The depiction of the Pharisees in the New Testament is not, for the most part, a positive one. Unfortunately, this has caused many Christians to view the Pharisees solely as the evil antagonists who plotted Jesus’ death. In fact, the centuries-old, narrow prejudice has influenced the manner in which ‘Pharisee’ has been defined in our modern English dictionaries. For example, opening up the renowned Oxford English Dictionary (subtitled, the definitive record of the English language) provides the two following definitions: “n. A person of the spirit or character commonly attributed to the Pharisees in the New Testament; a legalist or formalist; a self-righteous person, a hypocrite” and “v. to take credit to oneself for piety.” Commonly, it is the picture of a legalistic-hypocrite that we find behind modern conversations regarding Pharisees. During sermons, the Pharisees are often maligned as legalistic, pious holy rollers to whom Jesus was diametrically opposed. Without detailing the manner in which the Pharisees have been used to propagate Anti-Semitism throughout history, the normal undergrad student will readily refer to the Pharisee as a legalistic-hypocrite. This identification is then applied (since the church fathers) to all of the Jewish people, especially those that are Torah-observant (i.e. observe the law). Christian orthodoxy (i.e. right teaching) should do all it can to fight against sweeping generalizations and prejudicial depictions that have plagued church history, and cloud both ancient and modern realities. For this all-to-brief introduction will we deal with who the Pharisees were in antiquity, specifically during the Second Temple Period and, in particular, during the time of Jesus.
There is some indication in the New Testament, though scarce, that Jesus’ circle, apart from the disciples, actually consisted of Pharisees. In Luke 14:1 Jesus has a Sabbath night’s dinner with one the Pharisees. And on other occasions, the Pharisees are concerned with his welfare as well as those of the early disciples. Shortly before the account of Jesus’ dinner, the Pharisees are depicted as warning him regarding Herod’s desire to kill him (Lk 13:31). In the book of Acts, Gamaliel the Pharisee, a teacher of the Law and man held in honor by all people (νομοδιδάσκαλος τίμιος παντὶ τῷ λαῷ; perhaps even Paul’s teacher), stands amidst the council and argues in favor of the disciples being released (5:33-39). We should also note that during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) there are Pharisees who were part of the nascent Christian community. It appears that joining the newly-formed community did not erase one’s Pharisaic affiliation. In fact, it appears that the Jewish members of the nascent community continued to be Torah observant, and this included its leadership (see Acts 15, 21).
Check back on Friday for part 2.