Why were the Pharisees in New Testament times divided among themselves? Why did they come to Jesus to ask Him to settle disputes? Here is the answer!
PREVIOUS installments of this series have shown how the Pharisees and the other chief leaders of the Jews disregarded the Word of God. They had accepted customs that came directly from heathenism, which the Scripture clearly commands us not to do (Jer. 10:1-4). In many cases they knowingly taught commandments that were completely contrary to the plain words of God. They even ADMITTED that in so doing THEY WERE LEAVING THE TEACHINGS OF MOSES. The majority of these commandments of the Pharisees were enacted on the pretext that they had special divine revelatory powers from God to reveal to the Jews His PRESENT will. The Scriptures, to their reasoning, could not suffice alone for teaching the people. "The written Torah [the old Testament] was good for the age in which it was given, or in which it was first read; but the written Torah alone COULD NOT SUFFICE FOR LATER AGES" (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 113). This prevailing opinion of the Pharisaic teachers is manifest today also in modernism among Protestants.
Pharisees Make Void God's Law
The Pharisees were confronted time and time again with many Mosaic commandments which they considered impractical in the society in which they were living. This led them to a dangerous conclusion. Since they were living in a later age than Moses and because times had changed considerably, they felt that many of the Laws of the Scripture had to be drastically altered or, in some cases, completely annulled. The Pharisees saw no reason why such alteration or rescission should not be done, especially since they convinced themselves they were in authority to reveal the CURRENT will of God. Herford says that these Pharisaic teachers came to the place many times of "ACTUALLY ANNULLING AN EXPRESS COMMAND IN THE WRITTEN TORAH [the Scripture] AND REPLACING IT BY A HALACHAH [their own law] IN ACCORDANCE WITH A [supposed] HIGHER MORAL STANDARD?? (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 73). Jesus refers to one Law of God, among many, that they completely set aside or annulled. Notice Mark 7:10-13: "For Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother'; and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die'; but you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban' (that is, "given to God") — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, THUS MAKING VOID THE WORD OF GOD through your tradition which you hand on. AND MANY SUCH THINGS YOU DO" (RSV). In this case, they had actually annulled a specific one of the Ten Commandments of God that had been given through Moses. They claimed to have given to God offerings that should have been used to help Father and Mother. We are left in no doubt about the attitude of the Pharisees in regard to Moses and his teaching. If they did not approve of what Moses taught, they rejected him! It was just that simple! Jesus said: "Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me...BUT YE BELIEVE NOT HIS WRITINGS" (John 5:46, 47). Actually, the Pharisees had come to the place of believing it impossible to keep the civil Law of Moses. The only thing they could do, they reasoned, was either to alter, or disregard, many of its "impractical" instructions. They had no hesitation in carrying out their intentions. "The teachers... were quite aware of the extreme gravity of the step they were taking. THEY INTENDED TO MODIFY THE WRITTEN COMMANDMENT IN VARIOUS WAYS, and in the course of time ACTUALLY DID SO IN NUMBERLESS CASES. YET THEY HAD BEFORE THEM THE PLAIN INJUNCTION (Deut. 4:2): 'Ye shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it; that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you'" (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 113). It is almost impossible to believe that religious leaders claiming to serve God would be so bold as to do such things, but the Pharisees intentionally did so. "This conclusion that the written word of the Torah MIGHT BE MODIFIED OR SET ASIDE, OR EVEN ANNULLED (AS WAS SOMETIMES DONE), WAS DELIBERATELY DRAWN AND CONSISTENTLY ACTED UPON by the teachers who developed the 'halachah' [the new Pharisaic laws]" (ibid., p. 112).
