The Pharisees do not have a good name partly because of the way our gospel sources present them. Historically, they were religious leaders during the Second Temple Judaism period (515 BC – 70 AD); they espoused a Torah-centered piety and code of purity laws (7). A general reading of the gospels suggests that they are the ominous, recurring villains in the narrative. Although they appear holy, deep down they were more concerned with the Law and not their fellow Jews. They were clearly interpreters of the Law of Moses and were very strict with keeping the Law. Our gospels suggest that their knowledge of the Law made them somewhat arrogant with the view that they were holier than their fellow Jews. According to the Gospel of Luke one Pharisee even arrogantly thanks God that he is not “like the other men” (18:11). The “other men” being sinners which the Pharisee took to be inferior to him.
They also hated Jesus because he did things contrary to what they believed the Law stated. For example, they challenged and confronted him for healing a man’s hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Matt. 12:10) as well as over some other healings on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10; John 5). They also didn’t like the disciples. They challenged both Jesus and his disciples because they ate with sinners (Mark 2:13-17; Matt. 9:11; Luke 5:30); they were likewise critical because he allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23; Matt. 12:1; Luke 6:1). According to our gospels Jesus wasn’t one to back down either. He accused them of hypocrisy because even though they were informed in the Law they were hypocritical when it came to caring for other people (Mark 12:35-40; Matt. 23:1-39; Luke 11:37-54). This would seem consistent with a well-known passage in the Torah (Sotah, 22b) which reveals that hypocrisy was not unknown among the Pharisees. Moreover, the Pharisees would also cheat other people out of their possessions (Matt. 23). And because of their hatred they conspired to kill Jesus (Mark 3:6; 14: 1; Matt. 12:14; 26:4; Luke 22:2) as well as tried to forcefully arrest him (Mark 14:1; Matt. 12: 14; John 7:30; 32; 44; 10:39) and stone him (John 8:59; 10: 31). Perhaps one of the more notable occurrences where the Pharisees are represented in a good light is found within the book of Acts concerning Gamaliel where he is shown to be sympathetic towards early Christians (Acts 5:34-39). Likewise in John’s gospel Nicodemus is a good example of what a Pharisee should have been like since he was a seeker of truth (John 3:1), spoke out for justice on behalf of Jesus (7:50), and even remained a follower of Jesus even after the disciples had fallen away (John 19:39). The Apostle Paul, who penned several New Testament letters himself, was also a Pharisee. By his own hand he admits to having persecuted early Christians prior to his remarkable conversion to Christianity.
But through a historical lens the Pharisees were generally well liked and respected by the common people of Israel according to 1st century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Historian John Crossan explains that “they were close to and revered by the ordinary folk” (1). Population wise Flavius numbers them at 6 000 just prior to the fall of the temple in 70 AD (2). Although the gospels very much represent them in a negative light they were, in reality, not one dimensional villains. They did take the law very seriously which would give credibility to our gospel accounts concerning their conflicts with Jesus, but the reason they were so strict was because they wanted to be good and right with God. They were also not necessarily cold hearted. As historian Stanley Porter, a specialist in New Testament Studies, notes that they invited other families to feast with them on the Sabbath (3).
Historian Luke Timothy Johnson writes that “The NT cannot be trusted to provide a fair and accurate picture either of Jews or of pagans. It was written by converts seeking to demonstrate the superiority of their new life by contrast to both groups. The NT is preoccupied with community concerns and addresses the outside world only insofar as it has impact on the movement” (4). Richard Burridge says that “In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are the bad guys, whereas in Luke they are shown in a much gentler light” (5). Clearly the way they Pharisees are framed was influenced by the gospel author’s own views, opinions, and theological agendas. Although I am inclined to agree with Johnson’s diagnosis, namely that the Pharisees are dressed up in way that is not entirely “fair” or “accurate,” the gospels still, in Bart Ehrman’s words, “can and must be considered historical sources of information” (6). Our gospel narratives do, more often than not, seem to be, as historian Sanders affirms, consistent with Pharisaic belief and practices at that time (8). We thus shouldn’t believe that the narratives are entirely imaginative constructions. Just because the gospel authors don’t necessarily present them in a “fair” manner does not mean that the way they are presented is false or not worth consideration. It would be analogous to a holocaust survivor recounting his or her experience of the camp and the German soldiers who were in it. The way the survivor might present his German captors may not entirely be “fair” or “accurate” but we wouldn’t think of dismissing his testimony.
1. Crossan, J. 2012. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. p. 92.
2. Flavius, J. 96. Antiquities of the Jews, 17.42.
3. Porter, S. 1997. Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament. p. 373.
4. Johnson, L. 1986. The writings of the New Testament: an interpretation.
5. Burridge, R. 2013. All For One And One For All. Available.
6. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist? p. 71-73.
7. Cornerstone College. New Testament Foundation Reader. p. 196.
8. Sanders, E. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. p. 213