Yeshua and the Pharisees: Fantasy vs. Reality

Pharisee is a bad word in the minds of many Jesus-followers. When people want to characterize someone as religiously backwards, hypocritical, or legalistic, they never use the word Sadducee or Essene. It is always Pharisee or Pharisaic. When speaking of compromisers, I’ve never once heard someone use the term Herodian. The Pharisees get a unique bad rap in Christendom.

It’s true that Yeshua (and John the Baptizer) said some harsh things about Pharisees: brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, straining gnats and swallowing camels, etc. But do they deserve the bad reputation they have received? Would Yeshua agree with modern attitudes toward the Pharisees as a whole? Conversely, was Yeshua more like a Sadducee, Herodian, Essene, or Pharisee? Would he be more likely to worship with the Pharisees or the Sadducees?

There is a sort of caricature or fantasy version of the Pharisees. It makes for nice sermons. I once saw a play aimed at children in which the Pharisees were ridiculed for following 613 laws! (Clue here: the 613 laws are from the Bible, not laws made up by the Pharisees). I once watched an animated Bible story in which the Pharisees were portrayed with long noses staring down condescendingly on everyone. Looked like Hitler produced this animated series as WWII propaganda.

The fantasy version of the Pharisees goes something like this: They were the ultimate hypocrites. They relied on the flesh — outward rules and boundaries — instead of the spirit. Because they relied on the flesh, the Pharisees were complete shams. They engaged in rampant lust without any hope of holiness. After all, who could avoid lust without being spiritual? They were bitter and hateful because the burden of the Torah was heavy on them. Yeshua came to oppose the Pharisees by showing a spiritual way in contrast to their fleshly way of being righteous.

The reality looks more like this: The Pharisees were far less corrupt than: (1) many churches today, (2) many TV “ministries” today, (3) and the Sadducees and Herodians. The Pharisees were far closer in doctrine to Yeshua and Paul than other Jewish groups (both Yeshua and Paul took the side of the Pharisees against the Sadducees in the New Testament). Paul considered himself a Pharisee long after coming to faith in Yeshua — he never quit being a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the closest Jewish movement to Yeshua. In fact, Yeshua was very much like the Pharisees in many ways.

How can this be? Why does Yeshua reserve his harshest and most frequent criticism for the Pharisees? It is reasonable to assume that Yeshua criticized them the most because they had the most promise as a movement. When looking for a key person to spread the Yeshua-faith, God chose a prominent Pharisee, not a Sadducee or Herodian or Essene. Sometimes those closest to the truth need the most correction. I might use as an example the frequent evangelical Christian literature criticizing evangelicalism!

Let me quickly go over a few surprising points made in the New Testament about Pharisees:

Yeshua said that the Pharisees’ interpretations and applications of the Law were binding on his disciples! You may think I am crazy. Where is that in the New Testament? Read Matthew 23:2-3. Yes, Yeshua said they sit in Moses’ seat. He said his disciples should do as the Pharisees say, being careful to observe their traditions about how to keep the Law. Yet he criticized the Pharisees for not following their own teachings. Isn’t that human nature, teaching the truth but failing to live up to it?

Paul remained a Pharisee his whole life and this was perhaps the reason he was received in synagogue all over the empire. But wait . . . wasn’t Paul a former Pharisee? In Acts 23:6 and Philippians 3:5, Paul speaks of himself as a Pharisee . . . in the present tense.

Yeshua affirmed the teaching of the Pharisees but criticized tendencies within Pharisaism to be slack in observing the Law. Wait! You mean Yeshua felt the Pharisees were too loose? Yes. So did the Essenes, who were far stricter. They called the Pharisees “the makers of smooth things,” because they felt the Pharisees smoothed out the Law and made it too easy. Most of Yeshua’s criticism is not of the official policy of Pharisaism, but of abuse of the Law by individuals.

Take Matthew 23, for example. Yeshua affirms the teaching of the Pharisees as God-ordained. Then he pounces on the movement for abuses. Some love to brag and show off their piety. Isn’t this still a problem in religion today? Some travel to spread their movement and fail to teach the truth. Isn’t that a common happening today in Christianity? These abuses were not systemic, but particular to parts of the movement.

What was going on? Why was this abuse a problem? The fact is, the Pharisees were part of a relatively new movement. Jewish tradition was fluid at the time. The traditions about how to keep the Law were still highly debatable. Some individuals were abusing tradition and failing to keep the Law. Some made traditions that skirted around the Law. Yeshua was not angry with the Pharisees for being too righteous, but he railed against fake righteousness and law-breaking.

