A Jewish Perspective

by William C. Varner


The Jerusalem Talmud records a significant observation by a rabbi who flourished in the third century of our era. Reflecting on the history of his people, he said, “Israel went into exile only after it became divided into twenty-four sects.”1

Although we cannot be sure of the exact number, there can be no doubt that at the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish community comprised numerous parties, sects and brotherhoods. Recent scholarship has questioned and effectively destroyed the concept of a monolithic “Judaism” that existed during the Second Temple (516 B.C. - 70 A.D.). Furthermore, Josephus’ famous listing of the standard divisions — Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the “Fourth Philosophy” (the Zealots) — is simply not adequate in conveying the mosaic of Second Temple Judaism. The new source material (e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls) which has become available in recent years, as well as a reassessment of information from the known sources (e.g. the Pseudepigrapha) have indicated a number of “hidden streams” during the period prior to the fall of the Temple.

“The names of numerous groups and sects and trends within Judaism are known from this age — Pharisees and Sadducees, high-priestly families and country folk, Samaritans and Dositheans, sophisticated Hellenized Jews of the great cities of the Diaspora, and ascetic, separatist sects like the Essenes, the number of types and varieties could probably be reckoned in dozens.”2

A recent compendium produced by Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant scholars explores the familiar theme of the “Messianic idea” in what the authors call the various “Judaisms” that existed “at the turn of the Christian era.”3 It is the thesis of this book that anything like a “normative Judaism” during this historical period is a figment of popular imagination that simply never existed. The diverse viewpoints surely shared certain “loci communes,” but were so diverse as to be styled “Judaisms,” not just “sects of Judaism,” by these scholars.

During Jesus’ ministry He undoubtedly encountered in one way or another many, if not most, of these groups. Sadducees, Zealots, and Herodians are all mentioned in the gospels, as well as numerous references to what the rabbis called the ame ha ‘aretz (the people of the land). These were the common folk, often untrained in the “schools” and unobservant in ceremonial details, who also provided so many of the followers of Jesus in those early days. (See further, John 7:49; Luke 18:9-14; Acts 4:13.)

The most famous group Jesus encountered, however, was the Pharisees.4 While their membership may not have totaled more than a few thousand in His day, their influence was felt far beyond their havurot (“brotherhoods”). They were often associated with the scribes, most probably professional scholars in the Torah, but sometimes were clearly distinguished from them.5 Some of the most stinging rebukes Jesus issued were directed toward the Pharisees. Probably the strongest diatribe is recorded in Matthew 23. At least seven times in that chapter, Jesus pronounced the following condemnation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He condemned and illustrated their rapaciousness, their selfishness, their inward spiritual emptiness, and their emphasis on “scruple” while neglecting the “weightier” matters of justice, mercy, and faith.

These statements and their frequent citations have resulted, unfortunately, in the word “Pharisee” becoming a synonym in the English language for “hypocrite.” Consider the following definition of “Pharisaic” in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary: “pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without being so; hypocritical.”

These denunciations of Pharisaic practices have been highly criticized by some writers. They have charged that Jesus and the early church writers presented a false caricature of the Pharisees that is not consistent with what the Jewish sources say about them. Consider for example, the two following comments, one from an older scholar and one from a contemporary Jewish writer:

“If Pharisaism had been, in its true intent and real effect, anything like what he (Jesus) supposed, then of course his denunciation would have been well deserved. But he only saw its outward appearance, he did not know it from within, nor apparently ever try to understand it. ... Pharisaism was no ‘organized hypocrisy,’ no dead corpse of a once living religion. It was very much alive, and is alive still.”6

“Jews maintain that the Pharisees were unfairly maligned in the Gospels, which accuse them of rigid formalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and externalism. In truth, the Pharisees ... stressed devotion of the heart, worship of God for its own sake, and the obligation to go beyond the letter of the law.”7

One of the reasons why there may be such sensitivity in this area is that Jesus’ condemnation was not limited to some antiquarian sect with no relevance for Jewish life today. Of all the various Jewish parties that flourished during the Second Temple, only the Pharisees (along with the quasi-Jewish Samaritans!) survived the devastation of 70 A.D. as an identifiable continuing entity. The reconstructed Judaism of the second and third centuries was, in essence, based on the Pharisaic beliefs and practices of pre-70 A.D. Without apology, modern scholars affirm that Talmudic Judaism and modern “Orthodox” Judaism are essentially Pharisaism.

