Pharisees – baddies?

The words “pharisee” and “pharisasim” which have taken on a largely pejorative meaning.


The Lambeth Conference 1988 pointed about that modern scholarship has shed light on the complex religious situation of C1 Palestine.’ the predominantly negative assessment of Judaism in the early Church is far from being the whole story.  There were many different groups within Judaism at the time of Jesus and the ‘scribes and pharisees’ reported in the New Testament should be seen as part of a wider discussion within Judaism.’ P. 300 ‘Through catechism, teaching of school children and Christian preaching, the Jewish people have been misrepresented and caricatured.  Even the gospels have, at times, been used to malign and denigrate the Jewish people.’ (p. 303).  They urge ‘careful use and explanation of biblical passages, particularly during Holy Week.’ (p. 306) The Truth Shall Make You Free (Lambeth Conference 1988 Bishops’ report pub Anglican Consultative Council)

1985 Vatican document on the teaching of Judaism, (quoted in Jews and Christians in Conversation ed. E. Kessler et al  (Orchard Academic 2002 p. 63)

‘It cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favorable to the Jews have their historical context if’ conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies reflect Christian Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus. To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for the Christians of today. ‘

The US Catholic Bishops urged that ‘An explicit rejection should be made of the historically inaccurate notion that Judaism of that time especially that of Pharisaism was a decadent formalism and hypocrisy.  Scholars are increasingly aware of the closeness on many central doctrines between Jesus’ teaching and that of the Pharisees.  Many Jewish teachers adopted positions similar to those of Jesus on the critical religious and social issues of the time.’  (Jewish Christian relations National Conference of Catholic Bishops US Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations 1985 Revision p. 4)

The Guidelines and Suggestions for the Implementation of ‘Nostra Aetate: Jesus and his teachings should not be portrayed as opposed to or by “the Pharisees” as a group (Notes III, 24). Jesus shared important Pharisaic doctrines (Notes III, 25) that set them apart from other Jewish groups of the time, such as the Sadducees. The Pharisees are not mentioned in accounts of the passion except once in Luke, where Pharisees attempt to warn him of a plot against him by the followers of Herod (Lk 13:31). So, too, did a respected Pharisee, Gamaliel, speak out in a later time before the Sanhedrin to save the lives of the apostles (Acts 5). The Pharisees, therefore, should not be depicted as party to the proceedings against Jesus (Notes III, 24-27).

The lectionary (apart from some Lutheran versions of it, according to Norman A. Beck accessed 29.xi.10) has omitted many of the more virulent anti-pharisee passages such as Matthew 15:12-14 where they are called blind guides leading the blind; Matthew 16:6 “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”; Matthew 19:3-9 where the Pharisees are said to be hard-hearted and Matthew 23:13-33″But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … Ye blind guides … Ye fools and blind …. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” What are Jesus’s criticisms of the Pharisees?

They are trying to trap him, flatter him, are malicious, hypocrites, blind guides and yeast (understood to signify a bad influence, hard-hearted.

Jesus’s relations with the Pharisees were not always or wholly polemical. Of this there are many proofs:

  • It is Pharisees who warn Jesus of the risks he is running (Lk 13:31);
  • Some Pharisees are praised  e.g., “the scribe” of Mk 12:34;
  • Jesus eats with Pharisees (Lk 7:36; 14:1).

Jesus shares, with the majority of Palestinian Jews of that time, some pharisaic doctrines: the resurrection of the body; forms of piety, like alms-giving, prayer, fasting (cf. Mt 6:1-18) and the liturgical practice of addressing God as Father; the priority of the commandment to love God and our neighbour (cf. Mk 12:28-34). This is so also true of Paul (cf. Acts 23:8), who always considered his membership of the Pharisees as a title of honour (cf. ibid. 23:6; 26:6; Phil 3:5).  Paul never mentions Pharisees in a negative way, nor does he ever characterise them as opponents.

Like Jesus himself, Paul’s methods of reading and interpreting Scripture and of teaching his disciples were common to the Pharisees of their time. This applies to the use of parables in Jesus’ ministry, as also the way in which Jesus and Paul supported a conclusion with a quotation from Scripture.

