There’s no doubt about it: the Pharisees are the bad guys of the Bible.
They’re portrayed as nothing short of selfishness and hypocrisy personified. Indeed, the very word ‘pharisee’ has become part of the vernacular and is shorthand for someone who is hypocritical, arrogant and, above all, legalistic.
Legalism being, of course, one of the basic things that Christianity has, historically, condemned Judaism for.
In the Bible, the Pharisees are portrayed as being fixated on adhering to man made laws, especially those that pertain to ritual purity. Jesus is presented as being the exact opposite: dismissive of the Jewish laws, and instead, concerned with ‘love’.
One typical example: according to the New Testament, Pharisees wanted to punish Jesus for healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. However, no historical Rabbinic rule has been found according to which Jesus would have violated the Sabbath.
The Christian Scriptures aren’t subtle in condemning the Pharisees, either.
In fact, they give us the ‘Woes Of The Pharisees’ – an entire list ofcriticisms by JesusScribes and Pharisees. The Woes are found in the Gospel of Luke 11:37-54 and Gospel of Matthew 23:1-36.
Crucially, in some places within the Christian scriptures, it’s clear that ‘pharisee’ is used to represent Jews, period.
Thus it’s important to examine the way that, historically, Christianity has presented this particular Jewish sect.
Is the New Testament depiction an accurate one? And if not, why did the authors demonise this particular group?
Well, there’s an easy answer to the latter point. Of all the Jewish sects, it was the Pharisees that most resisted the influence and ideology of early Christianity. For Jews it was always incomprehensible for anyone to state that G-d would take human form.
So the Christian belief that a deity, in mortal form, could ‘die’ was rejected as being inherently ‘pagan’ by the Pharisees. Understandably so, since a deity in mortal form is a motif that we find in many Pagan religions and cults.
Similarly, the idea of the ‘trinity’ was irrational in the view of the Pharisees, since it seemed to violate the sacred Jewish teaching of G-d being One.
Given their disagreement with core Christian beliefs, is it any wonder that the Pharisees are presented so negatively in the Christian Scriptures…?
Yet the evidence suggests that the Christian Bible is far from accurate when it comes to the Pharisees.
For instance, though the New Testament presents the Pharisees as obsessed with avoiding impurity, Rabbinic texts reveal that the Pharisees just tried to offer ways of removing impurities, so that a person could again participate in the community.
And while in the New Testament the Pharisees objected to Jesus approaching outcast groups such as beggars and tax-collectors, Jewish texts actually stress the availability of forgiveness to all.
Indeed, much of Jesus’ teaching, for example the Sermon on the Mount, is consistent with that of the Pharisees and later Rabbinic thought.
Some scholars believe that those passages of the New Testament that are most hostile to the Pharisees were written after the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 C.E., at a time when it had become clear that Jews knew Jesus was not their Maschiach.
At this time Christians sought new converts from among the Gentiles; they thus had to be able to explain why converts should listen to them, rather than the Jews, concerning the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.
Of course, the Pharisees were just one of several sects within Judaism at the time of the second temple. They were the most significant group, though, because it’s from their traditions that contemporary Judaism arose.
But contrary to the Christian portrayal of them, the Pharisees were by far the most egalitarian sect. They believed that everyone, whether rich or poor, deserved an education, and that Torah should be accessible to all Jews. The Pharisees, then, were the ‘blue collar’ Jews of their time.
One of their staunchest beliefs was in the importance of the Oral Torah. This was given by G-d to the Jews at Mount Sinai, along with the written Torah. The Oral traditions were not codified until centuries later, and today we know it as the Talmud. Prior to that, the traditions were passed along orally, from father to son.
The Pharisees also believed in an ‘afterlife’ of some sort, and that those who were wicked on earth would be punished accordingly after death. Finally, they were sure that the Jewish Maschiach would arrive – the Messiah who, as we believe today – will fulfill the 23 Jewish prophecies and usher in world peace. The Messianic Age, in other words. So far, then, we can see that the Pharisees adhered to core, traditional Jewish beliefs.
But perhaps most crucially, the Pharisees were responsible for ensuring that Judaism survived, unadulterated by the influences of other, conflicting faiths and lifestyles.
This was a time when the Greeks were keen to assimilate the Jewish people by trying to combine their own, multiple deities, with Jewish theology. The Pharisees resisted any attempt at violating or diluting core Jewish tenets, and they were probably vocal about it. Nothing terrible about that, though.
Rather than recognising the devout nature of the Pharisees, though, the New Testament condemns them as taking part in the Jewish rituals without being spiritually involved in them. Over and over and over, Christian Bible tells us that the Pharisees were abject hypocrites.
Other Jewish sects, less passionate about preserving Judaism, are not indicted in this manner. The Sadducees, for instance, were far more relaxed and open to the Hellenic influences that many Jews encountered. The Sadducees also rejected the Oral Torah, instead preferring to focus on the Temple and all the associated rituals.
They also disagreed with any notion of an afterlife. Perhaps it is not surprising that after the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70, the Sadducees faded into obscurity. They are not portrayed nearly as negatively.
There is a certain irony, also, in that the Christian scriptures show Jesus bitterly castigating and condemning the Pharisees. Yet from what we do know of his attitudes, Jesus actually agreed with many of the Pharisees’ conclusions.
