Rediscovering the Pharisees - Part 1

Why Study Them?

February 7, 2021 • R. Scott Jarrett

Imagine someone calling you a Pharisee. You would likely be offended by this association. It is understandable, but do you know why? Popular culture – especially Christian culture, has made Pharisee a derogatory term. Most people, however – including Christians, don’t know very much about the Pharisees. And what they claim to know, is frequently wrong. The Pharisees deserve their derogatory status, but not for the reasons often heard. Discovering their true identity – that established in the pages of Scripture will be the focus of this study.

RELEVANCE: Why should every Christian be excited about a bible study on the Pharisees[1]?
1.1. Because it will reveal yet another reason Christians should be leery of listening to or following the teachings of Reformation – most especially Martin Luther.

It is no secret among biblical and historical scholars that Martin Luther foisted upon the Pharisees – the protagonists of Jesus, the identity of his protagonists – the Roman Catholics, in his attempts to justify his new religion. As a result, the Pharisees became the worst among those peddling a works-based salvation. Viewing them however in the light of Scripture, reveals just how far afield this portrayal is and why Luther should not be considered a reliable Christian teacher[2].

1.2. Because it is necessary to understanding the teachings of Jesus.

The Scriptures record no less than 12 different confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. They represented Jesus’ main theological opponents[3]. So much of what He taught was purposed to be in sharp contrast to them or their teachings. Failing therefore to understand what they taught/believed, means also failing to understand the teachings of Jesus. The perfect example of such a failure is (as discussed) Martin Luther. Because he embraced a false view of the Pharisees and their beliefs, he failed to possess a right understanding of Jesus and His gospel.

1.3. Because it is helpful to avoid becoming platinum members of the Dunning-Kruger club.

Because of their extensive training in the Law, the Pharisees viewed themselves (and were viewed by others) as wise, yet they were horribly poor thinkers (a phenomenon that exists even today: lots of data, little capacity to draw right conclusions from it – Pro 26:12) (Mat 12:1-12, 22:15-22, 23:16-22). It was the Pharisees’ poor thinking that equally contributed to their reputation as hypocrites (i.e. claiming to be guides/teachers of others yet “blind” to the truth – Mat 23:23-24; See also Mat 15:7-9, 23:25-31; Luk 18:9-14). In modern terms, they were platinum members of the Dunning-Kruger club[4] . Learning therefore what they believed (the source/cause of such poor thinking or inability to rightly process the data) can help us avoid also becoming members of this infamous club and the hypocrites it produces.

1.4. Because it reinforces the truth that false/damning religion can masquerade as – and be more popular than, the real thing.

That what the Pharisees taught was the most popular – or the received form of Judaism among the people, is made evident by the following facts: 1) The term used most often to identify a teacher in Jesus’ day (“rabbi”) originated w/the Pharisees. 2) According to Josephus, the Pharisees were the dominant religious party in Jerusalem and well received by the people. Even the Sadducees (the religious party of the high priests) were forced to submit to and abide by their teachings since otherwise “the masses would not tolerate them” (Antiquities, 18) (e.g. the Sanhedrin’s acceptance of Gamaliel’s recommendation in Acts 5: 34ff). 3) In addition, Josephus records that any aspirations to Jewish political life also required acquiescence to the religion of the Pharisees (Life, 12). In short, there was no religious group among the Jews more popular or viewed as truth-bearers by the people, than the Pharisees. Yet according to Jesus, their religion was false and damning (Mat 23:13-15, 33; Mat 16:5-12; Luk 7:30). Jesus wasn’t the only One Who condemned their teaching/beliefs. John the Baptist expressed the same condemnation while baptizing in the Jordan (Mat 3:7). In this light, consider how Jesus and the apostles must have felt (kind of like we do today?)

1.5. Because it will demonstrate that what masquerades as Christianity in most American churches is the religion of the Pharisees.

What the bible reveals to be true religion (main tenets/beliefs) of the Pharisees are (as we shall see) in large part, the religion (main tenets/beliefs) of Evangelicalism (the religion of Martin Luther)[5]. Not only did Martin Luther get his understanding of the Pharisees wrong, but he inadvertently placed himself (and those who follow him) into the actual religion of the Pharisees. Irony (or poetic justice) at its best.

1.6. Because it is key to avoiding Hell.

Want to be sure you are not in the wrong Christianity or church? Studying what the Pharisees taught/believed is a great place to start. Especially since the main tenets/beliefs of their religion are (once more) those embraced by Evangelical Christianity.

NEXT WEEK: RELIGION: what were the main tenets/beliefs of the Pharisees?

[1] The Pharisees under consideration in this study are those opposed to and condemned by Jesus. As such, it does not represent or speak in respect to all Pharisees since they were those who supported and followed Jesus (e.g. Nicodemus) – or based on their testimony, did not share the beliefs of the Pharisees that will be discussed in this study (e.g. Saul/Paul).

[2] “One must note in particular the projection onto Judaism of the view which Protestants find most objectionable in Roman Catholicism: the existence of a treasury of merits established by works. We have here the retrojection of the Protestant-Catholic debate into ancient history, with Judaism taking the role of Catholicism and Christianity the role of Lutheranism.” – E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism); “Scholarly study has been undergoing a decisive shift in approach and understanding. Older approaches, especially those stemming from the Reformation, have been increasingly perceived as inadequate, their frameworks of interpretation having been forced upon central elements [of the Scripture] with greater and greater difficulty. What was taken as axiomatic in the older approaches now appears as something in need of explanation. [There is] increasing recognition that lenses polished on the grinding wheel of the Reformation do not provide us with a clear picture. How [then] are we to understand [the Scriptures] now that we know Luther misunderstood [them]?” – Terrence Donaldson (Paul And The Gentiles)

[3] By comparison, the Scriptures record only two such confrontations in regard to the Sadducees.

[4] According to Dunning and Kruger’s famous study, people who are poor thinkers tend to grossly overestimate their abilities. The hypocrisy and frequent failures created by such overestimations are also well documented (e.g. man robbing banks w/lemon juice on his face).

[5] According to the Pew Forum, those holding to evangelical beliefs represent 70.4 percent of the nation’s population (229 million people or seven out of every ten people) and are its single largest religious group. That Evangelicalism is the religion of Martin Luther is supported by the fact that not only did he invent the term, but the gospel they embrace.