by David Roos, 5/27/21.
We spoke with Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College and co-editor of “In Quest of the Historical Pharisees,” to better understand what the Pharisees really believed and why they clashed with the early Christians.
Who Were the Pharisees — and the Sadducees?
During the first century C.E., when Jesus lived, the Pharisees emerged as a religious movement within Judaism, not a separate sect. The Temple still stood in Jerusalem and it was the center of Jewish life. One of the greatest concerns of Temple rites was purity — that both the people who entered the Temple and the animals sacrificed there, were “pure” enough to satisfy God. The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible starting with Genesis) contains written commandments that explain the proper way to conduct Temple sacrifices, but the Pharisees claimed they had additional divine instructions that had been passed down through centuries of oral tradition.
“The Pharisees believed that they had a special reserve of knowledge for determining purity,” says Chilton. “They taught that their oral tradition went all the way back to Moses at Sinai, so not only was there a written Torah, which anyone could have access to, but there was also an oral Torah which was inside the Pharisaic movement.”
What was distinctive about the oral tradition of the Pharisees was that it expanded the question of purity to life outside of the Temple. Even if a Jewish person lived far away from Jerusalem (in Galilee, for example) and wasn’t planning to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, they could conduct their lives in such a way as to be pure enough to enter the Temple.
“In that sense, the Pharisees became a movement for the purity of the Jewish people,” says Chilton.
The Pharisees were not, however, the powerful elite of first-century Judaism. Those were the Sadducees, the priestly class that controlled Temple worship and held the most political influence with the Roman Empire, which ruled over Palestine. The Sadducees rejected the oral tradition in favor of the written law (Torah).
The Pharisees were a working-class movement concerned with establishing a clear and consistent Jewish identity in everyday life. Interestingly, it was the Pharisees who believed in an afterlife and resurrection of the dead, both of which were rejected by the Sadducees as they were not mentioned in the Torah. Pharisees also believed a messiah would come who would bring peace to the world, though most of them did not think that messiah was Jesus.
Jesus Had Friends (and Followers) Who Were Pharisees
The Pharisees are portrayed as a monolithic block in the New Testament, but Chilton says that while all Pharisees were concerned with purity, there was fierce debate among the Pharisees about how best to achieve it. There were certainly Pharisees who believed that purity was obtained from the outside in, and who taught that ritual baths (mikvahs) and the ritual purification of cups and cooking implements was the only way to achieve purity.
In Matthew 23, Jesus lambastes the pharisaic practice of purifying the outside of cups and dishes while “inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
“Because Jesus himself was engaged in the issue of purity — but wasn’t a Pharisee — his conflict with some Pharisees of his time was inevitable,” says Chilton. “If you accuse somebody as impure, you’re not saying purity doesn’t matter; you’re saying the opposite — there’s a better way to achieve it.”
But Chilton says there were other Pharisees who would have agreed with Jesus, that the true work of purification starts with a pure heart and faith in God. If you read the New Testament closely, in fact, you’ll see that Jesus won sympathetic supporters and even followers from the ranks of the supposedly hated Pharisees. Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night to ask him questions, and then provided money and spices to give Jesus a proper Jewish burial after the crucifixion, was a Pharisee (see John 3). And in Luke 13:31, a Pharisee comes to warn Jesus that Herod wanted him killed…
The Meeting That Doomed the Pharisees
In Acts 15, there is a meeting or “council” in Jerusalem attended by Paul, Peter, James, Barnabas and other apostles and followers of Jesus. The agenda of the meeting was to settle an important question among the early church: did non-Jewish men need to be circumcised in order to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit? The Pharisees in attendance were the first to chime in. In Acts 15:5, it says: “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.'”
Notice that it says the Pharisees were among the “believers,” further proof some Pharisees, too, were early followers of Jesus. But here’s where things go south. The apostles are in stark disagreement with the Pharisees and say that everyone, circumcised or uncircumcised, can have their hearts purified through faith in Christ. Peter, acknowledging the physical pain and danger of circumcising an adult, rebukes the Pharisees in verses 10 and 11:
“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
“By the time you get to this meeting in 46 C.E., now the Pharisees are on the other side of this extraordinarily consequential decision,” says Chilton.
Read more at … https://people.howstuffworks.com/pharisees.htm