Today I want to look at some of the differences among the Pharisees and what they had to say about themselves. My hope is that though examining the division among the sect, we can come to a better understanding of the context of Jesus’ criticism of their hypocrisy and better examine our walk with him.
In the last post I wrote that to assume all Pharisees held the same exact beliefs would be akin to thinking all Protestants agree on all points of doctrine. A brief review of literature about the Pharisees will quickly reveal some of the differences within the Pharisaic movement of the first century. In fact, a cultural study of the rabbinic model will reveal that there were several schools of thought within Pharisaic Judaism.
These schools, founded by the great rabbis, disagreed on the interpretation and application of scripture and frequently debated their beliefs. It was in the generation prior to Jesus that two of the greatest rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, lived and taught. They and their disciples had two distinct approaches to the interpretation of the Scriptures. The school of Shammai held to a more strict, literal interpretations while Hillel’s interpretation was more liberal and progressive. There was much debate between the schools as to the intricacies of how to follow the Law, from small details about how and when to say Shema to larger questions such as when is it okay to divorce.
One of the frequent debates among the rabbis was over the importance or order of the commands. What do you do if two commands intersect and you can only keep one by breaking the other? An example would be if your neighbor’s donkey falls into a well on a Sabbath. Can you help him get it out? To do so would be to violate the Sabbath. Would not helping violate the command to love your neighbor? Which commandment is more important?
They ask Jesus this question. Actually they ask “What is the greatest command?” which is ironic, because it appears that this is the one command everyone did agree on. Jesus answers with the words from the Shema – “love God with all your heart, soul, and might”. They didn’t ask the question, but Jesus lays out his position on the Sabbath/Neighbor debate when he answers that the second greatest command is to love your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is more important than the Sabbath. Jesus would say it is okay to help your neighbor get the donkey out of the well.
Christians often misinterpret the questions of the Scribes and Pharisees as attacks on Jesus. When they ask Jesus these types of questions they are not always trying to trap him (though sometimes they are and Scripture indicates this). This kind of questioning is how the rabbis and their disciples debated their interpretations of Scripture.
In the case of divorce, Jesus sided with the school of Shammai. On most other subjects he sided with the school of Hillel. Again, it is the cultural and historical understanding of the debates among the different rabbinic schools that allow us to understand the words of Jesus more clearly.
Also, I wanted to address the charge that all Pharisee were hypocrites. It is clear in Scripture that Jesus charges the Pharisees with hypocrisy and a long list of other shortcomings. However, as I said in an earlier post, a thorough review of the rabbinic literature will reveal that many of the criticism Jesus had of the Pharisees were criticism that they had for themselves.
According to these writings there were seven types of Pharisees. Out of the seven, five would fall into the categories that Jesus criticizes. However, two of the types of Pharisee would not. One category is referred to as the “God-fearing Pharisee” and is likened to Job. The other, the “God-loving Pharisee” is likened to Abraham.
While the descriptions of the types differ somewhat in both Talmuds, the essence is that there were some Pharisees who were striving to live out their faith, who sought to love God and to love others. It is also clear that some were not. Scripture seems to agree with this assessment. The rabbinic writings also refer to those among their group who were not living out their faith as “destroyers of the world” and “Pharisaic plagues”. It is these Pharisees that Jesus was referring to when he called them “white washed sepulchers” and “blind guides”.
My hope is that this post has provided a brief glimpse into some of the differences among the Pharisees and will challenge you to explore the subject more deeply.
As always, the purpose of this post is not simply a historical lesson or a theological argument, but a challenge to walk more closely with God. What are some practical implications for the church today? What is the application for you and I as we seek to follow our rabbi?