Jewish Sects (IV): Pharisees -- Expectations, Righteousness and Decline

Fred A. Shewmaker
Evansville, Indiana

We noticed in the previous article that the Pharisees believed in "the coming of the Messiah." Many have puzzled over the question, "Why did the Pharisees reject the Messiah when he came?" A great deal of light may be focused on this matter in an observation by Geikie. "From Ezra's time, the dream of a restored theocracy had been cherished  by a portion of the people, the political system of the Pentateuch was their sacred ideal ... The impossibility of restoring such a state of things after the changes of so many centuries may have been felt but was not acknowledged."1 Yes, "the Messiah" of their dreams was to come and restore a "theocracy." The political system of the ancient times was to be reinstated by "the Messiah" when he came. How could these who held their interpretations of the law and traditions to be of more worth than the written word possibly accepts the spiritual kingdom which Jesus preached, when they had their hearts set on an earthly kingdom embracing a political system? They could not. And that is why they rejected the very Son of God. Jesus showed them that Christ was not to be an earthly king by asking them, "If David then called him Lord, how is he his, son?" See Matthew 22:41-46 and Luke 20:41-44.

"Believing themselves the saints of God and therefore His peculiar treasure, they regarded any association with the heathen as faithlessness in Jeh."2 "Even to touch the clothes of a "common man,' defiled a Pharisee."3 "A Pharisee might not eat in the house of a 'sinner,' although he might entertain the 'sinner' in his own house. When this was done, however, the Pharisee was required to provide the 'sinner,' with clothes to wear, for the 'sinner's' own clothes might be ceremonially impure."4 It was this concept of things that caused the scribes and Pharisees to murmur when Levi (Matthew) made Jesus "a great feast in his own house" (Luke 5:27-30). It was this murmuring that brought forth from the lips of Jesus the famous saying. "They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick" (verse 31). It was this same attitude toward sinners on the part of the Pharisees that in Luke 15 led Jesus to tell the very popular stories of the lost sheep, the lost piece of silver and the Prodigal son. Too often, I am afraid, we who preach have failed to call attention to the fact that these stories are made in response to the murmuring of the scribes and the Pharisees because, as they put it, "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them" (verse 2).

"All righteousness with them was external."5 One author wrote, "Religiousness consisted, above everything, in avoiding ceremonial defilement, or removing it at anytime contacted, by prescribed washings and bathings."6 Another wrote, "They elevated almsgiving into an equivalent for righteousness."7 No doubt, the statement of

Jesus, "Except' your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and

Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20) was directed against this pharisaic concept of external righteousness. In Luke 16:15 Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Ye are they which justify yourselves before men but God knows your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God." In Luke 11:37-40 and Matthew 23:25-28 he attacked the Pharisaic concept of what constitutes defilement. In Mark 7:15 he said, "There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man." As a completion of the denunciation Jesus made of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we notice Matthew 6:2. "Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward."

Of the Pharisees eating, habits Josephus wrote, "They live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet."8 In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John came to Jesus and asked, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, bit thy disciples fast not?" Fasting was not and, is not wrong. It may even be advantageous to health but it was not and is not an indicator of an individual's personal righteousness before God.

It should not be supposed that all or every Pharisee was of those hypocrites whom Jesus unmercifully upbraided. There were among the Pharisees, no doubt, honest, conscientious and sincere persons. I feel that this was the type of man we are introduced to in Nicodemus (John 3:1-21; 7:50-53; 19:39-40) and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38). As a party, Josephus tells us that they "pay respect to such as are in years."9 "Religious values were so much more important than politics in Pharisaical thought that they would rather submit to foreign dominion than support an impious government of their own"10 Even Jesus acknowledged that they taught the people the, right way to live even though they did not live as they taught. "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye arter their works: for they say and do not" (Matt. 23:2-3).

Pfeiffer wrote, "The active period of Pharisaism extended well into the second century A.D."11 He also wrote, "Modern Judaism traces its roots to the party of the Pharisees." 12 But Geikie has given us the closing thought for our study of the sect of the Pharisees. "They gave themselves up largely to formalism, outward religiousness, self complacency, immeasurable spiritual pride, .love of praise, superstition, and deceit, till at last after the destruction of the temple, they, themselves laid the name Pharisee aside, from its having become the symbol of mingled fanaticism and hypocrisy."


1. Cunningham Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ, (New York & London: 1920), Vol. I, p. 252.

2. "Thomson," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: 1957), Vo. IV, P. 2361.

3. Geike, Ibid., p. 239.

4. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 113.

5. I.S.B.E., p. 2365.

6. Geikie, Ibid,

7. I.S.B.E., p. 2363.

8. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (London: 1842), p. 484 (B. XVIII, Ch. 1, Sec. 3.

9. Ibid.

10. Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical Work (Grand Rapids: 1966), pp. 324-25.

11. Ibid., p. 326.

12. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, p. 115.

13. Geikie, Ibid., p. 66.

January 6, 1972