Monday, August 16, 2010

Pharisee Heresy

Peeking Cat 2
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
Hey, gang! It's group participation time!

I was wondering if folk would like to put down what they know, have heard, have read, or just randomly think about the problem with being Pharisaical.

We all know that, in most places these days, to accuse someone of being a Pharisee is not a compliment. "Being a pharisee" has come to be known as being hypocritical or being judgmental or, something. And that's what I'm wanting you to share with me - What is the "sin of being a Pharisee?"

First off, the disclaimers: I understand from various readings and sermons over the years that the Pharisees aren't quite the bad guys we tend to make them out to be, at least not at their best.

In Jesus' day, the Jewish people were a subjected people, second class citizens under the thumb of the Roman empire and in danger of being assimilated and losing their religion. The Pharisees were a "back to the fundamentals" group who wanted to help the Jewish folk be true to their best ideals. It is my understanding that they tended to be simple living advocates, who shunned the excesses of materialism and that they were often quite good people who just wanted to be true to their God.

Nonetheless, we know that they took it overboard and became wrongly judgmental, sometimes hypocritical. But of course, we know that being "judgmental" is not a wrong in itself - we OUGHT to be discerning and make judgments on matters. Or not?

So, tell me what you think: Where did the Pharisees go wrong? What was/is their sin?



Craig said...

A couple of quick thoughts.

I'm not sure that the Pharisee's problem was hypocracy. It seems like they expected everyone to live the same way they did. Not that they held themselves to a different standard.

It seems as though their problem was their focus on the outward trappings or symbols of their religion, (dress, phylacteries, ostentatious public display of piety, strict adherence to the law, etc.).

Jesus seemed pretty adamant that they were focused on how they appeared to others rather than on how they appeared to God.

Again, just a couple of quick takes.

Alan said...

Matt 23: 1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

They do not practice what they preach. Sounds like hypocrisy to me. Well, that and the fact that Jesus calls them hypocrites about 6 or 7 times in there, at least, and says that they are full of hypocrisy.

Dan Trabue said...

Thanks fellas, that's the sort of info/thoughts I was looking for. I think there's certainly an element of hypocrisy there. There was certainly a problem with the concern (or OVER-concern) with the outer trappings. I mean, the legitimate side of that is that the Pharisees were trying to keep Israel as set apart and not become assimilated, perhaps they just got too carried away...

Alan said...

Well, when your religious practices are so codified and stringent that they lead you to exclude/attack/reject God Himself (in the form of the Incarnation) I'd say you've probably gone a bit too far, yeah. :)

Craig said...

I gues I should have added the word primary, before hypocracy in my first comment.

I'm not sure I would suggest that there was no hypocracy, just that I don't necessarily see it played out as the pharisees saying "You live by xyz rules, while we are exempt", which is what the modern conotation of pharisee seems to be. There is certainly a serious issue with the pharisees (again I'm not sure that there is a blanket condemnation of ALL members of the pharisee party) who said one thing and did another.

So Dan, where are you going with this. Is this simply a historical question, or is there some sort of practical application.

Dan, I think that you are prpbably close in saying that the desire to keep the Jewish people set apart. But they became too focused on the outward appearance issues rather than the inward "personal holiness" issues.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I think the problem was more than hypocrisy. I think it was a kind of exclusivism wherein they saw (a) the law applying only to non-proselyte Jews; and (b) the practice of holiness in its entirety was itself a way to delimit even further who was in and out of the community.

Now, to be fair, they saw this as part of a struggle against the Romans, as well as against Jewish collaborators (including their "king", Herod and his son, Herod the Tetrarch of Galilee). Since the mid-second century BCE, the Jews had been fighting for independence against dominant imperial forces, and their victory against the Greeks was very much alive in their community as they continued their low-level struggle against the Romans.

Jesus saw their hypocrisy as a problem, in particular as they considered their practice of the law as a way to define the community. When he declared that God could raise up sons of Abraham from stones, he was declaring that observing the law was not a mark of exclusion, but rather an opportunity to live as God wanted people to live, an opportunity to be shared. The law should function as opening up more people to live as God wanted; the Pharisees saw it as a way to pare down the numbers of the elect.

