mt 23.13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29 So there’s a lot of false information floating around about ’em. Stuff like this:

  • “But they were hypocrites.” Yeah, some of ’em were. Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have had to denounce that tendency in them. But be fair: A lot of us Christians are hypocrites. A lot of us humans are hypocrites. Hypocrisy is universal. Singling out the Pharisees just means we’re gonna ignore our own tendencies towards fake behavior.
  • “They were legalists.” Pharisees were all about teaching the Law, and as a result Christians assume they were legalist—that they thought God would save them because they perfectly followed the Law. Thing is, if that were true, John the Baptist wouldn’t have to shout at them to stop sinning, and taking their salvation for granted just because they were Abraham’s descendants. Mt 3.7-10 Because—just like us Christians—some were legalists… and some were libertines, who figured God forgives all, so do as you please.
  • “It’s not a denomination; it’s a political party.” Flavius Josephus called ’em that, and it’s easy to see why: There was no separation of church and state (make that temple and state) back then. When that’s the case, denominations seek power just like political parties do—whether it’s Calvinists and Anabaptists in medieval Geneva, Puritans and Traditionalists in early modern England, Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, or Pharisees and Sadducees in ancient Israel. They were both.
  • “They universally hated Jesus.” We all know exceptions, like Nicodemus. We also forget: Every synagogue Jesus taught in was a Pharisee synagogue. His title, rabbí/“master,” was a Pharisee title. His apostle Paul, who wrote a big chunk of the New Testament, continued to call himself Pharisee. Ac 23.6 Many Pharisees didn’t care for him, but we certainly can’t say all.

As you know from your Old Testament, the Hebrews kept falling into the Cycle, a repeating bit of history where God’s followers fall away from him, then return to him. They sucked at passing the Law down to their children. Their next generation would grow up semi-pagan, the generation after that would be full-on pagan: Within 40 years Israel would be lawless, and the LORD would withdraw his protection, and their enemies would take a crack at ’em. Whereupon they’d repent, cry out to the LORD, he’d send them a savior, and they’d follow the LORD and his Law again. And the Cycle would repeat.

Pharisaism was meant to break the Cycle.
If you don’t know the Cycle, learn it. It explains pretty much all Hebrew and Christian history. For that matter all human history too.
The Pharisees established a system of synagogues (Greek synagogí/“meeting”), schools for teaching the Law to the whole community. Any town with 10 adult males could start one. They encouraged local Jews, both men and women, to attend every Friday night, when Sabbath began. One of them would read the bible, then explain what the rabbis taught about it. People (well, okay, the men) could ask ’em questions.

Younger Jewish boys would go to synagogue on weekdays to learn to read and write—specifically so they could read the Law. Young Jewish men (whom our culture would consider teenagers) would study the Law more intensively under a rabbi (like Jesus) and learn the proper Pharisee way of interpreting the Law.

Like Jesus said, they studied the scriptures because they figured this was the route to salvation Jn 5.39 —learn what God expected of them, and break the Cycle. Problem is, legalism was always a temptation. They’d get so fixated on the Law, they’d forget God gave ’em the Law to learn his nature, his character; they’d read their nature and character into the Law, and twist it all up. We Christians regularly make the very same mistake with the bible.

Consequently we see Jesus confront the Pharisees on a regular basis. Though he taught in their synagogues, and was considered one of their rabbis, he was obviously no Pharisee: He didn’t follow their rabbis. He had his own interpretation of the Law. Mk 1.22 And occasionally he’d condemn their interpretation for being flat-out wrong. Mk 7.9-13

Where’d the Pharisees come from?

Biggest problem with Pharisee history: There’s a lot of fiction mixed into it. Like the Masons, they kept inventing stories which made their movement sound way more ancient than it actually is.

Pharisees claimed they stretched all the way back to when the LORD gave the Law to Moses. Supposedly when God gave Moses the written Law, he gave him an extra Law. A secret Law, kinda like that “secret will” the Calvinists believe in. An oral Law, which deliberately wasn’t written down, but handed from Pharisee to Pharisee till the present day, creating a secret gnostic society of people who really know how God ticks.

Yeah, it’s bunk. But you’d be surprised how many Jews, even today, believe in the oral Law.

