Learning from an Experiment That Failed
THROUGHOUT history there have been numerous attempts to influence people toward a more righteous way of life. One such experiment was made by the Pharisees, a group that receives considerable attention in the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures. Their experiment failed.
The term “Pharisee” comes from a root word meaning “separated,” “distinguished.” The group first appears in historical writings that deal with events of the second century B.C.E. While living in the same locations as other Jews, the Pharisees separated or distinguished themselves by extraordinary efforts to observe the Mosaic law fully.
The Pharisees became known especially for paying tithes and observing rules of ceremonial cleanness. God’s law through Moses required the Israelites to give a tenth of the produce from their land, herds and flocks. That tithe went for support of the Levitical priesthood and other necessary things connected with God’s worship. (Deut. 14:22, 23) The Pharisees went to the point of tithing even the tiniest of things, such as pod fruits (beans, peas and other legumes), leaves and herbs. They gave a tenth, not only of produce of their own fields, but also of items acquired through purchase, trade or other business. (Luke 11:42; 18:11, 12) This was done for fear that the items had not been tithed properly by their original owners.
Under the Mosaic law, ritual washings for ceremonial cleansing were necessary on occasion. This was true notably for priests, who had to be physically and ceremonially clean when serving at Jehovah’s sanctuary. (Ex. 30:17-21; Lev. 21:1-7; 22:2-8) Before partaking of their portion of sacrificial meals, priests had to wash their hands and feet in water.
Most of the Pharisees were not priests. Nevertheless, they voluntarily obligated themselves to observe priestly laws of ceremonial cleanness even in everyday matters that had no direct connection with worship. They practiced ritual hand washing before and after every meal. If the meal consisted of several courses, the washing was done also between the courses. Gospel writer Mark points out: “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands up to the elbow, holding fast the tradition of the men of former times, and, when back from market, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves by sprinkling; and there are many other traditions that they have received to hold fast, baptisms of cups and pitchers and copper vessels.”—Mark 7:3, 4.
While such extensive efforts to observe tithing and ceremonial cleanness did not violate the written law of God, they went beyond what that law demanded. Interestingly, a rabbinical legend represents the congregation of Israel as saying: “Lord of the universe, I have imposed upon myself more restrictions than Thou hast imposed upon me, and I have observed them.”
“A Fence” to Prevent Wrongdoing
Determination to avoid transgressing God’s law, even in minute details, caused the Pharisees to go yet farther. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes: “The Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses.” Those regulations included a vast number of precepts for proper observance of the Sabbath. Concerning such non-Biblical “regulations,” the Jewish code of traditional laws known as The Mishnah states: “The rules about the Sabbath, Festal-offerings, and Sacrilege are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many.”
What was the purpose of so many rules of conduct? Some insight on this matter can be gained from a statement uttered by Jewish religious leaders before the Common Era: “Be deliberate in judgement, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Law.”a The “fence” means traditions that supposedly would restrain persons from transgressing the written law of God. According to theory, if a person did not cross the fence, he would never be guilty of violating an actual Biblical decree.
Did that experiment succeed? Did the massive body of oral traditions make better people out of the Israelites and the Pharisees in particular?
Seeking God’s Favor Through Deeds
Excessive attention to minute regulations had a harmful effect. It led to the belief that becoming righteous in God’s eyes was merely a matter of carrying out prescribed religious and charitable deeds. Each good deed was believed to earn “merit” with God, whereas every bad act would incur “debt.” Supposedly, God would one day make a tally of the record of merits and debts to determine whether a person was righteous or wicked.
Showing the extent to which this idea became entrenched, rabbinical writings speak of the “calculating Pharisee, i.e., he performs a good deed and then a bad deed, setting one off against the other.” Also mentioned is “the Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’” But is that not a virtue? The rabbinical account answers: “Nay, what he says is, ‘What further duty is for me that I may perform it?’” Such individuals in their self-confidence believed that they had done everything required for God’s favor. A wealthy young man displayed that attitude when asking Jesus: “What good must I do in order to get everlasting life?” After Jesus stressed to him the importance of obeying commandments of God’s written law, the man replied: “I have kept all these; what yet am I lacking?”—Matt. 19:16-20.
