The Pharisees were an exclusive religious sect that outdid even the Temple priests in their complex rituals and extensive ablutions. But their self-righteous spiritual orientation clashed head-on with the philosophy of the new teacher from Nazareth.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were rival religious organizations. Though normally deeply divided, they could find temporary alliance in their hatred of Jesus. His popularity with the common folk made very obvious by their own lack of popular appeal and the growing scope and power of His ministry — made Jesus a significant rival. These religious leaders, like most religious leaders from time immemorial, inspired more superstitious fear than sincere loyalty in their followers. The religious situation in first-century Palestine was not that different from the way it is today. Most people were not members of a religious group. The average Jew then was like the average modern American, Briton, German, or Frenchman. He probably had a certain form of piety, attended the Temple occasionally at one of the festivals, and perhaps even tithed in a good year. But the average Jew was not a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene, any more than the average Israeli is ultra-Orthodox. The average Jew was what later rabbinic literature referred to rather disparagingly as am ha 'arets ("person of the land"). He was considered to have a certain small amount of piety or religious scruples without being overbothered with religion. He had some definite views about certain aspects of religion — so long as they didn't affect how he lived. After all, it wasn't easy to make a living and, as for all peoples at all times, a short weight or a little water in the wine was easily overlooked. Of course, many were very honest and conscientious individuals, yet still did not claim any religious affiliation.
A Minority Sect
It has been a standard myth that the Pharisees were an overwhelmingly dominant force in Palestine in Jesus' time. This erroneous view is based on late rabbinic literature, but recent studies — especially those by the well-known scholar Jacob Neusner — have shown that rabbinic Judaism was a post-70 A.D. phenomenon which sprang directly from Pharisaism and therefore tended to exaggerate its historical significance. Judaism before A.D. 70 was much more pluralistic than is commonly believed, comprised of a variety of different groups and sects, many of which disappeared in the Jewish war against the Romans. In the decades following the destruction of Jerusalem, rabbinic Judaism developed and became the dominant religious influence on Jews (though again, the average Jew was still the am ha'arets who basically ignored the detailed regulations proclaimed by the rabbis). Later rabbinic Judaism became Torah-centered. Study of the law and legal disputations were common activities of the rabbis and their disciples. But Pharisaism differed in many ways from the later rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisees were not a group formed to study the Torah. They were an organization of laymen who agreed to observe certain purity laws so that they could imitate the priests in the Temple. In other words, they tried to make their home into a model of the Temple and their table into a model of the al tar. They were a table fellowship group. Even though they were concerned about such things as Sabbath observance, the bulk of their concern was with laws relating to eating. They washed pots and pans because that was necessary for ritual purity. They criticized the disciples of Jesus for eating with "un wash en hands" (Mark 7:1-3) because the disciples had not followed the purity regulations (regulations nowhere required in the Old Testament except for the priests in the Temple). The Pharisees were scrupulous about tithing, not because they were concerned about the priests, but because they could not eat something unless it had been properly tithed! Naturally, this was so much nonsense to the average Jew. What was to be gained by imitating the Temple priests? Even the priests did not observe these purity laws outside the Temple in their own homes. It is not hard to see why there were only about 6,000 members of this superstrict table fellowship group. The Sadducees were a group associated mainly with the priests (Acts 4:1). Their activities centered mainly around the Temple, and this is why their influence on Judaism was finished when the Temple was destroyed. The main appeal of the Sadducees was to the upper classes, yet many of the professional scribes were Sadducees. The scribes were a professional class roughly corresponding to the civil servant or bureaucrat of today. They were trained in the law (the term "scribe" is basically interchangeable with "lawyer") and the literature of the Jews. They held various administrative and educational posts. They were respected much as the legal and medical professions of today. So when Jesus said, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat," He was recognizing their prestige and authority as teachers. (But then He went on to condemn many of their practices and examples [Matt. 23]!) The third Jewish sect of the first century — the Essenes — is not mentioned in the New Testament. Most scholars feel the Qumran community — immortalized and popularized by the Dead Sea Scrolls — was a leading Essene center. Other writers indicate that Essenes also lived in various villages and cities throughout Palestine. They were very much a minor group, though, and probably kept somewhat separate because of their exclusivist attitudes. The popular press has long engaged in speculation about Jesus being' an Essene or associated with the Qumran community. Such absurdities have been almost universally rejected by Qumran specialists. There is no evidence that Jesus had anything to do with the Essenes and Qumran.
