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The Pharisees and Sadducees were two groups of people within Judaism who were present specifically within the Apostolic Writings (NT) with many writings about their interactions with Jesus. But who are the Pharisees today? Do they still exist?
We will explore who the Pharisees and Sadducees were, correct some (many) misconceptions about them and discuss whether or not a “Pharisee Spirit” is a real thing in Christianity today.
So read on and let’s explore the Pharisees!
Updated and republished from 2/27/2020
Who Are the Pharisees Today? – Pharisee Definition
The Pharisee, known as Perushim in Hebrew, were a party or “sect” of Jews who were strict adherents to the Law and who have somehow inherited the reputation, especially on the pulpits of many churches, of being “holier than thou” and esteeming themselves more highly than others.
This has come about usually from a gross misinterpretation of scripture and an overall lack of historical scholarship which has, over time, lent itself to a very anti-semitic view of the Jews of Jesus’ time and even today.
They are described as the most educated of Jews and spent their lives in the study of Torah. They not only studied Law, but they also taught it. Many teach that they believed the Law was the only way to God.
According to Learn Religions:
I would push back on the “religious-political party” piece.
Pharisees were, for the most part common people, with many being artisans and farmers.
I do agree with the “depicted” part of this definition, because I believe much if it was just that.
According to The Jewish Annotated New Testament:
In other words, when forming a historical picture of who are the Pharisees, we cannot rely solely on the New Testament as a source given the antagonism that attaches itself to what is, overall, a small amount of information about this group when compared with the overall history of the sect.
In his book, Heirs of the Pharisees, Jakob J. Petuchowski says:
Characteristics of Pharisees
So what WERE the characteristics of the Pharisees?
They believed in the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul, angels and saw the lack of purity and holiness as the problem with mankind.
But they also believed that Oral Law (or the traditions of the fathers) and its interpretation were just as authoritative as the Law of Moses.
Much like we see justices of our Supreme Court deciding on matters of constitutional law and handing down opinions that would be precedent, they had sort of the oral equivalent (which would later be written).
But to clarify one area of misconception about Pharisees and about Jews in particular – there is no belief that the Law in and of itself saves.
Jews believe repentance and atonement is what saves a person and forgives sin.
Ever doubt that? Just watch a devout Jew during morning prayers or during a Yom Kippur service. You will see repentance, not an accounting of righteous deeds!
Ok now back to the Pharisees.
They are often conflated with the Sadducees, who did NOT adhere to the same beliefs as the Pharisees.
These sects within Judaism differed on some of their beliefs, such as matters of ritual and moral purity as well as a belief in the resurrection of the dead (which the Sadducees did not believe).
The Sadducees were the Hellenised upper class where the Pharisees were the Radical Reformers.
The Sadducees saw what was wrong with their “current” societal climate at the time as being the failed rebellion where the Pharisees saw it as a lack of purity and holiness.
The Sadducees saw the solution to be a reasonable compromise and a stable government put into place where the Pharisees saw it as being that the Messiah will restore true worship.
And I think that one of the biggest differences between these two groups was that the Sadducees saw that the time for them from an eschatological (the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind) perspective was “make peace now, there will be no resurrection”. They did not believe in angels, the Spirit or resurrection.
But the Pharisaic view on this was “now and not yet”.
Now and not yet…sounds much like our own belief doesn’t it?
But What About the Pharisees Trying to “Catch” Yeshua?
We read of these religious leaders trying to find a way to “trap” Him so they might accuse Him. But the word used here for “trap” means “test”.
Were they trying to trap Him so they could have Him put to death or were they testing Him so they could accuse Him of teaching people to go against the Law of Moses?
We see this in the New Testament story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11)
Interestingly enough, Jesus NEVER called into question the punishment prescribed by the Law. He knew the Pharisees were in fact correct. Stoning WAS called for by the Law of Moses.
Jesus never went against the Law in this case. He held true to the Law and still showed mercy and grace.
Most Pharisees were similar to us AND more similar to Yeshua than you would think.
In fact, some scholars believe Yeshua Himself WAS of the Pharisaic sect, which is why they were often together to have these disputes to begin with. More on this in a moment.
Again, keep in mind that being a Pharisee was not a BAD thing! It has only been painted that way.
There IS a reason Yeshua spent so much time with them. If he wasn’t part of this sect, He certainly was, at the very least, quite social with them to eat with them and spend so much time with them.
They believed in many of the things we do, such as the Messiah (although they differ on who He is), the resurrection of the dead, the world to come, etc.
At worst what we appear to have here going on with Yeshua and the Pharisees, many of whom came to faith in Him, is a family squabble.
Who Are the Pharisees – Two Primary Schools
There were really two different main schools of the Pharisees and they were very different from each other.
There was the more temperate Beit Hillel (School of Hillel) and the more stringent Beit Shammai (School of Shammai), which is the one Yeshua often clashed with on matters of tradition.
You can often see these two going back and forth on issues in the Mishna.
