“Watch Out for the Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”
WHEN Jesus Christ uttered those words over 19 centuries ago, he was alerting his disciples to harmful religious teachings and practices. (Matthew 16:6, 12) The account at Mark 8:15 specifies: “Look out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Why was Herod mentioned? Because some of the Sadducees were Herodians, a political group.
Why was such a special warning necessary? Were not both the Pharisees and the Sadducees outright opposers of Jesus? (Matthew 16:21; John 11:45-50) Yes, they were. Yet, some of them would later accept Christianity and then try to impose their ideas on the Christian congregation.—Acts 15:5.
There was also the danger that the disciples themselves might imitate those religious leaders under whose influence they had been raised. At times, just coming from such a background proved to be an obstacle to their getting the sense of Jesus’ teachings.
What made Pharisaism and Sadduceeism so dangerous? A look at the religious conditions in Jesus’ day will give us an idea.
Concerning the Jewish community during the first century C.E., historian Max Radin wrote: “The independence of the Jewish congregations of one another was quite real, and was even insisted upon. . . . Often, when the reverence for the temple and the holy city was most strongly emphasized, intense contempt might be manifested for those who were at the moment the holders of the supreme authority in the mother-country.”
A sad spiritual state of affairs indeed! What were some contributing factors? Not all Jews lived in Palestine. The influence of Greek culture, in which priests were not community leaders, had played its part in undermining respect for Jehovah’s arrangement of the priesthood. (Exodus 28:29; 40:12-15) And not to be overlooked were the educated laymen and scribes.
The name Pharisees, or Peru·shimʹ, likely meant “separated ones.” Pharisees considered themselves to be followers of Moses. They formed their own league, or fraternity (Hebrew, chavu·rahʹ). To be admitted, one had to pledge before three members strict observance of Levitical purity, avoidance of close association with the ʽam-ha·ʼaʹrets (the unlearned multitude), and scrupulous payment of tithes. Mark 2:16 speaks of “the scribes of the Pharisees.” Some of this party were professional scribes and teachers, while others were laymen.—Matthew 23:1-7.
The Pharisees believed in an omnipresent God. They reasoned that since “God was everywhere, He could be worshiped both in and outside the Temple, and was not to be invoked by sacrifices alone. They thus fostered the synagogue as a place of worship, study, and prayer, and raised it to a central and important place in the life of the people which rivaled the Temple.”—Encyclopaedia Judaica.
The Pharisees lacked appreciation for Jehovah’s temple. This can be seen from Jesus’ words: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is under obligation.’ Fools and blind ones! Which, in fact, is greater, the gold or the temple that has sanctified the gold? Also, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is under obligation.’ Blind ones! Which, in fact, is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he that swears by the altar is swearing by it and by all the things on it.”—Matthew 23:16-20.
How could the Pharisees become so twisted in their reasoning? What were they overlooking? Note what Jesus says next. “And he that swears by the temple is swearing by it and by him that is inhabiting it.” (Matthew 23:21) Concerning this verse, scholar E. P. Sanders observed: “The temple was holy not only because the holy God was worshipped there, but also because he was there.” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE—66 CE) However, Jehovah’s special presence would mean little to those who thought that he was everywhere.
The Pharisees also believed in a combination of predestination and free will. In other words, “everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” They nevertheless held that Adam and Eve were predestined to sin and that even a minor cut on the finger is preordained.
Jesus may have had such false ideas in mind when he spoke about the collapse of a tower that resulted in 18 deaths. He asked: “Do you imagine that [the victims] were proved greater debtors than all other men inhabiting Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4) As is true of most accidents, this was the result of “time and unforeseen occurrence,” not fate as the Pharisees taught. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) How would such supposedly knowledgeable ones handle Scriptural commandments?
They Were Religious Innovators
The Pharisees maintained that Scriptural commandments had to be interpreted by the rabbis of each generation in accordance with advanced ideas. Thus, the Encyclopaedia Judaica says that they “found no great difficulty in harmonizing Torah teachings with their advanced ideas, or in finding their ideas implied or hinted at in the words of the Torah.”
As respects the annual Day of Atonement, they transferred the power of atoning for sins from the high priest to the day itself. (Leviticus 16:30, 33) At the Passover celebration, they put greater emphasis on the reciting of the lessons of the Exodus account over wine and matzo than on the paschal lamb.
In time, the Pharisees became influential at the temple. They then instituted a procession involving the carrying of water from the pool of Siloam and a libation of it during the Festival of Ingathering, as well as the beating of willow branches upon the altar at the conclusion of the festival and regular daily prayers that had no basis in the Law.
“Especially significant” were “the Pharisaic innovations in connection with the Sabbath,” says The Jewish Encyclopedia. A wife was expected to welcome the Sabbath by lighting lamps. If it appeared that some activity might lead to unlawful labor, the Pharisees prohibited it. They even went so far as to regulate medical treatment and expressed irritation over Jesus’ miraculous healing on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:9-14; John 5:1-16) However, these religious innovators did not stop with establishing new institutions in an attempt to create a hedge, or fence, for the protection of Scriptural laws.
