The Influential Pharisees
The Pharisees constituted a prominent sect of Judaism in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. They tried to keep themselves separate from others, including fellow Jews. The name “Pharisees” may, in fact, mean “separated ones.” The exact origins of this sect of Judaism are unknown today. By the latter half of the second century B.C.E., however, the Pharisees already were an influential body.
Writing of this period in the time of John Hyrcanus, the Jewish historian Josephus says of them: “These have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say any thing against the king, or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”*
WHEN Jesus was on earth the Pharisees’ influence was so strong that prominent men were afraid to acknowledge openly that he was indeed the Christ. The Bible reports: “Many even of the rulers actually put faith in him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess him, in order not to be expelled from the synagogue; for they loved the glory of men more than even the glory of God.”—John 12:42, 43.
As a body, the Pharisees were concerned about establishing their own righteousness. They scrupulously paid the tenth of such small products as mint, dill and cummin. (Matt. 23:23) On a regular basis, they would fast for religious reasons. (Matt. 9:14) They were concerned about observing traditions to the letter, especially in connection with Sabbath observance and the washing of hands.—Matt. 12:1, 2; 15:2.
Along with this, the Pharisees wanted to impress others with their righteousness and therefore made a public display of it. They did this even in their dress. The Mosaic law required the Israelites to have fringed edges on the skirts of their garments. This was to serve as a reminder to them of their holy standing before Jehovah God and the need to observe his commands. (Num. 15:38-41) The Pharisees took this a step farther. They enlarged the fringed edges of their garments in order to stand out among the people. Similarly, while the custom had developed among the Jews to wear small scripture-containing cases on the forehead and the left arm, the Pharisees stood out by wearing larger ones.—Matt. 23:2, 5.
Because of what they did, the Pharisees felt superior to fellow Israelites who did not observe the Law according to the Pharisees’ traditional interpretation. Their attitude is reflected in a prayer that Jesus Christ, in one of his illustrations, represents as being spoken by a Pharisee: “O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.” (Luke 18:11, 12) The Pharisees actually looked with contempt upon those who failed to observe the great body of rabbinic tradition. When officers sent to arrest Jesus came back empty-handed because of having been impressed by his teaching, they said: “You have not been misled also, have you? Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, has he? But this crowd that does not know the Law [that is, the rabbinic interpretation given to it] are accursed people.”—John 7:45-49.
Confident of their own righteousness, the Pharisees believed that they were entitled to special privileges and that others should acknowledge their superior standing. When entertained at evening meals, they expected to have the most prominent places. At the synagogue, they preferred the front seats. These seats faced the audience and were reserved for the presiding officer and distinguished guests. Even in busy marketplaces they wanted to be given special attention and to have their presence acknowledged by greetings. It pleased them when people called them “Rabbi” (Teacher).—Matt. 23:6, 7.
Due to trusting in their own righteousness the Pharisees were among the foremost enemies of Jesus Christ. He often did not act according to their traditional interpretation of the Law. That is why they condemned him.
It appears the Pharisees thought that defilement resulted from contact with people who did not observe the Law according to their traditional view. (Luke 7:36-40) So Jesus’ associating and even eating with reputed sinners and tax collectors gave them occasion to object. (Luke 15:1, 2) They did not appreciate that such ones were in need of spiritual help and that Jesus, moved by loving concern and compassion, was willing to render that help.—Luke 15:3-32.
When Jesus made a clay to put on the eyes of a blind man and thereby effected a cure on the Sabbath, some of the Pharisees declared: “This is not a man from God, because he does not observe the Sabbath.” (John 9:16) Seeing Jesus’ miraculous healings on the Sabbath, they did not rejoice with those who were cured but were enraged about what they considered to be violations of the Sabbath. It was this insensibility of their hearts that grieved Jesus. Because of their traditional view, the Pharisees not only ignored human considerations but became so angry that they wanted to kill Jesus for what they labeled as violations of the Law.—Mark 3:1-6.
Jesus Christ’s denouncing the Pharisees was indeed warranted. Their attitude toward God’s law and fellow Israelites did violence to the spirit of that law, making it burdensome to the people. They lost sight of the weightier matters of the Law—justice, mercy, faithfulness and love of God. (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42-44) As Jesus pointed out regarding the Sabbath: “The sabbath came into existence for the sake of man, and not man for the sake of the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In areas that really touched the lives of people, their sticking to human precepts was responsible for serious injury. For example, children could get out of helping aged and needy parents by claiming that all their property was dedicated to God.—Matt. 15:3-9.
Of course, not all the Pharisees took a totally unreasonable view of matters. There were exceptions. The learned Pharisee Gamaliel urged fellow members of the Sanhedrin not to meddle with the followers of Jesus Christ, saying: “Let them alone; (because, if this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them;) otherwise, you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.” (Acts 5:38, 39) The Pharisee Nicodemus manifested interest in the work and activity of Jesus Christ. (John 3:1, 2; 7:47-52; 19:39) And when the truth was revealed to Paul, he ceased being a Pharisee and became a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ.—Acts 26:5; Phil. 3:5.
Nevertheless, as a body, the Pharisees can serve as a warning example for Christians today. Their case illustrates the danger of trusting in one’s own goodness and righteousness. Recognizing that, as Jesus said, “all you are brothers,” devoted servants of God will not expect or desire to be viewed as superior, nor will they seek special attention, prominence and favors from fellow believers because of their position in God’s congregation.—Matt. 23:8; 1 Pet. 5:1-4.
In view of what the Pharisees did, elders in the congregations of God’s people will do well to remember that they have no authority to make rules that go beyond what is clearly stated in the Bible. True, at times certain arrangements must be made for orderliness in matters, but even here we need to ask ourselves: Are we in any way slipping into a course like that of the Pharisees who, while believing that zeal for righteousness was motivating them, failed to show Godlike consideration for human needs and feelings? Not only those in authority need to be on guard, but all within the Christian congregation should watch that they treat one another as beloved brothers and sisters, not becoming sticklers for unscriptural rules and thereby overlooking the truly important things—the divine qualities of justice, faithfulness, mercy and love.
Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIII, chap. X, par. 5.