In Defence of the Pharisees

Every story has to have a villain.

In The Lion King, it’s Scar. In Rocky, it’s Apollo Creed. In Catcher in the Rye, it’s adulthood and the challenges that one faces while growing up.

The Bible is no different. In the Old Testament, the villains are the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians and most of all the Babylonians.

In the New Testament, or at least the Gospels, it’s the Pharisees.

If you grew up in church you probably know the deal with the Pharisees. These are the guys who are so obsessed with the letter of the law, so morally stringent, so legalistic that they missed how God was working in and through Jesus.

Today “Pharisees” has become synonymous with legalism and generally a term we apply pejoratively to anyone with a stricter, more conservative worldview than our own.

We use it for anyone we think is trying to earn their salvation through their actions; anyone who (we assume) thinks God loves them more because of how good and moral they are.

But what if the Pharisees weren’t as bad as we think they were?

What if we have created a caricature of the Pharisees? What if our current worldview is much more similar to theirs than we realize?

In demonizing and vilifying the Pharisees it’s possible we have missed just how similar our worldview is to theirs and in doing so have missed much of what Jesus might want to say to us as well.

 

To start off with, it’s important to remember (or discover) that the Apostle Paul, well into his ministry, still considered himself a Pharisee. In Acts 23:6 Paul is speaking to the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling council) and he says, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.”

Later on, in speaking with Agrippa, the “king” of Caesarea Maritima, Paul says in Acts 26,

4The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.

Paul doesn’t go on to suggest that he used to live like a Pharisee but now he lives in freedom or anything like that. He simply explains that the Pharisees believe in the Resurrection, but ironically persecute him for claiming Jesus is the Resurrection.

So on two separate occasions, after he became a follower of Jesus, Paul claims to be a Pharisee.

This is the man who penned most of the Epistles in the New Testament; the man who has had the biggest influence on the direction of global Christians aside from Jesus himself. And he claims to be a Pharisee.

 

Secondly, we should understand the historical context of the Pharisees. This means going back to the 6th century BCE and the Babylonian captivity.

The exile of the Jewish people in Babylon is a seminal moment in Jewish history and I would argue it’s the lens through which we should read the rest of the Old Testament. It was during the Babylonian captivity that most the Old Testament was compiled. Before that there were stories and letter, some written down, others simply passed down orally. But it wasn’t until the exile that these were all collected and curated and assembled into something that looks like the Old Testament we have today.

The reason the Old Testament was compiled was to answer the question “How did we get here?” After all, Israel was God’s chosen people. They had the One true God fighting our their behalf. How did it end in exile in a foreign land? Much of the Old Testament, in one form or another, addresses this question.

The primary answer to the question (although I admit this is not nearly nuanced enough) is disobedience. God promised that if Israel was faithful and obedient to him they would stay in the land and be blessed but if they disobeyed and were unfaithful, God would remove them from the land. This is the overwhelming narrative of the Old Testament: blessing follows obedience. The Babylonian exile is the result of disobedience, rebellion and sin.

Roughly 70 years after the exile, the Jews were allowed to start returning to Palestine. However, they never regained their independence. The land was always ruled by another empire above them. First, it was the Medes and the Persians, then it was Greeks, then the Seleucid Empire.

After the Seleucid Empire, there was a revolt by the Maccabees which resulted in a short-lived Hasmonean dynasty and the liberation of a few parts of Judea. However, shortly after that the Roman Empire marched in and took control of the region. But the belief that blessing follows obedience was always present. The idea that Israel was under secular rule because of sin and rebellion persisted.

So it stands to reason: if blessing follows obedience, if foreign powers controlled the area because of sin and rebellion, then all Israel had to do was live obediently to God and he would restore their kingdom.

Furthermore, the Pharisees believed in something called “universal priesthood”. In Exodus 19:5-6 God says,

5Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

In the Torah (the first five books of the Bible which contain the Law of Moses), there were some rules that only pertained to the Levites, the priestly class. But the Pharisees believed, just like God says in Exodus 19, that all Israel acted as his priests to the rest of the world.

So it stands to reason that if Israel lost their land because of rebellion, sin and disobedience and if all Israel could be thought of as a nation of priests, then they should all live up to the priestly standard set for the Levites.

As Ben Witherington explains, “Part of [the Pharisees] agenda was to try to apply to all Jews Levitical laws previously limited in application to priests. In other words, they believed in the priesthood of all believers concept, and they believed if all Jews would be observant of the laws of clean and unclean and the Sabbath and the food laws, then God would be better pleased with them, holiness would spread throughout the land, and they might even get the land back.”

The Pharisees were convinced that if everyone could simply obey the priestly laws, God would bless them. But it’s an all or nothing thing. Everyone had to live up to God’s standard in order for God to bless them.