Criticisms of various types of Pharisees also come from rabbinical sources (cf. the Babylon Talmud, the Sotah treatise 22b, etc.). “Pharisaism” used pejoratively, can be rife in any religion. It may also be stressed that, if Jesus shows himself severe towards the Pharisees, it is because he is closer to them than to other contemporary Jewish groups

Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish-relations long after the time of Jesus. The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work. The dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum, following the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s Instruction Sancta Mater Ecclesia, distinguishes three stages: “The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of the Churches, and preserving the form of proclamation, but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus” Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favourable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community.  All this should be taken into account when preparing catechesis and homilies for the last weeks of Lent and Holy Week

‘However, there also developed a rift between the Chasidim and the priests, who claimed descent from a priest of the time of King David called Zadok, so that they and their supporters became known as Tz’dukim or Sadducees. For one thing, they tended to be Hellenisers, For another, they claimed as exclusive an authority over the nation’s religious life as the Hasmoneans did over its political life. For they presided over the Temple, which was the only permitted place of worship, and they considered themselves the sole custodians and interpreters of the Torah. The Chasidim, who knew the Torah as well as the priests, and better, must have resented that. Especially after the Maccabean war, in which they suffered the heaviest casualties, they might well have argued: If we are good enough to die for the Torah, then we are good enough to study and to teach it’.

So there sprang up a movement which challenged the concentration of religious authority in the hands of a hereditary priesthood, and sought to spread it more widely: a democratising movement which, by establishing synagogues where all classes of Jews could worship as equals, and making education accessible to rich and poor alike, tried to transform Judaism into a people’s religion. In their new capacity as leaders of this movement, the Chasidim called themselves Chachamim, wise ones, that is to say, lay scholars.

‘However, their opponents, the Sadducees, called them P’rushim, which means ‘those who separate themselves’, a derogatory name which they never applied to themselves (see Ellis Rivkin, ‘Defining the Pharisees’, in Hebrew Union College Annual Vols XL-XLI, 1969- 1970) but which, in its Latinised form ‘Pharisees’, has stuck to them ever since.

‘That is an unfortunate fact because it has led to all sorts of theories of how the Pharisees kept aloof from the common people, which is not oniy untrue but the reverse of the truth, for, unlike the Sadducees, they were drawn from the common people and beloved of the common people. What is even more unfortunate is that the Gospels portray them as hypocrites, and that most Christians accept the Gospel caricature, and persist in doing so even though by now scores of scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, have demonstrated that it is historically false. An Understanding of Judaism – J. Rayner (Berghahn 1997) 27f

‘The Pharisees were an innovative reform movement before the destruction of the Temple, and following 70 C.E. they succeeded in redefining Judaism in a radically changed historical context. In our own times, we might contend that we are at our best when we emulate them, reinterpreting the Scriptures and reimagining our faith in an ever-changing world. The Pharisees also claimed continuity with tradition, particularly related to Torah observance, and they appear as defenders of this divine revelation. At times we, like them, are at our best when we defend the traditions of our faith.’ Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006)p. 103

‘One of my favorite things I learned about the Pharisees in reading their discussions of the Law is that they very often do not say what the final decision was. A debate on a particular law concludes: Rabbi so and so says this. And Rabbi so and so says this. They disagree. So, what’s the verdict? Who won? Two opinions. No winners. No losers. Imp lied in these debates, I think, is the acknowledgment that God’s truth has not yet been fully revealed. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to talk with each other. I like that. That’s a tradition I want to preserve at any cost.’ Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 106

 ‘…the Pharisees were a table-fellowship sect’ Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 78

‘Placing the controversies with Pharisees at the table implies that the debates are within the family, certainly within Judaism, likely intra-Pharisaic, and suggestive of issues within the communities of believers.’ Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 92