Other Pharisees claimed their movement began with Samuel, who supposedly started a group of prophets, 1Sa 10.5 special bands of Pharisees, or “sons of the Prophets,” who likewise passed down the oral Law. Others claimed it began with Elijah, or Elisha, or Ezra, or even prophets whose names didn’t begin with E.

And other Pharisees stretched their origin further back, millennia before Moses: The very first Pharisees were trained by Watchers, powerful angelic beings which were sent by God to teach the Law to the very first humans, Adam and his family. (They even wrote their own version of Genesis, called Jubilees because it kept track of all the dates through jubilees. Lv 25) In short, the Pharisees created all sorts of myths about their own founding, and claimed they were all part of the oral Law. Some made it into Flavius Josephus’s histories… and some even made it into the New Testament. Ju 1.9-10, 14

The actual origin is probably in Josephus’s history. Himself a Pharisee, Josephus claimed they came from the followers of the Maccabees, who first called themselves khasidím/“devout ones”—then rebranded themselves as perushím/“separate ones.” (If that’s really what perushím means. Some scholars suspect it means “Persians”—because they think the movement was founded by Persian Jews.)

The first historical event involving Pharisees came during the reign of head priest John Hyrcanus of Jerusalem (135-105BC). In the second century BC the head priests had become the kings of Jerusalem, and Hyrcanus grew tired of how the Pharisees kept taking him for granted or bossing him around. So he became a Sadducee, just to piss ’em off. Turns out the head priests stayed Sadducee, they and the leading families in Jerusalem, till the Romans destroyed both Jerusalem and the Sadducees altogether.

The significant teachings of the Pharisees, which Jews today call Mishnah/“review,” was edited together between the years 180 and 220 by Judah haNasi. The rabbis it quotes (known as the tannaím/“reviewers”), date from the second and first centuries BC. In fact the two greatest Pharisee teachers, Hillel the Elder (110BC-10CE) and Shammai (50BC-30CE), were still alive when Jesus first taught in temple. Lk 2.41-50 For all their talk about Pharisaism being “the elders’ tradition,” Mk 7.3, 5 it wasn’t all that elder.

Pharisee teachings.

As I said, Christians assume Pharisees were a bunch of legalists. It’s because they’ve never read the Mishnah. It’s just the opposite: Pharisaism is all about loopholes.

Yeah, the rabbis made a lot of rulings about how the Law should be followed in crazy detail. There were just as many rulings about the exceptions one could make. Some of these exceptions are so large, you could drive a team of camels through them.

Pharisees were also permitted to pick and choose which of the rabbis they wished to quote as authorities. You know, just like Christians are pick and choose which of our favorite Christian authors and scholars to quote when we’re trying to defend our favorite teachings. If John Wesley will do, we’ll quote him; if Thomas Aquinas, or C.S. Lewis, or C.I. Scofield, or John Chrysostom, or whomever. No, quoting the rabbis isn’t quoting bible. But to many Pharisees, the rabbis’ spin on the bible was just as authoritative.

These are the teachings which made Pharisees distinctive.

Scriptures. Sadducees and Samaritans only recognized Genesis through Deuteronomy as scripture. Pharisees and Essenes recognized all the books Jews today consider bible.

Though Pharisees respected the bible, it appears some of ’em had no trouble playing fast and loose with it. We can tell this from their targumím/“interpretations,” their Aramaic-language translations of the bible. They were really loose paraphrases. I mean, you think the Message stretches the meaning sometimes; whoo boy.

Some scholars even claim the Pharisees invented their own laws—that they felt free to add to the scriptures when necessary. Though I sincerely doubt a Pharisee would agree. They just figured those rulings were part of the Oral Law.

Oral Law. Pharisee traditions weren’t just considered an interpretation of the Law, but part of the Oral Law, that secret, hidden, passed-from-rabbi-to-rabbi Law. The claimed the only way to really understand the written Law was to learn and practice the oral Law.

Kingdom of priests. Pharisees took the LORD literally when he said the Hebrews were to become a kingdom of priests and holy nation. Ex 19.6 So they decided they’d also follow many of the commands which applied only to priests.

