What Did Jesus Say About The Pharisees – This picture shows Jesus Christ talking to the Pharisees about whether it is permissible to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. In the Bible, the Pharisees are often depicted with legal arguments with Jesus. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jesus loses his mind only a few times in the New Testament (just ask the money changers in the temple), but he unleashes his fiercest slide against the Pharisees and other “teachers of the law” in Matthew 23. In verses 13-39, known as the “Seven Verses,” Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” six times. He also calls them “blind” (five times), “sons of hell,” “broods of vipers,” and compares the false piety and behavior of the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but inside. They are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. .”
What Did Jesus Say About The Pharisees
The Pharisees in the New Testament are clearly portrayed as evil, the perfect ideological and spiritual foil for Jesus and his followers. The Pharisees are portrayed as enforcers of the Jewish law who are so focused on the letter of the law that they completely lack the spirit. As Jesus says:
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“You tithe your spices: mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the most important of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have neglected the first and practiced the second. Blind guides! You are a gnat. A drain, but a camel.” swallow.”
But does this image of the Pharisees—as legalistic hypocrites—match what historians and religious scholars know about the actual Pharisee movement that came to prominence during Judaism’s Second Temple period? We spoke with Bruce Chilton, professor of religion at Bard College and co-author of In Search of the Historical Pharisees, to better understand what the Pharisees really believed and why they clashed with early Christians.
In the first century AD, when Jesus lived, the Pharisees emerged not as a distinct sect but as a religious movement within Judaism. The Temple was still in Jerusalem and was the center of Jewish life. One of the most important aspects of temple rituals was purity: both those who entered the temple and the animals sacrificed there were “clean” enough to please God. The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with Genesis) contains written commandments that explain the proper way to perform sacrifices in the Temple, but the Pharisees claimed that there were additional divine instructions passed down through centuries of oral tradition.
“The Pharisees believed they had a special store of knowledge to determine the situation,” says Chilton. “They taught that their oral tradition went back to Moses at Sinai, so there was not only a written Torah accessible to anyone, but also an oral Torah within the Pharisaic movement.”
Why Did Jesus Condemn The Pharisees?
Characteristic of the oral tradition of the Pharisees was the extension of the theme of purity to life outside the temple. Even if a Jew lives far away from Jerusalem (in the Galilee, for example) and does not plan to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, he may live his life so that he is clean enough to enter the Temple.
However, the Pharisees were not a powerful elite in first-century Judaism.The Sadducees were the priestly class that controlled Temple worship and had the greatest political influence over the Roman Empire, which ruled Palestine. The Sadducees rejected the oral tradition in favor of the written law (Torah).
The Pharisees were a labor movement concerned with establishing a clear and coherent Jewish identity in everyday life. Interestingly, the Pharisees believed in the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees rejected them because they were not mentioned in the Torah. Although many people did not think that the Messiah was Jesus, the Pharisees also believed that the Messiah would come who would bring peace to the world.
The New Testament portrays the Pharisees as a monolithic bloc, but Chilton says that all Pharisees were concerned with holiness, and there was heated debate among the Pharisees over the best way to achieve it. Certainly there were Pharisees who believed that purity came from without, and taught that ritual bathing (mikveh) and ritual cleaning of cups and kitchen utensils was the only way to achieve purity.
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In Matthew 23, Jesus is “filled with lust and self-indulgence within, and condemns the Pharisees’ practice of cleaning the cup and plate without.”
“Since Jesus himself was concerned with the issue of purity but was not a Pharisee, his conflict with some of the Pharisees of his day was inevitable,” says Chilton. “If you accuse someone of being unclean, you’re not saying that cleanliness doesn’t matter, you’re saying the opposite: There’s a better way to do it.”
But Chilton says there were other Pharisees who agreed with Jesus, that the true work of purification begins with a clean heart and faith in God. If you read the New Testament carefully, you will see that Jesus actually won sympathizers and even followers from among the hated Pharisees. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who visited Jesus at night to give him money and incense to give him a proper Jewish burial after the crucifixion (see John 3). In Luke 13:31, a Pharisee comes to warn Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him.
In this painting from 1889, Jesus comes face to face with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who later became his disciple. It is in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
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But perhaps the most interesting and consistent reference to “friendly” Pharisees comes in the Acts of the Apostles, which lists a group of Pharisees among the first faithful followers of Jesus after his death. However, as Chilton explains, these Pharisees took an opposing ideological position to powerful apostles like Paul and Peter, which may explain why the Pharisees get such a bad name in the New Testament.
In Acts 15, there is a meeting or “council” in Jerusalem attended by Paul, Peter, James, Barnabas, and other apostles and followers of Jesus. The meeting’s agenda was to resolve an important question among the early church: Should Gentiles be circumcised in order to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit? The first to speak were the Pharisees present. Acts 15:5 says, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the group of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.”
Notice that it says that the Pharisees were among the “believers,” another proof that some of the Pharisees were also early followers of Jesus. But this is what goes south. The apostles did not fully agree with the Pharisees, saying that anyone circumcised or uncircumcised could have a clean heart through faith in Christ. Peter, recognizing the physical pain and danger of adult circumcision, rebukes the Pharisees in verses 10 and 11:
“Then why do you try to tempt God by putting a yoke on the shoulders of the Gentiles that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? No! Thanks to the grace of our Lord Jesus, we believe that we are saved just as they were.”
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“Coming to this meeting in AD 46, the Pharisees were now on the other side of this highly consequential decision,” says Chilton. “Paul attacks anyone who supports the widespread use of circumcision as hypocritical, legalistic, and separate from Christ.
And this is mainly the New Testament attitude toward the Pharisees. It seems that this internal dispute among Jesus’ followers created this sharp line of demarcation between Christians and Pharisees.
What is important to understand is that the four Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written decades after the Jerusalem meeting. It started in the 70s. So Jesus didn’t really hate the Pharisees during his lifetime, but the New Testament writers probably wrote the Gospels with a chip on their shoulder after his ugly divorce with the Pharisees over circumcision.
“The Gospels are written from the perspective of a rape that didn’t happen in Jesus’ time,” Chilton says.
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After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, Chilton says, Judaism’s power structure collapsed with it. The Sadducees, the most influential force in the Second Temple period, dispersed, the Pharisees failed, and Chilton, who was “largely in the car,” says Chilton, “really emerged as the final authority of Judaism.
In the following centuries, the oral tradition of the Pharisees was committed to writing in the Mishnah and later commentaries in the Talmud. Who were the “wise men” of the Pharisees?