Another Look at the Pharisees -- By: Will Varner
BSP 3:1 (Winter 1990) p. 24
Another Look at the Pharisees
A third-century rabbi, reflecting on the past history of his people, remarked, “Israel went into exile only after it became divided into twenty-four sects.”1
Although we cannot be sure of the exact number, there can be no doubt that at the time of the destruction of the Temple (70 AD) Judaism was divided into many sects. Modern historians also uphold his view that the downfall of the Jewish state was the direct consequence of its internal disunity.
Jesus encountered a number of different religious groups within the body of Jewish people to whom He came as Messiah. There were Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians, plus the vast majority of common people who belonged to no religious sect at all.2 The most famous group he encounted, however, was the Pharisees. While the membership of the Pharisees only totaled a few thousand their influence was felt far beyond their numbers. Often associated with the scribes, who were professional scholars in the Jewish law, the Pharisees received the most stinging rebukes Jesus ever issued. At least seven times in Matthew 23 Jesus pronounced the following condemnation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He condemned their rapaciousness, their selfishness, their inward spiritual emptiness, and their emphasis on scruples while neglecting the big matters of justice, mercy, and faith.
These excoriating denunciations have resulted in the word Pharisee entering the English language as a synonym for hypocrite. For example, consider the following definition of pharisaic in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, p. 1344: pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without actually being so; hypocritical.
Needless to say, these denuncia-
BSP 3:1 (Winter 1990) p. 25
tions of the Pharisees by Jesus have not been unnoticed by Jewish scholars. They have charged that Jesus and the early church writers have presented a false caricature of the Pharisees that is not consistent with what we now know to be true of them.3 One of the reasons why there is such sensitivity in this area is that the Pharisees were the only Jewish sect that survived the devastation of 70 AD. Therefore, the reconstructed Judaism of the second and third centuries which became the basis for subsequent Jewish belief and practice was, in essence, based on the pharisaic beliefs and practices of pre-70 AD! Without apology, mod...
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