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In Defense of the Pharisees

The Gospel’s “bad guys,” the Pharisees, have gotten a bit of a bum rap—at least on some points. But what would you have done in their time and place?

Rod Bennett

Why do disputes with the Pharisees take up so much space in the Gospels?

Large portions of those sacred books can, at times, seem like little more than a series of unpleasant encounters with the existing religious authorities—not most people’s idea of inspirational reading. To the casual student, Jesus almost seems to be deliberately antagonizing them, arranging times and circumstances for his miracles that were certain to provoke not just debate but opposition.

In Luke’s Gospel, our Lord chooses the twelve apostles, then sets out immediately on a veritable crime wave of lawbreaking (or what certainly seemed to be lawbreaking in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees). While healing a leper, “he touched him” (Luke 5:13), which an ordinary Hebrew holy man would not have done; touching lepers was against Moses’ law (Lev. 13:45). At one of the synagogues, he encounters a man with a withered hand, “and the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath” (Luke 6:17), an act that they judged to be “work” on a day when, according to the Third Commandment, no work must be done.

So why would Jesus set up such ugly clashes over Moses’ law? And why do these questions loom so large in the Gospels? The answer is actually pretty simple: he did it because all of the old rules were changing now—and changing because of his arrival. “The law and the prophets were until John [the Baptist],” as Jesus informed the irate Pharisees; “since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently” (Luke 16:16). Many commentators have interpreted this notoriously difficult final phrase to mean “with upheavals,” with “wrenching readjustments.” Those who seek to enter Christ’s new messianic kingdom must, in other words, not expect the change to come easily.

Jesus’ relationship with Moses and his law was simply the pressing issue of the hour, and the questions being asked by the Pharisees were the same ones the twelve apostles—and all of Israel—were going to need answered sooner or later. Yet the Twelve asked their questions with patience; the Pharisees, with hostility. What made the difference between those two responses? That’s a subject too deep for quick, easy answers, but the beginnings of an explanation may be glimpsed, perhaps, by calling to mind one of Upton Sinclair’s pithier quotes: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

The Twelve, we mustn’t forget, had been zealous Law-keepers themselves, just as much as the Pharisees. Not only our rabbinical student Nathanael, but most of the other apostles, too, give recognizable signs of being well versed in the Law and zealous about its keeping. Andrew’s brother Simon retained so much of this zeal that he keeps strictly kosher for a long while even after Christ’s return to heaven, and even during a heavenly vision on the topic, in which he is encouraged to “loosen up” and enjoy Gentile foods, he is willing to aver, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (Acts 10:4). The others all show signs of ardent Judaism as well.

Not only had most of the apostles kept the law of Moses before they met Christ, but their keeping of it made them worthy of the fuller revelations they received when he came. We see this principle at work in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth, parents of the Baptizer, who “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). And however often it is disparaged in sloppy sermons about “legalism,” during the Old Covenant era, the careful keeping of Moses’ multitudinous regulations really was the key to blessing; of this, Scripture leaves no doubt. “This book of the law,” commanded Joshua, “shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Josh. 1:8-9).

Moses himself, even after giving the much fuller and more onerous “second law” contained in the book of Deuteronomy, says, “This entire commandment that I command you today, you must diligently observe, so that you may live and increase, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. . . . You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you” (Deut. 8:1, 4:2).

Neglect of the Law, on the other hand, had always been recognized as the sure pathway to chastisement and disaster. Indeed, no one who has read the whole of the horrific curses in Deuteronomy 28 can ever again lightly charge the scribes and the Pharisees with mere scrupulosity or with being morbidly “hung up” on petty “religious rules.” Yes, the religion of Moses contained a great deal more than just religious rules; but make no mistake—the rules were real, and God definitely did mean them to be obeyed.

This is why even the apostles were confused by events such as the one that occurred at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. There, Jesus healed a lame man (on the Sabbath, of course) by telling him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” There was, perhaps, some legitimate debate over whether a miracle of healing constitutes a “work” or not; one often hears this argued, as the apostles may have heard it in their day. But rolling up a mat and carrying it away? Nathanael, at least, could have cited chapter and verse against this, if not most of his companions as well. Yahweh himself ordered a man stoned to death for carrying a bundle of wood on the Sabbath! (Num. 15:32-36). Jeremiah renewed the same stricture in his day while reminding his own careless generation about Moses’ law: “Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors” (Jer. 17:21).

The Nazarene’s command then, seemed not only lawless, but deliberately provocative. His disciples had seen too many signs to give up on him quickly . . . but there’s little use pretending they wouldn’t have been bewildered by this kind of stuff, perhaps even scandalized. Certainly, a great many others were.

Jesus’ own response to the Pharisees, when called out about the healing at the pool, was unexpected, puzzling . . . but also suggested great depths of meaning. “Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’” (John 5:17). God then, keeps working on the Sabbath—for how, otherwise, could the stars and planets keep their courses, or we ourselves remain in existence?

But wait . . . was this really the carpenter of Nazareth claiming God’s own privileges? “For this reason,” John continues, “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (v. 18)—an act that (unless it were true, of course—an absurdity to be discounted) would constitute the worst sin of all. For many readers through the centuries, seeking to kill Jesus for this may have seemed a bizarre overreaction—even a jealous vendetta—but those who remember that hapless fellow gathering wood in Numbers 15 have seen the other side of the story.

On this point at least, the Gospel’s “bad guys” have gotten a bit of a bum rap. Jesus faults them for hypocrisy, yes—for laying grievous burdens on men’s shoulders while “you yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46, KJV)—but he never blames them for enjoining strict law-keeping per se. In fact, he endorses it outright at one point, even in a matter that seems trifling indeed to the non-Jewish reader: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).

The hesitancy then, of the Israelites to countenance from a messianic claimant behavior that had always been seen as sin in the past is not difficult to understand. The prophets had done too good a job up fixing the blame for all their current misfortunes on past desertion of God’s law. Not even the apostles could yet grasp who exactly they were dealing with in Jesus of Nazareth . . . and it just so happened that his case for “breaking” the law turns on just that crucial point.


This article is adapted from These Twelve, a penetrating take on Jesus’ first followers. For the rest of the story, buy the book at our shop.

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