It is a basic psychological trait of human beings that as one becomes more convinced of his own spiritual purity, especially if it can be expressed through physical means, he simultaneously becomes less tolerant of others. In a word, he becomes self-righteous. Self-righteousness is the antithesis of godly righteousness. It can in fact become the most insidious of sins because it is the most difficult to recognize. It is not particularly hard for a prostitute to know what she is, or for a murderer, drunk or thief to know what he is. Perhaps it becomes progressively more difficult for a liar or a covetous person to recognize his sins. But the self-righteous person — one who thinks that he has not committed any sins, knows he is righteous and knows that he knows it — is in the gravest danger of self-delusion and ultimate self-destruction. Whatever is required, the self-righteous person thinks he does; whatever is forbidden, he thinks he eschews. Yet God states that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23), and that the personal recognition of one's own sinful nature, mind and heart is the essential first step in the conversion/salvation process. For the prostitute or murderer it can be easy, but for the self-righteous person this can be an intolerable stumbling block. It's no wonder that Jesus Christ reserved His fiercest attacks for the self-righteous religious leaders who epitomized the attitude and approach of all religious leaders of all religions from all times. The Pharisees personified the concepts of spiritual rank, show, pecking order, and degree of sanctimoniousness. How all such self-righteous characters know how to hate! (Satan himself must become at least a little jealous of their vituperative musings; their filthy, lying, carnal-minded plots.) Religious folk have always taken themselves altogether too seriously, and the Pharisees were no different. But they, like all other people of past generations, are dead. They were religious fanatics. They were spiritually proud and morally corrupt. They were hypocrites. They persecuted Jesus and finally succeeded in killing Him. But "the Jews" did not! Oh, the Pharisees were Jews, all right, but then, so were most if not all of the disciples and early apostles, and so were the great majority of all the converts during the early days of the Church! And, to once again state the obvious: so was Jesus Christ Himself. Consequently, to exploit the fact that the Jewish religious leaders were involved in the crucifixion and murder of Jesus in order to justify even implicitly any anti-Semitic attitude is the height of historical absurdity, ludicrous in the extreme, and only serves to broadcast one's ignorance. Surely a far greater case could be made for a "pro-Semitic" attitude, based on the clear New Testament testimony that the leading apostles and disciples and the great majority of the early church in Judea and the core members of the churches 'even in the Gentile world were all Jewish!
The confrontation between these religious leaders and Jesus was easy to foretell, and His denunciation of them as hypocrites who honored Him with their lips but whose hearts were far from Him was stinging. Jesus said, "Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," and thoroughly scolded them for their man-made traditions which He said made the Word of God of no effect. Many falsely assume the religion of the Pharisees was the Old Testament religion, the religion of Moses. No way. Even though Jesus said that they "sat in Moses' seat," recognizing their inheritance of the authority of Moses (in administering the law), He warned against the doctrine of the Pharisees, which He called their "leaven." The added corruptions, the repressive, restrictive, hyper-religious customs and traditions of these men were what Jesus attacked. They had made the Word of God, and the way of life spelled out in the Scriptures, of "no effect" by their traditions. After all, very few even today figure their religion is any good to them if they can understand it, do they? Isn't it much better if it borders on the mysterious, the unknown, the obscure? Isn't it more effective to gaze in wonderment at bizarre, detailed, carefully arranged rituals performed by some person dressed in obvious "religious" garb, and vaguely "guess" this must be pleasing to some sort of divine being, than it is to observe and appreciate the practical, day-to-day way of life that God lays down in His Word? The Pharisees decided it was holy to fast twice each week, which they regarded as a righteously rigorous schedule. (You'd be a rich man if you could have a dollar for every day those pretending religious fanatics failed to really fast "twice in the week," even though they openly bragged about it.) Jesus demonstrated He was aware of their hypocrisy when He recounted the story about the Pharisee and the publican. He said: "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:10-14). Here was the attitude of the Pharisees again: that of spiritual pride, vanity, ego, self-importance and hypocrisy! The publican (normally suspected to be a cheat by the illiterate masses) knew what he was, and was repenting of it. The Pharisee was only interested in the sins of the publican, and had absolutely no doubt of his own "righteousness." He could not admit that he had any sins of his own, and bragged he was entirely righteous. Unfortunately, the "leaven of the Pharisees" is very much alive and active in too many religious people. Jesus told of the martyrdom of men of God in times past, and then indicted the Pharisees because they admitted to being descendants of those who had done such things. The implication of Christ's word is clear: If the Pharisees had lived during those earlier days, they would have perpetrated the same crimes! Not only that, but Jesus also implied that they were plotting His own murder, and that some of them would remain alive to be involved, no doubt, in the murder of future Christian leaders.