Why Christ Condemns Teaching of Pharisees
Is it any wonder that Christ was so indignant at the doctrines of the Pharisees? Should we be amazed that He so sharply rebuked them? "Well has Isaiah prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING FOR DOCTRINES THE COMMANDMENTS OF MEN. FOR LAYING ASIDE THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD YE HOLD THE TRADITION OF MEN... FULL WELL YE REJECT THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD, THAT YE MAY KEEP YOUR OWN TRADITION" (Mark 7:6-9). Now that we have the background to the beliefs of the Pharisees and their attitudes regarding the Word of God — as has been presented thus far in this series — this Scripture should take on much more meaning. Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees as they had never been rebuked before. And they needed every bit of it! Notice what Christ said elsewhere! "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your own tradition?" (Matt. 15:3.) "THUS HAVE YE MADE THE COMMANDMENT OF GOD OF NONE EFFECT BY YOUR TRADITION" (Matt. 15:6). "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in" (Matt. 23:13). "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matt. 23:27,28).
Today's Churches Follow Pharisees
In contemporary secular Christianity we find millions of individuals like the Pharisees of New Testament times. Numerous professing Christian denominations have MODIFIED the commandments of Christ; many have SET ASIDE or DISREGARDED His commandments; and many of them have intentionally ANNULLED the commandments of Christ! Yes, our modern Christian civilization of this Western World is in the same or worse spiritual condition as were the Pharisees. The past and present leaders of Christian churches have certainly resorted to the same tactics as did the Pharisaic leaders. It is time we realize that modern Christianity has paralleled the Jewish leaders of New Testament times in assuming the prerogative of altering, overlooking and rescinding the plain commandments of the Scripture. Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8), condemns it! "Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God ye hold the tradition of men... Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition" (Mark 7:7-9).
Why Churches Modify Commandments of Christ!
There are millions of individuals today who, like the Pharisees, claim to follow Christ, and yet have modified the plain and simple commandments of Christ. Here is one example among many, to illustrate this fact. In Matthew 5:38, 39, we read: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, THAT YE RESIST NOT EVIL: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." This is a classic statement of Christ which has been modified by different groups in numerous ways. Most of the Christ-professing ministers today assume Christ meant just the opposite from what He said in the above passage. Most reason that Christ surely could not mean that you are not to resist evil people and kill them if need be! Is this what Christ said? No! Christ said just the opposite — "love your enemies" — A PLAIN AND SIMPLE STATEMENT that any ten-year-old can read and understand. But today, this command of Christ in particular is MODIFIED by interpretations so that it says just the opposite from what Christ taught. The Pharisees were doing the same thing with the Law of Moses! Let us notice another commandment of Christ that has been completely disregarded by the overwhelming majority of modern denominations. It is Jesus' command found in John 13:14, 15. "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. FOR I HAVE GIVEN YOU AN EXAMPLE, that ye should do as I have done to you." How many Christ-professing churches do you know which follow this command — an example that Christ gave to His disciples? Very few! Most people have completely disregarded this command and example as though it were not even in the Scriptures. Some ministers, endeavoring to explain away the illustration, say that this was an example for the original twelve disciples and not for us today. But notice Matthew 28:19, 20: "Go YE [the original twelve disciples] therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them [all nations] to observe ALL THINGS WHATSOEVER I HAVE COMMANDED YOU..." The example of foot washing was commanded to the disciples, and Christ ordered them to teach all NATIONS the very things He had taught them. But again, the majority of ministers today are using the same reasons for disregarding the Scriptures (i.e., times have changed) as did the Pharisees in Christ's day. Take another example. All readers of the Bible, scholars and laymen alike, are quite aware that the Sabbath is the day set aside by God for divine worship (Gen. 2:1-4; Lev. 23:1-3; Isa. 58:13, 14). The Sabbath day is from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. All true followers of God have kept this day as the day of rest and worship. The Jews of Christ's day as well were observing this day. Christ, Himself, kept the true Sabbath, having ordained it at re-creation as a day for the benefit of all mankind (Mark 2:27, 28). The early New Testament Church observed the Sabbath, and that day only, as the weekly day of rest AND worship. This was the only day which the early Church observed: this all competent Church Histories affirm. There is no indication, or even the slightest hint, in the Scripture that the Sabbath was to be abrogated and another day substituted for it. In fact, you might ask yourself the questions: Just why should the Sabbath have to be changed? Wasn't it good enough? Was there something inherently WRONG with that particular day — so that a BETTER had to be found as a substitute? Just WHAT could make one day BETTER than another? And if one day is not inherently better than another, why should it be set apart — sanctified — by any other authority than God's express commands? But there are millions of people today who claim to be following Christ and the Bible who repudiate the plain command of God in regard to His holy day, the Sabbath, by observing another day. These people are not following the Bible command but are rather following the command of the Roman Catholic Church which admits that it, not the Bible, is the author of Sunday keeping. (See Who Changed the Sabbath? pp. 1-5, Published by Knights of Columbus, St. Louis, Mo.) The majority of professing Christians today assume the Sabbath command has been ANNULLED. But it certainly has not been done away with IN THE BIBLE. It has only been supposedly annulled by the Roman Catholic Church and all the Protestant denominations which follow her decision in this matter. Our Western World is doing today exactly the same thing the Pharisees did in New Testament times. It is about time we wake up and get back to the true faith which was ONCE delivered to the saints of God (Jude 3). God's Church today does not add to His words, neither does it subtract from them. It is in obedience to His commandments. "And hereby we do know that we know Him, IF WE KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS. He that saith, I know Him, AND KEEPETH NOT HIS COMMANDMENTS, IS A LIAR, and the truth is not in him" (I John 2:3,4).
