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The Pharisees - Jewish Leaders in the First Century AD.
Jesus and the Pharisees
The Attitude of Jesus Toward the Pharisees
Matthew 23 First.
What then are we to think about the attitude of Jesus toward the Pharisees? In
the light of all that we have learned about the essentials of Pharisaism how are
we to account for the scathing denunciations they received from the lips of
Jesus? Jesus accused them of hypocrisy and pretentiousness, and pronounced upon
them a succession of woes (seven in all) culminating in this terrible, climactic
Matt 23:31-33 "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are
sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your
fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation
Taken at face value Matthew 23:13-39 presents anything but an attractive picture
of the Pharisees. But were all of the Pharisees to be considered deserving of
hell? What about Nicodemus? We should not allow the remarks of Jesus to give us
an unfair bias against the entire Pharisaic party. We also cannot neglect the
rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, etc.) as valid historical
sources, or shut the eyes to the positive qualities of Pharisaism as revealed in
the rabbinic literature.
In the New Testament it is obvious that Jesus had legitimate reasons for His
accusations. These accusations center on the areas of teaching and practice.
Lets review some of Jesus’ criticisms in the gospel accounts.
Matt 15:1-3 "Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to
Jesus, saying, "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?
For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." He answered and said to
them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your
In this verse Jesus is primarily accusing the Pharisaic scribes and the
content of the oral law was called into question. The "tradition of men"
had taken the place of, and had nullified, the commandments of the Word of God.
Jesus did not question the rightful authority of these scribes, nor did He
question everything that the scribes and Pharisees had taught.
Matt 23:1-5 "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying:
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell
you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for
they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them
on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their
fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men."
Jesus apparently did not question the traditions but revealed that they were
hypocrites in that they were not willing to carry the burden that much of the
legal minutia of the oral tradition required. Even Peter accused the Jewish
leaders when he said:
Acts 15:10-11 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the
neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"
In fact Jesus continually reinforced his accusations against their unwillingness
to maintain a consistency between their tradition and the written law:
Matt 15:14 "They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the
blind, both will fall into a ditch."
Matt 23:13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up
the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you
allow those who are entering to go in."
The Pharisees would not live up to what they taught. They were so overly
concerned with the externals that they neglected the "weightier matters of the
law" and the simple truths about man and God. When their own Messiah had
appeared in Israel they were so blinded by their observances and the minute
details that they completely missed Him.
It is amazing that Jesus used the exact words of Isaiah, their great prophet,
to describe their hypocrisy. Notice the quote from Isaiah 29:13:
Mark 7:5-7 He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you
hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their
heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the
commandments of men.'
The Pharisees were intent upon cleansing the outside of the cup and dish whereas
the inside remained dirty:
Matt 23:25-26 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse
the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and
self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish,
that the outside of them may be clean also.
He even accused them of being whitewashed tombs, disguising their inner
Matt 23:27-29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like
whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full
of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear
righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Outward self righteousness is the inevitable product of Pharisaic legalism.
Jesus revealed their true motives:
Matt 23:5 "But all their works they do to be seen by men."
They were so filled with pride that they could not see that they would not
practice what they had preached. In fact this was exactly what Jesus meant when
He said "for they say, and do not do" Matt 23:3.
What is really amazing is that the Talmud reveals that hypocrisy was not unknown
among the Pharisees. A famous passage in the Talmud denounces six types of
hypocritical Pharisees (BT, Sotah, 22b), which speak of many of the same
faults pointed out by Jesus.
The Talmudic literature clearly condemns pretense and hypocrisy (JT, Berakoth
f. ix, 7; 13 ), and from this there can be no doubt that these vices
constituted special problems for Pharisees.
This is an important point because the literature of the Pharisaic tradition
in no way sanctions hypocrisy. In fact it is in agreement with Jesus, yet there
can be no doubt that hypocrisy existed among the Pharisees during the time of
Jesus but we must not make the mistake that the early writers of the oral
tradition were all corrupt and blind.
It is also important to note that all of the Pharisees were not like those
described in Matthew 23. The gospels contain references to Pharisees who were
admirable men. Nicodemus is an excellent example of what a Pharisee ought to
have been. He was genuinely a seeker of truth (John 3:1 ff.), spoke out for
justice on behalf of Jesus (John 7:50) , and remained a follower of Jesus even
after the disciples had fallen away (John 19:39) .
Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin and he looked for the
kingdom of God (Mark 15:43) , he was almost certainly a Pharisee, he also did
not consent to the decision to do away with Jesus (Luke 23:51) . He was a
disciple of Jesus "secretly, for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38) and he
made final provisions for the body of Jesus.
There were no doubt many such Pharisees who believed in Jesus, yet probably
secretly. Even those who were not necessarily believers could display admirable
traits: Gamaliel argued for open-mindedness (Acts 5:34 ff.); others warned Jesus
of an attempt on His life:
Luke 13:30-31 "On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, "Get out
and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You."