There were those, Jesus said, who "worshiped" Him. That is, they "revered" and "adored" His person; they "believed on Him"! But He said, "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9). Worship? How many professing Christians believe that scripture today? After all, the very essence of "salvation," according to many, is to accept Christ as personal Savior; to believe on Him; to admit you are a sinner; and to worship Jesus! "Honk if you love Jesus," says the bumper sticker. The guy in the automobile can look pityingly on each unsaved sinner who passes without honking — because he thinks "loving the Lord" is the key to salvation. "If you believe, you shall be saved!" is the popular belief. But the demons believe, James said — and demons aren't "saved." Jesus said belief can flower into worship, and still be done in vain. To those who " believe on" Jesus — how about believing what Jesus said? It's possible to worship even the real Jesus, and still do it in vain. Remember, those Pharisees and others were facing the real Jesus and blew it, where millions today only fabricate a fake Jesus, a counterfeit, and so start off worse than the Pharisees! Jesus could become very angry at the Pharisees, but His anger was not self-oriented. He wasn't mad because His own ego was bruised. Jesus directed His anger through an outgoing spirit of love, coupled with grief toward human beings who were so bigoted and pigheaded they could not see the simple truth before their eyes. For example, read Mark's account of Jesus' healing of the man with the withered hand: "Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse Him" (Mark 3:1-2, RSV). Notice, there was no doubt in these religious leaders' minds whether Jesus had the power to heal — they knew He had that power! So why didn't they rejoice? As religious leaders whose primary job was to "feed the flock" and to be as gentle shepherds over the "little people" in their charge, why should they not have been deeply grateful for the miraculous power that Jesus exercised which brought such blessed relief from physical aches and pains, from blindness, deafness, dumbness, epilepsy, leprosy and all the other hideous diseases which afflicted a sick and poverty-stricken generation? Jesus was in the synagogue, and these religious leaders watched Him to see whether He would heal on the Sabbath so they might accuse Him! Jesus was being baited. They expected, indeed almost hoped and prayed, that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath in order that they might have tangible evidence He had done something wrong! Just a few verses earlier, the Pharisees had tried to accuse Jesus because His disciples were plucking ears of grain and eating them on the Sabbath day. Christ had to tell them of how David ate the shewbread, and remind them that the Sabbath was not a yoke of bondage and a burden, but that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." Jesus looked about Him and spied the man with the withered hand and said, "Come here." Then He said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill?" Again, that ringing voice of authority and that level gaze of conviction combined with the logic of those words were simply too much for these hypocritical charlatans. They simply had to shut their mouths in the face of such piercing logic. They couldn't answer either way. If they said, "Yes, it is lawful to do good," they would give full approval to Jesus' actions of healing on the Sabbath. If they said it was lawful to do harm, then this would be an obvious flagrant violation of the biblical principles for which they claimed to stand. The Bible says, "And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored" (Mark 3:3-5).
So the Pharisees saw one of the most incredible miracles in all of history! It defied anything any human eye had ever seen before! They actually saw an emaciated, withered, shrunken limb, grotesque in its gnarled condition, gradually extend each individual finger and assume full size with a normal, healthy covering of skin, able to grasp and reach and be utilized with the full capability of the marvelous human hand. Instead of congratulating the healed man, receiving him joyously, clapping him on the back, and gathering around to give a good honest shake to that newly restored hand; instead of turning to congratulate Jesus and thank Him for having so freed and healed a member of their own congregation, "the Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." Such is the shameful account of religious bigotry. Unfortunately, such bigotry is alive and well in many a human heart today! (Another excerpt from The Real Jesus will be coming next month.)