Modern Day Pharisees

The Pharisees: Killer Zombies of Hypocrisy

When I was younger, I always thought of Pharisees as looking like zombies crawling out of their whitewashed tombs. They were a caricature of evil, and their blindness in the face of the truth of Jesus was not something I could fathom.

But I’ve come to have a new perspective about the Pharisees, and have been able to see how many similarities I share with them.

Pharisees or Protestant Reformers?

Who does this sound like?

  • A group that believed God should be available to all people, and not only accessible through priests.
  • A group that was not primarily political leaders, but instead a society of scholars and pietists.
  • A group that believed that prayer and study of the Word of God were critical, as opposed to simply offering (and paying for) sacrifices.
  • A group that believed in the importance of community through religious gatherings.

It sure sounds like something that Martin Luther could have tacked up as part of his 95 Theses as he pushed back against the religious leaders of his day. It’s also an accurate description of the Pharisees.

Unlike the established religious elites of their day (the Sadducees), the Pharisees did not come from connections of political power. Instead, they had their roots as reformers who struggled against the powers of the day and fought for the common people. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees asserted that God could, and should, be worshiped even away from the Temple and outside of Jerusalem. The Pharisees believed that the essence of worship was not bloody sacrifices (the domain of the Temple priests), but in prayer and the study of God’s law.

The Pharisees believed in the need for the faithful to practice community. The institution of the synagogue as something outside of the Temple, is in fact, a Pharisaic institution. It was the Pharisees themselves who developed the concept of the synagogue as a place of teaching and community and raised it to an esteemed place in religious life.

So if the Pharisees thought they were the good guys, who were they reforming against?

A Brief History of Pharisees and Sadducees

As the Pharisees were arriving on the scene 160 years or so before the birth of Jesus, the political power in Judah was concentrated in the hands of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the party of money and earthly power. They came from aristocratic families, and counted high priests and wealthy merchants within their number. They generally had good relations with the Roman rulers of Palestine and adopted Hellenistic cultural elements as their own. They generally represented the more conservative view within Judaism.

While the Pharisees claimed authority coming from their learning and morality, the Sadducees believed that their power came from birth and economic position within society. The apparent willingness of the Sadducees to compromise with their Roman rulers caused resentment with many of the common people, and fueled the rise of the Pharisees.

In terms of religious beliefs, the Pharisees believed in angels, the immortality of the soul, and a resurrection of the body after death. The Sadducees rejected all of these beliefs and held only to written Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. The Pharisees believed in both the Written Law (the Torah) and the Oral Law, which among things, includes additional books found in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Because they held so closely to the Written Law, the Sadducees had strict interpretations of many legal matters and interpreted literally the judicial principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the two major political parties in Judah during the time of Jesus. Many scholars believe that both Pharisees and Sadducees were members of the Sanhedrin, a council (the word Sanhedrim comes from the Greek synedrion, which means council) of 71 members that, among other things, tried Jesus before handing him over to Pontius Pilate before his crucifixion.

Both the Pharisees and Sadducees had reasons to feel threatened by the words and works of Jesus.

The two parties struggled against each other for preeminence and political power until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. After Roman legions destroyed the temple, the Sadducees functionally ceased to exist. Their political authority was so closely intertwined with the laws and logistics governing Temple worship that they fell from the pages of history without the physical Temple.

So Where Did These Pharisees Come From?

The Pharisees emerged as a distinct group after the triumph of the Maccabees in the Jewish wars of independence fought against the Selecuids in the second century BC.

The Pharisees (Hebrew: Perushim) emerged as a distinct group shortly after the Maccabean revolt, about 165–160 BCE; they were, it is generally believed, spiritual descendants of the Hasideans. The Pharisees emerged as a party of laymen and scribes in contradistinction to the Sadducees—i.e., the party of the high priesthood that had traditionally provided the sole leadership of the Jewish people. 

Encyclopedia Britannica: Pharisee

The Hasideans fought in the Maccabean revolt to stand up for religious freedom and against the paganism they saw in the policies of the Seleucids.

Historians tend to explain the disappearance of the Hasideans as a gradual merging with the Pharisees.

