Was Jesus a Pharisee?


The question in the title of this post is an important one to Christians. In the last few decades many Christians have come decidedly closer to the conclusion that Jesus was a Pharisee.

It seems that there are two main reasons for this conclusion:

  • Internal - to establish Christianity's identity by defining its relationship with Judaism viz-a-viz Jesus
  • External - to demonstrate Jesus' Jewish nature as a way of persuading Jews to embrace Christianity

In other words, Christianity's developing self identity is defined by its conceptualization of Jesus. However Christians understand Jesus is how they are able to define Christianity. One of the movements within Christianity seems to be a desire to move closer to Jesus' being a Jew, part of an attempt to see him in his original context. There are many reasons for this desire and most are beyond the scope of this post. To briefly illustrate those points, however, some Christians are interested in Jesus' Jewishness for one or both of the following reasons:

  • To infuse Christianity with the Jewish vitality lost as Christianity spread among Gentiles
  • To reinterpret Christianity in light of the growing trend of liberalism in modern democratic secular societies

Regarding the external aspects, some Christians seek to revive his Jewish character as attempt to streamline him with Judaism. The purpose of this particular movement is an attempt to bring him into the purview of Jewish consciousness, or in other words, for the sake of proselytization. It is to this end that they seek to associate him with the Pharisaic movement, for most people know that the Pharisees are the only significant remnant of the Jewish People since the Second Temple era. The Pharisees are those Jews who accepted the Divine authority of the Oral Law, embodied in the Talmud. The modern expression of the Pharisees are the Orthodox Jews. The common wisdom is to streamline Jesus with Orthodoxy to draw on its legitimacy. In other words, they want to give Jesus a piggy back ride on Orthodox Judaism.

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What Makes a Pharisee?

So let us examine if Jesus was a Pharisee. Certain statements in the Christian Scripture seem to indicate that Jesus held Pharisaic-type thoughts and opinions. In a somewhat cryptic statement in the Christian Scriptures, Jesus says, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:18) This statement seems to be a confirmation of and support for the Law, which refers to the commandments of the Torah. It even seems scrupulously attentive to the minute details of the Law consistent with Pharisaic scholarship. However, the statement also implies that there will be a point in time when parts of the Law will disappear as a means to accomplishing something greater. This second concept puts it at odds with Pharisaic thought and cannot be reconciled with the first concept.

Let us consider what the Book of Jeremiah says: 

And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying: "So said the Lord: 'If you break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night, and not to have day and night in their time. Also My covenant with David shall be broken, that he should not have a son reigning on his throne, and with the Levitic priests, My ministers.'" (Jeremiah 33:19-21)

Jeremiah goes on to say more about this topic:

And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying:"Have you not seen what this people has spoken saying: The two families that God chose, He has rejected, and they make My people despise being a nation any longer before them. So said the Lord: If not My covenant with the day and the night, that the statutes of heaven and earth I did not place..." (Jeremiah 33:23-25)

Both of these sets of verses seem be exploring two concepts. One is that the kingship of David will be preserved as long as Earth's physical laws are in place. The second concept is that the physical laws governing Earth and the spiritual laws based in Heaven are irrevocably interlocked, and that the destruction of one axiomatically suggest the destruction of the other. In other words, as the long as the sun rises and sets, the laws of the Torah are in place. Of this can it be said that "A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever"? (Ecclesiastes 1:4) And "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. There is a thing of which [someone] will say, 'See this, it is new.' It has already been for ages which were before us." (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

So let us consider another of Jesus' statements, "...The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." (Matthew 23:1-3)

Later in chapter 23 Jesus goes on to say the following:

"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. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 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 the bones of the dead 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 23:23-28)

We can derive three ideas from Jesus' diatribe:

  1. Jesus accepts the Divine authority of the Talmud (... the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat).
  2. Although they are the rightly appointed arbiters of God's Divine Law via the Talmud, the Pharisees failed in behaving appropriately (But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach).
  3. The Pharisees' inappropriate behavior did not undermine the validity of the Law, which would be an absurdity (You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former).

It is certainly true that Judaism has oft produced statements such as those seen here, even to this day. The concern with following the commandments, which we already established are of prime importance, cannot overshadow the observance of moral and ethical practices.

Part of the reason for this, although the Christian Scriptures overlook it, is that moral and ethical practices are themselves commandments. They are not extralegal elements unrelated to the corpus of Jewish Law. It is true that one must strive to always have in mind the spirit of the Law, but if he neglects the letter of the Law, the spirit of the Law goes with it. The diatribe above does not seem to contradict Judaism in any particular way. But if true, it also doesn't bring anything new to the table either.

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Jesus Violated the Sabbath

Although there may be more examples, there is one more brief example that I will share to demonstrate that Jesus in fact contradicted Jewish Law and the Pharisaic spirit.

