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Why was the religious establishment usually at odds with Jesus? (Part 1)

To answer this question, we are going to discuss in this new series the different religious groups who were all part of the Jewish establishment at the time of Jesus.

In this first part, we will focus on the Pharisees.

Young’s Analytical Concordance has this to say about the Pharisees: “From the Hebrew – separate. The largest of the… Jewish sects; noted for their self-conceit and long prayers; [they] fasted often, made broad their phylacteries, held to [their own] traditions…”

Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, said of them in Antiquities of the Jews: “A cunning sect they were, and so elevated to a pitch of open fighting and doing mischief. At the time of Christ, the Pharisaical ‘fraternity’ was comparatively small.”

In fact, the group numbered about 6,000 members, but it was nevertheless very influential.

Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, states: “Contact with non-Pharisees was avoided wherever possible. All others were unclean.”

Bible History Online explains:

“Even with the changes of government under the Romans and Herodians, the Pharisees maintained their spiritual authority. Although the Sadducean high priests were at the head of the Sanhedrin, the decisive influence upon public affairs was in the hands of the Pharisees.”

Josephus also wrote that “The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; It was the voice of the Pharisees that was heard on behalf of the people, whether it was before the high priest of the king.”

Schurer writes in this regard:

“They had the bulk of the nation as their ally, and women especially were in their hands. They had the greatest influence upon the congregations, so that all acts of public worship, prayers, and sacrifices were performed according to their injunctions. Their sway over the masses was so absolute that they could obtain a hearing even when they said anything against the king or the high priest, consequently they were the most capable of counteracting the design of the kings. Hence, too, the Sadducees, in their official acts, adhered to the demands of the Pharisees, because otherwise the multitude would not have tolerated them.”

On the “difference between” website, differences are shown between the Pharisees and Sadducees. As this particular article is about the Pharisees, we quote the following information:

“The Pharisees and Sadducees were influential Jewish sects with conflicting philosophies in regards to the implementation of the Torah. Pharisees and Sadducees also had conflicting views about the role of government in the lives of Jewish citizens. The Pharisees believed that God had punished the Jews by allowing oppressive Pagans like the Romans to rule over them because the Jews refused to uphold the statutes of the Torah… This is why they supported the creation of distinctive laws which would keep the Jews from further offending God by adopting the lifestyles of non-Jews.

“… the Pharisees were members of middle class Jewish families… Leaders among the Pharisees were referred to as Rabbi… The Pharisees believed that God did not just provide the Jews with the Written Law, but also the Oral Law…

“The Written Law was the Torah, while the Oral Law comprised of oral traditions and revelations that were given to Jewish prophets who came after Moses… The Pharisees also differed from the Sadducees in the matter of the afterlife…

“The Pharisees believed that God would send the Jews a messiah who would bring peace to the world and rule from Jerusalem. They also believed that all circumstances that affected the lives of Jews were divinely ordained…

“The Pharisees… regularly took part in traditional forms of worship in the temple. They rejected foreign ideologies and philosophies such as Hellenism, and created numerous laws to keep the Jews from interacting with gentiles on a daily basis.”

In regard to the “Oral Law,” please note our comments in our Q&A on the oracles of God:

“Christianity is not the same as Judaism. The Jews do today many things that are not in conformity with Scripture. In fact, even at the time of Christ, the Jews were DIVIDED amongst themselves as to how to apply Scripture. While the Pharisees accepted both the written and the ‘oral’ law — a collection of Jewish traditions — the Sadducees only accepted the written law, but they did not understand that correctly, either, as Christ had to point out to them on several occasions (compare James Hastings, ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics,’ under ‘Sadducees’). Many have taught for doctrine (which should be God’s doctrine) the doctrine of men. Matthew 15:9 records the statement of Jesus in this regard:

“‘And in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’” Jesus also instructed His own disciples about the problems inherent within Judaism at that time. Note this quote in Matthew 16:12: ‘Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’

“Paul also warned of the possible wrong influences from Judaism in Titus 1:14: ‘…not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth.’”

