The Pharisees: Part Two
September 21, 2018
by Barry Fike
How popular were the Pharisees in the first century? According to Finkelstein (alluded to in part one) Josephus records that at one time the organized membership of these Pharisaic units numbered about six thousand. Since the organization admitted only men we may take it that there was an actual following of around 30,000 souls, or which 20,000 were probably in Jerusalem. Since the probable population of Jerusalem at the time was about 75,000 that means that about one in four city families were formally associated with the Pharisees. This was a major religious movement of the first century that Jesus was a part of.
After the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.), and the entire population was dispersed, the Sadducees vanished from the face of the earth. The Temple power base was gone and so was this group who lived in wealthy fashion until their power source vanished. However, throughout Palestine, and indeed even more in the diaspora, in Babylonia, as well as in Egypt and in Rome, the words of the pharisaic scholars were accepted as authoritative interpretations of the Laws of Moses. (621) Their decisions continue to affect millions of Jews worldwide. Rabbinic Judaism, a first child of Pharisaism, remains a unit until this day. (622)
The movement of the Pharisees was a demand not for rights, but for the opportunity to serve. Instead of become revolutionaries like the Zealots, they became theologians, affirming human immortality and equality before God. (628) The Sadducees believed that Temple worship was the main purpose of the Law, while the Pharisees, like Jesus, stressed the individual fulfillment as the reason for man’s existence. (Moseley, Yeshua. p. 93)
The Pharisees main contention with the peasantry arose from his demand that they give themselves completely to God and to Torah. They observed the main rituals and were willing to follow all but the most rigorous dictates of the Law. He desired to build a Kingdom of God and considered no demand of the Torah unreasonable in the light of that goal. (629) The Pharisee suffered in patience; his opponents continued to goad and persecute him.
After reading that one thought should strike you—they sound an awful lot like Jesus don’t they? In fact, if you were to pick one religious party of Jesus’ day and time that he was most like it would be the Pharisees. And, yet, we do find some problematic passages don’t we? Matthew’s first reference to the Pharisees records John the Baptist castigating the Pharisees and Sadducees who visited him in the desert as “offspring of vipers.” The Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 9:11). They claimed that His power to heal came from the prince of demons (Matt. 9:34). One Sabbath, as they followed Jesus, they accused His disciples of violating the Sabbath when they stripped ripened grain from stalks along the path (Matt. 12:2). They asked Him for a sign which would prove His relationship with God (Matt. 12:34). They asked why His disciples did not keep the authoritative traditional teachings (Matt. 15:1, 2), and used a divorce question to trap Him in his teachings (Matt. 19:3, 4). John records a visit of Nicodemus, a Pharisees and a member of the Sanhedrin of seventy-one in Jerusalem (John 3:1-15) and the list goes on and on through the Gospel record.
It doesn’t make sense does it? If they were so good and righteous, if they didn’t seek fights but piety, if they were so popular then why the constant clash with Jesus and his disciples?
The answer is so easy to understand, but most Christians haven’t studied this and simply castigated the entire group as those who worked against Jesus and his movement on a constant basis. So what is really going on? You’ll have to wait for part three of this to find out. I look forward to seeing you next week Lord willing.