Pharisees' Commandments Considered More Binding Than Scripture
The Pharisees did not stop with merely modifying, disregarding or even annulling Scripture. They maintained that the commandments they enacted in the place of Scripture were of MORE IMPORTANCE than the Scripture itself! "The law of custom was quite as binding as the written Torah; nay IT WAS EVEN DECIDED THAT OPPOSITION TO THE DECREES OF THE SCRIBES WAS A HEAVIER TRANSGRESSION THAN OPPOSITION TO THE DECREES OF THE TORAH" ("The Jewish People in the Time of Christ," sec. ii, vol. i, pp. 333, 334). Now let us go to the Talmud itself and notice some of the statements of some of the early Pharisees themselves. Their situation in regard to their own teachings will be obvious. From the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth i, 7, we read: "The sayings of the elders HAVE MORE WEIGHT THAN THOSE OF THE PROPHETS." The elders, in this case, are the Pharisees. In Sanhedrin xi, 3, it says: "An offense against the sayings of the Scribes IS WORSE THAN ONE AGAINST THOSE OF SCRIPTURE." They demanded the people refer to them as spiritual "Father," "Rabbi," or "Master" (Makkoth 24a and Matthew 23:7-10). The Pharisee teachers even required the people to reverence them almost as God Himself. "Let thine esteem for thy friend border upon thy respect for thy teacher, and respect for thy teacher ON REVERENCE FOR GOD" (Aboth, iv, 12). "Each Scribe [learned Pharisee] out-weighted all the common people, who must accordingly pay him every honour. Nay, THEY WERE HONOURED OF GOD HIMSELF, and THEIR PRAISES PROCLAIMED BY THE ANGELS; and in heaven also, each of them would hold the same rank and distinction as on earth. Such was to be the respect paid TO THEIR SAYINGS, THAT THEY WERE TO BE ABSOLUTELY BELIEVED, even if they were to declare that to be at the right hand which was at the left, or vice versa (i.e. even if they proclaimed doctrines contradictory to Scripture)" (Edersheim, "Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah," vol. i, p. 90). Because of the religious authority that the Pharisees claimed they had, they in general demanded the first rank in all circumstances. "They loved the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi" (Matt. 23:6,7). The term "Rabbi" means, literally, "MY MASTER." It denotes the personal ruler or leader of the people. Edersheim records an incident of two great Rabbis who were complaining because they had been greeted in the market place by the common greeting "May your peace be great" without the added "My Masters" ("Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah," vol. ii, p. 409). "So weighty was the duty of respectful salutation by [use of] the title Rabbi, that to neglect it would involve the heaviest punishment" (ibid., vol. ii, p. 409). The unusual esteem accorded to the Pharisaic teachers is purely a product of Hellenistic influence. The Greeks maintained a high reverence for the scholars, teachers and men of wisdom. Titles of respect and reverential honor were used in the Greek schools for their teachers. The use of "Rabbi," "Master," "Father" and various other exalted titles of the Pharisees was certainly borrowed from the examples of the Greeks. A learned Jewish historian, Moses Hadas, admits that these various customs of the Rabbis "were parallel to Greek usages, and shall suggest that since they were introduced after the spread of Hellenism they might have been inspired by Greek practice. The extraordinary reverence paid to learning may be part and parcel of this same influence" (Hellenistic Culture, p. 71). True Christian disciples are warned not to assume these exalted titles of "Rabbi," "Father" or "Master." Such high, eminent titles of respect are deserved only by God. He is MASTER AND LORD. He is the spiritual Father of the faithful. The Pharisees had no right to arrogate to themselves such titles, and neither does any minister. Today, however, the majority of Christian ministers are appropriating as a designation the very names that God says not to use. How many priests today are called "Father"? How many ministers use the title of "Reverend" which, in the Scripture, is used only as a designation of God? (Psa. 111:9.)