Furthermore, in particular as demonstrated in Jesus' attention to those who lived completely outside the boundaries of the community of the blessed - tax collectors and "sinners" in general - it seems Jesus had a view of the law as grace-filled Divine condescension that functioned to open up the possibilities of Divine favor. Whether it was healing on the Sabbath, eating with those who were ritually unclean (and therefore more than just "personally" unholy, but socially unacceptable), or embodying Divine love and forbearance to those who had not experienced it, Jesus' viewed God's love, enacted through the law, as open to all. It was not the symbol of the limit of the community, but the goal toward which all who live as children of God should strive.

Thus, I see the issue as a little more nuance than simple hypocrisy.

Craig said...


Well said, that is the direction I was going, just didn't put it quite that well.


A few questions raised by this. When Jesus rebukes the pharisee's how sure are we that he is addressing the entire group? Could it be that he is primarily addressing those with whom he is actually interacting at the time? It is fairly clear that there are at least a few pharisees who either believe or at least are sympathetic. Have we blown this whole "pharisees are bad" out of proportion?

Dan Trabue said...

Dan, where are you going with this. Is this simply a historical question, or is there some sort of practical application.

Just a conversation starter, Bible study, informal survey kind of thing.

And thanks for the contributions, all. Much worth considering.

Craig's questions - good ones, what does anyone else think? My thoughts...

When Jesus rebukes the pharisee's how sure are we that he is addressing the entire group?

I'd say it's fairly safe to say that he wasn't addressing the whole group. My guess would be, though, that he was addressing an over-riding mindset.

What do you think?

Could it be that he is primarily addressing those with whom he is actually interacting at the time?

Perhaps. And, if so, I wonder if that in itself is instructive? Did he have a problem with Joe and Bob the Pharisees, but he addressed it to "Pharisees" in general because it was a larger problem than just Joe and Bob? Because he didn't think it appropriate to single out Joe and Bob for rebuke (although he certainly did this with his individual disciples, but wasn't that in a different, more private context?)

Should we pull from that that it's inappropriate to single out individuals for rebuke in a public setting? I'm not saying, I'm asking.

It is fairly clear that there are at least a few pharisees who either believe or at least are sympathetic. Have we blown this whole "pharisees are bad" out of proportion?

Entirely possible, as it relates specifically to pharisees. But perhaps we'd be advised to generalize this criticism to religious hypocrisy, religious exclusivism (of a negative sort), to pride and/or whatever the "sins of the pharisees" are?

What does anyone else think?

Craig said...


My personal opinion is the Jesus was probably not addressing the pharisees as a geric group. Jesus seems to be pretty good about dealing with individuals as individuals. However, I also think that what he addresses is probably indicative of some sort of prevailing mindset of the pharisees as a whole.

Dan Trabue said...

But when he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance..."

[Jesus speaking...] "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

But the Pharisees said, "It is by the prince of demons that he [Jesus] drives out demons."

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him [Jesus], "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath."

I think it is fair to say that the Pharisees in general and Jesus had a combative relationship. Mainly, it appears to me, that the Pharisees would single out folk like Jesus as threats and condemn them specifically and that Jesus (and John the Baptist and I'm sure others) responded to these attacks.

Clearly, Jesus had some followers and/or sympathizers who were Pharisees, so I don't think we could say that Jesus is speaking to each and every Pharisee, but also clearly, there appears to have been a problem within most of the Pharisees, at least in Jesus' time.

Fair enough?

Craig said...


I think that's probably pretty close, I guess I'm questioning whether it was monolithic enough that ther is a "sin of the pharisees". Honestly at this point most of this is from memory of stuff I've studied a while back. Also, your comments are just raising questions in my mind. I'm not sure that I have any real definitive opinion on this. But it's an interesting topic.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Unlike, say, the Sadducees, who were the elite, Temple-governors, the Pharisees were a religio-political party dedicated to the elimination of Roman domination of Judea. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead (apocalypticism was in the air) and the eventual triumph of a Messiah who combined law-abiding holiness and military might, kind of like Judas Maccabeus who was viewed as a combination of Elijah and David.

