The Pharisees: part one
September 14, 2018
by Barry Fike
When discussing any Biblical concept, group or idea it’s always a good idea to do proper research which involves original language, original context, and the original sociological situation. This type of study is necessary so that we don’t allow any other considerations to cloud the truth of what is being said or reported.
In a book entitled “Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees” the author stated in the first chapter entitled “Who Were These Antagonists?”: “The common Christian stereotype of the Pharisee is “the hypocritical enemy of Jesus.” The basis for that stereotype is the fact that the gospels frequently present the Pharisees in the role of Jesus’ antagonists. Early in Jesus’ ministry, they became His opponents. They grew increasingly hostile as His popularity and influence grew among the Jewish populace.”
This statement introduces a book that describes itself as an “in-depth look at Pharisaism” in 109 pages. Not only is this statement that begins the first chapter incorrect, the concept that there is anything in-depth about such a study begs the question and doesn’t consider anything except the same theology that Christians have had about the Pharisees which always sheds a poor light about the entire group.
Because of the nature of such a study, one blog just won’t do to explain who the Pharisees were and why at some points they do seem to be antagonists to Jesus while at other times he will tell the people to follow the teachings of this group. Such inconsistency cannot be understood by looking at a singular Jewish group without the proper background. Let’s get started.
If you want a “in-depth look at Pharisaism” you need go no further than Louis Finkelstein’s two volume work entitled “The Pharisees: the Sociological Background of their Faith”. In this work of over 1500 pages Finkelstein does an exhaustive background into the Pharisees, where they came from, their beliefs, and their influence over Judaism after the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70. From this research I’ll first state the information gleaned from this work and then, in later blogs, apply it to Jesus and his interactions with this group in the Gospel record.
During the fifth, fourth and third centuries (B.C.E) – to Christians this would be BC – there were many differences of opinion between various groups of the population. These opinions were over matters of national policy, belief and practice. Discussed were the dates of the major festivals, the manner in which the High Priest was to perform his functions at the Temple, the laws of inheritance, and the relations of the Jews to the other nations. (73)
It was during this time that the Scribes organized themselves and their followers into a society for the stricter and more thorough observance of that part of the Law which was being most widely ignored and flouted among the provincials – the rules of Levitical purity. Universal obedience to these regulations seemed to this group a necessary prerequisite to recognition of Israel as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” They correctly understood that it was this the Lawgiver had in mind when he associated the laws of purity with approach to the Temple. (74)
The underlying motive for the basis of this organization was piety. This was probably the first organization to admit all men on an equal footing. However, their emphasis on purity stopped them from making purchases at shops of those suspected of transgressing the Law. Because of this type of attitude, the wall between them and other Jews gave them, most commonly, the name of “Separatists” (In Heb. it’s translated Perushim; in English this is translated ‘Pharisees’). (79)
When the Pharisees became a political force, the adherents of the ruling Hasmonean dynasty, too, organized to defend their rights against the protesting plebeians who were undermining their regime. Since the high-priestly family claimed descent from Zadok, the first priest of the Solomonic Temple, their party came to be known as Zadukim (Eng. Sadducees). (80) The Sadducees derived their power from the Roman government and the Temple compound. It should be remembered that Jesus attacked this group when he tossed the tables of the money changers and drove people out with a whip saying that they had made his house a place of thieves.
“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” Matthew 21:12, 13
The Pharisees had been able to sign over to formal allegiance most of the upper middle class and some of the patricians; but the highest aristocracy resisted them to the last. (80, 81) The Sadducean influence radiated from the Temple, the Pharisees from the market place meaning that the common people loved them. (81)
The Pharisees carried their tenderness not only into their home-life but into the courts of justice and were noted for leniency of their penalties while the Sadducees were distinguished by their severity. (83) It might be remembered that the Temple police, or “guard”, was fully under the control of the Sadducees, and it was this group that arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane under the cover of night lest the population learn about it.
“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?” Luke 27:52
No less significant than the urbanity of the Pharisees was their respect for learning and the pleasure they derived from it. The Pharisees were known as the “the most accurate interpreters of the Law” in their day. It must be remembered that in their day and time, Law covered every aspect of human behavior: religious ceremonial, the protection of health, the interpretation of literature, the regulation of the calendar, the relation of Israel to its neighboring people, as well as ethics, manners and beliefs, and civil and criminal jurisprudence. The Pharisee was discouraged from studying Greek, or to imitate Roman tonsure. (92) Because of this the Pharisees became known as the party of the scribes. Not that all the Pharisees were scholars; or that the Sadducees were entirely without men of learning. But the dominant characteristic of Pharisiasm was study; that of Sadducism was contempt for scholarship. (97)
If all of this is true, what happened so that in Jesus’ day and time it seems that some of this group were problematic for Jesus and his followers? Why would Paul claim that he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees? Let’s continue next week in a discussion concerning this fascinating group the modern day Jewry looks as the reason for their very existence. Keep studying, praying and searching. God rewards those who study to show themselves approved unto God.