Pharisees Contradict Each Other
Just before the birth of Christ, many of the Pharisees had formed themselves into institutions, or what became known as Schools, for the purpose of study and for counsel concerning the legislation of new laws. Those who felt one particular way in regard to new legislation would assemble with other Pharisees who believed in a similar vein. The two major Schools of the Pharisees were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. The two founders of these Schools, Hillel and Shammai, gathered together other Pharisees who believed in many ways similar to themselves. Both these Schools issued new commandments in regard to religious worship. These two major Schools of the Pharisees were the rivals of one another. The points in which they disagreed were virtually INNUMERABLE (Cyc. of Bib., Thee. and Ecc. Lit., vol. ix, p. 472). It has been supposed that the tendency of the Hillel School was to make the new commandments they enacted less burdensome, and that the Shammai School made commandments which were heavier and more burdensome. However, both Schools legislated many strict and burdensome commandments, over and above the requirements of Scripture, and Edersheim shows that the Hillel School was even more strict than the Shammai in some cases (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 407). The commandments of these two Schools covered practically every religious practice of the Jews. They made many ridiculous and overly burdensome commandments concerning the observance of the Sabbath. They enacted strict ritualistic laws regarding the washing of the hands, pots, pans, jars, etc. They also made numerous ritualistic regulations regarding the preparing and eating of foods. Their teachings extended to all phases of physical worship. It is rather ironic that these two Schools were both composed of Pharisees and yet their teachings, in so many cases, were totally at variance with one another. One School would bring out a new commandment regarding a particular religious rite or custom, and proclaim that the new commandment was mandatory for all pious Jews to perform. In consequence of this, the other School would issue a similar commandment, usually as a rebuttal and in most cases diametrically opposite from the other. "Controversy between these two groups extended over many topics and excited considerable warmth of feeling" (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 160). As mentioned before: "THE POINTS ON WHICH THEY DIFFERED WERE ALMOST INNUMERABLE" (Cyc. of Bib., Thee. and Ecc. Lit., vol. ix, p. 472).
Both Schools Vied for Absolute Authority!
