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Do Catholics = Pharisees?

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

If anyone can be said to be the villain of the Gospels, it’s the Pharisees. Sometimes fellow Christians will label Catholics as Pharisees. So, who were they? Where did they come from? And what should we make of their interactions with Jesus?


The Pharisees get a bad rap. Do they deserve it? Up next with Jimmy Akin.

Cy: Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and the villains of the piece in the New Testament are often the Pharisees. We welcome Jimmy Akin, whose book, The Bible is a Catholic Book, covers some of what Jimmy knows about New Testament times, but not everything, it’s not exhaustive, so we thought we’d ask Jimmy about the Pharisees today. The Pharisees, Jimmy. It’s so bad that if you call someone a Pharisee, that’s an insult.

Jimmy: Yeah, it is, today.

Cy: Were they that bad?

Jimmy: Was Nicodemus bad?

Cy: I don’t know. I’m not sure what you mean.

Jimmy: Nicodemus, the guy who came to Jesus in John three and referred to him as a teacher-.

Cy: He was a Pharisee.

Jimmy: And then helped with his body after he died and opposed the council’s plans against Jesus. Was he bad?

Cy: Oh, no, no. He was not bad.

Jimmy: Yeah. How about Gamaliel?

Cy: No. Gamaliel was, “Hey, if this is from God then …”

Jimmy: Yeah. I think Gamaliel, the famous Pharisee sage, who was the teacher of Saint Paul and is highly revered by Jews today. He said, “Don’t mess with Christians. Let them go and see what God does with this movement.”

Cy: Okay, so these are good guys. Why do we encounter the Pharisees, generally speaking, as … and even Jesus says negative things about “you Pharisees.”

Jimmy: Right. Yep. It’s like any other group. It has good people and bad people in it, and some of the good ones get complimented or otherwise noted for their goodness in the New Testament. Others … there were problems with the movement. There are problems with any movement, and so it’s fair to call those points out as well. One of the things that has happened in the course of Christian history is that the term Pharisee has become an insult.

If you call someone a Pharisee today, you usually mean they’re legalistic, they’re too concerned with rules, and don’t really appreciate the goals that the rules are meant to serve.

Cy: Right.

Jimmy: That’s something that Pharisees, at times, could be accused of, but then you can accuse other people of that too.

Cy: Catholics are often-

Jimmy: Accused of exactly that.

Cy: Even, I think, some people when they read the New Testament, they will look at Christ’s … you and your human traditions, that kind of thing, to the Pharisees as really, why don’t the Catholics get it? Why don’t the Catholic get it? It’s basically they’re doing the same thing as these Pharisees.

Jimmy: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Have you ever heard of the Cotton Patch Gospels?

Cy: No, I don’t think I know the Cotton Patch Gospels.

Jimmy: Okay, so the Cotton Patch Gospels are a … they’re billed as a translation. They’re not really a translation, they’re a re-imagining of the gospels set in rural Georgia, and they were written late 1960s, early 1970s, when there was a lot of experimental stuff happening and people trying to find new ways to make the message of Jesus relevant to people. You had hippy translations like, “God is for real, man.” That was a translation of the Bible.

The Cotton Patch Gospels were another attempt to do this, where they took the events of the gospels and set them in rural Georgia. Nazareth becomes Valdosta, Jerusalem becomes Atlanta, and wherever Jesus is dealing with the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the gospels, he’s dealing with the Protestants and the Catholics.

Cy: Really?

Jimmy: Yeah.

Cy: Okay, so that’s us. We’re Pharisaical.

Jimmy: Something like that, yeah.

Cy: Yeah. Okay, so what was their program? Let’s start there, yeah-

Jimmy: How about let’s talk about how maybe their movement, where the name comes from, where they got started, what the history was, that kind of stuff.

Cy: That sounds great.

Jimmy: Okay.

Cy: Okay, so why don’t you start there? Where did they come from?

Jimmy: They came from Israel. Not a lot of people know that, but it’s true.

Cy: I think I would have guessed that, actually. If you’d told me they came from India, I’d have been shocked.

Jimmy: Yeah. One of the things you’ll note when you read the Bible is if you’re reading the Old Testament, you won’t find any mention of the Pharisees or the other groups that Jesus encounters, but then all of a sudden they’re there in the New Testament, and what that tells us is that these different groups, like the Pharisees, originated shortly before the New Testament era. That’s why they’re not mentioned in the time of David or the time of Isaiah or something, because they’re more recent than that.

