Mention the word “Pharisee” to a Christian, and most think immediately of a “hypocrite” or “legalist.” I found this example through a Google search:“I don't know about you, but one of my biggest pet-peeves is the modern-day Pharisee, those that ‘say and do not’ (Matt. 23:2–3). I'm talking about the full-force hypocrite.” Those words sum up what we call Phariseeism (or Pharisaism). We rarely acknowledge, though, that it was the disciplined study by the Pharisees that gave monotheism to the world. That essential doctrine was shared by all Jewish people and resulted in the national embrace of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4).
Yeshua (Jesus) endorsed that teaching by declaring it to be the most important of all beliefs. He quoted the verse directly when He said, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one’” (Mark 12:29). Many believe the words spoken by Yeshua and the writers of the New Testament were original and directly from the Holy Spirit. That is true, but much of their teaching originated before the New Testament, and many can be traced to earlier Jewish sources.
Yeshua and the Talmud
Although the Talmud (rabbinic commentary on Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures) was compiled between AD 200 and 500, it recorded oral tradition that was well-known and recited by Jewish rabbis prior to and during the time of Yeshua. Many of the rabbis that are quoted in the Talmud (though they lived after the first century) reflect centuries-old Jewish teaching and understanding of the Scriptures. For instance, Rabbi Jonathan ben Joseph said: “For it is holy unto you; i.e., it [the Sabbath] is committed to your hands, not you to its hands” (Yoma 85b). Yeshua said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
In the Talmudic teachings of the Pharisee, it was said, “One who gazes lustfully upon the small finger of a married woman, it is as if he has committed adultery with her” (Kallah, Ch. 1). Yeshua taught, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). The list goes on. Teaching by Yeshua recorded in Matthew 5:21–22, 45; 6:7; 11:25; 23:8; 25:40, 45 and others can be found in the Talmudic teaching of the Pharisees. This is true of the apostles as well.
The Pharisees taught that every man was to be the priest of their own home. That theme was part of the teaching by the Apostle Peter, who called Christians “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9). Expressing himself pharisaically, Apostle Paul called the Word of God the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). His teaching was always direct and to the point. Hebrews 4:12 is a similar example: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”The Pharisees taught that home was as sacred as the Temple. Bible-believing Christians should have no argument there. It is sad when people adopt one attitude for church and show a different face at home.
While the Pharisees are often targeted for their emphasis on separatism, Paul gave that same instruction. “Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you’” (2 Cor. 6:17). Faith in God should cause a difference in a believer, which marks the faithful as “not of this world.” Both the Pharisee and the Christian are instructed to be distinct from the world, to be separate.
The Separate Ones
The name “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew perushim (the separate ones). Separation (havdala) comes from the meaning of kadosh (holiness). It is recorded in the Midrash (part of the Talmud): “As I am separate, so you be separate.” Leviticus 11: 44 says, “You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy.” Then, even more specifically, Ezra 10:11 says, “Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land.”So, the Pharisees’ commitment to be different was not a peculiar thing but a dedicated desire to be obedient.
The Pharisees were an aggressive group who were very vocal antagonists of Yeshua and His ministry. In the Gospels, Yeshua spoke sternly of them. “Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also”(Matt. 23:26). But maybe we have misinterpreted Yeshua’s criticism. Rabbi David Rosen said, “When Jesus criticized the Pharisees, he was doing so as a rabbi addressing other rabbis, saying, ’You rabbis are letting the side down! Precisely because you are rabbis, you should know better and your sin is worse.’ From my traditional Jewish perspective that views the Pharisees as the teachers of Rabbinic Judaism, Jesus could not be criticizing all Pharisees?especially if he was, as I believe, part of that community. Indeed, to claim that he was addressing all Pharisees would not be correct in my opinion; it would imply that Jesus was judging and stigmatising a whole community, which would surely be in complete contradiction with the most sublime religious moral values that he preached. So I am convinced that Jesus was criticizing some Pharisees?not all Pharisees.”
Christian scholar Brad H. Young, who has wonderful insight into this topic, wrote: “The Pharisees criticized hypocrisy within their own ranks. They wanted genuine spiritual renewal. Perhaps, it would be more honest to view the criticism of Jesus in the same way. He had hopes that His criticism would cause a revitalization spiritually of the Pharisaic movement. The fact that He singles out the Pharisees and calls upon them specifically for a fresh spiritual awakening for holiness that flows from the inside, as well as outwardly, must mean that Jesus was close to the Pharisees in teaching and practice. In truth, almost all religions have a natural tendency to preach a high level of moral conduct, all the while, some members of the faithful fail to reach the standard set in theory. With all the criticism directed at the Pharisees among Christian teachers and educators, it is highly questionable whether the church leaders always live out in practice privately what they preach and perform publicly.”
Apparently, we have “blind” Christians too. The Apostle James encouraged the ones of his day to get things right. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). Exhortations to holiness by the Church’s earliest teachers did not mean they condemned the entire Church. They simply called followers to embrace a hunger for God and His divine nature.