The teaching about earning merit and favor with God by good deeds caused many Pharisees to become self-righteous and condemnatory of others. A parable of Jesus with reference to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who considered the rest as nothing” states: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and began to pray these things to himself, ‘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 18:9-12) An example of the extremes to which such an attitude can lead is evident in this excerpt from ancient Jewish writings:
“R[abbi] Hezekiah said in R[abbi] Jeremiah’s name: Thus did R[abbi] Simeon b[en] Yohai say: The world possesses not less than thirty men as righteous as Abraham. If there are thirty, my son and I are two of them; if ten, my son and I are two of them; if five, my son and I are two of them; if two, they are my son and I; if there is but one, it is I.”
Since Pharisees considered the common people ritually unclean, they avoided close contact with them. In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim points out that a Pharisee “undertook not to sell to [a commoner] any fluid or dry substance (nutriment or fruit), not to buy from him any such fluid, not to be a guest with him, nor to entertain him as a guest in his own clothes (on account of their possible impurity).” That is why the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ “eating with the sinners and tax collectors.” (Mark 2:16) They believed that one who associated with persons ritually unclean would contract that uncleanness.
Jesus and the Pharisees
By the time the Son of God began his earthly ministry, the Pharisees had been around for about two centuries. That was plenty of time to see whether their experiment at promoting righteousness through good works would succeed. It did not. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared: “If your righteousness does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.”—Matt. 5:20.
In his dealings with the Pharisees and comments about them, the Son of God made clear what was wrong with their theory. Note his remarks with regard to their scrupulous efforts to pay tithes: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cummin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23) Rabbinical writings speak of “light” commandments (which demand little personal sacrifice) and “heavy” commandments (which call for considerable effort). Jesus showed that the “weightier” requirements of God involve displaying genuine concern for one’s fellowman, treating him with justice, mercy and faithfulness.
With reference to ritual hand washings and other features of ceremonial cleanness, Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of plunder and immoderateness. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside of it also may become clean.” (Matt. 23:25, 26) The Pharisees had gotten misled into thinking that uncleanness was acquired by contact with an external source of defilement. Jesus declared that the real source of uncleanness is internal. On another occasion he drove that point home, saying:
“‘Are you not aware that nothing from outside that passes into a man can defile him, since it passes, not into his heart, but into his intestines, and it passes out into the sewer?’ . . . Further, he said: ‘That which issues forth out of a man is what defiles a man; for from inside, out of the heart of men, injurious reasonings issue forth: fornications, thieveries, murders, adulteries, covetings, acts of wickedness, deceit, loose conduct, an envious eye, blasphemy, haughtiness, unreasonableness. All these wicked things issue forth from within and defile a man.’”—Mark 7:18-23.
The real source of uncleanness in God’s eyes is man’s inherited sinfulness. (Job 14:4; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12) No amount of ritual washings or other pious deeds can cleanse away defilement due to sin. Only repentance and the putting of faith in God’s arrangement for canceling sins through Jesus Christ can achieve forgiveness and salvation. (Acts 4:12) That is why Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer, prophesied that God was about to “give knowledge of salvation to his people,” not by freeing them from an enemy nation but “by forgiveness of their sins.”—Luke 1:77.
The Pharisees did not like that message, since they ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous and considered the rest as nothing.’ (Luke 18:9, 10) But theirs was merely an external, superficial piety. It did not root out inward filthiness manifested by vices such as “covetings,” “an envious eye” and “haughtiness.” (Mark 7:22) Jewish writings testify to this. For instance, we read of “the shikmi Pharisee,” who “carries his religious duties upon his shoulder (shekem), i.e. ostentatiously.” Also, there is mention of “the nikpi Pharisee—he is one who knocks his feet together” because of walking with exaggerated humility. Also, there is “the kizai Pharisee” who by purposely bumping against a wall to his injury “makes his blood to flow against walls” in efforts to avoid looking upon a woman. With full justification Jesus said of the scribes and Pharisees:
“All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes of their garments. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.”—Matt. 23:5-7.
Historical facts are plentiful to show that the Pharisees’ experiment to promote righteousness by their way of observing religious precepts and performing charitable deeds was a failure. It neither influenced the majority toward godliness nor helped the Pharisees themselves to become better people. Instead, it influenced them to commit the worst crime in all history, the murder of the Son of God.
However, the experiment was not altogether without usefulness. It set the stage for Jesus before his death to give the powerful message concerning human sinfulness and the need to seek salvation, not through works but as a free gift on the basis of repentance and faith in the sin-atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (Isa. 53:5, 10-12; Matt. 20:28; Rom. 10:5-9) That is a lesson that must be learned also by all alive today!
a Italics added.
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‘If There Is but One Righteous, It Is I’