And others showed hospitality to Jesus (Luke 7: 36ff.; 11:37; 14:1) even though
they were being accused by Jesus.
During the start of His ministry the body of Pharisees would have been
interested to hear what Jesus had to say. They were interested to hear what any
teacher in Israel had to say. The problem that they had with Jesus was His
monumental claims and the authority in which He spoke. No man had ever spoken
like this man, and no man had ever won the favor of the masses so quickly and so
thoroughly. He even went so far as to claim that He was the very reason for
Torah and the fulfillment of it. Their opposition against him grew to the point
that they had plotted His death. When Jesus was to be arrested the Pharisees
were among those that came to take Him away:
John 18:2-3 "Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers
from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and
The Pharisees - Jewish
Leaders in the New Testament.
"Pharisee" is from a Greek word (pharisaios) taken from the Heb/Aramaic
"Perisha" meaning "Separated one." In the time of Jesus the Pharisees were one of
the three chief Jewish sects, the others were the Sadducees and the Essenes. Of
the three, the Pharisees were the most separated from the ways of the foreign
influences that were invading Judaism, and from the ways of the common Jewish
people in the land.
"There was probably no town or village inhabited by Jews which had not its
Pharisees, although they would, of course, gather in preference about Jerusalem
with its Temple, and what, perhaps would have been even dearer to the heart of a
genuine Pharisee--its four hundred and eighty synagogues, its Sanhedrims (great
and small), and its schools of study. There could be no difficulty in
recognising such an one. Walking behind him, the chances were, he would soon halt to
say his prescribed prayers. If the fixed time for them had come, he would stop
short in the middle of the road, perhaps say one section of them, move on, again
say another part, and so on, till, whatever else might be doubted, there could
be no question of the conspicuousness of his devotions in market-place or
corners of streets. There he would stand, as taught by the traditional law, would
draw his feet well together, compose his body and clothes, and bend so low "that
every vertebra in his back would stand out separate," or, at least, till "the
skin over his heart would fall into folds" (Ber. 28 b). The workman would drop
his tools, the burden-bearer his load; if a man had already one foot in the
stirrup, he would withdraw it. The hour had come, and nothing could be suffered to
interrupt or disturb him. The very salutation of a king, it was said, must
remain unreturned; nay, the twisting of a serpent around one's heel must remain
unheeded." – Alfred Edersheim
Origin and History
The sect of Pharisees is thought to have originated in the 3rd century B.C.,
in days preceding the Maccabean wars, when under Greek domination and the Greek
effort to Hellenize the Jews, there was a strong tendency among the Jews to
accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs. The rise of the Pharisees
was a reaction and protest against this tendency among their fellow kinsmen.
Their aim was to preserve their national integrity and strict conformity to Mosaic
law. They later developed into self-righteous and hypocritical formalists.
Later they were among those who had condemned Jesus to death.
How fearfully the prophecy of destruction that Jesus had foretold was
fulfilled! In a few brief years the Roman legions of the Emperor Titus utterly
destroyed the city and its glorious Temple. Over a million Jews perished in the siege
in a few days, and a hundred thousand more were taken away in captivity.
Without its marvelous Temple, the Jewish religion was forced to take on a new
character, and after the final Jewish rebellion (132 A.D.) all hope of
rebuilding the Temple was lost, and the work of these rabbis took a different
The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah (200 A.D.), which is the final
work of these rabbis, began a final work in the history of Jewish scholarship. It
is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of
Pharisaism, which now is compiled into the Talmud which has become synonymous
Jesus and the Pharisees
The Pharisees were the most numerous and influential of the religious sects of
Jesus’ day. The were strict legalists. They stood for the rigid observance of the
letter and forms of the Law, and also for the Traditions. There were some good
men among them, no doubt, but for the most part they were known for their
covetousness, self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
Scribes were copyists of the Scriptures and because of their minute
acquaintance with the Law they became recognized authorities. They were sometimes called
"lawyers." Scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the nation.
The incredible influence of the Pharisees among the masses cannot be mistaken.
The were the most honored in Judaism at the time of Christ. When Christ won
the favor of the people.
"But the great crowd of people went on hearing Him gladly."
The Words spoken by Jesus in Matt 23 constitute the most bitter denunciation
that ever fell from His lips. The enemies of Jesus could not answer Him a word,
nor did anyone ever again dare to ask Him anything. The Pharisees were
unrepentant, hypocritical, and more determined than ever to seek His destruction. In
His final public discourse in the Temple, it was fitting that He should warn His
disciples against the hypocrisy of these corrupt and wicked men. Even while He
denounced their spiritual blindness, ritualism, and wickedness, He wept over
Jerusalem, and ended His discourse with a lamentation, addressed to the beloved
but doomed city which had sinned away its day of opportunity.
The Paradox of the Pharisees
Jesus and the Pharisees
The Paradox of the Pharisees
The Story of the Bible
© Bible History Online (http://www.bible-history.com)
Table of Contents
Jesus and the Pharisees
Paradox of the Pharisees