In Fairness to the Pharisees (Part 2)

A few weeks ago I posted something on the Pharisees. They were an issue I had wanted to address for a long time because they have been unfairly characterised in the Christian world. “Pharisee” is now a Christianese synonym for “hater.” The truth is the Pharisees as a group are not just stock villains in Christian sermons but are actually very important, even to today’s Christian. I therefore present three reasons why the Pharisees are significant and should be taken seriously. They are history, Jesus and their legacy.

The Pharisees are part and parcel of Jewish history, being involved in some of the most significant events in the long history of Israel. They emerged in the late second Temple period from the group that supported and participated in the famous Maccabean revolt that resulted in the Hasmonean dynasty, the first independent Jewish state in four centuries since the Babylonian crises that almost destroyed the Jewish people. Jewish identity prospered for the next century in that relatively short lived dynasty. They split of from the Hasidim (hence the meaning of the name Pharisee which comes from the Hebrew word for separate) due to disagreements with the ruling Hasmonean family primarily because they felt the Hasmoneans were not being faithful to Jewish religion and identity. In that period and afterwards they rose to mainstream prominence.

Even though they had little political power, the Pharisees were the leaders of popular Judaism within Israel during the late second Temple period, which included the time of Jesus. They were known for their devotion to the scriptures, the religious tradition, and their great piety. Within the land they became synonymous with the synagogue, the local centres of Jewish religious and communal life which persist to this day, and were the de facto leaders of the institution. When Jerusalem and the second Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it was the Pharisees who were instrumental in preserving Jewish religion and identity.

Growing up in the church I had a negative perception of the Pharisees. My perception of them began to radically alter when I started learning some history. There are a lot of similarities between Jesus and the Pharisees since they were historical contemporaries. Apart from his followers, they are in fact the group Jesus interacts with the most. Therefore, if you are going to understand Jesus as presented by the gospels, you have to understand who the Pharisees were, which contrary to popular Christian opinion, is not obvious from the text since it does not even bother to introduce the old and complicated group to the reader, let alone give a holistic portrait of them. Jesus had a complex relationship with the Pharisees who in many important ways represented the popular Judaism of that era. Being a child of his time, Jesus was definitely influenced by them. Even though he disagreed strongly with them a lot, in historical context they actually had a lot in common, which explains why some followers of Jesus, like the apostle Paul, could comfortably continue to identify as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5.)

I earlier mentioned that the Pharisees preserved Judaism after the Romans razed Jerusalem. It was an ominous day in Jewish history which is mournfully remembered to this day. To gain some historical perspective on how bad it was some Jews consider it as the original holocaust. Since the Pharisees grew out of the tradition of scribes and sages that arose in the absence of the first Temple, they were able to refocus Jewish identity on Israel’s sacred scriptures and oral tradition in the absence of the second temple as the centre of Jewish life. They were the predecessors of Rabbinic Judaism which is the mainstream form of Judaism today. Their legacy is very much alive so that is why it is very problematic to denigrate them and have good relations with our Jewish neighbours.

According to the Bible, there is nothing wrong with being a Pharisee just as there is nothing wrong with being a Jew even though Jesus criticises his own people a lot. The truth is whether we know it or not, the Pharisees have indelibly influenced Christianity. They shaped the world Jesus lived in and they greatly impacted Jesus himself and his followers. Probably the most influential follower of Jesus, who wrote almost a third of the New Testament, was a professing Pharisee. Their influence has lasted over the millennia and will continue well into the future. The monochromatic view of the Pharisees as the perpetual “bad guys” is simply not biblical

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