In regard to the many Pharisaical traditions, rules and regulations, which were contrary to the Bible, please read our free booklet, “God’s Commanded Holy Days.” 

In light of all the foregoing comments, we can already see why the Pharisees rejected Jesus, and why Jesus rebuked them. To emphasize this, the following biblical passages about the Pharisees are interesting.

There are around 84 verses about the Pharisees in the first five books in the New Testament. They are mentioned several times in the gospel records as being on the receiving end of Jesus’ rebukes. Please note the following words by Jesus:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

“… Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39).

“And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.’ Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, “We see.” Therefore your sin remains’” (John 9:39-41).

They said that Jesus cast out demons by the ruler of the demons (Matthew 9:34 and 12:24); they wanted a sign that He was the Messiah (Matthew 12:38-40); they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath (according to their own traditions) but they were rebuked for this (Matthew 12:1-8); Jesus told His disciples to beware of their doctrine (Matthew 16:6-12); they tested Him over divorce (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-9); they tested Him about paying tribute to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-21, Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:22-25); they tested Him about a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-4); and they tested Him on His healing on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).

God’s Word First International writes:

“Appearing overall as a rather peaceful and pious group when viewed from the outside, in contrast their confrontational actions, public austere and arrogant ‘better than thou’ attitudes and their ‘behind closed doors’ hatred of their perceived enemies spoke volumes concerning the spiritual darkness within their hearts… This explains a lot about how they were frequently confrontational with Christ and his disciples then ultimately sought to bear false witness in framing him and have him put to death. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD Pharisaic beliefs became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism, which ultimately produced the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism with what is known today as modern Hasidic Judaism being the oldest core foundational belief.”

Matthew 23 is a chapter where Jesus is particularly hard on both the scribes and the Pharisees. He tells His audience to “observe whatever they tell you but do not do as they do” (verse 3) because of their hypocrisy. They liked to be seen by men and loved the best places at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues (verses 5-6). They loved greetings in the market-place and to be called Rabbi (verse 7). Then follow eight woes aimed at the scribes and Pharisees (verses 14-29).

In fact, verse 27 is a particularly strong condemnation of their actions: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

The Pulpit Commentary has this to say about this verse:

“Once a year, about the fifteenth of the month Adar, the Jews used to whitewash the tombs and the places where corpses were buried, partly out of respect for the dead, but chiefly in order to make them conspicuous, and thus to obviate the risk of persons incautiously contracting ceremonial defilement by touching or walking over them (Numbers 19:16). To such sepulchres our Lord compares these Pharisees, because their outwardly fair show concealed rottenness within (compare Acts 23:3). Indeed, it might be said that their seeming exceptional purity was a warning of internal corruption, a sign post to point to hidden defilement. Obtrusive religiousness, emphatic scrupulosity, are marks of pride and self-righteousness, utterly alien from real devotion and holiness.”

In verse 33, Jesus called them “Serpents, brood of vipers!”

John the Baptist had also had some strong words for the Pharisees: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).

We also know that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee, and he persecuted the early Christians before he was struck down by Christ, and he then became one of the giants of the New Testament.

There is little wonder that the Saviour of mankind was at odds with the religious people of His time, including and especially the Pharisees, and that they called for His death which was achieved by illegal means.

However, His death and the manner of His death did fulfil many prophecies in the Old Testament. This means that we have a Saviour who died in our place. The Saviour of mankind would be a sacrifice for our sin (Isaiah 53:5-12). In verse 12, we read: “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide, the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.”

In Romans 5:6-11 where the sub-heading in the New King James Bible is “Christ in our place,” we read:

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”

Once the Pharisees are resurrected in the Second Resurrection and are given the opportunity to repent, obtain forgiveness and accept Christ’s Sacrifice and Christ as their personal Saviour, they too may be able to enter the Kingdom of God.

However, when Jesus walked this earth as a human being, the Pharisees rejected Him and did not accept Him as their Saviour, because He did not behave and teach in accordance with their expectations and ideas. The other groups of the religious establishment were no different. In the next part of this series, we will be discussing the group of the Sadducees.

(To be continued)

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)