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The Pharisees - Jewish Leaders in the First Century AD.
The Attitude of Jesus Toward the Pharisees
Read Matthew 23 First.
What then are we to think about the attitude of Jesus toward the Pharisees? In the light of all that we have learned about the essentials of Pharisaism how are we to account for the scathing denunciations they received from the lips of Jesus? Jesus accused them of hypocrisy and pretentiousness, and pronounced upon them a succession of woes (seven in all) culminating in this terrible, climactic statement:
Matt 23:31-33 "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?"
Taken at face value Matthew 23:13-39 presents anything but an attractive picture of the Pharisees. But were all of the Pharisees to be considered deserving of hell? What about Nicodemus? We should not allow the remarks of Jesus to give us an unfair bias against the entire Pharisaic party. We also cannot neglect the rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, the Tosefta, etc.) as valid historical sources, or shut the eyes to the positive qualities of Pharisaism as revealed in the rabbinic literature.
In the New Testament it is obvious that Jesus had legitimate reasons for His accusations. These accusations center on the areas of teaching and practice. Lets review some of Jesus’ criticisms in the gospel accounts.
Matt 15:1-3 "Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." He answered and said to them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?"
In this verse Jesus is primarily accusing the Pharisaic scribes and the content of the oral law was called into question. The "tradition of men" had taken the place of, and had nullified, the commandments of the Word of God. Jesus did not question the rightful authority of these scribes, nor did He question everything that the scribes and Pharisees had taught.
Matt 23:1-5 "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men."
Jesus apparently did not question the traditions but revealed that they were hypocrites in that they were not willing to carry the burden that much of the legal minutia of the oral tradition required. Even Peter accused the Jewish leaders when he said:
Acts 15:10-11 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"
In fact Jesus continually reinforced his accusations against their unwillingness to maintain a consistency between their tradition and the written law:
Matt 15:14 "They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch."
Matt 23:13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in."
The Pharisees would not live up to what they taught. They were so overly concerned with the externals that they neglected the "weightier matters of the law" and the simple truths about man and God. When their own Messiah had appeared in Israel they were so blinded by their observances and the minute details that they completely missed Him.
It is amazing that Jesus used the exact words of Isaiah, their great prophet, to describe their hypocrisy. Notice the quote from Isaiah 29:13:
Mark 7:5-7 He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'
The Pharisees were intent upon cleansing the outside of the cup and dish whereas the inside remained dirty:
Matt 23:25-26 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
He even accused them of being whitewashed tombs, disguising their inner corruption:
Matt 23:27-29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Outward self righteousness is the inevitable product of Pharisaic legalism. Jesus revealed their true motives:
Matt 23:5 "But all their works they do to be seen by men."
They were so filled with pride that they could not see that they would not practice what they had preached. In fact this was exactly what Jesus meant when He said "for they say, and do not do" Matt 23:3.
What is really amazing is that the Talmud reveals that hypocrisy was not unknown among the Pharisees. A famous passage in the Talmud denounces six types of hypocritical Pharisees (BT, Sotah, 22b), which speak of many of the same faults pointed out by Jesus.
The Talmudic literature clearly condemns pretense and hypocrisy (JT, Berakoth f. ix, 7; 13 ), and from this there can be no doubt that these vices constituted special problems for Pharisees.
This is an important point because the literature of the Pharisaic tradition in no way sanctions hypocrisy. In fact it is in agreement with Jesus, yet there can be no doubt that hypocrisy existed among the Pharisees during the time of Jesus but we must not make the mistake that the early writers of the oral tradition were all corrupt and blind.
It is also important to note that all of the Pharisees were not like those described in Matthew 23. The gospels contain references to Pharisees who were admirable men. Nicodemus is an excellent example of what a Pharisee ought to have been. He was genuinely a seeker of truth (John 3:1 ff.), spoke out for justice on behalf of Jesus (John 7:50) , and remained a follower of Jesus even after the disciples had fallen away (John 19:39) .
Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin and he looked for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43) , he was almost certainly a Pharisee, he also did not consent to the decision to do away with Jesus (Luke 23:51) . He was a disciple of Jesus "secretly, for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38) and he made final provisions for the body of Jesus.
There were no doubt many such Pharisees who believed in Jesus, yet probably secretly. Even those who were not necessarily believers could display admirable traits: Gamaliel argued for open-mindedness (Acts 5:34 ff.); others warned Jesus of an attempt on His life:
Luke 13:30-31 "On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, "Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You."
And others showed hospitality to Jesus (Luke 7: 36ff.; 11:37; 14:1) even though they were being accused by Jesus.
During the start of His ministry the body of Pharisees would have been interested to hear what Jesus had to say. They were interested to hear what any teacher in Israel had to say. The problem that they had with Jesus was His monumental claims and the authority in which He spoke. No man had ever spoken like this man, and no man had ever won the favor of the masses so quickly and so thoroughly. He even went so far as to claim that He was the very reason for Torah and the fulfillment of it. Their opposition against him grew to the point that they had plotted His death. When Jesus was to be arrested the Pharisees were among those that came to take Him away:
John 18:2-3 "Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons"