Mosaic from Caesarea Maritima

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day’”for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

Jesus as Rabbi:
Part 1: What is a Rabbi?
Part 2: Was Jesus a Rabbi?
Part 3: Jesus’ Miracles
Part 4: Jesus and other Rabbis

When most of us think of the word “Pharisee”, some pretty strong, negative images are brought forward – for good reason – we we reflect upon their role in scripture. Just check out the textbook definition of Pharisee:

1. A member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form.

2. A hypocritically self-righteous person.

What about

Not a really flattering picture, is it? Nor were most of Jesus’ words with the Pharisees. Just check out Matthew 23for a good taste. So why on earth should we have anything good to say about these guys? Well, in many/most cases, we don’t. However, I think that by viewing them with the above definitions only, we miss the contextual picture of Jesus and these religious leaders of the day. After all, Jesus had Pharisee followers, some Pharisees warned Jesus of a plot to kill him (Luke 13:31-35, quoted above), and Paul still claimed affiliation with the Pharisees long after his experience on the Damascus road.

Origins and Basic Beliefs

The Pharisees descended from the hasidim, the “pious ones” of the Galilee region in the hundred and fifty years prior to Jesus’ birth, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series. These intensely religious people differed greatly from the Judeans to the south, who were primarily of the Sadducee/Priestly persuasion and believed only in the Pentateuch as God’s Word, and not the entire TaNaKh (which is our modern day Old Testament). The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in all of the TaNaKh as God’s inspired Word, the oral law, and had a theology developed around the coming of a Messiah and the Kingdom of God. They also believed in the future resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees denied.

In the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem, there were 70 seats, of which 65 belonged to the Sadducee party and 5 belonged to the Pharisees. Interestingly, during the time of Jesus, 3 of the 5 pharisees on the council were named in the Christian Scriptures, all three of whom were either followers of Christ – or at least sympathetic to His followers. These three were Niccodemus, Joseph of Aramathea, and Gamaliel (the grandson of the rabbi Hillel).

The Pharisees were also the first Jewish sect know to send out missionaries and to proselytize – which is how the Jews of the diaspora and the Jewish converts in Asia Minor had been restored to the Jewish faith prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the first century. Their message was well accepted by many, though primarily by women (as men would have to be circumcised to become Jewish).

Additionally, like Jesus, the Pharisees were the most popular of the religious “sects” among the common people. They brought the practice of worshiping in synagogue to Israel with them from their captivity in Babylon. The Sadducees taught that God could only properly be worshiped in the temple, whereas the Pharisee rabbis led the synagogue schools and taught that God could be worshiped wherever His people gathered.

The Pharisees Believed…

When delving too deeply into doctrine, it really cannot easily be said that “the Pharisees believed _______” because – like Christianity today – there was a diversity in interpretation, with seven primary rabbinic schools of thought, as we discussed in Part 4, last week.

When examined in its Hebrew context, Jesus’ primary criticism of the Pharisees is not so much their theology, but their practice of their beliefs.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So 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.”

In terms of the theology of any of the Jewish sects of his day (Essene, Sadducee, Pharisee, and Zealot), Jesus’ theology is most closely aligned with that of the Pharisees. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of Pharisee teachings which are mirrored in the words of Jesus, and vice-versa (after his death and resurrection). It only makes sense that Jesus would be most critical of those who most closely knew the truth, but did not live it.

The Seven Types of Pharisee

Within the Pharisee circles, just prior to the coming of Jesus, it was taught that there were (at least) seven “types” of Pharisees, of which six were bad and one was truly good. A number of scholars now believe that Jesus’ criticisms were primarily aimed at the “bad” types of Pharisees – who were cursed more deeply and violently by Hillel and other Rabbis, than even Jesus did – and that he drew a large number of his followers from the ranks of the “good” Pharisees and their followers.

  1. The Shoulder (or Shechemite) Pharisee: This type of pharisee was one who wore his good deeds on his shoulder – on display for all men to see. Jesus opens his primary criticism of Pharisees in Matthew, with the mention of the shoulder – possibly a reference to this commonly-labelled type of Pharisee

    They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

  2. The Wait-a-little Pharisee: This type of pharisee would want to wait to see how a situation played out before acting in any matter. While he agreed with Pharisee theology, he would always fall short in practice of his “belief” because he wasn’t sure if he should/could/wanted to act. This type of Pharisee liked the prestige brought about by being a religious leader, but didn’t like what it actually required.

    Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23:5-7)

  3. The Blind (or Bruised and Bleeding) Pharisee: This type of Pharisee was typified by the idea of him walking with his head down or turned away to avoid looking at, or bumping into women (who might be on their menstrual cycle) or other unclean folks. So, because they weren’t looking where they were going, they would end up bruised or bleeding from their avoidance of small things (cleanliness laws) – all the while forgetting the more important laws. Jesus refers to some Pharisees as “blind guides”, possibly referring to this type of Pharisee.

    Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

  4. The Pestle (or Hump-backed) Pharisee: Similar to the Blind Pharisee, the Pestle Pharisee was known for walking around with his eyes averted for the purpose of avoiding visual temptations. Avoiding temptation is one thing, but this type of Pharisee’s heart was wrong, because it was the importance of making a show of his avoidance of temptation (and piety) which was to be criticized.

    Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:27-28)

  5. The Ever-Reckoning Pharisee: Here was a religious person who was always keeping score – trying to make sure that his good deeds always outnumbered his bad ones. He wanted this so that God would be in his debt with the attitude of God oweing him something for being good. Their belief was truly one of works-based righteousness.

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!” (Matthew 23:29-32)

  6. The God-fearing (or Timid) Pharisee: He was considered to be a “God-fearer” in the manner of Job. While he had great reverence and respect for God, it was out of fear of punishment, he made sure to follow all of God’s commands in order avoid curses from God and, ultimately, hellfire. Unlike the previous types of Pharisees, both his belief and practice were correct, but his motivation was out of fear of God. It is possible that Jesus’ expressed woe in Matthew 23:13 is directed at this spirit of fear that then prevents others from enjoying the eternal life provided by God

    Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

  7. The God-loving Pharisee: This type of Pharisee was considered to be the ideal – a person who obeyed God out of true love and affection for Him, as in the manner of Abraham. A minority of Pharisees were believed to have been of this type, though Pharisees from the School of Hillel (who died in 10 A.D.) may have comprised a majority of this type of Pharisee. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Paul (and most likely Gamaliel, as well, from both Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts) were all Pharisees who would have fit into this category.

Interestingly, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 A.D. was thrown down by the Roman empire, the only remaining sect of Judiasm remaining was that of the Pharisees – which became Rabbinic Judiasm. Additionally, it is the School of Hillel which dominated (and still does to this day) in religious Judiasm. Many Jewish-Christian scholars see this as God’s provision of a remnant – a common theme in the scriptures – and may or may not figure into eschatology.

So What?

As we examine the context of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and we read his words against a majority of them, it would be valuable for us to see who these people were and what it was about some of them that Jesus criticized. These were the folks who had theology almost exactly in line with Jesus – with the primary discrepancy being Jesus’ concern for the poor, the unclean and the oppressed.

As we read through the examples of the types of Pharisees, and the way that even the School of Hillel treated apostate enemies, how surprising is it that when we look at these, how many of them look just like -


Were he standing here today, which type of Pharisee would Jesus see in us?

Sources for these articles were primarily pulled from:

  1. Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church‘ by Dr. Ron Moseley
  2. Jesus: The Jewish Theologian‘ by Brad Young
  3. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith‘ by Marvin Wilson
  4. The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation‘ by Brad Young
  5. Parables: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector‘ – podcast by Ray VanderLaan
  6. On-site lectures in Israel & Turkey from Dr. Tim Brown, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, MI
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This entry was posted on Friday, February 15th, 2008 at 2:12 pm and is filed under Devotional, Original Articles, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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7 Comments(+Add)

1   merry    
February 15th, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Yep, Christians today definately can be compared to Pharisees of the Bible. Some are hyprcrites, and some genuinely love God.

We tend to stereotype Pharisees as all being hypocrites, which isn’t exactly fair, and how many people tend to stereotype all Christians as being hypocrites?

We tend to see Pharisees as the villians in the gospels, but really, they are just regular human beings. God gave very specific rules to follow in the law of Moses, and they were just trying to obey it– and getting carried away!! Reminds me of Christians I know!! :)

2   inquisitor    
February 15th, 2008 at 5:44 pm

“These were the folks who had theology almost exactly in line with Jesus”

Umm… You know that they killed him right? You know that the Bible is all about Him right? If they didn’t know HIM, they didn’t know theology. If they didn’t have HIM, they didn’t have theology.
He IS theology. ALL scripture is about HIM.

3   Chris L
February 15th, 2008 at 5:51 pm


Actually, it was primarily the Sadducee party (which controlled the Temple and its rites) and the Herodians behind Jesus’ death (often translated as “the Jews”, though it is more accurately “the Judeans” – which is an ethnically different distinction).

Also, Jesus’ theology was based first and foremost upon God, the Father – not himself. Theologically speaking, Jesus was of the tradition of the hasidim, and his teaching and emphases are very similar to those of Hillel (d. 10 A.D.), taken entirely from the Hebrew scriptures and not made up out of whole cloth…

I’d suggest you start by reading the previous articles, though I can point you toward a number of other Bible-based resources.

4   Chris L
February 15th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

A couple of other notes – the primary “Pharisee” presence in Judea, after the death of Hillel was the House of Shammai, the most conservative view. The areas which accepted Jesus’ message during his ministry were primarily in northern Galilee, and considered to be the most lenient in their interpretation of scripture.

Believe it or not, Jesus was actually Jewish beyond simple ethnicity, and the theology he held (his beliefs about and teaching about God) were from that stream, not made up. Their uniqueness was not in their “newness”, but rather from their interpretation of scripture based upon the two greatest commandments, the second of which was more encompassing than even the most lenient interpretations…

5   Joe C
February 16th, 2008 at 2:21 pm

So….Jesus was a liberal…?


6   Chris L
February 16th, 2008 at 3:46 pm

“liberal” in terms of strict literal interpretation of the law (conservative) vs. intent of the law (liberal), yes – in the modern, sense, not quite so much…

7   Henry (Rick) Frueh
February 16th, 2008 at 7:25 pm

“how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

This, of course, was before Brother Calvin straightened the Lord out about free will.