 

This is what frustrated the Pharisees so much. They were upholding their end of the bargain. They were living in obedience to God. They were maintaining all the ways Israel was supposed to act differently than the world around them; namely, through dietary restrictions, ritual washing and Sabbath observance.

They weren’t the problem. It was all the sinners. It was the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the average Jews who, to quote David Neale, “represent a whole complex of behaviour that is opposed to God and his ways”. They were the ones who were keeping all of Israel from experiencing the blessing of God, including but not limited to the reestablishment of Israel as an independent nation.

 

To further complicate the situation, the Pharisees were worried about contagion. Not in a literal medical sense, but in the spiritual sense.

Proverbs 1:15, in speaking of the wicked says, “My son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths.”

Isaiah 52:11 says, “Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house.”

Psalm 1 starts off saying, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.”

A later Jewish tractate on Exodus 18:1 even says, “Let not a man associate with the wicked, even to bring him near to the law.”

All of this suggests that the Pharisees, while they were concerned with the holiness (or lack there off) of their fellow Jews, they were also worried that by interacting with them, they too would fall into wickedness.

This led to a situation where the Pharisees tried as hard as they could to encourage everyone to live up to the high moral standard they did, while simultaneously avoiding any real contact with wicked people, lest they themselves become impure.

 

When we take a more nuanced look at the Pharisees, it’s possible we see a lot more similarities than we’re comfortable with.

The Pharisees believed God blessed the obedient and cursed the rebellious. They believed the problems their nation experienced were a direct result of people living in wickedness. It doesn’t take much of a leap for us to see this paralleled in our world.

You don’t have to look too hard to find a preacher or church leader who’s claiming the problems of our nation (Canada, the United States, European countries, etc.) are a result of moral decay and wickedness.

The Pharisees also had a high moral standard. They wanted everyone to live up to the standard set for the priests, even if they themselves weren’t a priest. Another way we could put this is that the Pharisees were more concerned with external actions rather than the internal orientation of the heart.

Many of our churches today work the same way. Our moral standard isn’t necessarily ritual washing, dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance. But for many churches, those have been replaced with premarital sex or avoiding alcohol. We still tend to create checkboxes for people and base spiritual maturity on the things we avoid rather than the active presence of the fruit of the Spirit in their life.

Finally, the Pharisees believed in spiritual contagion; that the wickedness of sinful people could rub off on them. They believed that if they associated with sinners, even in an attempt to help them live more like God wants, that they were at risk of falling into wickedness themselves.

When I was in youth group as a teen, I remember our youth pastor had us play a game where one person stood up on a table and another person stood down on the floor and both people tried to pull the other person to wherever they were. So the person on the table tried to pull the person on the floor up and the vice versa.

Invariably the person on the ground always won. Even when we had the biggest, strongest kid standing on the table and the smaller, weakest kid on the ground. The lesson? It’s always easier to be pulled down than to pull others up. The real lesson? Avoid sinners. Don’t hang out with teens who don’t follow Jesus because they’re just going to pull you down.

As adults, we can still hold this view. When I was in university, I heard a story about a couple guys who would go to a strip club and hang out with the guys there. They met them where they were at rather than waiting for “those kinds of guys” to come to church. I thought that was an amazing way to incarnate the gospel and literally take it to the people who need it most. However, a lot of my classmates disagreed. They said that as Christians we shouldn’t go to strip clubs under any circumstances. They said it would only cause you to taint your Christian witness and you could just as easily build a relationship with someone in a coffee shop.

Maybe. But these kinds of guys didn’t go to coffee shops. They went to strip clubs. And they desperately needed Christians willing to come alongside them and share the good news with them.

 

The Pharisees believed wickedness was ruining their country and they deeply desired to see God’s blessing return. They believed in a high moral standard but were completely unwilling to help others achieve it.

When we understand who the Pharisees were and how they were motivated to see holiness return to Israel we should read Jesus’ words to them a little different. In recognizing their motivations it might cause Jesus’ indictment of them to become an indictment of us as well.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of the Pharisees

  1. Pastor Jerry, do you make a distinction between the Law of God and the oral tradition of the elders? Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for “adding” to the Law of God by their traditions, not by keeping the Law of Moses or the Torah.

    For instance, in Matthew 15, the Pharisees add “hand washing” as a prerequisite for eating a meal. This is found nowhere in Scripture. Since Jesus, the Incarnate Word, loves the Torah, He rebukes the Pharisees by stating: ““And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”

    Also, do you believe the Sabbath and the dietary laws were temporary covenants? If so, how were they fulfilled in Christ? I heartily agree the ceremonial laws, such as sacrificing a lamb during the Day of Atonement has been fulfilled in Christ as the Lamb of God, but is this the same category as the Sabbath and dietary laws, which seem to be pre-Mosaic and universally binding. I look forward to your responses. Thanks!