It then becomes a little bit of a historical mystery to figure out, “Well, when did these groups arise and how did they arise?” The Pharisees seem to have been around by the time of the Maccabees, so this is like 160 BC, and we know a little bit from the Jewish historian Josephus, we know a little bit about their rising and falling fortunes during the course of this period. You had basically a Jewish civil war going on, in which some Gentiles then intervened in and tried to impose Greek religion on Israel, and that led this family, now known as the Hasmonaeans, or the Maccabees, to rebel. The father of the family was a guy named Mathias. He was a priest, and so all of his sons were also priests, but they came from this rural area and they ended up becoming the high priests, which were also the political leaders at the time of Israel, or Judah, technically speaking.

One of the brothers was a very famous name, Judah Maccabee. He was an initial military leader in this rebellion. Then his brother, Jonathan, also known as Jonathan the diplomat, because he was apparently skilled at diplomacy, he then became the high priest after Judah died. We know that the Pharisees were around by the time of Jonathan Maccabee, so this is in the 160s to the 140s BC. We know that because he was initially favorable to them, and he apparently liked them and got along with them really well, but then there was a falling out. What happened was he was having a dinner party and one of the guests was a Pharisee named Eliezer, and Eliezer suggested to Jonathan Maccabee that he might maybe want to give up on the whole being high priest thing.

Cy: That didn’t sit well?

Jimmy: It didn’t, and in particular, the reason it didn’t sit well with him … It wouldn’t have anyway, but there is also another reason it didn’t. The reason that Eliezer suggested he might not want to be high priest anymore is because his mom had been taken captive by Gentiles during a war. That means-

Cy: Oh, he’s…

Jimmy: He might not be of priestly lineage. His mom might’ve done something or had something done to her.

Cy: You don’t insult someone’s mama like that.

Jimmy: This is not only a, “Maybe you don’t want to be high priest,” it’s a, “Yo mama, maybe you don’t want to be high priest.”

Cy: Right.

Jimmy: So that did not sit well with Jonathan at all. Another friend of his happened to be a Sadducee, so we know they were around about this time too. Another friend of his who was a Sadducee said all those other Pharisees think the same thing, and this led to an alienation between Jonathan and the Pharisees. Despite that, they were really popular with the ordinary people, and they later gained influence under another monarch in Judah. There was a queen named Queen Alexandra Salome, and she was very much in favor of the Pharisees. So much so that Josephus, the Jewish historian of the late first century, says that through her, the Pharisees exercise the power of binding and loosing.

Cy: We know [crosstalk 00:08:42].

Jimmy: Where have we heard that phrase?

Cy: The Lord gives that power to the apostles.

Jimmy: Right, and this is another example of how that phrase meant something at the time. Other people were using it. What it meant was, the ability to create or abolish binding rules for the community. Queen Alexandra would go along with whatever rules the Pharisees wanted to make for the people, and so through her, they exercised the power of binding and loosing, the ability to make or abolish rules for the community.

This is really where a lot of the difference between the different Jewish sects comes in. One of the things that people find a little surprising is, because in Christianity the big disputes that separate different groups of Christians, different denominations, tend to be about doctrine. It’s like, “What’s your view of baptism?” And, “Oh, we disagree. We can’t be part of the same church,” and stuff. In Jewish circles though, even though they did have doctrinal differences, which we can talk about. The Pharisees had some distinctive doctrines, but the major dispute separating the different schools of thought tended to be about liturgical law and ritual matters.

You have a body of laws that the Pharisees would advocate, which they would claim are handed down orally from the time of Moses. They would say they’re not written down in the Torah, but they’re an oral Torah that’s been handed down since then. They had that set of laws that they favored, but then other groups like the Sadducees or the Essenes, who we’ll talk about in future episodes, they had their own sets of laws that they would have disagreements about. That was really the major thing separating the groups, even though they did have theological differences. Where they really got their dander up was liturgy and stuff like that.

Cy: Right. Because Moses is a law giver, and law plays a very important role in the culture of the Jewish people, but this is connected to the proper giving to God what is supposed to be given to God. The underlying thing is, this is the way you’re supposed to …

Jimmy: This is what you’re supposed to do.

Cy: Do. Yeah, and not doing it means dishonoring God.

Jimmy: Yeah. In Christianity, we refer to orthodoxy, which is right belief.

Cy: Yes.

Jimmy: And they were more concerned with what’s called orthopraxy, or right practice.

Cy: Uh-huh (affirmative). Okay. I feel like, in a certain sense, if you took the whole Christian thing out of the equation and you just went maybe 50 years or 40 years before the birth of Jesus, we would see, in a certain sense, a lot of very admirable things in the Pharisees, and I don’t know about you, but when I read history … You probably are less like this to me. I usually find I identify with some people more than with others, and I kind of have the, “This is the good guy of history and this the bad.” In many ways the Pharisees look like the good guys to me.

