By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice October 2007)
Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of
Inevitably, whenever we hold a witness at any ungodly event, in come the emails claiming that 'Jesus would not have condemned homosexuals / woman having abortions blasphemers / sinners in general' and that we are 'like the Pharisees' in some unspecified and indeterminate way and therefore opposing the purpose and character of the Lord.
So let us look at the Lord Jesus Christ amongst the Pharisees. I want to do this both in the sense of how the people of the time would have regarded Him, and in His own dealings with those whose very name has come to be synonymous with legalism and hypocrisy.
A SINFUL AND ADULTEROUS GENERATION Despite being a 'sinful and adulterous' generation (Mark
), the Jews of Jesus's time were desperate to see themselves as faithful followers of the Laws of God given by Moses. With a history of deportation to
and return from
, oppression under the Greeks, liberation by the Macabees and now under occupation by the Romans, their identity as a nation was totally bound up in observance of the traditions of their fathers.
The people were consequently very keen to live every facet of their existence in accordance with those traditions. That is not to say they were succeeding, but they wanted at least to keep up appearances. Out of that demand, there arose a need for a class of men who were prepared to study the Torah and the Talmudic exposition of it and then to travel the country teaching the people how to keep the law in the minutiae of everyday life.
These men became known as the 'Pharisees' ('Prushim', in the Hebrew) from a word meaning 'to separate'. This could be both in the sense of separating themselves from the world and separating Torah practice from non-Torah practice. Whatever the precise derivation, most Pharisees were well-respected for their work, their judgments and their proximity both physically and emotionally to the people.
It is true that some Pharisees would describe the 'common' or unlearned people in less than flattering terms (John
), but the Pharisees had one important feature which endeared them to ordinary folk. Unlike the ruling classes in
and especially unlike the priests, they weren't Sadducees. Long before the Lord Jesus drove out the money-changers, the Pharisees had been articulating and leading objections to corruption in the temple. Their principal complaint was that only those licensed by the priests could exchange currency and sell animals intended for sacrifice. With cartel if not monopoly conditions existing, there was massive popular resentment to the hugely-inflated prices and rates of exchange imposed on those who of necessity had to present only those animals defined as 'clean' (we could say 'kosher') to the priests for everything from ceremonial cleansing to sin offerings.
SADDUCEES OBJECTED TO RESURRECTION AND JUDGMENT At a theological level, the defining issue between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was their attitude to the hereafter. The Sadducees objected to the concept of the resurrection and to a final day of judgment. The Pharisees confessed both. In an interesting addition, the Pharisees also believed in an oral Torah, which was said to have been given by God to Moses at the same time as the written Torah on
. The Sadducees held that there was no such thing as an 'oral Torah' and complained that belief in such a thing, which only those learned in it could interpret, gave the Pharisees an unfair advantage in Torah-discussion. But the practical distinction was that the Sadducees were the ruling establishment and the Pharisees, especially outside
, ascetic leaders of popular opposition.
As an example of how detailed the work of the Pharisees became, we need only to look at the question of ritual cleanliness. This to an observant Jew was extremely important. Being touched by someone unclean, as the Lord was by the woman with a flow of blood, made a clean person unclean and unable to perform ceremonial tasks. The woman touched the tassel of Jesus's garment, which she understood as containing His very essence (Luke
). Of course the fact that she was immediately healed enabled the Lord to hold that she had been made clean rather than He unclean. But the incident illustrates the value to that society of ritual cleanliness.
In our day, we can just about understand how touching a dead body would remove one's cleanliness (hence the Priest's and Levite's aversion to the comatose traveller in Luke
-32) but even touching an unclean vessel made a Jew ritually unclean. For the latter eventuality, for example, it was important to know, when pouring clean water from a clean vessel (which one is holding) into an unclean, which one might on occasion need to do, whether the uncleanliness travelled up the water into the clean vessel to make the latter, and necessarily the one holding it, unclean. It is hard adequately to convey how important such a question, and myriads like it, were to the people amongst whom the Lord walked. (The answer by the way is 'Yes, it does'.)
TWO RIVAL HOUSES OF PHARISEES So far we have Sadducees and Pharisees. Now, to make matters more complicated, the Pharisees themselves were split between the followers of two 'schools' or 'houses' (Hebrew 'Bet') named after two distinguished scholars from the latter half of the previous century. Their names were Shammai and Hillel (the latter 60 BC to 20 AD). The Lord Jesus was contemporary with the grandson of Hillel, Rabbi Gamaliel, who taught the Apostle Paul. To caricature these great men, who so sparked and sharpened each other, we might think of Hillel as the plebian and Shammai as the patrician.
Hillel was keen to make religious observance as easy for the people as possible, whereas Shammai was very concerned about holiness and respect for the integrity of the temple. We can perhaps think of Shammai as 'strict' and Hillel as more 'liberal', but those expressions, with all today's baggage, do not adequately convey the subtleties of their positions. A story, however, illustrates their characters. A gentile convert went to Shammai with a request to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. In other words, he wanted the very essence of it. Shammai said this could not be done, and drove the man away beating him with a cubit stick. (Shammai was by profession a surveyor - which is in itself an interesting detail of the time). So the man went to Hillel with the same request. Hillel said: 'What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow-man. Now go and learn.'
A Pharisee would have a small entourage of disciples - the typical number was twelve - whom he would be teaching as he travelled around (don't even think there could be such a thing as a female Pharisee or disciple). He would attract crowds who would stay with him for a day or two, then he would send them back to their towns while he went on to the next place. As he went on his way he would be teaching and ruling on the Torah. People would come to him with requests for rulings and with abstruse theological questions. They would address him respectfully as 'Master' or 'Rabbi'. It is no coincidence that such is a perfect description of the ministry of the Lord Jesus. He was not at all out of place in the Holy Land of the first century. The people of His society would have regarded our Lord as a typical travelling Pharisee.
