In my last post, I questioned the way present-day Christians use the word “Pharisee” to chastise other Christians. In current Christian vocabulary, “Pharisee” is a synonym for “self-righteous,” or “judgmental,” or “hypocritical.” Strangely enough, “Pharisee” is used by Christians primarily as a label to criticize other Christians, even though the historical Pharisees were a Jewish sect.
In an upcoming post, I plan to argue that Christians should not use “Pharisee” as a term of criticism. But first, I need to do a better job of explaining who the Pharisees were. On my last post, commenter Jo Scott-Coe noted that her Christian education lumped together the historical Pharisees with the historical Sadducees. Jo said she’d like to know more about the differences between the two groups.
If someone asked me this question at a cocktail party, then (unprepared) I’d answer this way: in Jesus’ day, the Sadducees were the Jewish aristocrats. They were concentrated mostly in Jerusalem. They were closely associated with the Temple in Jerusalem: most of the Temple priests (and probably all of the high priests) were Sadducees. The Sadducees were more Hellenized than most Jews – they were familiar with Greek as well as Jewish culture. The Sadducees were politically active, and close to the Romans who ruled Palestine. The Sadducees were literalists when it came to Torah and the books of the Jewish Bible – they stuck to the language in the texts, and did not believe in an authoritative oral tradition that accompanied the texts. The Sadducees had some unique views for a Jewish sect: for example, they did not believe in fate, or an afterlife.
In contrast, the Pharisees were closer to the common people – they were more middle-class than aristocratic, and more popular with ordinary Jews than the Sadducees. Pharisees could be found throughout ancient Palestine, including in the Galilee where Jesus lived and did most of his preaching. The Pharisees functioned primarily as teachers and experts in Jewish law. They resisted Hellenization, and believed that their traditions were based on an oral law that Moses received from God along with the written law. The Pharisees took certain practices associated with the Temple – washing, for example – and made them sacred practices to be performed by Jews everywhere. The Pharisees disagreed with the Sadducees on certain basic questions. For example, the Pharisees believed in an afterlife, and resurrection of the dead in a future messianic age.
Possibly the most important distinction between the Pharisees and Sadducees was this: when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple during the first Jewish War (66-73 CE), the Sadducees were effectively destroyed along with the Temple, and the Pharisees emerged as the dominant force in Jewish life. The Pharisees were well-positioned to take this role, as they had traditionally been focused on Jewish life outside of the Temple. Today, Jews believe that the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud and provided the structure for post-Temple Judaism were the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees.
My cocktail party description of Pharisees and Sadducees is roughly the same description you’ll read elsewhere on the internet, and in many books on the subject. It is probably not too far from the truth. But it is also too confident, way too confident. The real truth is, we don’t know nearly as much about the Pharisees and Sadducees as we wish we knew.
Let’s focus on the Pharisees for the moment. Here I am relying on a collection of essays titled In Quest of the Historical Pharisees edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton. The essays examine what we know about the Pharisees, which comes from four sources: (1) the New Testament, (2) writings from the Jewish historian Josephus, (3) the Dead Sea Scrolls and (4) Jewish texts written more than a hundred years after the fall of the Second Temple. These sources treat the Pharisees incidentally – none is primarily interested in the Pharisees, nor do these sources agree with each other. For example, while the Gospels are interpreted to paint the Pharisees as obsessively concerned with formal details of Jewish law, the Dead Sea Scrolls describe the Pharisees’ as lax when it comes to the law, inventing loopholes to make law observance easier.
The New Testament makes frequent reference to the Pharisees, often focusing on their faults. But even if Christians are inclined to draw their conclusions about the Pharisees primarily from the New Testament, it’s still the case that the evidence about the Pharisees there is mixed. The named Pharisees in the New Testament – Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and the apostle Paul –all come across as reasonably “good guys” (or in Paul’s case, ultimately a good guy). After his conversion, Paul described himself as a Pharisee, giving the impression that he thought one could be both a Pharisee and a follower of Jesus. Even Jesus had some nice things to say about the Pharisees – he described them as sitting in Moses’ seat (which has got to be a good seat, assuming you’re looking for a Jewish place to sit), and he ordered his followers to “do whatever they teach you and follow it.”
Some scholars (a minority, to be sure) argue that Jesus himself might have been a Pharisee. This seems unlikely to me, but it also seems unlikely that Jesus and the Pharisees stood at opposite poles. In Matthew 23 at least, Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is based not on what they taught, but on their failure to “practice what they teach.” But this conflicts with a picture we get from Josephus, that the Pharisees were devout, pious and “think they ought earnestly to strive to observe” the commandments of the law. The best scholarly view may be that there was no fundamental point of disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees, and that the Gospel portrait of the Pharisees is a later development, representing tension between Christian and non-Christian Jews at the time the Gospels were written (some 30 to 70 years after Jesus’ death).
One reason why we get differing portraits of the Pharisees is that there were differences among the Pharisees. Within Judaism, perhaps the most famous disputes over Jewish law took place within the Pharisees, between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. As a rule, Shammai’s views on the law were stricter, and Hillel’s were more liberal (and popular). There are stories in Jewish texts suggesting that the disputes between these schools could become acrimonious, even violent. So if Jesus opposed the Pharisees, the logical follow-up question is to ask which Pharisees he opposed!
We should note that the Pharisees are in no sense universally beloved in Jewish sources. Much of what Josephus wrote about the Pharisees was highly critical of them. The Talmud itself says unflattering things about the Pharisees. It lists seven categories of Pharisees (including “delaying,” “bruised” and “pestle” Pharisees), only one of which (the “loving” kind) was deemed admirable. So it’s not right to think of the Pharisees as universally loved in the Jewish sources and reviled in the Christian sources. Both sets of sources have good and bad things to say about the Pharisees.
The picture we have of the Pharisees is so mixed that in the summary at the end of In Quest of the Pharisees, William Scott Glenn concludes that there’s enough “hard evidence” to conclude that the Pharisees existed, “but not yet enough to produce a systematic and substantive description of their nature, beliefs, and character.”
What lesson do we take from all this? My argument here is against the use of the term “Pharisee” as a term of insult. One reason to avoid this use is that we don’t exactly know who the Pharisees were. If a Christian calls another Christian a “Pharisee”, then based on what we know from history, we might conclude that the other Christian is self-righteous, or hypocritical. Or we might conclude that the other Christian:
- Is pious
- Walks the walk as well as talks the talk
- Believes in resurrection of the dead
- Sits in Moses’ seat (and I still insist that this is one of the best seats you can sit in)
- Is a model for present-day Jews to follow
- Is someone who attracts a lot of Jewish criticism
- Is subject to inner turmoil
- Is hard to figure out