So, the next time you consider using the adjective Pharisaic as an insult, think about Yeshua. Think about Paul. And please, let’s get rid of the over-simplistic caricature. The Pharisees are the Jewish movement closest to God in Yeshua’s time. Yes, many of them missed Messiah. Many chose to remain in the older tradition and not accept the new teachings of Yeshua and the disciples. But don’t be vain. Are you so sure that you are any better?

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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Messianic Jewish, Torah, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Yeshua and the Pharisees: Fantasy vs. Reality

  1. In Philip Yancey’s book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” he discusses a lot of the same issues you bring up in this blog. He also tells a story of Pharisee’s laying down their lives to prevent Roman Soldiers with “graven images” on their sheilds from entering either the Temple or the Synagogue (I can’t remember exactly where). Regardless, the vast majority were men who genuinely sought after God during a period of time where God had remained “silent” for hundreds of years. One of my professors has even mentioned that he believes Jesus, had he aligned with one of the poli-religious groups of the times, would have been closest to the Pharisees.

  2. Chad says:

    Derek, for an excellent treatment of this very subject, let me commend to you the book “Extreme Righteousness,” by Tom Hovestol. Hovestol not only challenges the conventionally negative portrait of the Pharisees, but presents a plethora of reasons why the Body today should seek to emulate them.

  3. Carl K. says:

    An interesting corollary to your comments: In Acts it is the Sadducees, NOT the Pharisees, who prove to be the ardent and consistent opponents of early Messianic Judaism.

  4. PB and J says:

    derek

    i agree with you about the pharisees. however, i think some people take that too far and say that all pharisees were good too. maybe we need balance. i think that seems to be a lot of what Torah says throughout. balance. maybe i am wrong, but that is how i see a lotta the Teaching.

    peter

  5. shaliach4mashiach says:

    The Master Himself calls the Pharisees righteous:

    When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?”
    But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.
    “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-13) I think it is often over looked that the Master is talking to Pharisees here and He calls them Righteous, and healthy. And if He is not talking about them then whom is He talking about? The tax collectors? No He is speaking about and calling the Pharisees righteous.

    We to should view them as such.

  6. PB and J says:

    shaliach4mashiach

    i am sorry if i offended you. i agree that many of the pharisees probably were righteous. i am not saying that, but i am saying that there are many chooseyourfavoritegrouplabelhere that are righteous, but that doesnt mean all of them are. you see, i feel no question that there were also pharisees that werent righteous.

    and bottom line, i am not referring to all here, but the pharisees who rejected Mashiach arent righteous either. how can a person be righteous when they reject G-d’s Son?

    peter

  7. shaliach4mashiach says:

    Ok, that is not What I am referning to and you did not in the least bit offend me ☺. Of course there were hypocrites and evil men among the pharisees! This is one of the thing I believe the Master came to bring correction about, the Fake, external, hypocritical observance of the torah. Those are the men among the pharisees the Master is rebuking. There will always be bad people in every group be it Chabad, Orthodox, Chirstiantiy, or even Messianic. As far as the rejection of Yeshua goes that is something I would really rather not discuss here.

    Peace, Shaliach4mashiach

    It is a positive Mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)

  8. Steve says:

    Nonsense…..

    Derek, you sound like a old recruiting Sargent in the Army with this post.

    You know I think I will email you in private on this one….. Geeeez

  9. Steve:

    I’ll try to take your “nonsense” comments with a sense of humor. You obviously have some strong opinions. But are they well-informed?

    If you want to debate 2nd Temple Judaism on my blog, I take off my gauntlet . . . I slap you on the cheek . . . you’re on!

    It’s easy to throw jibes. Let me know when you’re ready to get down to serious debate. You seem to believe that: (a) the Pharisees were bad, (b) that I speak like a military sergeant (?), and (c) that Enoch and other pseudepigraphical writings should belong in the canon.

    Well, I’ll debate any of these with you. Send me a 500 word article on any one (or all three) points and I’ll cook up a response. The limit is 500 words. By the way, the idea that I speak like a military sergeant isn’t worth debating. I’m as far from military as you can get.

    Derek

  10. swiths says:

    I Corinthians 3:3 – ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?’

