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"Understanding The Pharisees In Their World"

By Drew Zuverink

Understanding the Pharisees isn't always easy. We know that by the time of Jesus they were his primary opponents, but why? Was it because they were trying to get to heaven by works while Jesus was all about grace? Or were they trying to usher in God's kingdom on earth by remaining pure? To be fair, scholars and pastors differ on how we should understand Jesus' chief opponents. Here is my best understanding based off evidence I have found most convincing.

When did the Pharisees originate?

Did you know the Pharisees are never mentioned in the Old Testament?

Yup, you read that correctly - zero, zilch, nada.

The reason for this is simple: they didn't exist until the intertestimental period (the years between the Old and the New Testament). Unlike the Priests, they were not an official office ordained by God. Instead, they were one of a few different sects that eventually formed within Judaism. That being said, they eventually became one of the most influential groups of religious leaders for the Jews.

Why did the Pharisees begin?

One could argue that the Pharisees began with noble purposes. During the Hasmonean Dynasty (141-63 BC) the Jews were doing what they seemed to always do and they were mingling with neighboring cultures. This was a big no - no. All throughout the Old Testament God was continually warning Israel that if they did not remain holy and distinct as a nation, separate from the corrupting influences of the peoples around them, then he would withdraw his presence and send them into exile. Time after time Israel failed to listen and time after time they were sent into exile.

With this history in mind, some of the Jews were afraid that it was going to happen again. So as response to those who were embracing other cultures, especially Greek culture, the Pharisees formed.

What was their message?

Their message was simple: if we want God's presence to come back to the land of Israel, and if we want him to fulfill his promise to liberate us from exile, then we must maintain our Jewish identity. We must get serious about obeying God, which meant strict adherence to the Torah.

The Pharisees are often criticized for their many laws (rightfully so sometimes) but their original intent was to please God. In their desire for national obedience they studied the Torah and thought about what it might mean to live out things like the Sabbath. They knew God wanted them to rest one day per week but what did avoiding work practically look like? Was walking 15 miles too much? What about picking grain? Clearly the people had proven that they couldn't figure this out on their own, so the Pharisees took it upon themselves to study and to define it for them. Hopefully, if the people listened to the Pharisees and started taking God's law serious, God would bless the nation once again.


2 similarities between the Pharisees and Christians today

First, when the Pharisees watched their fellow Jews disobey things like the sabbath, they felt the need to clearly define what was ok and what was off limits for that day. They eventually went way too far, but I resonate with them a little bit on this. Sometimes I see the TV shows, music, and entertainment that my fellow Christians engage with and I feel a desire to tell them where to draw the line. Entertainment is just one example. Things like politics, alcohol, how much time is enough time in devotions per week, also come to mind.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I also know some people probably look at my life and feel the desire to define some of my limits. I'm also not sure this is entirely wrong.

However, once we start to treat "extra" and "clarifying" rules as if they were on par with the Biblical commands themselves, we can get into trouble real quick. Purity culture did this in its push back against the sexual revolution when it taught that "if you wouldn't do it with your sibling then it's wrong to do it with the person you are dating." (Whoops I forgot dating was sinful too. Scratch that, I meant courting! Shout out Joshua Harris and "I Kissed Dating Goodbye.") Uber conservative churches have done this in this past with strict rules against dancing or movies in general. Other Christians push back against drunkenness by condemning all alcohol consumption as sinful. You get the point. Often times our motivation to keep each other from pushing the limits of sin, causes us to become Pharisees.

Second, the Pharisees belief that if they obeyed God well enough then he would bless the nation with his presence, and if they didn't then he would judge them - reminds me of how many Christians view America. I have heard many times from multiple people that America has ceased to live by Christian values and that's why God's judgement is coming our way. If we want to avoid this, we had better fight for Christian values. Whether or not this is true, we should have a good understanding of the Pharisees worldview because many of us have a similar one.

Why Jesus opposed the Pharisees so much is a matter of debate but one thing is very clear: we don't want to become like them! Not in the ways Jesus criticized them for at least. Understanding them helps us to avoid becoming like them. Hopefully this post helps with that.


I've been influenced by many sources but here are two of them that I relied on for parts of this blog post:

  • The New Testament in its World by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.

  • The New Testament in Antiquity by Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green.

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