Most anyone who has been around me and discussed the Hebrew roots of Christianity can probably attest that when we hit the subject of Pharisees, my view of them was somewhat unexpected, and forceful. How could I say anything good about these guys? Just check out the textbook definition of Pharisee:
1. A member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic law in both its oral and written form.
2. A hypocritically self-righteous person.
Not a really flattering picture, is it? Nor were most of Jesus’ words with the Pharisees. Just check out Matthew 23 for a good taste. So why on earth should I have anything good to say about these guys? Well, in many/most cases, I don’t. However, I think that by viewing them with the above definitions only, we miss the contextual picture of Jesus and these religious leaders of the day. After all, Jesus had Pharisee followers, some Pharisees warned Jesus of a plot to kill him (Luke 13:31-35), and Paul still claimed affiliation with the Pharisees long after his experience on the Damascus road.
Origins and Basic Beliefs
The Pharisees descended from the hasidim, the ‘pious ones’ of the Galilee region in the hundred and fifty years prior to Jesus’ birth. These intensely religious people returned to the land of Israel after 300+ years in Babylon, after the Seleucid Greeks were defeated in the Hasmonean (Macabee) Revolt, and settled in the relatively unpopulated region around the Sea of Galilee.
These intensely religious people differed greatly from the Judeans to the south, who were primarily of the Sadducee/Priestly persuasion and believed only in the Pentateuch as God’s Word, and not the entire TaNaKh (which is our modern day Old Testament). The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in all of the TaNaKh as God’s inspired Word, and had a theology developed around the coming of a Messiah and the Kingdom of God. They also believed in the future resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees denied.
In the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem, there were 70 seats, of which 65 belonged to the Sadducee party and 5 belonged to the Pharisees.Â Interestingly, during the time of Jesus, 3 of the 5 pharisees on the council were named in the Christian Scriptures, all three of whom were either followers of Christ – or at least sympathetic to His followers. These three were Niccodemus, Joseph of Aramathea, and Gamaliel (the grandson of the rabbi Hillel).
The Pharisees were also the first Jewish sect know to send out missionaries and to proselytize – which is how the Jews of the diaspora and the Jewish converts in Asia Minor had been restored to the Jewish faith prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the first century. Their message was well accepted by many, though primarily by women (as men would have to be circumcised to become Jewish).
Additionally, like Jesus, the Pharisees were the most popular of the religious ’sects’ among the common people. They brought the practice of worshipping in synagogue to Israel with them from their captivity in Babylon. The Sadducees taught that God could only properly be worshipped in the temple, whereas the Pharisee rabbis led the synagogue schools and taught that God could be worshipped wherever His people gathered.
The Pharisees Believed…
When delving too deeply into doctrine, it really cannot easily be said that “the Pharisees believed X” on a number of topics, because – like Christianity today – there was a diversity in interpretation, with seven primary rabbinic schools of thought. The most conservative school of thought – which held many beliefs in common with the Sadducees (though not their Hellenism) – was the School of Shammai. The most ‘liberal’ (not in the modern sense) school of thought was the School of Hillel – who by modern Jews is still considered to be one of the greatest Rabbis of all time, and he probably was.
It was Hillel who gave the ruling, prior to Jesus’ ministry, that one’s enemy was also a neighbor (except for Samaritans, who were apostates), and “do not do to your enemy that which you hate” – which Jesus later expanded in a positive way to “do to others that which you would have them do to you.” Additionally, Jesus uses the same illustration as Hillel did several years earlier of a cup being clean on the outside but filthy on the inside (Luke 11:39-40) when replying to Pharisees (most likely from the school of Shammai, who argued in favor of ceremonial washing as a work of righteousness) about ceremonial hand-washing before meals.
In the eight debates that Jesus entered with the Torah teachers and the Pharisees, it is interesting that he sided with Hillel – or took the interpretation farther, in the case of ‘Who is my neighbor?’ – seven times, and only with Shammai once (on the subject of divorce).
Additionally, Jesus’ primary criticism of the Pharisees is not so much their theology, but their practice of their beliefs.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:1-3)
In terms of the theology of any of the Jewish sects of his day (Essene, Sadducee, Pharisee, and Zealot), Jesus’ theology is most closely aligned with that of the Pharisees. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of Pharisee teachings which are mirrored in the words of Jesus, and vice-versa (after his death and resurrection). It only makes sense that Jesus would be most critical of those who most closely knew the truth, but did not live it.
