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?