‘Luke’s redaction of controversies shared with Mark and Matthew softens criticisms of the Pharisees. Pharisees first appear in Luke in the pericope on the healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof (5:17-26; parallels Mark 2:1-12; Matt. 9:1-8). Luke introduces the Pharisees into the narrative; they are absent in Mark. The Pharisees are present at the beginning, at the point of controversy, and at the end. They gather from “every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” and sit nearby as Jesus is teaching (5:17). The Pharisees, along with the scribes, challenge Jesus for pronouncing forgiveness of sins for the paralytic. They question: “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (5:21). Jesus perceives their questioning (Luke omits the discussion of the questions among themselves found in Mark 2:8), and poses an unanswerable question as to whether it is easier to heal or to forgive sins. He heals the man, and, in Luke’s conclusion to the pericope, “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today” (5:26). In Luke’s version of the story, the Pharisees are present in the beginning as eager listeners who had travelled from many places to hear Jesus teach, and they are there at the end , implied by  ther “all” who were amazed and awed and who glorified God. The controversy is over the particular question of the authority to forgive sins, and, in this instance, Luke’s Pharisees join the rest in glorifying God.’ Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 88

‘Luke distinguishes among the Pharisees. The author often qualified references to the Pharisees, by adding “some.” Only some of the pharisees challenge the disciples in the grain field (6:2). The preface to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector identifies audience as “some who trusted in themselves that they were
righteous” (18:9). Some Pharisees befriend Jesus, warning him of Herod’s intent to kill him (13 31) 9 individual Pharisees extend Jesus invitations for dinner (in addition to the Sabbath meals.’ Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism – M. Salmon (Fortress 2006) p. 91

The following teachings from the pharasaic/rabbinical movement show how very close to them was Jesus’s teaching:

Mishnah: Avot 1:10 Hate positions of authority over others.
Matthew 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi.

Talmud: Yoma 85b The Day of Atonement does not procure forgiveness until he is reconciled with his neighbour.
Matthew 5:23–24 that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there

Talmud: Sanhedrin 90a All measures of punishment and reward taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, are done in accordance with the principle of “measure for measure.”
Talmud: Shabbat 127b Our Rabbis taught: “He who judges his neighbour favourably is himself judged favourably.”
Matthew 7:1–2 Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

Talmud: Hagigah 14a Those to whom weighty matters appear as light ones will come to behave insolently against those to whom light matters appear as weighty ones.
Matthew 23:23 For you . . . have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

Talmud: Baba Metzia 49 Rabbi Judah said, “Your ‘yes’ shall be true, and your ‘no’ shall be true.”
Matthew 5:34, 37 Do not swear at all. . . . Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.”

Mishnah: Avot 2:15–16 Rabbi Tarfon said, “The day is short, the work is great, the labourers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. . . . Faithful is your Employer to pay you the reward of your labour.”
Matthew 9:37–38 Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”

Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 23:3 Resh Lakish expounded, “You must not suppose that only he who has committed the crime with his body is called an adulterer. If he commits adultery with his eyes he is also called an adulterer.”
Matthew 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Philo13 On Curses 6 God judges by the fruit of a tree, not by the roots.
Matthew 7:19–20 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and

Mishnah: Avot 3:2 Rabbi Hanina said, “When two sit together and there is between them words of Torah, the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] dwells between them.”
Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Talmud: Baba Batra 9b He who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses.
Matthew 6:2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.

Talmud: Yevamot 48b Rabbi Jose said, “One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born.”
John 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Leviticus Rabbah 1:5 Hillel said, “My humiliation is my exaltation, my exaltation is my humiliation.”
Matthew 23:12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Mishnah: Avot 4:26–27 Rabbi Yosi bar Judah of Kefar ha-Bavli asks, “He who learns from the elders, what is he like? He is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine. Do not look at the container, but look at what’s inside. not have even new wine.”
Luke 5:36–39 He also told them a parable. . . . “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”

Midrash/Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 15:2 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Mishnah: Avot 2:5 Judge not your neighbour until you have stood in his place.
Luke 6:37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged.