The controversies between these two major Pharisaic Schools were undoubtedly sparked by the desire of both of them to be the ultimate authority among the Pharisees. Edersheim says: "IN TRUTH, their differences seem too often PROMPTED BY A SPIRIT OF OPPOSITION, so that the serious business of religion became in their hands one of RIVAL AUTHORITY and mere wrangling?? (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 407). This was the condition of the Pharisees just before and during the days of Christ! Like professing Christianity today, the Pharisees were in confusion over their own doctrines. Their continual arguing among themselves placed them in embarrassing positions among the People and the other religious sects. Yet, they continued their squabbles and controversies! Little wonder many sought to hear Christ. "MANY, VERY MANY OF THEM [their controversies] are so utterly trivial and absurd that only the hairsplitting ingenuity of theologians can account for them: OTHERS SO PROFANE that it is difficult to understand how any religion could co-exist with them. Conceive, for example, two schools in controversy whether it was lawful to kill a louse on the Sabbath" (ibid., vol. ii, p. 407, note 4). The controversies between these two Schools were so numerous and some so vulgar — that it is impractical to list them all. For any who may be interested in them, a list has been prepared by Schurer. (See his The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, sec. ii, vol. i; p. 361.) You can imagine what the controversies between these two prominent Pharisaical Schools did to the faith of the people who were endeavoring to observe the teachings of the Schools. Who were the people to believe? Both schools claimed to be speaking the words of God, and yet they violently disagreed with one another in almost every point. These two Pharisaic Schools were not the only dissentious bodies among the Pharisees. "The Pharisees at this time were SHARPLY DIVIDED INTO VARIOUS SECTIONS which were NOT exhausted by the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai" (ABC., p. 841). "THE PHARISEES WERE DIVIDED INTO MANY SECTS, and the doctrines of individual teachers were often contradictory..." (Conder, Judas Maccabaeus, p. 205). It is important we realize that no real creed existed among the Pharisees. "The Pharisees WERE NEVER a homogeneous body possessed of a definite policy or body of doctrines" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. xxi, p. 347). The differences of opinion among all the Pharisees, remember, arose with the making of new commandments, in the Second Century B. C., by Joseph ben Joezer, called "The Permitter." This reminds a person of modern Christianity with all its differing doctrines and conflicting beliefs. And yet, each church, today, claims that it is preaching the truth of Christ.
Contradictory Commandments Called Those of God!
We have the records of some Pharisees who attempted to conciliate the differences between the two main antagonistic divisions of the Pharisaic group. But, in their undertaking to reconcile the groups, they still had to maintain that both divisions were truly teaching the Word of God. Lauterbach records an attempt to reconcile the teachings of the Hillel and Shammai Schools and still show that both their teachings were the Words of God. He refers to a statement in the Talmud found in Erubin 13b. Lauterbach records: "A heavenly voice was heard declaring that BOTH the words of the School of Hillel and the words of the School of Shammai [despite their disagreements] ARE THE WORDS OF THE LIVING GOD, but the practical decision should be according to the words of the School of Hillel" (Rabbinic Essays, p. 243, note 78). (The bracketed portion of the above quote is Lauterbach's.) The majority of Pharisees favored the Hillel School more than any other, and this led to the conciliating parties leaning toward that particular School's teachings. In the Talmud, Gittin 6b, there is another reference, this time to a Jew named Elijah [not the prophet] who endeavored to reconcile the differences between two Pharisaic teachers. Elijah is reported "to have said that GOD DECLARED BOTH THE OPPOSING VIEWS of Rabbi Abiathar and Rabbi Jonathan TO BE THE WORDS OF THE LIVING GOD" (ibid., p. 243, note 78). What nonsense! "All these utterances were intended to serve as a refutation of the attacks made against the teachings of the Rabbis [Pharisees] ON ACCOUNT OF THEIR DISAGREEMENTS" (ibid., p. 243, note 78). It was impossible for the Pharisees to directly admit that one or the other School was wrong (or as actually was the case, that both were wrong). They were forced to concede that both Schools' conflicting teachings WERE FROM GOD.
Hillel School Becomes Most Important
The proneness of the majority of Pharisees to follow the decisions of the Hillel School (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 239), finally led to the complete ascendancy of that School. It was not until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and the subsequent dispersal of the Jews from Palestine, that the Hillel School became the paramount teaching body. During the lifetime of Christ and the Apostle Paul, the Pharisees were still divided into the various Schools. But with the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews tended to solidify their schismatic groups. Even many of the Jewish sects became extinct after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and most of the Jews gravitated towards adhering to the Hillel School of interpretation. Orthodox Judaism today has for its basis the teachings of Pharisees who maintained the commandments and principles of the Hillel School. However, in the days just before and during the life of Christ, the Pharisees were still having their rivalries among themselves. They were teaching their manifold contradictory commandments from the various Schools. It should not be difficult to understand why Christ condemned the Pharisees for rejecting the commandments of God and for "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." They had left the simple and plain Law which God had given them through Moses and had replaced it with their own set of commandments. The next installment will reveal more surprising Pharisaic traditions.