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Yeshua in Context >> Background to Gospels , Beginners , Josephus , Law, Torah , Pharisees >> Pharisees


The Pharisees were saying to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"
-Mark 2:24

You may have heard, wrongly, that the Pharisees were the rabbis and that they basically ran the show in Yeshua's time.

You may have heard that the Pharisees . . .

  • were all hypocrites
  • made up 613 rules which were oppressive
  • led the synagogues and governed the way Jews lived for God.

Great resources for those who want to read up on the Pharisees: E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief and Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah . I provide no documentation for the assertions I will make in this summary on the Pharisees. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

There are several reasons why the Pharisees are misunderstood:

  • Josephus, who was a Pharisee, exaggerated their power and influence
  • The later rabbis (third through sixth centuries), whose origins were in the Pharisee movement, exaggerated their power and influence when writing about the first century
  • The other parties (Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians) all ceased to exist after 70 CE
  • Yeshua clashed with the Pharisees on some matters of Torah
  • Un-careful reading of the Gospels leads people not to notice the Sadducees and chief priests were the primary instruments of his execution, while some Pharisees instigated against him.

Here are some important truths about the Pharisees:

  • They tended to be middle class, some working as scribes and other in various occupations.
  • They tended to be urban, not rural.
  • Their numbers were never large.
  • Their origin was as a political party in the days of the Maccabees.
  • They had some popularity because they stood against Rome in some early clashes.
  • They were a sort of fraternity with a common interest in reforming Israel by increasing zeal for the Torah.
  • Their beliefs were the closest of all the parties to the views of Yeshua and the apostles.
  • In the early days especially, and the later rabbis corrected this tendency, they emphasized ritual over love and justice and mercy.
  • You should no more judge Judaism by the things Yeshua criticized about the Pharisees than you should judge any Christian group by the ideas or behavior of some.
  • If Yeshua was commenting today, he'd have many sharp criticisms for various Christian sub-groups that might make the Pharisees look good by comparison.
  • The synagogues were run by common Jews, elders in the various towns.
  • The rabbis of later centuries, whose origins were from the Pharisees, did not become the recognized leaders of Judaism until the sixth century.
  • Synagogues in Israel in Yeshua's time were not places of power, but learning and piety, and they were not led by Pharisees.
  • Most Jews did not follow the growing list of traditions the Pharisees were coming up with out of a desire to see Israel come closer to God.
  • The 613 are biblical commandments, not man-made rules of the Pharisees.
  • Yeshua had positive things to say about some Pharisees. Nicodemus seems to have become a disciple. Of one Pharisee Yeshua said, "You are not far from the kingdom."
  • Many Pharisees believed in Yeshua after the resurrection, and one of them was Paul.
  • Paul continued to say, "I am a Pharisee," the rest of his life and never repudiated this identity.
  • The Pharisees who thought more like Shammai were probably more violent in their manner of dealing with threats to Israel's renewal.
  • The Pharisees who thought like the gentler, more tolerant Hillel outnumbered the Shammaite Pharisees.
  • Paul the persecutor was probably in the more militant Shammaite wing.
  • The Pharisees were a minority on the Sanhedrin and the Sadducees called the shots.
  • The Temple did not run according to the wishes of the Pharisees; if it had, this would have been a vast improvement and would have made the Temple much more in keeping with what Yeshua believed.
  • The Pharisees in Yeshua's time lived in Judea and had not spread much into Galilee.
  • Yeshua believed the Pharisees did not keep the Torah enough and said his disciples had to surpass them.
  • A large part of Yeshua's critique was that the Pharisees should have seen loving God and people as the highest priorities of Torah.
  • Yeshua expected his disciples to outdo the Pharisees literally in loving God and people.

So why would Pharisees come up to Galilee to check Yeshua out? Why would they sometimes follow him around and find reasons to criticize his disciples?

They cared deeply about Israel getting right with God. They wanted to see Messiah come and had a notion of Messiah and victory over Rome that Yeshua came to teach against.

They saw Yeshua at first as a disciple of John the Baptizer. They came to evaluate him as they had first evaluated John. They were critical of his ideas which did not match their own about what Torah renewal would look like.

They were well-meaning people who were wrong about a few things. But they were more like Yeshua in beliefs than most other Jewish sub-groups. And some of the things they were wrong about no one else understood either. Even the disciples did not think Messiah would die, make atonement for Israel and the world, and rise again.

Questions? Doubt something I said has substantiation? Feel free to ask me in the comments. Or if you would like to share how misinformation about the Pharisees and about Judaism has bothered you, I'd love to hear from you.

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Filed under: Background to Gospels , Beginners , Josephus , Law, Torah , Pharisees

4 Responses to "Pharisees"

  1. Excellent points about the Pharisees. I'd be curious to know your opinion on Akiva, as I can't recall if he affiliated with Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel or whatever. Clearly, Akiva introduced a radical style of reinterpreting the text, departing from the Pshat meaning of the Scriptures, at least according to Gruber's "Rabbi Akiva's Messiah."

    1. yeshuain says:

      Yerubilee the Band:

      I have not read Dan Gruber's book, but Akiva's time was very different from the much earlier time of Hillel and Shammai. I think your question confuses time periods and I am not sure how to answer it or what you are even asking. The distance between Hillel and Akiva was a full century and more. In between the Temple was destroyed and that event subtly changed many things. If Gruber makes some sort of bad guy or heretic out of Akiva, I think that would be a very bad historical interpretation.

  2. Jacob from Hope Abbey led me to your site. I'm 'jumping on' your offer: "I provide no documentation for the assertions I will make in this summary on the Pharisees. Feel free to ask questions in the comments."

    Are the two books you referenced above the best platform for pinning down a few of the facts you listed above? Are there any other valuable resources?

    1. yeshuain says:

      Adam, I really recommend Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief and if you add a second book, try Sean Freyne's Galilee: From Alexander the Great to Hadrian. Cohen's Maccabees to Mishnah is good also. And why not throw in Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. If you want to get more specialized about it, follow their footnotes and bibliographical references. Thanks for asking.

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