Of there is no truth in human beings, let them take an oath by means of the words yes yes or….no no 2 (Ethopian Apocalypse of) Enoch  49:1 (Nag Hammadi) Cf. Jesus talks about swearing oaths

In the great age many shelters have been prepared for people 1 (Ethopian Apocalypse of) Enoch 39:4f (Nag Hammadi) Cf. in my father’s house are many mansions

you have heard…hate enemy – in Dead Sea Scrolls and Deut 22:4  – rabbis say you should return his ox Cf. sermon on mount M Avot 2:16 Pray for enemy – Rabbi Meir

Not even a bird falls without God knowing – Simeon ben Yohai Cf. sermon on mount

Sabbath made for man – is in Talmud, plus in same context of healing.– Mekhilta Shabbeta 1 Cf. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath cf. man with withered arm in synagogue on Sabbath

b Ber 28a (Hypocrites are like) white pitchers full of ashes  Cf. whited sepulchres

Ecc Rab 4.1,1 They pretend to be able to read the scriptures and the Mishnah but they cannot’ they wrap their prayer shawls round them; they put their phylacteries on their heads and they oppress the poor. Cf. see Matthew 23

Rabbi Eleazer the Great: He who hath bread in his basket and says ‘What shall I eat tomorrow?’  belongs to those who are small in faith b. Sotah 48b Cf. sermon on mount about what shall we eat and the phrase ‘O ye of little faith’

Resist not evil similar to chasids Cf. sermon on mount

Turn other cheek cf. To those who curse me may my soul be dumb rabbinic b Ber 17a

Cf. sermon on mount

Lilies do not spin – spinners not sinful profession – any profession preferable to idleness

Where the repentant sinners stand in the World to come the perfectly righteous are not permitted to stand Talmud b. Ber 34b Cf. righteous who need no repentance

elephant and needle b Ber 55b camel dancing in a tiny area b. Metzi’a 38b Cf. camel and eye of needle

take splinter from own eye/beam from eye b. Arak 16b Cf. sermon on mount
Talmud: Arakhin 16b Rabbi Tarfon said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who is able to give reproof. For if anyone says to another, ‘Take the chip from between your teeth,’ the other retorts, ‘Take the beam from between your eyes.’”
Midrash: Ruth Rabbah 1:1 Woe to the generation whose judges are in need of being judged. When a judge would say, “Remove the toothpick from between your teeth,” the man would reply, “Remove the beam from between your eyes.”
Matthew 7:3–5 Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

Hillel put love of neighbour higher than love of God.  Which commandment was greatest was common preoccupation of Pharisees.  R. Akiva says greatest principle of Torah Cf. which is the greatest commandment?

if bring gift to altar..go and be reconciled with bro – 200 yrs before, Ben Sira said same thing, also in Philo of Alexandria Cf. sermon on mount

If animal falls into stream on Sabbath?, provision should be made for it where it lies – Talmud but not in Mishnah. Mekhilta said you should break one Sabbath in order to keep the other Sabbaths e.g. the saving of life? overrides Sabbath.  Cf. almost identical

We might first refer to Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees (John 8:44): “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” This is echoed elsewhere, as, for example (Revelation 2:9, 3:9), “the synagogue of Satan.” This has led to much anti-semitism, as well as Church decrees against Jews. No one seems to have noticed that the first cen­tury C.E. Sage Dosa ben Harkinas, criticizing his brother Jon­athan for having ruled in accordance with Bet Shammai in an important case concerning levirate marriage, calls him “the first-born of Satan” (Yevamot 16A). In other words, the rab­bis of the first century C.E. were accustomed to refer to the Pharisees of Bet Shammai as descendants of, or followers of, the devil.’ A second example would be Jesus’ statement (Matthew 5:38) “You have heard the commandment ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth . . ” which has led the Church to criticize Jews as vengeful, cruel people. The Jewish community has protested for centuries that we interpret this passage as call­ing for monetary compensation, but to no avail; the Church insists it has a tradition whereby the Pharisees of Jesus’ time interpreted “an eye for an eye” literally. Here again, I have found no one pointing out that R. Eliezer is the only sage on record (Bava Kamma 84A) as ruling that “an eye for an eye” is to be interpreted literally, and R. Eliezer was known never to deviate from the teachings of Bet Shammai (Shabbat 130B and Niddah 7B).” Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus – Harvey Falk

See A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament : the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, by Samuel Tobias Lachs (£52!)

For a fairly conservative evangelical perspective on this, see this

See also two sermons dealing with Pharisees

and Jesus the Pharisee : A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus – Harvey Falk Review here

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One Response to “Pharisees – baddies?”

  1. Jesus the Pharisee : A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus – Harvey Falk | Lay Reader's Book Reviews Says:

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