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    1. This is an interesting question. You’re right to point out that ceremonial hand washing wasn’t specifically mentioned in the Law of Moses. However, there are plenty of times both in the Torah as well as in the Prophets that the idea of washing and cleanliness come up.

      For example, in Leviticus 15 it says, “When a man is cleansed from his discharge, he is to count off seven days for his ceremonial cleansing; he must wash his clothes and bathe himself with fresh water, and he will be clean.”

      Later in the Psalms David writes, “I wash my hands of innocence and go about your altar.”

      These references to washing (as well as others) contributed to the Jewish precursor to baptism known as Tevliah. This isn’t to say that hand washing before a meal wasn’t a tradition (it was), but an understandable tradition.

      Jesus wasn’t particularly upset by these types of additions to the Law. In fact, it’s human nature to do this. How many Christians always pray before meals today? This isn’t “law” either, but a tradition that has become so ingrained in us that we treat it as law.

      The issue for Jesus in Matthew 15 wasn’t the traditions themselves but when traditions are allowed to usurp the law of God. God’s law and our traditions around that law should be kept distinct.

      Of course, in saying that we also have to recognize that Jesus boiled the entire law down to loving God and loving other people. Everything else is essentially commentary on what it looks like to love. However, Jesus himself, more than the law of Moses, shows us what love looks like.

      With that said, Jesus has authority over the Law and can replace and nullify whatever laws he wishes whenever he wishes. We see this demonstrated in Acts 10 and Mark 7 when Jesus declares the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 nullified. Other times Jesus reinterprets some laws (You have heard it said… but I say…). That’s not the case with the dietary laws of Leviticus 11. Jesus just nullified them.

      So in that sense, dietary restrictions and sabbath laws were temporary. However, I believe the wisdom behind them still exist today even if the law itself does not. A modern example of this would be bedtime for kids. When you were a child you probably had a bedtime. But as you got older your parents relaxed that bedtime and eventually let you start to make the decision yourself on when to go to bed. So the law of “Bedtime is 7pm” was temporary while the wisdom of good sleep hygiene is not.

      I don’t know if it’s overly productive to spend time trying to figure out which parts of the Mosaic law are ceremonial law versus moral law versus social law. Paul seems to argue on multiple occasions in the New Testament that we should be ruled by the law of love rather than the love of Moses.

      This doesn’t mean we throw out the Torah completely and ignore everything about it, but rather that we view it as a wise guide helping us to discern what it looks like to love God and love others. This is essentially Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:23-25.

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      1. Pastor Jerry, thanks for your response. I agree with most of what you said, but I don’t think Acts 10 and Mark 7 indicate God nullified the dietary laws.

        First, the whole context of Acts 10 is about Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. In Acts 10:15, God tells Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Who or what is God talking about? In the same chapter, Peter explains the meaning of the vision in verse 28: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” The chapter actually states “anyone,” referring to Gentiles, not “anything,” referring to food.

        Furthermore, Galatians 2:11-13 reveal that Peter struggled with associating with the Gentiles for fear of the Circumcision party. Paul rebuked Peter for this. Finally, the vision was composed of all creatures, both clean and unclean. The point here is God’s inclusion of salvation to the Gentiles. After the vision, God confirms this by sending Cornelius to his house, and Peter finally realizes that even the Gentiles have received the Spirit, just as they had.

        It’s important to note that Mark 7, where Scripture states, “Thus, he declared all foods clean,” is a parenthetical statement. First, I don’t think it is wise to build an entire hermeneutic on a parenthetical statement. Secondly, Mark 7 is not an isolated story; it is paralleled with Matthew 15. Matthew 15 actually sums up what the entire debate is about: “But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Third, If the context is about Jesus upholding the Law and rejecting human rules and regulations, why would Jesus, in the same story, nullify God’s precepts about clean and unclean foods (Leviticus 11; Deut 14:3-20) by abolishing them?

        Finally, the parenthetical statement is not found in one of the most reliable Greek Manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus. Indeed, it is found in the Codex Bezae, but has evolved from “declaring all foods clean” to “Thus, he declared all foods clean.” The original states that the stomach purifies any kind of food put in it, not that Jesus has declared all foods to be purified. The word for purify means to be free from filth. In relation to the stomach or digestive tract’s ability to purify food, it wouldn’t matter whether you washed your hands or not. All of the bacteria and germs would be purified through the stomach’s acid and be expelled.

        Pastor Jerry, I encourage you to continue being a Berean. From your previous replies, I can tell you are a student of God’s Word. Do you think these objections are reasonable? I look forward to reading your reponse. Blessings!

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