Let us not forget that even as he was critical of the Pharisees, Jesus also met with them, even ate with them, discussing topics of common interest. Hazarding a guess, I think the reason for the intense back-and-forth has much to do with people who are very close in their ideas and thoughts fighting over smaller and smaller pieces of turf. That is to say, Jesus probably was trying to tell the Pharisees they had it almost right, but where they went wrong, they went way wrong.

Alan said...

And that interpretation would also fit if Jesus were an Essene, or somehow related to that movement, as is sometimes hypothesized.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

1st c. Palestinian Judaism was divided into several groups: The Sadducees, the Essenes (mystics), the "Zealots" (revolutionaries) and the Pharisees. Of them all, the Pharisees were the CLOSEST to the Jesus movement.

Both movements were centered in the synagogues (where the churches began) & at home is the Diaspora (scattering) rather than only in Jerusalem. The Pharisee movement, like the Jesus movement, wanted Jews to repent and Judaism to renew itself. Both believed in the resurrection (so Paul defends himself as a Pharisee when on trial in Jerusalem in Acts).

Jesus was stern with the Pharisees but sibling rivalries are often more intense than fights between strangers.

The difference is the route to renewal: For the Pharisees (most eagerly awaiting the Messiah) the key was "holiness," understood as separation from all that is "unclean." Thus the ostentatious displays that Craig mentions.

For Jesus, God's holiness is redefined as "compassionate justice." So, instead of being afraid to touch the unclean, he touches and heals them. Instead of being afraid of breaking the Law (and thus repeating the apostasy of pre-exilic Judaism), he shows the meaning of the Law fulfilled in compassion and justice.

Phariseeism is not so much the problem of hypocrisy or legalism, but of concern for holiness as "separation." Worry about being unclean if mixing with "those people."

Dan Trabue said...

Great points, all. I'd forgotten that Paul was a Pharisee, Michael, thanks for pointing that out.

Interesting notes about how close the Pharisees and Jesus Movement were, thus making some sense that their disputes were so intense.

I'm trying to think of what Jesus had to say about holiness, Michael, and where you get that, "For Jesus, God's holiness is redefined as 'compassionate justice.'" I mean, that makes sense, but is there some particular passages that state that, or is that more of a conclusion based on Jesus' approach to "the unclean," etc?

Good thoughts, all.

Dan Trabue said...


Jesus probably was trying to tell the Pharisees they had it almost right, but where they went wrong, they went way wrong.

So, then, where DID they have it wrong? I'm hearing these reasonable suggestions...

* The emphasis on outward trappings
* The emphasis on holiness meaning set apart from the "unclean" - the sick, women, foreigners, food
* These sorts of emphases led to a "holiness" that was lacking in compassionate justice - which is central to God's Way
* Hypocrisy, certainly, but what sort of hypocrisy? The way they practiced law/implemented "holiness" that was divisive and lacking in grace and mercy?
* They complained about the speck in their neighbor's eye without realizing the plank in their own eye, perhaps?
* They practiced a wrong-headed sort of judgmentalism, perhaps?

Is that a fair summary?

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

The Pharisees saw the Law as a distinctively Jewish thing, what set the people apart from the rest. Observance of the law was not about personal morality as an end in itself, but rather a religio-social-political protest against the domination of Judea by pagan foreigners. It was also used to set the true people apart from collaborators. The inclusion of "tax collectors" in the list of "sinners" along with prostitutes is an indication of this (prostitutes would have the double issue of being morally compromised as well as politically compromised; for the most part they were ritual prostitutes who operated out of pagan temples, and if Jewish would be unclean in any number of ways).

Jesus, by all indications from what we have by way of the things he said and did, saw the Law as something that drew people in to the circle of God's blessed community. The willingness of those who existed outside the confines of acceptability to seek inclusion, and Jesus' willingness to extend that inclusion ("Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more") demonstrates that pretty clearly, I think.

The Pharisees saw the Law as a wall between the people and the rest of the world; Jesus saw it as a series of gates through which people could enter and become part of the people of God.

In this way, our current crop of fundies are similar to the Pharisees. By reducing "sin" to moral failing, stripping forgiveness of its social and political content, they see being "Christian" as exclusive, rather than an open invitation to being part of the family of God. While the similarities between, say, you, Dan, and me and others on the one hand, and certain fundamentalist Christians we all know should be obvious, the differences are stark enough to create a divide that is impossible to cross.