The Pharisees have had a bad press for centuries. Despite their proven humanity, sincerity and piety, they have been constantly excoriated as a reprehensible group of egalistic, selfrighteous hypocrites who symbolise all that is worst in the religious character. The New Testament gives the impression that Jesus was adamantly opposed to the movement and all it stood for; Jews who know the real worth of the Pharisees understand how the gospel writers got it so wrong. Christian scholarship – Travers Herford, George Foot Moore, James W. Parkes and E. P. Sanders in particular – has attempted to rehabilitate the movement but much more needs to be done to put the record straight.
The Pharisees were one of three main sects in late Second Temple Judaism. The others were the Sadducees and Essenes. It is with the Sadducees that the Pharisees need to be particularly contrasted. Though some claim that the Sadducees were not so much a religious movement as a socio-economic party based on the Temple priesthood and the upper echelons of Judean society, there were also philosophical differences between their views and those of the Pharisees. The main difference concerned the status of “Torah sheb’al peh”, the Oral Teaching.
A revolutionary scholarly class
To the Pharisees, the Oral Teaching was exegesis of the Pentateuch to make the Torah into the “inheritance of the community of Israel”. Jewish knowledge was available to every Jew; Jewish leadership was for those who had acquired Torah, regardless of priestly or other lineage. Ellis Rivkin calls the Pharisees “a revolutionary scholar class”.
No wonder Josephus, a major source of information on the period, informs us that the people loved the Pharisees. In modern terms we would say that the Pharisees empowered the people – or rather made it possible for the people to be empowered by Torah. Rarely did the Pharisee party hold political power; hardly ever were they political activists. They had no love for the Roman overlords and did not acknowledge the pretensions of the Roman rulers – their principle was “Our Father, our King, we have no King but You” – but they were prepared to make some accommodation with the Roman power provided they could continue their piety, study and teaching.
Pharisee in contradistinction to Sadducee
After the destruction of the Temple the Sadducees fell away, though leaving some residual traces, but the Pharisees remained. However, since the name Pharisee had meaning mostly in contradistinction to the Sadducees, from this time onwards little is heard of Pharisees as such and they become Rabbinic Judaism in the process making it possible for Judaism to survive the catastrophe and to regroup its spiritual, cultural and intellectual forces.
The rabbinic literature redacted at a later stage incorporates earlier material and is therefore a valuable source on the Pharisees, but we immediately discover a problem.
The name Pharisee is not always used in the same sense. Sometimes it indicates Pharisee as against Sadducee. Sometimes it denotes separatists (from a Hebrew root that means to separate oneself), because the movement urged separation from transgression. At times it even means “heretic”, understanding the same root as suggesting “outsider” – in this sense it is a mocking criticism of them by their opponents. So we need to check the word Pharisee against its various contexts.
A similar exercise is necessary when looking at New Testament references. But first a word of warning. To present Jesus as anti-Pharisee, in whatever sense the word is used, is historically quite anomalous. The Pharisaic ethic of love, compassion, patience, sincerity, humility and hope is amply documented; it is simply not possible to suggest that Jesus had any quarrel with these principles. Nor is it likely that Pharisees were actively seeking to have him put to death. If he had differences of opinion with them, these were “in club” dialogue, because this is how the sages worked. Matthew 23 sharpens the story beyond recognition (and some of the supposed conflicts could simply never have occurred).
Jesus is not usually referred to as a member of the three main sects of the time, but his sympathies were closer to the Pharisees than to any other group. If references to Jesus having problems with Pharisees have a factual basis, the term Pharisee cannot indicate Pharisee as against Sadducee, because Jesus’ views do not allow sympathy with the Sadducees. Does it indicate Pharisee as separatist? Possibly, if as some suggest he has in mind certain factions (e.g. the Shammaites) amongst the movement. Does it indicate “heretic”? Probably not, since Jesus does not appear to have taken sides in the internal conflicts which gave rise to this derisory name.
The most likely answer is that, when criticising self-righteousness, hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, outward piety, perverse teaching, etc., he is echoing the Pharisees’ own condemnation of attitudes that can surface in any otherwise genuine religious movement. So why does he utter criticism (whether the texts quote his own words or later writers’ more hostile views) of Pharisees as such?
For this we have to go to the rabbinic sources themselves. In a well-known passage in Avot d’Rabbi Natan we find an ancient listing of seven classes of Pharisee, five of whom are sternly criticised. The five are the Shoulder Pharisee who parades his good deeds; the Bruised Pharisee who lets himself suffer injury rather than look at a woman, the Pestle Pharisee who walks with his head down like a pestle in the mortar, and the Ever Reckoning Pharisee who is constantly looking for a good deed to counteract his neglect.
The sages of the time actually refer to “Pharisaic plagues”. Why do the authors of this rabbinic passage criticise Pharisees? It is a criticism from within the movement, nor does it imply that all members of the group are hypocrites or sinners. It is a group saying “Let us try to be the best possible representatives of our group”. What then is Jesus doing? Not condemning Pharisaism across the board but quoting a well-known internal position of the time. To suggest otherwise is careless and unhistorical. It unjustly maligns a sincerely pious, devoted group, a special group with a finely tuned conscience. Their name deserves to be honoured and not allowed to become a pejorative term of abuse.