Many Christians assume the Pharisees were Jesus’ opponents. I once received the following comment from a reader: How can you be so positive in your assessment of the Pharisees? Remember that Jesus was pleased with the kneeling prayer of the tax collector and rebuked the prideful prayer of the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14). He also told us not to address anyone as “Rabbi”; we have only one teacher. And finally, Jesus consistently called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:34; 23:23) and said that “they have already received their reward” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).
Without reading the Scriptures carefully, and without a familiarity with Second Temple-period extra-biblical sources, a simple reader of the New Testament might assume that a majority of the Pharisees were hypocrites and that the Pharisees as a movement were indeed a “brood of vipers.” As a result of this common Christian assumption, the word “Pharisee” has become a synonym for “hypocrite” in the English language. However, this widespread Christian misreading of the New Testament is a terrible mistake, which, in the course of the last two millennia, often has resulted in appalling consequences for the Jewish community. Who did Jesus say were sitting on Moses’ seat (Matt. 23:2)? Answer: the Pharisees and their scribes. Jesus said: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and keep everything they say to you (in Hebrew, כל מה שיאמרו לכם , meaning, “[Observe] their rulings, commandments”). The verb λέγειν (say) in this verse may be a Hebraism for “to rule,” or “to command.” The Greek verbs ποιεῖν (to do) and τηρεῖν (to keep) are a parallelism and both refer to observing the biblical commandments as interpreted by the Pharisees (the Oral Torah). Jesus himself observed the Oral Torah of the Pharisees. For example, not only was it his custom to say a blessing after eating, as commanded in the Torah (Deut. 8:10), but he also said a blessing before eating, an innovation of the Pharisees. (See David Bivin, “Jesus and the Oral Torah: Blessing.”) Shmuel Safrai commented:
In other areas of daily life the rulings of the Pharisees also were practiced, and although there were bitter controversies, eventually the Pharisaic halachah prevailed even in the major areas of Temple worship. Josephus states that “all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their [the Pharisees’] exposition” (Antiquities 18:15), and that the Sadducees “submit to the formulas of the Pharisees, since otherwise the masses would not tolerate them” (Antiquities 18:17). (from Safrai, “Counting the Omer: On What Day of the Week Did Jesus Celebrate Shavuot (Pentecost)?.”) Who was it that warned Jesus about Herod’s intention to kill him? Answer: the Pharisees (Luke 13:31). Who was it that saved the lives of Jesus’ disciples by urging tolerance in the Sanhedrin when Peter and the other apostles were brought before it (Acts 5:33-39)? Answer: a Pharisee name Gamaliel, none other than Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. Who was it that sided with Paul against the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9)? Answer: the Sanhedrin’s Pharisees. (Read Shmuel Safrai’s “Insulting God’s High Priest.”) Josephus reports that, after James was lynched by the conniving Sadducean high priest Hanan (Annas), the Pharisees protested to the Roman governor. David Flusser writes: A similar clash between the Pharisees and Annas the Younger, probably the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, took place in the year 62 C.E. Annas the Younger “convened the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, and certain others [probably Christians]. He accused them of having transgressed the Torah and delivered them to be stoned” (Antiq. 20:200-203). The Pharisees, who Josephus describes as the “inhabitants of the city who were considered the most tolerant and were strict in the observance of the commandments,” managed to have the high priest Annas the Younger deposed from his position as a result of the illegal execution of James. (David Flusser, “…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him”) Flusser also writes: In contrast to what we know about Caiaphas and his faction, especially from John 11:47-53, the Pharisees of his time did not launch persecutions of Jewish prophetic movements. This is attested by Jesus himself (Matt. 23:29-31), according to whom the Pharisees of his day used to say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Indeed, when one reads the gospels critically, one becomes aware that the Pharisees did not play a decisive role in Jesus’ arrest, interrogation and crucifixion. The Pharisees are not even mentioned by name in the context