“Pharisaic Judaism became normative Judaism. Its principal features — the synagogue, the rabbi, prayer, Torah study, and belief in the oral law — became the modes of religious expression guiding Jewish life ever since. All Jewish life today, therefore, stems from the Pharisaic tradition and derives its central religious characteristics from it.”8

Did Jesus (or the early Church writers, as some critical scholars affirm) unjustly caricature the Pharisees in his denunciations? By examining what the Pharisees said about themselves in their own writings perhaps we can conclude whether Jesus treated them unfairly according to their own norms.

In addition to the New Testament, there exist various descriptions of the Pharisees both in Josephus and in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Flavius Josephus, who spent time among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes before joining a Pharisaic havura gives the following distinguishing characteristics of the group. (1) They were meticulous about observing the law, both in its written and oral forms; (2) They affirmed the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body; and (3) They had a greater influence on the common people than did the other sects.9 It was the Pharisaic emphasis on the oral law (torah shb’al peh), called the “tradition” in the Gospels, with which Jesus had the greatest conflict (cf. Matthew 15:1-9). It is written, “It is more culpable to teach against the ordinances of the scribes than against the Torah itself.”10 In other words, if the traditional interpretation is binding, it is in fact the final authority, and not the written Torah.

There is a passage, appearing in slightly different forms in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, that sheds an abundance of light on the self-perception of the Pharisees.11 This passage describes seven different types of Pharisees. A paraphrase of the difficult Talmudic language describes the following seven: (1) The “shoulder” Pharisee wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them. (2) The “wait a little” Pharisee always found an excuse for putting off a good deed. (3) The “bruised” Pharisee shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and knocked into walls, bruising himself. (4) The “humpbacked” Pharisee always walked bent double, in false humility. (5) The “ever reckoning” Pharisees was always counting up the numbers of his good deeds. (6) The “fearful” Pharisee always quaked in fear of the wrath of God. (7) The “God-loving” Pharisee was a copy of Abraham who lived in faith and charity.12

From this passage, it is evident that later Pharisaic rabbis engaged in a healthy dose of self-criticism. While percentages cannot be dogmatically determined from the examples, it is striking that six of the seven “types” were something far short of the Pharisaic ideals. Therefore, when Jesus castigated the Pharisees for hypocrisy and false piety, He was only pointing out what the Pharisees recognized about many of their own numbers!

One modern Jewish scholar has commented on a variation of this line of thought.

“Matthew’s Gospel is particularly antagonistic to the Jewish establishment. But when Jesus refers to Pharisees as ”hypocrites“ (Matthew 23:13) and a ”brood of vipers“ (Matthew 23:33), he is berating fellow Jews. Jesus undoubtedly regards his violent language as following the tradition of the prophets when they castigated fellow Jews of their day. In other words, it is a family quarrel. Jesus looks upon himself as continuing the Jewish tradition of self-criticism.”13

Thus, in the strong language He employed, Jesus followed in the footsteps of the prophetic example and also presaged the Pharisaic self-criticism of the Talmud.

Doubtless, there were godly Pharisees who lived up to their ideals. Representatives of the seventh group, the God-loving Pharisees, even appear in the New Testament. In Luke 13:31, we read, “The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, ‘Get out and depart from here; for Herod will kill you’.” This passage shows that among the Pharisees were those who admired and respected Jesus. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who become followers of Jesus, were most probably Pharisees, as well as Saul (John 3:1; 7:50; 19:38,39; Acts 22:3; Philippians 3:5).

“The sharp rebukes Jesus administered to the Pharisees and their frequent appearance as his antagonists have obscured the considerable area of agreement between them. He had many friendly contacts with certain Pharisees (Luke 7:36ff; 11:37; 13:31-33; 14:1; Mark 12:28-34; Matt. 23:1,2). These verses, if nothing else, should have made unnecessary the lesson many Christians have had to learn from Jewish scholars, that ‘Pharisee’ was not synonymous with ‘hypocrite’.”14

Let it be understood, therefore, that Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees was not universal, and that it was consistent with the Pharisees’ own recognition that they often fell far short of their own goals and aspirations.

Another factor regarding the diversity that existed among the Second Temple Pharisees should be considered. In the generation prior to the public ministry of Jesus, there lived and taught two great Pharisees — Hillel and Shammai. These two constituted one of the series of “Pairs” (zugot) who led the Pharisees in the last two centuries before the turn of the era. Both Hillel and Shammai led great “schools” in Jerusalem. They and their disciples, called the Bet Hillel and the Bet Shammai in rabbinic literature, represented two distinct currents in the Jewish approach to halacha — the conservative and the progressive. Generally speaking, Shammai followed a more stringent and literal interpretation of the law, while Hillel expounded a more flexible application of its demands.

The Talmud records an incident that is characteristic of the differences between the two great scholars.15 A Gentile came to Shammai with the strange request that he be taught the entire Torah, but that it be done during the time he could stand on one foot! It is recounted that Shammai, a surveyor by trade, chased him away with a cubit stick. When this Gentile approached Hillel with the same request, instead of being scolded for such an impudent demand, he was told, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary — now go and study.” The parallels with Hillel’s statement are readily recognized in Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:12 and Paul’s “summary” in Galatians 5:14.

Other contrasting opinions illustrating the divergent approaches of Hillel and Shammai are:

1) Their disagreement over the length of the probationary period for entering the havurot of the Pharisees. Hillel said it should be thirty days, while Shammai insisted on a year.16

2) Concerning the Shema, the school of Shammai took the words “when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7b) with extreme literalism, claiming the Shema must be recited in a reclining position in the evening and only while standing in the morning. Hillel’s school taught that the passage referred to times of recitation rather than the posture.17

3) Shammai and Hillel differed on what constituted the grounds for the bill of divorcement in Deuteronomy 24:1. Hillel allowed divorce for any cause, whereas Shammai limited it to sexual immorality.18 This discussion in the “schools” forms the background of the Pharisees’ question to Jesus in Matthew 19:3: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?”

4) Shammai also was known for strictness in applying the law to his own family. For example, he insisted on his minor son fasting on Yom Kippur “but they (Bet Hillel) ordered him to feed him with his own hand.” He is also said to have broken away the plastering over his daughter-in-law’s bed, so her child, just born on the first day of Sukkot. could have a sukkah covering over his head!19 As has been mentioned, the Judaism that survived the destruction of the Temple was Pharisaic. It is also interesting to note that it was the Hillel approach to the halakah that was adopted in the academies at Yavneh and in Galilee during the second and third centuries. It was Hillel-type Pharisaism that became the “Judaism” of subsequent generations.

The question that needs to be considered is whether the stringent, hyperstrict Pharisaic scruples that received the strongest condemnation from Jesus might be those most often espoused by the Shammai school. Thus, Jesus’ harshest words may have been directed, on certain occasions, more toward a segment of the Pharisees than toward all of them. Perhaps this offers a solution to the problem raised by R. Travers Herford that Jesus condemned a Pharisaic practice of avoiding the parental responsibilities of the fifth commandment in Mark 7:5ff. “The alleged practice of evading the fifth commandment is nowhere known in the Halakah.”20 Perhaps this practice and others condemned by Jesus were found in Bet Shammai and not in Bet Hillel, which became the “normative” interpretation for the rabbis in the Talmud, while the Shammai opinion was rejected.