The Pharisees claimed authority to suspend or abolish Scriptural laws. Their reasoning is reflected in a Talmudic maxim: “It is better that a single law be uprooted than that the whole Torah be forgotten.” A case in point was the discontinuance of the Jubilee on the grounds that for fear of losing his claim as that period approached, no one would lend to the poor.—Leviticus, chapter 25.
Other examples are the abrogation of the trial of a woman suspected of adultery and in the case of an unsolved murder, the suspension of the expiation procedure. (Numbers 5:11-31; Deuteronomy 21:1-9) It was only a matter of time before the Pharisees would abrogate the Scriptural requirement of providing for one’s needy parents.—Exodus 20:12; Matthew 15:3-6.
Jesus warned: “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1) Pharisaism, with its untheocratic attitudes, could be nothing but hypocritical—definitely something not to be brought into the Christian congregation. Nevertheless, Jewish reference works present the Pharisees in a more favorable light than they do the Sadducees. Let us now consider this more conservative group.
The name Sadducees was taken possibly from Zadok, high priest in the days of Solomon. (1 Kings 2:35, footnote) The Sadducees formed a conservative party representing the interests of the temple and priesthood. Unlike the Pharisees, who claimed authority by virtue of learning and piety, the Sadducees based their prerogative on genealogy and position. They opposed Pharisaic innovations down to the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E.
In addition to rejecting predestination, the Sadducees refused to accept any teaching not mentioned explicitly in the Pentateuch, even if it was stated elsewhere in God’s Word. In fact, they “considered it a virtue to dispute” these matters. (The Jewish Encyclopedia) This calls to mind the occasion when they challenged Jesus concerning the resurrection.
Using the illustration of the widow of seven husbands, the Sadducees asked: “In the resurrection, to which of the seven will she be wife?” Of course, that hypothetical widow of theirs might just as well have had 14 or 21 husbands. Jesus explained: “In the resurrection neither do men marry nor are women given in marriage.”—Matthew 22:23-30.
Aware of Sadducean rejection of inspired writers other than Moses, Jesus proved His point by quoting from the Pentateuch. He said: “Concerning the dead, that they are raised up, did you not read in the book of Moses, in the account about the thornbush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob’? He is a God, not of the dead, but of the living.”—Mark 12:26, 27.
Persecutors of Jesus and His Followers
The Sadducees believed in using statecraft in dealing with other nations rather than waiting for the Messiah—if they believed in his coming at all. Under an agreement with Rome, they were to operate the temple and did not want any Messiah appearing on the scene, disturbing matters. Viewing Jesus as a threat to their position, they joined forces with the Pharisees to plot his death.—Matthew 26:59-66; John 11:45-50.
Being politically oriented, the Sadducees logically made an issue of loyalty to Rome and shouted: “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:6, 12-15) After Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was the Sadducees who took the lead in trying to stop the spread of Christianity. (Acts 4:1-23; 5:17-42; 9:14) After the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., this group ceased to exist.
The Need to Remain on Guard
How appropriate Jesus’ warning has proved to be! Yes, we need to “watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” One has only to observe its bad fruitage in both Jewry and Christendom today.
In stark contrast, however, qualified Christian elders in more than 75,500 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world ‘pay constant attention to themselves and to their teaching.’ (1 Timothy 4:16) They accept the entire Bible as inspired of God. (2 Timothy 3:16) Rather than being innovative and promoting their own religious procedures, they work unitedly under the direction of a Bible-based organization that uses this magazine as its principal instrument of instruction.—Matthew 24:45-47.
The result? Millions of people around the world are being elevated spiritually as they come to understand the Bible, apply it to their lives, and teach it to others. To see how this is being accomplished, why not visit the nearest congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses or write to the publishers of this magazine?
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JESUS CONSIDERED HIS AUDIENCE
JESUS CHRIST taught with clarity, taking his listeners’ ideas into account. For instance, he did so when he spoke to the Pharisee Nicodemus about the matter of being “born” again. Nicodemus asked: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter into the womb of his mother a second time and be born, can he?” (John 3:1-5) Why was Nicodemus so puzzled, since the Pharisees believed that rebirth was necessary for converts to Judaism, and a rabbinical saying likened the proselyte to “a child new born”?
A Commentary on the New Testament From the Talmud and Hebraica, by John Lightfoot, offers the following insight: “The common opinion of the Jews about the qualification of an Israelite . . . still sticks in the mind of this Pharisee” who cannot “easily get off from his first prejudice . . . : ‘Whereas the Israelites . . . have a right to be admitted into the kingdom of the Messiah, do you therefore mean by this expression of yours, that it is necessary for any to enter a second time into his mother’s womb, that he may be an Israelite anew?’”—Compare Matthew 3:9.
While acknowledging a new birth for proselytes, Nicodemus would view such a process as impossible for natural Jews—reentry to the womb as it were.
On another occasion, many took offense when Jesus spoke of ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood.’ (John 6:48-55) However, Lightfoot points out that “there was nothing more common in the schools of the Jews than the phrases of ‘eating and drinking’ in a metaphorical sense.” He also noted that the Talmud mentioned “eating the Messiah.”
So it was that the views of the Pharisees and the Sadducees had quite an effect on first-century Jewish thinking. Appropriately, however, Jesus always took into account the knowledge and experience of his audience. This was one of many factors that made him the Great Teacher.