Jimmy: That’s one of the things that’s very interesting and modern scholars have pointed out, that actually of all of the different groups in Israel at the time, or in Jewish culture at the time, the group that was most similar in Judea, the group that was most similar to the Christians was the Pharisees. That’s actually probably why there’s a significant amount of conflict with the Pharisees in the gospels, because there’s a phenomena that occurs. It’s sometimes called the law of small differences, but when someone is very distant, very different from you, we tend not to sweat it as much as if they’re very similar to you, but something’s not quite right. So people will get much more animated at times if, let’s say they’re a Christian, they’ll get much more animated about another Christian who disagrees with them than they will about a Hindu.

Cy: Yeah. Right.

Jimmy: Just completely different theological beliefs, but if they’re, “Okay, you’re almost right, but not quite.” That’s where the conflict tends to get generated. Actually Christianity and Pharisaism have a lot in common, but not everything in common, and that’s part of why we see the conflict between the two groups in the gospels.

Cy: My sense from the gospels is that the Pharisees were genuinely, at least many of them, were genuinely entertaining the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jimmy: Some of them were, and some of them came to believe. In fact in Acts, Luke in Acts 15 talks about how some Pharisees believed, and one of them was Saint Paul.

Cy: Okay, yeah, so tell us about that. Saint Paul is a Pharisee.

Jimmy: Yeah, he’s a Pharisee. He acknowledges it. He refers to it at one point as the strictest sect of our religion, but you could have different views on that, but he certainly recognizes it as a very orthodox sect of their religion as far as such things go, even though he believes now Christianity is where it’s at, but he was a Pharisee who became a Christian. There are a variety of different things we have in common. One of them, for example, is belief in the resurrection.

Cy: Right, yes, okay.

Jimmy: Most Jews, not all, but most Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead. They also believed in angels and spirits and things like that. The Pharisees believed in those things. Christians believed in those things. Most Jews believed in those things. Most Jews though were not Pharisees, and that actually is indicated by their name. Their name comes from a Jewish root, at least this is the major commonly accepted view among scholars. Their name comes from a root that means ‘the separated ones’. They’re separated from other people in some way, and it’s generally thought that they’re separated in that they’re trying to be extra holy and really follow God’s rules strictly and things like that, so that sets them apart.

They were not the ordinary people. The ordinary people were just called the people of the land, and the people of the land had a lot of respect for the Pharisees, to the point that other groups like the Sadducees sometimes had to defer to the Pharisees to keep the people happy, but there actually weren’t that many Pharisees, according to Josephus at the time that Caesar Augustus, this is like three or two BC, had everybody in the empire swear oath to him as he’s our ruler. This, by the way, may have been the enrollment that Luke talks about.

Cy: Oh, was you got to go sign in and say, “I declare.”

Jimmy: Exactly.

Cy: Yeah.

Jimmy: Yeah. There were 6,000 Pharisees who refused to do that, so that’s about the size of their movements, about 6,000 men. That’s one of the reasons that the gospels are so … this is my opinion. This is one of the reasons the gospels are so interested in the feeding of the 5,000, because they’re showing Jesus having a movement that’s basically the same size as the Pharisees.

Cy: Oh, I see. I see. You’re establishing your cred there.

Jimmy: Yeah, exactly. There was a good bit that was held in common by these groups. There were also differences. One of the things that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for was their particular set of traditions. That oral Torah that they said. Now, he didn’t say tradition is bad. He said certain traditions are bad, because they conflict with God’s word.

In particular, the Pharisees had a tradition called ‘Corban’. Corban is an Aramaic word. It means offering. This was a tradition connected with offerings. What would happen is somebody would say, “I’m going to dedicate a certain amount of money to the temple that otherwise I would have used to support mom and dad, and the reason that that’s supposed to be acceptable is because, well, if it’s good to use this money to honor mom and dad, how much better is it to use this money to honor God? Because God’s better than mom and dad, so they could rationalize it that way, but Jesus said, “No, no, no, no, no. God himself said, honor your father and mother, so you need to honor God by honoring your father and mother, and you can’t leave your parent’s destitute in their old age. You need to care for their material needs.” That was one of the points of difference.

Also, Jesus was critical of many Pharisees. This is true of other movements too, because it’s a human tendency. He was critical in many Pharisees for caring more about external things than internal things. He would cite examples. Jews would wear these accessories when they prayed called phylacteries, and he would say, “You guys are making really big ones to show off how pious you are.” Jews would have these shawls with tassels on the end of them for prayer. “You’re making those tassels really big, aren’t you guys?”