of Jesus’ trial as recounted in the first three gospels, with the exception of the story about the guard at Jesus’ tomb (Matt. 27:62). (Flusser, “…To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him”) The Pharisees were acutely aware of the dangers of hypocrisy. Their self-criticism was even more biting than that of Jesus. They even caricatured themselves saying that there were seven classes of Pharisees (j. Ber. 14b, chap. 9, halachah 7; j. Sot. 20c, chap. 5, halachah 7): The “shoulder Pharisee”, who packs his good works on his shoulder (to be seen of men); the “wait-a-bit” Pharisee, who (when someone has business with him) says, Wait a little; I must do a good work; the “reckoning” Pharisee, who when he commits a fault and does a good work crosses off one with the other; the “economising” Pharisee, who asks, What economy can I practise to spare a little to do a good work? the “show me my fault” Pharisee, who says, show me what sin I have committed, and I will do an equivalent good work (implying that he had no fault); the Pharisee of fear, like Job; the Pharisee of love, like Abraham. The last is the only kind that is dear (to God). (English translation by George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim [2 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927], 2:193) Only one of the seven classes of Pharisees is righteous and acceptable to God: the Pharisee who serves God from love. Compare the saying of Antigonus of Socho, a sage who lived at the beginning of the second century B.C.: “Do not be like slaves who serve their master [i.e., God] in order to receive a reward; rather be like slaves who do not serve their master in order to receive a reward” (Mishnah, Avot 1:3). To the saying of Antigonus, compare the phrase found in Derech Eretz Rabbah 2:13 (ed. Higger, 284): עושין מאהבה (osin me-ahavah, those who do [i.e., perform good deeds] out of love). “They preach, but they do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). The Pharisees were the conservatives of their day, the Bible teachers and preachers of Jesus’ society. The Pharisees knew that their greatest danger was the sin of hypocrisy, just as today’s conservative Christians understand that hypocrisy is their greatest danger. We sincere and devout followers of Jesus are the hypocrites of our day. There cannot be hypocrites where there are no beliefs and standards to which one is accountable to God. Notice that Jesus did not criticize the Pharisees for tithing of their garden herbs (Matt. 23:23), a commandment of the Oral Torah, but for neglecting weightier matters. Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees appears to be “in–house” criticism, constructive criticism driven by love and respect. The Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, held beliefs that were similar to Jesus’.
The expression “brood of vipers” appears four times in the New Testament, three times in Matthew’s Gospel and one time in Luke’s. (There are no parallels to any of these four sayings in Mark’s account.) According to Luke’s Gospel (Luke 3:7), the expression is found in the address of John the Baptist to the “crowds” who came to him at the Jordan River. However, according to Matthew, John the Baptist’s stinging rebuke was addressed to “Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 3:7). Apparently, this detail was added for color by the author of Matthew, who then put it in the mouth of Jesus twice more. Luke’s Gospel along with Mark’s provide evidence that this strong expression was used by the fiery John the Baptist, and not by Jesus. Jesus’ words, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν (“they are getting their reward/pay”) is a refrain that is repeated three times (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16). The implication is that such hypocrites will not receive a reward in the World to Come—perhaps will not even be in the World to Come! Rather than being a condemnation of the Pharisees, this threesome proves that Jesus’ theology was similar, or identical, to that of the Pharisees. The three most important commandments in the eyes of the Pharisees were almsgiving, prayer and fasting, in that order, the most important being צְדָקָה (tsedakah; almsgiving). Jesus gives this trio in his Sermon on the Mount. Although Jesus’ point is that one should not be ostentatious when giving to the poor, when praying, and when fasting, in passing, we learn something about Jesus’ theology: Jesus stressed the same three commandments that were so important to the Pharisees. Notice that the centurion, Cornelius, was a God-fearer (Acts 10:2, 22). He gave alms and prayed much (Acts 10:2, 4) and fasted (Acts 10:30).
David Bivin is founder and editor-in-chief of Jerusalem Perspective.