In particular, he agreed with much that was taught by Hillel, who always taught ‘love thy neighbour’, long, long before Christianity adopted it and attributed it to Jesus.
The Pharisees also supported Gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. Other sects were less supportive. Again, it is therefore somewhat strange that it’s the Pharisees who are consistently demonised in the New Testament.
One of the most bewildering aspects of the Christian Bible for Jews, or at least those of us who read it, is this idea that Paul was a Pharisee. Frankly, he didn’t seem to get even the basics of Judaism.
And there is not a single Jewish reference, anywhere, to any rebel student of Gamaliel who had a life changing vision either on the road to Damascus or anywhere else. Nor is there any mention of any follower of Gamaliel who suddenly became a heretic and started urging other Jews to abandon Torah and all the Jewish religious laws!
Paul spoke out against keeping the Kosher rules, and against circumcision, yet nowhere do we find even a fleeting mention of him! Why not?
Other miscreants and heretics are certainly referenced in the Jewish texts, warts and all.
And if Paul was such a brilliant student, why are all his references from the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint?
How is it that he seems so lacking in knowledge of the Hebrew Tanakh, and so ignorant regarding Halacha, the Jewish religious law?
Indeed, some writers question whether Paul was Jewish at all.
Hyam Maccoby, for example, has raised some intriguing points about Paul. And he reminds us that there were good reasons for Paul claiming to be a Pharisee, even if he wasn’t:
It should be noted that modern scholarship has shown that, at this time, the Pharisees were held in high repute throughout the Roman and Parthian empires as a dedicated group who upheld religious ideals in the face of tyranny, supported leniency and mercy in the application of laws, and championed the rights of the poor against the oppression of the rich.
The undeserved reputation for hypocrisy which is attached to the name ‘Pharisee’ in medieval and modern times is due to the campaign against the Pharisees in the Gospels — a campaign dictated by politico-religious considerations at the time when the Gospels were given their final editing, about forty to eighty years after the death of Jesus.
Paul’s desire to be thought of as a person of Pharisee upbringing should thus be understood in the light of the actual reputation of the Pharisees in Paul’s lifetime; Paul was claiming a high honour, which would much enhance his status in the eyes of his correspondents.
Maccoby and several others have pointed to the writings of the Ebionites, an early group who believed Jesus was a normal mortal and nothing more. They had some very definite views on Paul. Maccoby explains:
Their writings were suppressed by the Church, but some of their views and traditions were preserved in the writings of their opponents, particularly in the huge treatise on Heresies by Epiphanius. From this it appears that the Ebionites had a very different account to give of Paul’s background and early life from that found in the New Testament and fostered by Paul himself.
The Ebionites testified that Paul had no Pharisaic background or training; he was the son of Gentiles, converted to Judaism in Tarsus, came to Jerusalem when an adult, and attached himself to the High Priest as a henchman. Disappointed in his hopes of advancement, he broke with the High Priest and sought fame by founding a new religion.
This account, while not reliable in all its details, is substantially correct. It makes far more sense of all the puzzling and contradictory features of the story of Paul than the account of the official documents of the Church.
The Ebionites were stigmatized by the Church as heretics who failed to understand that Jesus was a divine person and asserted instead that he was a human being who came to inaugurate a new earthly age, as prophesied by the Jewish prophets of the Bible.
Moreover, the Ebionites refused to accept the Church doctrine, derived from Paul, that Jesus abolished or abrogated the Torah, the Jewish law.
They were the same group that had earlier been called the Nazarenes, who were led by James and Peter, who had known Jesus during his lifetime, and were in a far better position to know his aims than Paul, who met Jesus only in dreams and visions.
Thus the opinion held by the Ebionites about Paul is of extraordinary interest and deserves respectful consideration, instead of dismissal as ’scurrilous’ propaganda — the reaction of Christian scholars from ancient to modern times.
The Ebonites, then, stated categorically that Paul was not Jewish. Their statement on this is to be found in the writing of Epiphanius in the 4th century, which says:
“They declare that Paul was raised in a pagan household. He went up to Jerusalem and when he had spent some time there, was seized with passion to marry the daughter of the high priest; and this was the reason he became a proselyte (Jew) and went through the Jewish ritual of circumcision. But when the lady rejected him, he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision and against the Sabbath and the Jewish Law.”
There is one final irony in the awful portrayal of the Pharisees in the Christian scriptures. And that is the possibility advanced by some that Jesus was himself a Pharisee.
Several scholars have argued that Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees is a sign of inclusion rather than any real enmity. Debate was, after all, the main narrative mode employed in the Talmud as a search for truth.
As we touched upon earlier, Jesus’ teaching of ‘love thy neighbour’ reflects the teaching of the school of Hillel.
Jesus’ views of divorce, meanwhile, are closer to those of the school of Shammai, another Pharisee.
Hyam Maccoby writes:
“In my earlier book on Jesus, Revolution in Judaea, I showed how, in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus speaks and acts as a Pharisee, though the Gospel editors have attempted to conceal this by representing him as opposing Pharisaism even when his sayings were most in accordance with Pharisee teaching.
In the present book, I have used the rabbinical evidence to establish an opposite contention: that Paul, whom the New Testament wishes to portray as having been a trained Pharisee, never was one. The consequences of this for the understanding of early Christianity are immense.”
One thing seems certain: the Pharisees were probably far more decent, and far less sinister, than is suggested by certain parts of the Christian bible.