Cy: Right, right.

Jimmy: He criticized the Pharisees as having an external righteousness that wasn’t matched up in their hearts with internal righteousness, and that’s why Jesus says to his own disciples, “Your righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees. You need to have real internal righteousness, not just this external righteousness if you want to be right with God.”

Cy: That’s the meaning of being called a whitewashed sepulcher, then? [crosstalk 00:19:28]

Jimmy: Yes. Yeah. A sepulcher is a tomb and if you paint the tomb, if you whitewash it, it looks really nice on the outside, but that doesn’t change what it’s got inside it.

Cy: Right, right. This period in Jewish history is very dramatic, so it’s not like Jesus was born into a time of, well, this is just typical life. This was a very dramatic time, especially culminating around 70 AD …

Jimmy: When the Jewish war and the temples destroyed, yeah.

Cy: Right. What’s the role of the Pharisees in all of that?

Jimmy: The Pharisees were split when it came to fighting the war. The war breaks out in AD 66, and by this point there was another group known as the Zealots, who were kind of a political group that really wanted to throw off the Romans, get rid of them. The Pharisees were split. Some Pharisees favored the war, like Josephus himself, although he whitewashes himself a little bit, but he was a general fighting for the rebels, until he wasn’t.

Cy: Until he switched.

Jimmy: Yeah, so he was an example of a Pharisee who was willing to participate in the war. Other Pharisees though, he records, didn’t want the war and tried to calm down the hotheads and keep it from being fought and stuff like that, because they said, “We’re going to get stomped. This is not going to be good.”

After the war, the Pharisees became the most influential group in further Jewish history. What happened was you had a sage named Judah ha-Nasi, or Judah the Prince, who got permission from the Romans to set up a rabbinical school at a place called Yavne, or Jamnia, and that then became an important Jewish center of learning after the temple was destroyed. Actually, Judah ha-Nasi’s a little bit later. Judah ha-Nasi is the one who then, around the year 200, compiled the traditions from this period into a work called the Mishnah, which was an attempt to preserve knowledge of how you do things in the temple, for example. Yohanan ben Zakkai was the one that got permission for the school, but then Judah ha-Nasi codifies the traditions of all of these sages in what’s called the Mishnah. Then in later centuries, other sages did commentary on the traditions preserved in the Mishnah, and that’s known as the Talmud, so if you ever hear about the Talmud, that’s an outgrowth of these traditions that were preserved by the Pharisees. Basically, the Pharisees led in to the rabbis in what’s called rabbinic Judaism.

The other groups like the Sadducees and Essenes that we’re going to talk about, they faded after the destruction of the temple, and so it was really the Pharisees that became the progenitors of modern rabbinic Judaism. Really, you had two groups from this period that survived. One was the Pharisees who led to rabbinic Judaism, and the other was the Christians.

Cy: Fascinating. Okay, so if I were to sum up the Pharisees program then, it’s proper practice of the Jewish faith.

Jimmy: Yeah.

Cy: They were trying to codify and encourage proper practice.

Jimmy: Yes, and they also were viewed as being rather moderate compared to some of the other groups. They were viewed as being more humane in their application of the law than some other groups. They also, like I said, they believed in the resurrection. They obviously believe in God. They also believed in the resurrection of the dead, they believed in angels, and they believed in a balance between predestination and free will. We’ll see how the other groups didn’t hold that balance, but the Pharisees tried to say, “Okay, there is a role for God predestining things, but there’s also a role for free will.” They wanted to hold those two things in tension rather than just saying everything is predestined or nothing is predestined.

Cy: They are fascinating people, actually.

Jimmy: Yeah.

Cy: Thank you very much, Jimmy. I appreciate it. You mentioned that we’ll talk about the Sadducees, but we’ll also talk about the Essenes.

Jimmy: Yeah.

Cy: Another group of that period in future episodes. Thank you very much, Jimmy.

Jimmy: My pleasure.

Cy: Thank you again to our listeners. I’ll ask you again if you enjoy what you hear on Catholic Answers Focus, would you give us a comment and a like where you get your podcasts, especially if you’re over at iTunes or if you have Apple podcasts, then a comment there, some stars for us. It really does help to know.

Jimmy: Five would be nice.

Cy: Five? Is that the top? Five?

Jimmy: Yeah, five would be nice.

Cy: All right. If you can do six, if you’ve got a really advanced computer, go ahead and do that. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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