What do you know about the Pharisees?
Sure, we’ve all heard of them, and we’re aware that Jesus had nothing good to say about them, but who were they? What did they believe? And why did they find themselves on the receiving end of Christ’s sharpest criticisms?
I think the topic of Pharisees is extremely timely, and one with which we all ought to be familiar. If Christ went to some trouble to warn us about Pharisees, we ought to attempt to understand His warning, particularly as we might apply it to ourselves and our worship.
And so, here’s a quick primer on Pharisees and Pharisaism.
The name “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew and Aramaic parush or parushi, which means "one who is separated." The Pharisees prided themselves on being separated, not only from the Gentiles, but also from other Jews who did not believe the same way. The Pharisees extended the temple-based rules for ritual purity outside the temple and attempted to live the rules in everyday life, thus separating themselves from other Jews.
At the time of Christ, the Pharisees were only one of four major schools of Jewish thought, but were in charge of the temple and the general religious practices of Jerusalem, under Roman rule. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the other major Jewish sects disappeared, and the Pharisees remained to form the basis of Rabbinic Judaism. All mainstream forms of Judaism today consider themselves heirs of Rabbinic Judaism and, ultimately, the Pharisees.
Much more could be said, of course, but history isn’t the point. Let’s move on to the Pharisaic beliefs so objectionable to Christ that He pronounced Wo after Wo upon them.
I recently read an excellent little volume by Jewish scholar Nehemia Gordon, called The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus. Having been raised an Orthodox Jew, Gordon is well familiar with the legacy of the Pharisees, which he now rejects. He compiled a list of what he called “The Five Iniquities of the Rabbis,” which is to say, of the Pharisees. I found it VERY useful in understanding the thoughts, teachings and traditions of the Pharisees, which Christ found so objectionable.
Here are the 5 Iniquities:
1. Two sets of Scripture
All Jews accept Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) as God’s word, given through Moses. But the Pharisees also accept a second, oral tradition passed down from prior leaders. The iniquity is that the Pharisees view the Oral tradition as equal with, or even superior to, God’s written word in scripture. They favor later innovations over prior revelation, which is to say, they follow “living teachers over dead ones.”
2. Absolute Authority of Leaders to Interpret Scripture
No matter what the scripture plainly says, the interpretation of the Rabbis is the final word. End of discussion. If the Rabbis say right is left, and left is right, then that is the truth, and all evidence to the contrary is invalid. And if two Rabbis flatly contradict each other, both are right. If you read the scripture yourself and find it plainly contradicts what the Rabbis teach, you are wrong.
According to tradition, even the voice of God, speaking forth from heaven, is not enough to overrule the Rabbis. This idea is based on the belief that God has given Torah from heaven to man on earth, and therefore it now belongs to man on earth, and not to heaven. It is no longer heaven’s concern, or any of heaven’s business, thank you.
Nephi warned about a similar situation among latter-day churches:
And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men; (2 Nephi 28:5)It kind of reminds me of a question posed at my disciplinary council when I was excommunicated. Someone asked me, “Who has the authority to interpret scripture?” (Emphasis on the word “authority.”) I replied, “The Holy Ghost.” That did not go over well.
Evidently, I gave the wrong answer.
3. Irrational Interpretations
This refers to the belief, above, that however the Rabbis interpret scripture is the only correct way. Thus, by pulling snippets of scripture out of context, the Rabbis could claim the scriptures said exactly opposite what they actually said, and the people were compelled to believe them because the Rabbis’ interpretation could not be questioned. In his book, Gordon used an example of such a scriptural “sound bite” as follows:
You shall not go after the majority to do evil, neither shall you testify in a matter of strife to incline after the majority to pervert justice. (Exodus 23:2)This verse clearly directs that we must not follow the majority in forming an opinion or testifying on a matter of judgment. We must testify of truth, even if we must do it alone. But the Rabbis grabbed the following snippet out of that verse, and taught it as doctrine:
...incline after the majority...Hey, stick with the majority and you’ll be safe. They were indeed quoting scripture when they referenced their sound bite, but they assigned it exactly the opposite meaning God had given it. They then used it as justification to insist that the majority view is the only correct one, and anyone who disagrees with the majority—that is to say, the Pharisees—is wrong.
There’s a lesson here for us; we ought to be careful when we quote snippets of scripture outside their context—giving them an entirely different meaning than what is found in scripture. Hastening the work, indeed.
4. The Traditions of Men
The Pharisees tended to elevate social traditions into commandments. A common example is the skull cap, or Yarmulke, worn by observant Jewish men even today. There is no commandment anywhere in scripture that a man must wear such a head covering. But it became a tradition during the middle ages, and is now elevated to a commandment among the orthadox, complete with rules about how many steps a man can take with his head uncovered. God has made no such requirement about any head covering, or any dress code, for that matter. And yet, the tradition is held to be the very commandment of God, and to violate it is to sin.
In a similar vein, we have this warning for our times:
And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers. (D&C 93:39)False traditions, taught as truth, actually destroy light and truth. It’s vital to know the difference between truth and tradition. Truth will save you. Tradition will damn you.
5. Man-made Rules
The Pharisees simply made up rules for the congregation to keep. An example used by Nehemia Gordon has to do with washing the hands before eating. Among Pharisaic Jews, there was (and still is!) a very specific way and order in which the hands were to be washed, and the following prayer was to be recited while washing them:
Blessed art thou, Lord, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to wash the hands.It’s a fine prayer and all, but it’s also a lie. Anyone who cared to check would find nowhere in scripture that God commanded the washing of hands. But few cared and few checked. The Pharisees explained that it was commanded by the Rabbis, and obeying the Rabbis is obeying God, so it was a commandment of God. Thus, when Jesus disobeyed this man-made rule, they took issue with Him:
Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? (Matthew 15:1-3)God commanded that nothing be added to His law (Deut 4:2, 12:32.) Jesus knew this and pointed out the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Remember, the Pharisees observed all sorts of man-made, non-scriptural laws about what to eat and drink, how to dress, how to prepare food, how to observe the sabbath, how to swear oaths, how to put on shoes, and a thousand other bits of minutiae. None of these rules came from God. They have no saving power. And yet, the Pharisees continually sought to condemn Jesus for failure to keep their man-made rules. Ultimately, His public condemnation of them led them to have Him killed.
And so there you have it—a crash course on Pharisees and how they departed from God’s word.
Unfortunately, in the contest of Jewish ideas, Pharisaism won. All modern Jewish practice harks back through Babylon, to the Pharisees at the time of Christ. The five iniquities listed above still hold complete sway among mainstream Jewish sects. (But I should mention a tiny minority of fringe Jews reject the Rabbis today, and seek to only obey God’s word given through true prophets.)
I just wrote this up as an aid to those who may wonder. Since Jesus went to great pains to warn us, I think it’s important to understand what Pharisees actually believe, so you can identify any Pharisees you might happen to cross paths with this weekend. Christ said to beware of their teachings, and you never know where you might encounter one—whether at church, on TV, or even in the mirror.
In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.