Who are/were the Pharisees?

It’s become popular in the church to borrow an argument from the world regarding Christians and pharisaism. It goes like this: “You’re a hypocritical Bible-thumper like the Pharisees.” Its latest manifestation is a post on Challies.com quoting a passage from Josh Harris [link]. The post tweaks the Pharisee and Tax Collector parable to contrast modern reformed/fundamentalist and megachurch evangelicals. I want to clarify the word ‘Pharisee’ and evaluate the strength of the comparison, and finally to exegete the original parable to see if and where Harris’ version goes astray.

1. Who were the Pharisees?

‘Pharisee’ comes from the Hebrew parush meaning ‘set apart’ or ‘separate.’  The Pharisees were simultaneously a political party and a sect of Judaism that arose from the Hasmonean (Jewish) conquest of the Seleucid (Greek) occupiers of the Holy Land. Until 63 BC, when Pompey conquered Jerusalem for the Romans, the Pharisees enjoyed nearly a century of shared political rule with the Sadducees. These two parties coexisted in a tense populist-aristocratic dynamic. The Pharisees were the populists. They had a saying: “A learned mamzer [child of adulterous or incestuous origin] takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” In this sense, at least, they were certainly very similar to  the 15th and 16th century Reformers.

However, whereas the Reformers attempted to return people to the simplicity and sufficiency of Scriptural rule, the Pharisees worked to add “rule upon rule.” Because of their theonomistic philosophy, they saw it their duty to regulate the behavior of their ‘subjects’ to the smallest degree. They issued ruling after ruling on every conceivable aspect of life, and constructed a system wherein their word [Mishnah] was actually higher than the Law and Prophets, in that without the rabbinic commentary, portions of the Law and Prophets would be incomprehensible. Under the Pharisees and their descendents, the body of authoritative scripture became massive and immeasurably complex. For a layman to understand even a fraction of it was simply impossible; thus, the Pharisees carved a permanent place for themselves in Jewish society.

The Pharisees themselves were noted for their public displays of piety, as seen throughout the gospel accounts. Among their performances were their regular appearances in the marketplaces; they would stroll through the streets with sackcloth and ash-covered faces, as their fasting days happened to coincide with market days. They were very popular among the people for their piousness, their populism, and their patriotism – they were fervent enemies of the Greek, and later Roman, occupiers.

2. Is it a valid comparison?

It can hardly be said that the Pharisees were scriptural fundamentalists, except perhaps in comparison to the Sadducees, who rejected all but the Pentateuch and even then had little interest in its application to their aristocratic lives. Not only had they multiplied the volume of authoritative scripture many times over, but they had nullified certain commands in doing so, as Jesus notes in Mark 7:13. If any comparison can be made, it is in their general zeal for their theology. But that is a thin comparison, as most people have a zeal for their theology/philosophy/worldview, and the same charge could be leveled at the opposing side.

Nor were the Pharisees particularly conservative, in the sense of being ‘elitist’ and ‘slow to change.’ They were populists who twisted in the wind and disappeared with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. While some, like Nicodemus, were wealthy, many were not and took pride in their poverty. They were not sticklers on the deeper points of theology; there was greater emphasis on the hot-button issues of the time, namely, marriage, the Sabbath, the festivals, the ordinances of the Temple, and ritual cleansing. There was also wide variance within the Pharisee party, epitomized in the great schism between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai. In comparison, modern theological conservatives emphasize doctrinal unity around a core center of beliefs while allowing differences at the periphery. While some ‘fundamentalists’ are keen to be divisive on finer points of doctrine, these are not representative of the whole; adherence to Pharisaism was largely defined by which school one belonged to (Hillel vs. Shammai), and the differences in these were superficial.

While it is not my objective to draw a parallel between Pharisees and any modern day movement, it is nonetheless ironic that those most frequently making the comparison emphasize social justice, which was a Pharisaic theme. The Pharisees maintained popular support by acts of charity and a strong voice toward social equity. However, as Jesus pointed out, they “devoured widows’ houses” in reality. Whatever social justice they worked toward was a partial and hypocritical effort to feed their egoes and retain their status in Jewish society; the real truth is that they siphoned money upward through their theonomic system into their own accounts.

3. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

While the Pharisees were seen as the champions of the poor and the guardians of proper worship and national identity, the tax collectors were traitors who had stolen their way into the aristocracy. In other words, the Pharisee was the common man, and the tax collector was ‘The Man.’  The shock of the story was in Jesus’ upending of the peoples’ expectations; nobody could have predicted that the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, would go home justified.

