In defence of the Pharisees: on humility and righteousness
The Gospel parable set for this coming Sunday is a parable which Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). This is one of the texts that is regularly used, in a most negative way, to berate the Pharisees for their self-righteousness and legalism. This feeds into an understanding of Jesus as a hardline critic of the Pharisees, regularly berating them for these deficiencies. That is a most unfortunate line of interpretation to take.
First, it is noteworthy that the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel are regularly portrayed in ways that demonstrate a positive relationship with Jesus. Most strikingly, Jesus is found at table with Pharisees on a number of occasions: in the house of Simon, a Pharisee (7:36–50); by invitation of another Pharisee, in his house along with a lawyer, and scribes (11:37–54); again, in the house of a prominent Pharisee, with lawyers also present (14:1–24).
There is another occasion, when Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (15:1–32), where the opening verses (15:1–2) infer the additional presence of Pharisees and scribes at the meal. Eating a meal together was a clear sign that positive and mutually respectful relationships existed between Jesus and some Pharisees, at least.
Pharisees also acts in friendly ways to Jesus when they come to him to warn him about Herod (13:31) or ask him to explain his understanding of the kingdom of God (14:20-21) or seek to quell the uproar being caused by the disciples of Jesus (19:39-40). Not all of the encounters that Jesus had with Pharisees were negative or confrontational.
The early movement of followers of Jesus included Pharisees (Acts 15:5 — and even, quite strikingly, some priests, in 6:7 !). Paul was one such Pharisee, as he declares that he had been raised as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), and there is an interesting scene later in Acts where some Pharisees (in dispute with some Sadducees) actually stand in support of Paul (Acts 23:7-9).
So the relationship is not thoroughly antagonistic. Both Jesus and, later, Paul, did have robust discussions and disagreements with Pharisees, but neither of them wrote the Pharisees off as lost causes or doomed to perdition. We should not use Pharisee as a cipher for a self-righteous or hypocritical person who has no humility — accusations that could well have been made in the heat of an argument.
Second, this unfortunate negative line of interpretation concerning Pharisees is based on a gross misunderstanding of the Pharisees, their faith, and their activities. All too often, Pharisees are misrepresented and scapegoated by Christians (especially since the rise of anti Semitic theologies in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), using them as a foil for their own views of a more positive Christian faith.
So: what do we really know about the Pharisees?
The scribal Pharisees specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.
The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.
Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.
Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes—literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled. Their task was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Over time, the Pharisees and scribes developed particular methods for interpreting the Torah; many of these methods are reflected within the New Testament, as it seems that Paul, each of the Gospel writers, and even Jesus himself, were familiar with such methods of interpretation. They were certainly people of faith, devoted to serving God in humility, and focussed on fostering a sense of righteousness (obedience to the way that God had instructed them) amongst their people.
Associated with this, the Pharisees and scribes devoted much time to verbal discussion of the written texts of Torah, probing the meaning of every law that was recorded in their scripture. These debates were remembered and passed on by word of mouth. Over time, the accumulated body of these oral discussions and debates was accorded a certain authority in its own right. Eventually, the claim was made that the oral teachings were of similar importance to the written text; the Pharisees were said to have had an “oral Torah” alongside the written Torah. Debate over this matter is reflected in texts such as Mark 7 and Matt 15.
So, just as Pharisees debated amongst themselves about how best to interpret the laws given in scripture, so too Jesus engaged in such debates and disputations with them as to how the laws should be interpreted and applied. He used precisely the methods and techniques that the Pharisees themselves employed, with questions, counter-argument, scripture citations, and analogies, for instance.
This form of engagement wasn’t an antagonistic dispute; it was just the vigorous style of such debates. Jesus wasn’t looking to dismiss the Pharisees, but to reach into the heart of each law that they were debating together. The debate was taking place to clarify how people were to be faithful to God, living according to the righteousness (or holiness) that God required.
Later, accounts of these oral debates between Jesus and Pharisees were written down in the Gospels that we have in Christian scripture. However, these debates were remembered and recorded in ways that seem to reflect the intensity of fervent debate that was apparently taking place, at that later time, between followers of Jesus, and authorities in the synagogues. They retained the vigorous manner of debates about Jewish Torah, but were set into a polemical context that highlighted the differences and sharpened the sense of argumentative antagonism.
Accordingly, it is reasonable to regard many of the accounts of Jesus in debate with the scribes and Pharisees (such as Luke 11:37-54 and Matt 23:1-36) as more reflective of the antagonism, conflict, and even hatred that had grown between these two groups.
That wasn’t the historical reality. But it came to be the way that the followers of Jesus after his lifetime (and after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE) most often remembered the Pharisees. And so the trajectory of the stereotype of the Pharisee began.
Both older academic Christian scholarship and popular Christian tradition today perpetuate the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus.
This stereotype was heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.
This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. It has no place in our contemporary preaching.
In 2009, the Twelfth Assembly of my church (the Uniting Church in Australia) adopted a Statement on Jews and Judaism in which we resolved to:
acknowledge that many of the early Christian writings collected in the New Testament were written in a context of controversy and polemic between the Church and Synagogue;
not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism;
and encourage its members and councils to be vigilant in resisting antisemitism and anti-Judaism in church and society.
I hope that those who are preaching on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, bear in mind these things as they prepare and deliver sermons this coming Sunday.
Yes, Jesus criticises the particular Pharisee in this parable. No, this was not how Jesus viewed each and every Pharisee that he knew. Yes, Jesus was a friend of Pharisees and entered enthusiastically into robust debate with them. No, he was not intending to write off all Pharisees as pious, hypocritical, self-righteous legalists.
Rev. Dr John Squires is currently undertaking an Intentional Interim Ministry with Queanbeyan Uniting Church.
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