Which brings us to the primary topic of this article – the Seven Types of Pharisees.
The Seven Types
Within the Pharisee circles, just prior to the coming of Jesus, it was taught that there were (at least) seven ‘types’ of Pharisees, of which five (some say six) were bad and only two (or one) were good. A number of scholars now believe that Jesus’ criticisms were primarily aimed at the ‘bad’ types of Pharisees – who were cursed more deeply and violently by Hillel and other Rabbis, than even Jesus did – and that he drew a large number of his followers from the ranks of the ‘good’ Pharisees and their followers.
- The Shoulder (or Shechemite) Pharisee: This type of pharisee was one who wore his good deeds on his shoulder – on display for all men to see. Jesus opens his primary criticism of Pharisees in Matthew, with the mention of the shoulder – possibly a reference to this commonly-labeled type of Pharisee
They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)
- The Wait-a-little Pharisee: This type of pharisee would want to wait to see how a situation played out before acting in any matter. While he agreed with Pharisee theology, he would always fall short in practice of his ‘belief’ because he wasn’t sure if he should/could/wanted to act. This type of Pharisee liked the prestige brought about by being a religious leader, but didn’t like what it actually required.
Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23:5-7)
- The Blind (or Bruised and Bleeding) Pharisee: This type of Pharisee was typified by the idea of him walking with his head down or turned away to avoid looking at, or bumping into women (who might be on their menstrual cycle) or other unclean folks. So, because they weren’t looking where they were going, they would end up bruised or bleeding from their avoidance of small things (cleanliness laws) – all the while forgetting the more important laws. Jesus refers to some Pharisees as ‘blind guides’, possibly referring to this type of Pharisee.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)
- The Pestle (or Hump-backed) Pharisee: Similar to the Blind Pharisee, the Pestle Pharisee was known for walking around with his eyes averted for the purpose of avoiding visual temptations. Avoiding temptation is one thing, but this type of Pharisee’s heart was wrong, because it was the importance of making a show of his avoidance of temptation (and piety) which was to be criticized.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:27-28)
- The Ever-Reckoning Pharisee: Here was a religious person who was always keeping score – trying to make sure that his good deeds always outnumbered his bad ones. He wanted this so that God would be in his debt with the attitude of God oweing him something for being good. Their belief was truly one of works-based righteousness.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!” (Matthew 23:29-32)
- The God-fearing (or Timid) Pharisee: He was considered to be a ‘God-fearer’ in the manner of Job. While he had great reverence and respect for God, it was out of fear of punishment, he made sure to follow all of God’s commands in order avoid curses from God and, ultimately, hellfire. Unlike the previous types of Pharisees, both his belief and practice were correct, but his motivation was out of fear of God. It is possible that Jesus’ expressed woe in Matthew 23:13 is directed at this spirit of fear that then prevents others from enjoying the eternal life provided by God
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)
- The God-loving Pharisee: This type of Pharisee was considered to be the ideal – a person who obeyed God out of true love and affection for Him, as in the manner of Abraham. A minority of Pharisees were believed to have been of this type, though Pharisees from the School of Hillel (who died just prior to Jesus’ ministry) may have comprised a majority of this type of Pharisee. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Paul (and most likely Gamaliel, as well, from both Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts) were all Pharisees who would have fit into this category.
Interestingly, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 A.D. was thrown down by the Roman empire, the only remaining sect of Judiasm remaining was that of the Pharisees – which became Rabbinic Judiasm. Additionally, it is the School of Hillel that dominated (and still does to this day) in religious Judiasm. Many Jewish-Christian scholars see this as God’s provision of a remnant – a common theme in the scriptures – and may or may not figure into eschatology.
As we examine the context of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and we read his words against a majority of them, it would be valuable for us to see who these people were and what it was about some of them that Jesus criticized. These were the folks who had theology almost exactly in line with Jesus – with the primary discrepancy being Jesus’ concern for the poor, the unclean and the oppressed.
As we read through the examples of the types of Pharisees, and the way that even the School of Hillel treated apostate enemies, how surprising is it that when we look at these, how many of them look just like -
Were he standing here today, which type of Pharisee would Jesus see in us?
Sources for this article were primarily pulled from:
- “Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church” by Dr. Ron Moseley
- “Jesus: The Jewish Theologian” by Brad Young
- “Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith” by Marvin Wilson
- “The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation” by Brad Young
- “Parables: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” – podcast by Ray VanderLaan