They were big on ritual cleanliness. Way more so than the Law required. They cleaned themselves up for synagogue, same as they would for temple: To them synagogue was just like temple. Their prayers and worship were a form of sacrifice.

They often refused to interact with unclean people, lest it make them unclean for synagogue. So much so, they come across as harsh to lepers, gentiles, and the sick.

Questions. Contrary to popular belief, the Pharisees didn’t believe in mindlessly accepting their rabbis’ instructions. Absolutely the opposite. If you’re gonna understand what you’re taught, you ask questions. Tough questions. You had to discuss it, even debate it.

In American classrooms it’s usually the teachers asking the questions. In Pharisee classrooms the students asked the questions. When 12-year-old Jesus answered questions in temple, Lk 2.47 it meant he was doing the teaching at that point. It’s why those folks who asked Jesus questions in the gospels weren’t necessarily defying him: They were just trying to better understand what he taught.

(And yeah, some really were defying him.)

Free will. Josephus claimed that while the Sadducees believed nothing is predetermined by God, and the Essenes believed everything is, the Pharisees recognized a little of both: We have free will. But God knows what’s gonna happen, and what he sets in place is set. (And of course you’ll find Christians who’ve adopted each of these points of view.)

Resurrection. The Old Testament actually doesn’t state a resurrection of the dead will take place at the End. The New Testament definitely does—and the Pharisees definitely believed in it. Like us, they figured it’d happen when Messiah came. (Unlike us, they didn’t believe he had two comings—namely the first, when only he was resurrected.)

Pharisees after Jesus’s day.

In the year 70, the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem. In so doing they destroyed most of the Hebrew religious denominations. Three survived: The Samaritans, the Pharisees, and the Christians.

After the war, the Pharisees reorganized in the Galilee, and decided to drop the term “Pharisee.” Partly this was out of nationalism, since this was hardly the time for dividing into sects. And partly because there were no other sect they recognized: They claimed they, and they alone, represented the Hebrew religion. Thus Pharasaism became rabbinic Judaism. Or, as most people call it nowadays, Judaism.

Over the millennia, Judaism of course divided back into sects. Some of ’em ignore the Mishnah (and the Mishnah’s commentary, the Gemara, which together with the Mishnah make up the Talmud). Some of ’em embrace it. Some of ’em pick and choose which traditions, from both the bible and Jewish history, they wish to follow. Some reduce Judaism to basically loving God and loving your neighbor, like Hillel (and Jesus) did.

But their traditions all descend from Pharisaism. Yep, Pharisees are still around—though it definitely doesn’t look like it did in the first century. Then again, neither does Christianity.

Pharisees in the New Testament.

When Jesus calls Pharisees hypocrites, it’s best to realize Jesus was speaking of a general problem among Pharisees. He wasn’t describing every Pharisee everywhere. It’s like saying, “Christians don’t pray enough.” Lots of us don’t—but some of us do. Lots of Pharisees were hypocrites, exactly like lots of Christians are hypocrites—and some of ’em weren’t.

The thing to remember about Pharisees is they were trying to follow God. Not always succeeding. Like us, they often got hung up on stupid details and dumb distractions. They’d nitpick. Or they’d over-forgive. They’d forget to be generous and gracious and forgiving. Or they’d let somebody get away with murder (sometimes literally) because they were famous and rich and popular. Basically, Pharisees are just like us.

Try this exercise sometime. When you read the gospels, every time you come across the word “Pharisee,” read it aloud as “Christian.” It might stun you to see how easy a switch this is. And it might bother you a lot when you get to the bit where Jesus proclaims woes upon the hypocritical scribes and “Christians.” Mt 23.1-36 Hits way too close to home sometimes.

It’s a mistake to think of Pharisees as the bad guys of the bible—the mistaken screw-ups who tried to find God and save themselves, and only wound up stumbling around in the dark as blind guides. Mt 23.16 In so doing, we mock their problems and miss our own. We make the same mistakes they do. And we miss the fact that though Jesus had many problems with the Pharisees, he nonetheless kept teaching in their synagogues and kept striving with them. Even after his big list of woes, he never gave up on the Pharisees.

Neither does he give up on us. Good to know.