Interestingly, there is nothing untrue in the Pharisee’s prayer. He does not exaggerate his record, nor commits any wrong by thanking God for his [supposed] sanctification. He is “in regards to the law, blameless.” The tax collector, in comparison, beats his chest and asks God only for mercy on a sinner. His words are also true. The issue is therefore deeper than the superficial actions; it is about the heart of the individual. The Pharisee’s heart harbors the kind of pride that feeds off the comparative wretchedness of others.

Of course, the Pharisee’s prayer probably suggests that the Pharisee sees a justification based on works, which would invalidate his claim to not be like the sinners. But the parable does not go this deep; the point is the correct recognition of the need for mercy regardless of personal righteousness.

In Harris’ version of the parable, a theologically conservative Christian has become the Pharisee, and a doctrinally ignorant (or perhaps theologically liberal?) Christian has replaced the tax collector. Instantly, problems arise; Jesus draws the line at justification for one and not the other. Is Harris suggesting that the doctrinally sound Christian is at greater risk of hellfire?

Thankfully, Harris’ parable doesn’t comment on the fate of the men. If it had, he would be at a loss to explain how sound doctrine can lead this first man to such an unsound prayer. If the man is steeped in Scripture, as he says, where is he finding the model to pray this way? Wouldn’t he rather pray as did the Psalmist, or Jesus? Or perhaps he would read the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and be warned not to pray this way…? It’s a strange loop, when you think of it: the man was thanking God for adherence to his Word, which, were it logically true, wouldn’t lead to thanking God for it, as the Word contains a warning against such behavior. At any rate, the Pharisee prayed thanks for his good works, not for his adherence to the Word.

Perhaps a greater problem is raised by Harris’ depiction of the “shallow, uninformed evangelical” beating his breast in the manner of the tax collector. Where did this man learn about his sin? Where did he learn the appropriate response? These churches don’t teach it. He simply wouldn’t know (Romans 10:14), unless he was listening to solid preaching or at home in the Word, which would invalidate Harris’ argument.

A better modern-day analogy may be to new age guru Deepak Chopra and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The former believes his good works justify him, the latter begged God for mercy in prison. Few in the world today would call Dahmer more righteous than Chopra. Yet, assuming his conversion was sincere, Dahmer became a perfectly righteous man at the end of his life; he had the righteousness of Christ. For all his good work and advocacy for the poor, Chopra denies the deity and exclusivity of Christ and remains in his sin.


It can be said that modern theological conservatives resemble Pharisees both in their zeal for their theology/worldview, their defense of established tradition and their tendency to argue finer points of the law. However, elitist comparisons fall short; the Pharisees were a diverse group that included artisans and peasants. They were wildly popular and used the support of the people to gain and maintain power. They took great pains to do [or at least be seen doing] acts of charity and social justice. They were not well-versed in the core aspects of divine revelation, as Nicodemus revealed in his ignorance of the Holy Spirit in John 3.

It is perhaps easiest to make the comparison because of the presence of the scribes. Jesus often lumps the two together in the phrase “scribes and Pharisees.” A scribe was a theological/political/judicial position which [theoretically] anyone could hold, provided he be trained. Scribes were required to read, memorize and transcribe (obviously) the Scripture and Mishnah. In addition, rabbinic training required memorization of large swathes of Scripture and Mishnah, so most scribes and Pharisees were well-versed therein. The mere knowledge of the text of Scripture, however, does not mean understanding, as Jesus says to the Pharisees: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”

The argument boils down to emphasis. While there are certainly arrogant individuals in the reformed/confessional camp, there are similar individuals in the other camp(s). Any argument based solely on the presence of arrogance in any camp is fundamentally flawed. That Harris and Challies (among others) characterize reformed and fundamental Christians as arrogant indicates their belief that there is some correlation between a commitment to doctrine and a temptation to arrogance. I would challenge them to prove where this is warned against in Scripture. It seems to me that Scripture points toward sound doctrine as the source and lifeblood of our sanctification, in verses such as John 17:17, 2 Tim 3:15-16, Col 3:16, and Titus 2:7; a repudiation or lack of doctrine would lead one toward arrogance (1 Tim 3:6).


~ by bradybush on April 6, 2013.

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