It is true that Pharisees were described in far from flattering terms. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11). No shortage of pride there! On the other hand, Gamaliel, a highly respected, mid-first century Pharisee, spoke out and rescued Peter and the other apostles from punishment (Acts 5). He mentored Paul (then Saul), who readily made known his Pharisaic roots (Acts 23:6; Phil. 3:5) and described the Pharisees as “the strictest sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5).
Judaism at the Time of Yeshua
There were five sects of Judaism active during the ministry of Yeshua: the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and those who followed John the Baptist. The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament. They regarded themselves as “children of light” as opposed to “children of darkness.” Community members lived a strict, disciplined lifestyle in expectation that God would soon intervene in the course of history decisively. They believed all life was predestined. They also believed the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple was elected under false pretences and consequently rejected the whole Temple cult.
The Sadducees, it is believed, took their name from the high priest Zadok, who served at the time of King David. Their membership was primarily from the Hellenized upper class, and they were keen to promote a stable community life. They believed that people had total free will but did not believe in life after death. They only recognized the writing of Moses, not the Oral Law (things spoken to Moses at Mount Sinai but not written down by him, later called the Mishnah) and believed the Pharisees placed too much emphasis on tradition, but the Sadducees had powerful influence in the Sanhedrin (Jewish judges who constituted the supreme court and legislative body of ancient Israel).
The Zealots were strongly nationalistic and fought the enemies of Israel passionately and physically. Later in their history, the Zealots formed a rebel organization and actively provided armed resistance to the Romans. The last Zealots died at Masada in AD 73 when their revolution was crushed. One of the disciples of Yeshua was Simon, the Zealot.
As to the origin of the Pharisees, theologians continue to debate without reaching a definite, substantiated conclusion. Some say their existence can be traced to the time of Ezra (around 450 BC). The Jewish source “The Wisdom of Joshua” is an historical document that references the Pharisees about 250 BC. Another view says they became a group sometime after the Maccabean Revolt (167 BC). They may have developed from a group called the Hasideans, who definitely existed before the Maccabean Revolt. They were called “the faithful ones,” as they protected Jewish life from secular Greek culture, which may have been behind the Pharisees’ response to Gentiles in the Church years later.
During the Maccabean Revolt, the Hasideans were opposed to their Jewish leaders, who violated Jewish Law (Torah, Gen.–Deut.) in several ways. Because of their deep passion for Levitical purity, they eventually broke away from the nation and developed into groups of their own, including the Essenes. Some believe the Pharisees emerged from that development. They had a powerful influence for 100 years even though they did not seek strong political power. When Yeshua arrived, the Pharisees were a major influence in religious thought. The historian Josephus, also a Pharisee, said they were “extremely influential among the townsfolk; and all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship were performed according to their exposition.” He pointed to this as an illustration of “the excellence of the Pharisees” and the high regard brought them from the people.
According to the JewishEncyclopedia, the Pharisees formed a league or brotherhood called haburah, admitting only those who, in the presence of three members, pledged themselves to the strict observance of Levitical purity. This decision called for the rejection of the ‘Am ha-Arez or the “ignorant and careless boor,” the non-adherent. It was this commitment to Levitical purity and their rejection of the ‘Am ha-Arez that eventually brought the Pharisees and the Church into conflict after Yeshua went to be with the Father. They had a serious problem with the influx of Gentiles into the community and struggled with accepting them without ritual circumcision.
Being a Pharisee required the payment of tithes and commitment to the biblical instructions required of a priest.Within the Pharisees, the scribes were trained, but the majority of the group were dedicated lay people. They believed in divine intervention in their lives and community. The Pharisees did not teach that one was saved by keeping the Torah. Rather, the Torahmust be observed because it is the highest revelation of God. That motivation to demonstrate the love of God through obedience seems to have been behind Apostle John’s message: “We love Him because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). The Pharisees also believed in the Oral Law, a commitment that equipped them to maintain Jewish laws and traditions from generation to generation.
It was the Pharisees who held Judaism together after the destruction of the Second Temple. Jewish people who had not accepted Yeshua as Messiah had some major dilemmas to deal with then: how to achieve atonement without the Temple, how to explain the disastrous outcome of the rebellion, how to live in the post-Temple times of a Romanized world, and how to connect present and past traditions. The sectarian groups floundered at this time, and the Pharisees created Rabbinic Judaism. A Talmudic story says: “The Temple is destroyed. We never witnessed its glory. But Rabbi Joshua did. And when he looked at the Temple in ruins one day, he burst into tears, ‘Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!’ Then Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai spoke to him these words of comfort: ‘Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.’”
Jewish commentators say, “The Pharisaic commitment to scholarly debate as a value in and of itself, rather than merely a by-product of sectarianism, emerged as the defining feature of Rabbinic Judaism.”