Encyclopedia Britannica: Hasidean

Tell Me More About These Jewish Wars of Independence

The political landscape in the the second century BCE was composed of remnant states that had been left behind following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Judah was a city-state that was directly between two great powers. Egypt was to the West and Syria was to the North and East. The Ptolemies ruled in Egypt and Seleucids ruled in Syria. 

Syria was led by Antiochus IV, who gave himself the name Epiphanes, meaning “god manifest.”

Antiochus IV was born in 215 BC. As the king of the Hellenistic Syrian Kingdom, he was well known for encouraging Greek culture and institutions. He wanted to rid the world of the exclusive and nonconformist religious views of the Jews. During the time, the worship of Yahweh and all Jewish rites was punishable by death. An altar to Zeus was erected in the Temple and temples were made at the feet of an image of the King Antiochus.

It was against this desecration that a man named Judas Maccabeus led the Hasideans in a guerrilla war against the forces of Antiochus in what came to known as the Wars of the Maccabees.

The Success of the Maccabees

The Maccabees were ultimately successful in their revolt. They marched into Jerusalem, ritually cleansed the Temple, and re-established religious freedom for the Jews they could worship God. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple following the victory over the Seleucid empire.

Towards the end of the wars, Judas Maccabeus made an agreement with Rome which helped to preserve the peace with the weaker Seleucids. This helped usher in the Hasmonean Dynasty in Judah, which ended in 63 BCE when the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and Judea became a client kingdom of Rome. And this led to Herod the Great being crowned king of Judah by the Roman Senate in 40 – 39 BCE, the same Herod who was in power when Jesus was born.

Modern Day Pharisees

When left to my own devices, I am 100% a Pharisee. I believe in the righteousness of my own cause and am convinced I am fighting for what is right and against what is wrong (even if it’s a self defeating exercise in marriage counseling). I tell myself that if there’s a bit of pride that gets caught up in there, that’s to be understood; after all, fighting for what’s right requires courage, conviction, strength, and other admirable qualities.

But here’s the problem: the Pharisees also thought they were right. They had a legacy of fighting for liberty and religious freedom, and a confidence that came from being on the side of justice against oppression. When Jesus came, they were still so convinced of their rightness that they scoffed at him and ultimately handed him over to be crucified. But they were not right. At least, if our Christian faith is based on something that is true, they could not possibly have been more wrong.

They are a clear example of how possible it is to be so completely wrong while being so utterly convinced of their rightness.

In the area of politics, I have deep personal experience with being a modern day Pharisee. In fact, according to Tim Keller’s take on the subject, I have experience living as all of the 3 distinct types of modern day political Pharisees: the Conservative Pharisee, the Liberal Pharisee, and the Beyondist Pharisee (who considers himself or herself too enlightened to even think about politics). I’ve spent time in recent years struggling against the latter versions, while I’ve probably spent most of life overall as a more Conservative Pharisee.

Modern Day Pharisees: The Conservative Pharisee

Here are some things I personally tend to believe when I’m in this mindset.

  • Life is hard.
  • A hard life requires hard work.
  • I’ve worked hard for what I have.
  • Those who don’t outwardly seem to possess the same should look to themselves and redouble their efforts. 

I’m long on justice and short on grace. I’m prone to bouts of pride and self righteousness when things are going well, and struggle with anxiety when things are going well. I look to my “success” (or lack thereof) as a measuring stick for life and give myself far too much credit whether things are going well or going poorly.

What Hope Do We Have?

As I’ve progressed from one school of Pharisaical thinking to the next, I’ve consistently been blind to the lies I’ve been required to believe in order to hold to those beliefs. At times, I’ve believed that I deserve exclusive credit for what I’ve done in my life, as opposed to being shaped by the circumstances of childhood, my place of birth, and a unique set of gifts and limitations that have been given to me.

And I certainly still have blind spots today. But what’s starting to help is seeing the struggle of pride vs. humility as the common thread that extends from all the lies I’ve believed. 

Mathew 22: 23 – 24 (ESV) 23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

What do you think?

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