    If you look at scripture, you will find that the Pharasees are criticized for adding to the word of God. The Jews document the pharasees as teachers of the law beginning sometime after the carrying away into babylon. The scribes and Pharasees were instituted to write down the oral traditions so they would not be lost in the captivity in Babylon. They were not necessarily of the priesthood. You will find past writings in the Misnah and the Talmud, or, the written down oral writings of the past rabbis. A close look at these will reveal the attitudes and often, exhaustive explainations and interpretations of God’s law, much of which appears to be splitting hairs over simple things. Much of this is searchable online to anyone who wants to read it. The jewish leaders themselves believe you cannot understand God’s law unless you view it in light of these interpretations, (since they believe God spoke through these men, including those who crucified Jesus, (as I understand it). This is why they believe you must be a Jew to even understand scripture and that God would not reveal his word to a Christian.

    Jesus, and John the baptist too, both criticized them because of this very “straining at a gnat” over minor precepts of the law and not keeping the true spirit of the law.

    Good or bad? Only so much as there is good and bad in any group of believers. Nicodemus was a pharasee. I would consider him a believer. Not all Pharasees were believers though.

  11. Smiths:

    Your information about the Pharisees, their origin and purpose, is completely wrong. I don’t know where you read that, but it simply isn’t true. Check some sources.

    Derek Leman

  12. swiths says:

    Ummm…got it from the sources, current rabbi’s, temple institute in Jerusalem, places like that…all what they say about themselves. Not “smiths” by the way. It’s SWITHS, (Spiritual With Spiritual), from the verse “comparing spiritual with spiritual.” It is up to us to interpret the truth as led by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, everything you read will only be the doctrine of men anyway. What they say, (the Jewish leaders), is a neglected discourse among Christians. For instance, did you know the baptism in Christ’s day already existed under Jewish law before John the Baptist in what they call “Mikvah” yet most Christian churches will try to make baptism a thing that God brought first through John the Baptist. Won’t find anything about it in Christian literature that I know of and won’t find plenty of other things in Christian literature either. I can’t help what they say contradicts what Christians say…but tend to believe what they say about themselves-after all, they should know since they have been the ones keeping their history for thousands of years.

  13. Swiths:

    Your reply evidences a partial understanding of the topics you are discussing. For example, it is well-known that ritual immersion existed before Yeshua. But the idea that you propose, which is that the baptism practice of the Yeshua-community is nothing new is simply wrong. The purpose and nature of baptism in Yeshua is not the same as the ritual immersions of ancient or modern Judaism.

    You say, “It is up to us to interpret the truth as led by the Holy Spirit.” Well, depending on how you interpret that, it could mean that any subjective opinion held by any believer somehow has the divine stamp of approval. That is not true. Can you tell me which of the opinions in your two comments so far were inspired by the Holy Spirit?

    Finally, the rabbinic sources on the Pharisees are from much later, have particular biases which must be taken into account, and give us very little information.

    What I objected to in your original comment was the anti-Jewish leaning of your comments. Judaism is not straining gnats and swallowing camels. The fact that Yeshua said this about some Pharisees does not make it true of Judaism on the whole. Yeshua could easily say the same thing to many church leaders and Messianic Jewish leaders today. Your application of this saying to Judaism is an example of uncareful reflection.

    Derek Leman

  14. swiths says:

    No…. to all the above. What I was getting at with the first comment was how carnal the battle between the two people had become, and contentious, against the very nature of the spirit of the Christ they two claimed to follow. As far as the interpretations, I was referring to the Talmud, or their own interpretations, (as the swallowing a gnat…), that have existed since before the carrying away into Babylon and also contain all of the “washings of hands,” (ie. traditions), some of which Jesus spoke against. As far as interpretations of the Holy Spirit, I was talking about books outside of the Holy scripture which are the writings of men and “trying the spirits” as it were-as the Bible commands us to do. I was referring to the fact that men’s writings can be fallible and we should trust the Holy Spirit to guide us when reading them, not new revelation. With baptism, I was stating that baptism was not new to the jew. Baptism is a NT word not in the Hebrew language, but is still found in reference to the law in Hebrews 9:10, “which stood meats and drinks and in diverse WASHINGS, and carnal ordinances.” It is apparent, to me, that the baptism of John for the entrance into the earthly kingdom of God was at first intended for the Jews as the kingdom was promised to them, and this bapism was one of those carnal ordinances under the law. The Jews call it “mikvah,” which is similar if not the same ordinance. However, I didn’t mean to be contentious in any way since Paul calls all such disputing about the law to be vain. I realize some will not accept my view that the mikvah, (however similar to baptism it is), was once under the law. Unfortunately,what might have been a healthy discussion about the scriptures is only turning into debates and contentions as I previously had spoken against. Thank you however for the response if not the spirit of it.

    “knowledge puffs up, but charity edifieth.”

  15. swiths:

    Alright. I’ll take your word for it that I was misunderstanding you. I guess I am confused now but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Blessings and peace.

    Derek

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