Overall, many Pharisees were different than the ones we often see depicted in arguments with Yeshua or in dramatizations and they are responsible for the institution of the synagogue and, especially in the case of Beit Hillel, were key in preserving and fostering Judaism through the years.
To summarize, sure, I am certain SOME Pharisees believed themselves to be holier than thou and it appeared as though they thought their opinions and traditions better than others. But I could say the same of many people I come across today and so could you!
To paint the Pharisees as a sect as money-loving, hateful, vengeful people is just wrong and dare I say even dangerous.
You see, the Pharisees in general were not as far off from Yeshua as one might think.
Let’s examine this for a moment.
Who do you tend to have the most disputes with in your life? Those closest to you.
You probably have the most arguments and disputes with your own family over Thanksgiving dinner!
The Pharisees were Jews! Jesus was a Jew! Jews having arguments with Jews is not some novel idea!
How does the saying go? Ask 2 Jews get 3 opinions?
I am a Jew…I know this! I have seen the women in my family argue!
But the church has painted the Pharisees in such a way that we see them in our minds as lurking around every corner just waiting to trap Yeshua but that is not the reality.
The reason they were there to question Yeshua about His disciple’s hygiene before eating was because they were EATING TOGETHER!
These were not people who were separate and apart from Yeshua. This would be like saying no Orthodox Jew would EVER have anything to do with a Conservative Jew!
That’s just not plausible!
They lived together in the same towns, they worshipped together at the same Temple, they went to the same homes, they did life together!
Yes…there were the one or two in each group who would not be considered a mensch!
Yes there were some who kvetched about the disciples and even about the way Yeshua did things. But let’s be honest…the way Yeshua did things was DIFFERENT!
To quote from The Jewish Annotated New Testament once again:
There was no great divide here.
Paul did not say he WAS a Pharisee, as in past tense. He said “I AM a Pharisee” – present tense.
Again, this has been viewed in the church as admitting to belonging to some bad boys club but in reality it was like saying I am an Orthodox Jew or I am a Conservative Jew. It was a sect!
This is the Messiah??
Jesus was not some Pharisees’ picture of a victorious, conquering Messiah. Ok! Some may have envisioned a different Messiah.
Some still do today and we don’t marginalize them from society!
They had a picture of who the Messiah would be and Jesus just didn’t fit the bill. A lowly carpenter? Joseph’s Son? How could THIS be the Messiah?
He’s the carpenter’s son!
Doubt this is the case? Well, let’s see their own words in Matthew 13:55-57:
I mean, when I was 9 I once told my grandmother’s friends I was going to be a brain surgeon when I grew up and they thought I was a little meshuganah! Imagine telling people from your neighborhood that you’re the Messiah!
We so often focus on the divinity of Yeshua that we lose sight of the humanity of Yeshua.
We forget that He did not just step out of Heaven one day and show up declaring He’s the Messiah and turned water into wine.
He grew up as a small boy. He played with many of these same people as children. His parents likely spent time talking with their parents after synagogue.
He studied with them. He made Bar Mitzvah with them.
His ministry did not begin until He was out of His 20’s. So they knew Him as a child, a teen and a young man long before as a Messiah.
Who are the Pharisees today? Well, to be quite honest, I would not be offended to be compared to one myself.
They were good people. They have been painted with a broad brush without much thought to history and true Biblical scholarship and they appear to be a good “foil” for our narrative in the New Testament but the reality is that it is far messier than that.
Truth is messy!
But the truth is this – negative viewpoints of all Pharisees has come to cast a negative view on all Jews.
Viewing the Pharisees as “those Jesus killers” has accounted for much anti-semitism and has caused harm. It was Pharisees in fact who defended Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin.
We need to change the way we view ALL Pharisees and ALL Sadducees and well, ALL people of any one group. I think that is just what good people do!
The Modern Day Pharisee – Who are the Pharisees Today?
So when asking the question, “Are you a modern-day Pharisee?”, you can see ask yourself these questions (quoting/paraphrasing from the wonderful Amy-Jill Levine:
Do you believe there is both fate and free will?
Do you believe in the resurrection of the dead?
Do you believe there will be a final judgment?
Are you against elitism and inherited status and position?
Do you hold your traditions dear and want to make it easier and more meaningful for people to engage in theirs?
Do you care about multiculturalism and maintaining group identity despite the pressure to assimilate?
Would you sit down to dinner with Yeshua?
If you said yes to these then you might be a modern-day Pharisee and I say good for you! It’s a good place to be!
We need to stop seeing the Pharisees as the definition of those who are judgmental, snobbish, loving money, and hating the Messiah.
That perpetuates hate toward the people the church should love – the people of Israel.
NASB – “Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation“
Tree of Life (TLV) – Scripture taken from the Holy Scriptures, Tree of Life Version*. Copyright © 2014,2016 by the Tree of Life Bible Society. Used by permission of the Tree of Life Bible Society.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi-Brettler; Oxford University Press; 2nd edition (September 6, 2017)