I spent several days at work in an in-depth internet-based research tunnel about the Pharisees. Essentially, I realized that the task was far to broad for a blog post and that the resources available to me via wikipedia and standard google searches do not comprise reliable research sources.
The question I was working out of was “Why exactly was Jesus so pissed off with the Pharisees?” and “Why exactly were the Pharisees so pissed off at Jesus?”
My best friend and I had talked about it for a bit. One might think that it is a pretty obvious thing. I feel like most of us in the church have had a variety of experiences in which someone talked about the Pharisees as trying to earn their salvation through works of righteousness whereas Jesus was not about that at all. They’re typically cast as the party-poopers of the Gospel. The ones who throw off Jesus’ groove and hold back the work of the Kingdom.
I mean really, there are repeated scenes in the Gospels where the pharisees become enraged because Jesus heals someone on the sabbath. At one point they accuse Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan. What could possibly make people so irrationally angry?
Furthermore, on Jesus’ end there is no quarter given in how strongly He rebukes them. Check the” Woe to You, Pharisees” part of Matthew 23. The question that comes with this is why do they deserve the tongue lashing they receive from the Messiah? What exactly makes Him so mad about what they’re doing?
Let me summarize a bit of the research I did to try and provide a context with which to engage with these questions.
In 1st century Palestine the Jewish people had gone through a lot in the 500 years prior. They had lost their homeland around 560BC. The centralized means by which they lived out their faith (the temple) had been destroyed. The people were exiled to Babylon. A generation later they came back and rebuilt the temple. Then they were conquered by Alexander the Great.
In the polarized movement between an orthodox Jewish culture and an increasingly Greek (hellenized) culture there were significant tensions. The power structures grew corrupt. When Alexander’s empire split after his death the general who ruled Palestine became increasingly oppressive of the Jews. The selling of the position of the Jewish High priest prompted an uprising which then prompted a large scale oppression of the Jews. They were forbidden by law to practice their faith. Period.
As you might imagine, this didn’t go over well. A revolt ensued (Check out the book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha for details. Yep, that’s right. You may have to buy a new bible.). Thanks to regional tensions the Jewish people came out on top with their own country again. First they received autonomy, then they had their own kingdom. The Hasmonean dynasty–named for the people who started the revolt–lasted 150 years. Political and religious power was centralized in these people. One of their member was named high priest after the revolt.
At the end of their crumbling rule, Palestine became a part of the Roman empire. 100 years after that, the temple in Jerusalem was officially destroyed. Never to be rebuilt.
That’s the history in a broad summary. Each of these sentences could probably (and mostly like does) have a book written on it. For our purposes though, I want to highlight a few things of interest:
A) Without a temple, the Jews in Exile had to start decentralizing their worship. The synagogue began in earnest at this point. Along with it, came Rabbis who had varying interpretations of how best to live Torah. This carried through all of history following it.
B) There was a sharp divide in the Jewish people when Alexander the Great conquered Palestine. Hellenized Jews Vs Orthodox Jews. To follow Torah was a big deal. Other options abounded. To associate with non-Jews or unrighteous (not following Torah) Jews was frowned upon. Think Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches. The ones with the stars didn’t associate with the ones that didn’t have stars.
B) The rule of the temple by what was essentially aristocracy created an environment in which the people were skeptical of the temple. By the time of the Gospels, the priests (read Sadducees) had lost much of their authority outside of ritual sacrifice. They atoned for things, but living out the Torah in every day life was the Pharisees’ sphere of influence.
The Next Part
Essentially the Pharisees were occupying the seat of Moses with regard to living by Torah. They interpreted Torah so that the people might live it in their every day lives. They were the authorities on scripture. They used scripture, but also what was referred to as the “oral Torah” or the oral tradition of interpretation that came from the Rabbis before them.
They were the big shots. They were the ones roaming Israel who told people how to live righteously (i.e. Following the ethical and purity laws of the Torah).
So here we have it. They were the arms of the existing religious power structure in the areas that Jesus preached in. He didn’t go to Jerusalem too much and as such He hit a lot of pressure from the Pharisees.
I’ve been sitting on this for awhile now. Hoping to finish all at once, but for the moment I shall let you sit with this. Here’s some context for the rest of the discussion. Part 2 is on the way.