This is not an attempt to eliminate the real differences between Jesus and the Pharisees. For example, Jesus’ association with “sinners” illustrates a different conception of separation from the world than the Pharisees had (Mark 12:15-17; Luke 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32). Jesus affirmed clearly that at times the oral law, championed by the Pharisees, contravened the written law (Matthew 15:1-20). Furthermore, Sabbath-keeping illustrated a different set of priorities to Jesus and the Pharisees (Mark 2:23; 3:6). Greater attention to the dynamics of Jewish diversity in the Second Temple Period, however, can keep Christians from a misguided idea of Pharisaism and also keep Jews from blaming Jesus and the New Testament authors for falsely caricaturing their ancient forbears.

Editor’s Note: Will Varner is Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, Calif., and Director of their IBEX Jerusalem Campus in Israel.


1. Jerusalem Talmud, “Sanhedrin,” 29C.
2. Michael Stone, Scriptures, Sects, and Visions. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, pp. 57, 58.
3. Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, eds: Jacob Neusner, William Green, Ernest Frerichs. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987.
4. For a representative treatment of the Pharisees, see The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Emil Schurer. T and T Clark, Edinburgh, 1979, Vol. II, pp. 381-403. For an older but sympathetic and thorough treatment, see The Pharisees, R. Travers Herford. Macmillan Company, New York, 1924.
5. For a treatment of the Pharisees that clearly distinguishes them from the scribes, see Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias. SCM Press LTD, London, 1969, pp. 246-267.
6. Herford, pp. 210, 211.
7. Yehiel Eckstein, What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism. Word Books, Waco, Texas, 1984, pg. 255. See also the discussion in The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, Jacob Jocz, pp. 17-21.
8. Eckstein, op. cit., pg. 258.
9. Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, 1.
10. Mishnah Sanhedrin, 11:3. Cited in Schurer, pg. 390.
11. Jerusalem Talmud, “Berachot,” 14b; and Babylonian Talmud, “Sotah” 22b.
12. The passage from the English translation of the Babylonian Talmud is as follows: “AND THE PLAGUE OF PHARISEES etc. Our Rabbis have taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: the shikmi Pharisee, the nikpi Pharisee, the kizai Pharisee, the ‘pestle’ Pharisee, the Pharisee (who constantly exclaims) ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’, the Pharisee from love (of God) and the Pharisee from fear. The shikmi Pharisee — he is one who performs the action of Shechem. The nikpi Pharisee — he is one who knocks his feet together. The kizai Pharisee — R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He is one who makes his blood flow against walls. The ‘pestle’ Pharisee — Rabbah b. Shila said: (His head) is bowed like (a pestle in) a mortar. The Pharisee (who constantly exclaims) ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’ — but that is a virtue! — Nay, what he says is, ‘What further duty is for me that I may perform it?’ The Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear — Abaye and Raba said to the tanna (who was reciting this passage), Do not mention ‘the Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear’; for Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: A man should always engage himself in Torah and the commandments even though it be not for their own sake, because from (engaging in them) not for their own sake, he will come (to engage in them) for their own sake. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: What is hidden is hidden, and what is revealed is revealed: the Great Tribunal will exact punishment from those who rub themselves against the walls” (Sencino Edition, Vol. VIII, pp. 112, 113).
13. Louis Feldman, “Is The New Testament Antisemitic?” Moment, December, 1990, pp. 32-35, 50-52.
14. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1987, pg. 408.
15. See Babylonian Talmud, “Shabbat”, 31a.
16. Tosephta Demai, II, 12, 48. Cited in Jeremias, pg. 251, n. 22.
17. Cited by David Rausch, Building Bridges. Moody Press, Chicago, 1988, pg. 100.
18. Babylonian Talmud, “Gittin,” 9, 10.
19. Mishnah Yoma 4:2; Sukkah 2:8, cited in Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. XIV, pg. 1292.
20. Herford, op. cit., pg. 206.

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