WOE UNTO WHICH PHARISEES? But now we have a problem. Why does the Lord pronounce 'woe' upon the Pharisees? Why does He hold them up to ridicule as examples of hypocrisy? Why does He, if He is a typical first-century Pharisee, tell knocking stories such as the one about the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10)? To answer that question, it is necessary to look at the circumstances and the precise activities and attitudes the Lord criticises.
When we do that, we find that a point of view which lumps all Pharisees in one hypocritical, and woeful religiously-observant Torah-keeping pot is intellectually sloppy, too convenient for today's antinomians and altogether far too simplistic.
We get a clue as to what is going on when we read in Matthew 15:1 and Mark 7:1 that certain Pharisees 'were of Jerusalem'. By one of those coincidences that only God Himself can arrange, Bet Hillel was strongest in Galilee while the Bet Shammai powerbase was Jerusalem. The Pharisees who supported Jesus - Nicodemus, Simon and Gamaliel for example, even, eventually, the Apostle Paul - were all from Bet Hillel. By contrast, the majority of the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin from about 20 BC until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD were Bet Shammai. By comparing the Lord's precise complaints about 'Pharisees' with the known approaches of the two 'schools', we have to draw the conclusion that in every single case, the Lord Jesus is criticising one school or the other. And mostly His displeasure is directed at Bet Shammai.
For example, the emphasis on ritual washing (n'tilat yadayim) in the Matthew 15:1ff and corresponding Mark 7:1ff passage is a known Shammai position. The unrepentant self-satisfied Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14 is a precise picture of Bet Shammai, with the obsessive fasting and tithing. The Lord even ends his story with a endorsing quote of Rabbi Hillel's most famous teaching on humility (although it is found in the Old Testament first, at Prov 25:6-7): 'for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.' Hillel said: 'My abasement is my exaltation and my exaltation is my abasement.'
THE LORD JESUS EMPHASISES THE WRITTEN LAW But it is too easy simply to cast the Lord Jesus as a 'Hillel Pharisee'. Going back to Matt 15 and Mark 7, we see a subtle difference in His approach from that of either 'Bet'. Very quickly the Lord moves from the question of ritual handwashing - amplified at length elsewhere - to a bigger question. He accuses the Shammai Pharisees of using their teachings to get around the written Law.
He tells them that in the clever way they had devised ('corban') in which a son can temporarily 'dedicate' a gift to the temple and absolve himself of his duty to look after his parents, that they had contravened the Fifth Commandment of the written Torah (Mark 7:11-13).
When the question of fasting and tithing comes up again, (Matt 23:23) He accuses the Shammai school of neglecting the 'weightier' matters of the Torah, which He identifies as 'judgment, mercy and faith', going back to the written word of the Law and the Prophets (Psalm 89:14, Isa 16:5, Hos 12:6, Zech 7:9) Elsewhere, the Lord quotes Hosea 6:6 about the Father's desire for mercy rather than sacrifice (Matt 9:13, 12:7) in an explicit endorsement of the Hillel position, but again grounding it in the written word.
So oddly enough, given His dismissal of the Sadducees (Matt 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27) whenever our gracious Lord emphasises the written Law over Pharisaic traditions, He is much more in tune with the Sadducees. And constantly, when He is asked to pass judgment on individual cases, He constantly returns to the written Torah in disputes on matters of interpretation. He never says ' Rabbi Hillel said,' or 'after Rabbi Shammai'. He always cuts straight through the discussion with a comment like 'It is written'. He asks: 'What is written in Torah?' 'How do you read?' (Luke 10:26) taking every question back to the written law. Even when answering Satan in the temptations, each of the Lord’s three replies is a statement of the written word of God (Luke 4:4-12). The Lord Jesus Christ loves the word of God (and after all, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He wrote it).
BET SHAMMAI SUPPORTED OVER DIVORCE In one famous example of that approach (Matt 19:3-9), the Lord Jesus's reply to a burning question of the time strongly supported Bet Shammai. Hillel said a man could divorce his wife for any cause, and Shammai said Deut 24:1-4 enabled divorce for adultery only. For the 'compassionate' school, Hillel was surprisingly callous about the fate of divorced women, who were left with nothing. The Lord endorsed Shammai, and then went right back to Gen 2:24 to show that divorce, although provided for in the Law, was still not God's original intention.
I ventured earlier that Bet Hillel was the more 'liberal' of the Rabbinic schools, with the qualification that such a word does not convey the meaning we ascribe to it today. It is important to recognise that no-one in the Holy Land of the First Century, no Pharisee, no Sadducee, Herodian, Zealot, Essene (and certainly not Jesus of Nazareth), would be found disputing any one of the famous 613 laws of Moses found in the written Torah. We find no-one arguing for a relaxation of the laws against Sabbath-day trading, or in favour of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty for murder. No-one is saying that 'thou shalt not lie with mankind' is out of date in the modern Roman world or that 'thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour's wife' has little relevance outside the nomadic life-style of the Patriarchs.
JESUS WOULD NOT BE HAPPY WITH SIN There is much more to be said in amplification of these points on our Lord's gracious ministry, on His dealings with sinners, on His call to repentance. But it remains that the idea that the Lord Jesus would be happy with sin and with unrepentant sinners is founded on ignorance of the Gospel records, His world and His ministry, which was not to destroy 'the law or the prophets' (Matt 5:17) but everywhere to rule on and interpret the written law, of which, travelling Pharisee or not, He was such a powerful defender (Matt 7:29).