The first is that Jesus violated the Sabbath. Before demonstrating how, it is important to read a few verses from the Torah. Exodus states the following:

So he said to them, That is what the Lord spoke, Tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake whatever you wish to bake, and cook whatever you wish to cook, and all the rest leave over to keep until morning. So they left it over until morning, as Moses had commanded, and it did not become putrid, and not a worm was in it. And Moses said, "Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day [which is the] Sabbath on it there will be none." It came about that on the seventh day, [some] of the people went out to gather [manna], but they did not find [any]. The Lord said to Moses, "How long will you refuse to observe My commandments and My teachings? See that the Lord has given you the Sabbath. Therefore, on the sixth day, He gives you bread for two days. Let each man remain in his place; let no man leave his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day." (Exodus 15:23-30)

This description bears a striking resemblance to an incident recorded in the Christian Scriptures. Matthew 12:1 states that, "At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” The fact that Jesus and his disciples directly violated God's command to Moses of "Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day [which is the] Sabbath on it there will be none." The Torah then tells us that "[some] of the people went out to gather." We can imagine this anonymous party of Jews who did not heed God's command and His teachings as Jesus and his disciples. What Matthew describes seems like a deliberate and brazen violation of the teachings of the Torah. Audaciously enough, Jesus himself does not violate the Sabbath, but only sees to it that his disciples do.

The violation of Jesus' disciples of the Sabbath was technically subject to capital punishment. As expected in accordance with Jewish Law, a Sabbath violator can only be put to death if two valid witnesses observe him committing the violation, they warn him of the penalty of death as to detract him, and he responds by continuing to partake in the prohibited act.

What Matthew records as the Pharisees snootily meddling in Jesus' affairs might actually be their warning to detract him, and thus to save his life.

The Book of Matthew's exact words are, "When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, 'Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.'" His response to them was the following: 

"He answered, 'Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’a you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.'"

In Mark 2:27-28, Jesus says to the Pharisees, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." Even if it is true that the "Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," it doesn't seem to justify violating it, but rather to focus properly on its meaning! What Jesus says here seems like a direct contradiction of "See that the Lord has given you the Sabbath."

In accordance with Jewish Law, the above statement might possibly justify the death penalty.

As long as we are trying to see Jesus in light of Pharisaic thought and practice, let us analyze his response in terms of Jewish Law as well. The event that Jesus referred to is found in the Book of Samuel I. The event describes David fleeing for his life from the hand of King Saul and relates the following:

And David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest, and Ahimelech came trembling toward David, and said, "Why are you alone, and no one with you And David said to Ahimelech the priest, "The king charged me with a matter, and said to me, 'Let no man know anything concerning the matter upon which I am sending you, and with which I have charged you.' And I troubled the young men (to advance) to a hidden, secret place. And now, what is there in your possession? Five loaves of bread? Give them into my hand, or whatever is found." And the priest answered David, and said, "There is no ordinary bread in my possession, but there is holy bread, if the young men have but kept themselves from women." And David answered the priest, and said to him, "But, women are withheld from us as of yesterday and the day before yesterday when I left, and the young men's garments are hallowed, and that is in a manner common, and even if today it would be hallowed in the vessel." And the priest gave him hallowed (bread), for there was no bread there, except the showbread, which was removed from before the Lord, to place warm bread on the day it was taken." (Samuel I 21:2-7)

What we can glean from these verses is that David was hungry, perhaps to the point of danger. Built in to Jewish Law is the permission to do what would otherwise be a violation of Jewish Law in order to survive. For example, one must periodically eat during Yom Kippur under certain conditions, such as diabetes, which makes it dangerous to go without food for an extended period of time. Another example is that one may violate the Sabbath in order to save his life as well. Perhaps this is what Jesus alluded to when the Pharisees told him that his disciples were violating the Sabbath. However, what is also likely is that there were other Jews in the area observing the Sabbath. As is customary on the Sabbath, Jews engage in three festive meals during the course of the day. It is difficult to understand why Jesus and his disciples couldn't visit somebody for a Sabbath meal instead of resorting to violating the Sabbath. Jewish Law makes it clear that violation of the Sabbath for survival is a last resort that should be avoided if possible. Yet Jesus seems to take a rebellious, brazen tone with the Pharisees. Further, David's response to Ahimelech was that he and the people were with him were ritually clean, which is an irrelevant point for Jesus and his disciples in the field. All in all, this event seems to suggest that Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees.

It is difficult to understand why Jesus and his disciples couldn't visit somebody for a Sabbath meal instead of resorting to violating it.

Jesus' second reference is to the Priestly duties being carried out on the Sabbath, which require activities that are otherwise forbidden on the Sabbath. Again, Jesus' statement here implies a knowing nod at the observance of Jewish Law. Indeed, he uses a mechanism in Jewish Law to prove his case, which is a clear implication that he believes in its Divine authority. That mechanism is that the exception where the holiness of the Priestly service overrides the holiness of the Sabbath even in a case when lives are not in danger. If so, it is hard to see how Jesus' application of this exception has anything to do with his point; picking grain on the Sabbath is a mundane act not on par with the holiness of the Priestly service and so, as the Pharisees warned him, is unlawful.

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When considering statements made by Jesus to determine whether he was a Pharisee, and thus in line with Orthodox Judaism, we come to the following conclusions:

  • Jesus made cryptic statements that, while partially in line with Pharisaic thought, ultimately contradicted them
  • Jesus acknowledged the Divine authority of the Pharisees as representatives of the Mosaic Law
  • Jesus made statements that emphasized observance of the spirit of the Law without indicating that the letter of the Law should be discarded
  • Jesus led other Jews to violate the Sabbath and defended his behavior with incorrect arguments

In short, it is hard to consider him a Pharisee, which means that Christianity must acknowledge that he either unknowingly or deliberately violated Torah Judaism.

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