Hillel and Shammai
The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were major influences among the Pharisees. Rabbi Hillel was the grandfather of Gamaliel, a leading authority in the mid-first century Sanhedrin and the respected teacher of Saul, who would become the great Christian expositor Apostle Paul. Hillel flourished around 20 BC. He was of Davidic lineage and his insight and wisdom greatly impacted Judaism and Christianity.
A page from the Jerusalem Talmud|
printed in 1523.
|A page from the Babylonian Talmud.|
The Ilumina Encyclopedia says: “There are many stories describing Hillel’s character, picturing him as a man of great humility and extreme patience, pursuing peace even at the expense of truth. He is usually contrasted with his colleague Shammai, who is portrayed as impatient and ill-tempered. The most famous tale tells of a heathen who came to Shammai to be converted on the condition that he teach him the entire Law while he stood on one foot. Shammai snubbed him, and so the heathen went to Hillel. Hillel replied, ‘What is hateful to you do not do to yourneighbor; this is the entire Law, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it’ [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 31a]. Hillel thus became a model for Jewish people throughout history.” Yeshua taught the same in Matthew 7:12, what we call the Golden Rule: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
There are numerous entries recorded in the Talmud that highlight the clash between the two leaders over Torah interpretations. Brad Young wrote: “Hillel’s attitude was more acceptable to God. His patience and kind temperament are legendary in the Talmudic literature. Shammai is remembered for his short fuse and quick displeasure to impertinent questions.” Shammai was also known for his strict interpretation of Scripture and believed in a stringent separation between Jews and Gentiles. The Talmud states that whenever he passed an ordinance contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day "was as grievous to Israel as the day when the [golden] calf was made" (Shabbat, 17a).Most often, Yeshua preferred the School of Hillel over the School of Shammai. Of course, one of the best-known students of the School of Hillel was Paul, and that is important for us to remember.
In the foreword to Brad Young’s Paul, the Jewish Theologian, Rabbi Dr. Burton Visotzky wrote, “By focusing only on Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, by ignoring his Pharisaic background and his deep Jewish roots, the Church cut itself off from the stock of Judaism even as it (the Church) claimed to be the true Israel…Every Jew recognizes that Paul is at a heart a Pharisee. While his message may not be the same as that of (later) rabbinic Judaism?for no rabbinic Jew would suggest any distinction between faith and works?the Pharisaic Jewish roots of Paul are clear. This refers not only to Paul’s own claim of Pharisaic schooling but to much that is in the heart of his preaching and teaching. It behooves all of us, Christian and Jew alike, to recall that we spring from the same biblical stock of biblical Israel.”
Sitting in Moses’ Seat
A “seat of Moses” was found in the ruins of the synagogue at Korazin.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer is provocative (Luke 18:10–14). The attributes one would generally ascribe to a tax collector, Yeshua linked to the Pharisee. It was the tax collector who was most often wicked and sinister, while the Pharisee was a pillar of righteousness. Many theologians see that the power of this parable is in the role reversal.
Yet, in Matthew 23:2–3, Yeshua endorses the Pharisees: “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do...” In that time, the seat of Moses was occupied by teachers of great rank and respect. They were afforded dignity and had the right to interpret the Law of Moses. Yeshua encouraged the people to obey the scribes’ and Pharisees’ interpretation. However, He warned against following their example, “but do not do according to their works.” He frequently pointed to the failure by the Pharisees to live according to the Law of Moses (Matt. 15:3–6; 23:4; 16–22).
When Christians today speak of Pharisaism, we often mean legalism and easily miss the divinely endorsed authority the Pharisees had sitting in Moses’ seat. Brad Young warns, “Some Christians want Christianity to be distinctively different from any vestige of the old Judaism.” The fact is, Yeshua continued to teach from ancient sources and to affirm Torah. Some sneer and smirk at the great diligence and commitment displayed by the Jewish people in their faith. Young put it this way: “Taking small steps of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation cause the healing power of God’s reign to be released in a suffering world. Learning theology is not enough; the disciple of Jesus must walk in obedience. True Christianity that honors the life and teachings of Jesus must be rooted in the best of true Judaism.”
As a closing thought, maybe it is the words of Yeshua that should conclude our discussion. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17–19). Christians can do a better job of appreciating the Pharisees, but we, like the Pharisees, need to do more than just teach the Word of God—we need to live it.
By Ron Ross
BFP Israel Mosaic Radio Host
Illumina Encyclopedia. Illumina Gold Premium, Tyndale software.
Kendall, R. T. and David Rosen. The Christian and the Pharisee: Two Outspoken Religious Leaders Debate the Road to Heaven. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.
The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985.
Wikipedia, “Pharisees,” “Shammai.” http://en.wikipedia.org
Young, Brad H. Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus. Peabody, MA:Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
_______. Paul, the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee among Christians, Jews, and Gentiles. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
All Scripture is taken from the New James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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