November 26, 2020

What Was a “Pharisee”? (and what might it mean to act like one?)


The Maccabean Revolt, 167 BC

UPDATE: I edited the post by adding a paragraph near the end of the post. It begins with the words, “That is not to say they all acted with equal zeal…” [11:10 am]

* * *

N.T. Wright notes that “Paul stands where three great roads converge.” Beginning with chapter two of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright explores these three roads in detail — that is, the three great cultural contexts which helped form the apostle’s worldview.

The most fundamental cultural context that shaped Paul is that of Judaism, but it is Judaism of a certain type.

Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee (e.g. Philippians 3:5). Who were the Pharisees? There have been many debates in NT studies concerning exactly who the Pharisees were in the time of Second Temple Judaism. Wright’s own broad conclusions are that they were:

  • Not a small, insignificant group, but popular and influential in Israel.
  • Active in promoting not only their own holiness but also that of other Jews.
  • Many of them politically active.

The overriding concern of the Pharisees was purity. However, this was not simply the kind of personal “religious” purity we might imagine. As individuals, they were not scrupulous about holiness out of a concern for gaining God’s acceptance. As religious leaders, they weren’t concerned about “getting people into heaven” or “saving” lost sinners. The big theological questions of their day did not revolve around whether sinners are justified by works or by faith.

Rather, the Pharisees were active promoters of purity within the story and tradition of being Jews, God’s elect people. They practiced purity to advance the cause of preserving their nation, the people God had chosen. This purity went beyond personal piety and was meant to have a profound effect on the social, cultural, and political aspects of life among the Jewish people. As N.T. Wright says, “…before the debacle of AD 70 the main issue at stake for a Pharisee was not simply ‘how to maintain one’s own personal purity’, but ‘how to be a loyal Jew faced with oppression from outside and disloyal Jews from within.'”

This was about national survival, the Kingdom of God vs. the kingdoms of this world. And in the days of Jesus and Paul, the situation was becoming more and more intense. Remember that within a generation after Easter, these intense concerns for purity and the rule of God led to a rebellion that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. When Pharisees spoke of the “kingdom of God” and what it meant to be a loyal member of that kingdom, it “meant being prepared to bring about God’s sovereign will on earth as in heaven by dealing fiercely and forcibly both with Jews who were flouting it and with pagans who were imposing their alien ways on the devout in order to break their national spirit.”

As Paul himself wrote, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church…” (Phil. 3:5-6). The mark of the faithful Pharisee was zeal. Zeal was not just another word for strong inner passion. It meant action, at times forceful, even violent action. It was a straight path from “zeal” to the “Zealots” and then to military insurgency.

Wright references a passage from 1 Maccabees that describes the kind of zeal the Pharisees admired and sought. It concerns one Mattathias, a priest from Jerusalem who settled in the town of Modein. Mattathias lived in the days when Antiochus invaded Jerusalem and offered a desolating sacrifice on the altar (the so-called “abomination of desolation”). Despite the suffering and shame of those days, the text records that a great number of Jews remained faithful to God:

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant… (1 Macc 1:62-63).

Mattathias was one of those faithful people. In the next chapter, we hear Mattathias’s lament over “the blasphemies being committed in Judah and Jerusalem”

Alas! Why was I born to see this,
the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city,
and to live there when it was given over to the enemy,
the sanctuary given over to aliens. (1 Macc 2:6-7)

Then we see his faithful zeal for God and the traditions of their ancestors in action. When the foreign king’s soldiers come to town and urge Mattathias to do what Antiochus commands so that others in the town might follow his lead and be spared, the priest says:

Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.” (1 Macc 2:19-22)

Just then, one of Mattathias’s fellow Jews stepped forward and said he would obey the Gentile king. He offered a pagan sacrifice on the altar. Then 1 Maccabees says that “Mattathias burned with zeal and his heart was stirred” (2:24). In righteous anger, he killed the compromising Israelite and a king’s officer and tore down the altar. “Thus he burned with zeal for the law…” the author tells us. This was the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt, 167 BC.

N.T. Wright summarizes how this example helps us understand the Pharisees in the first century:

PFGZeal and the law, zeal and the law; the covenant, Abraham, Phineas and Elijah; faith, courage, the reckoning of righteousness, the promise of glory; pay back the pagans in their own coin, and hold fast to the commandments of the law! How much clearer could it get? …The important thing was this: this was what being “zealous for Torah” looked like. The long line of Israel’s history can be told in terms of Abraham being faithful, and it being reckoned to him as righteousness, and then of the others who showed their faith, their zeal, their courage. Keep the law, for that is the path to glory! It is not difficult to imagine a young Jew, faced with the sordid power of paganism in the early first century and the shabby compromises of many of his countrymen, being fired by this vision. Cling on to God’s faithfulness, stir up your courage, and act. This is what being a Pharisee was all about. This, indeed — confusing for us in a world where the word “Judaism” refers to a “religion” in our modern sense — seems to have been what Ioudaismos meant: not simply the practice of a “religion”, but the active propagation of the ancestral way of life and its defence against the attack whether from outside (as in the case of Mattathias) or inside (as in the case of Saul of Tarsus).

We have been taught to think of the Pharisees as legalists, practitioners of “works-righteousness” who believed one had to earn God’s acceptance through doing good or faithfully practicing religious rituals. We think of them as pedants, as overly scrupulous religious geeks with their noses either in the Torah or wrinkled up in disgust at the transgressions of their neighbors. We have marked them down as hypocrites when it comes to personal holiness, imagining that they carried juicy secrets under their sanctimonious robes while scratching scarlet “A’s” on the dresses of the Hester Prynnes around them. We picture them holding various hoops and requiring ordinary folks to jump through them to prove their worthiness, their fitness for the kingdom of heaven. All very churchy, very “righteous” in a holier-than-thou way.

Some of that may be accurate, but N.T. Wright’s description is much more vivid, and potentially dangerous. The Pharisees were the religious culture warriors of their day. They saw themselves as the guardians of Israel’s national purity. They believed that observing Torah as they kept it was not only good for individuals but essential to the moral and spiritual survival of the nation. They had a cause. They were zealous for that cause. Some of them even became official Zealots for that cause and used violent means to achieve their ends. They were implicated in Jesus’ death. Some, like Paul, chased down sects they found threatening. Many eventually took up arms against Rome itself.

That is not to say they all acted with equal zeal or that they were routinely characterized by violent force. As Wright’s general description above says, the Pharisees were not a small, insignificant, or fringe group, but were made up of respected, popular, and influential community leaders in Israel.

However, the Pharisees saw themselves as guardians of the tradition, and they were heirs to a history of resistance to threats from within and without. The greatest examples from the not-too-distant past were the heroic Maccabees. Like them, the Pharisees tried to avoid all contact with the unclean practices of those who were now ruling over them and they sought to impose strict religious discipline on other Israelites who were less observant.

A zeal for purity to preserve the nation.

Sound familiar?


  1. Interesting. However, I distrust Wright on this topic and would be interested in reading some good Jewish commentary and history on this topic. One reason is that I wonder if the Pharisees *as a whole* are somewhat misc characterized in the NT; that only extreme examples are cited.

    But that’s a topic for another day, I’m thinking…

    • Also, am not sure that reading the term “culture warriors” back into 1st c. Palestine is helpful, as it carries *so* much contemporary American baggage that simply doest apply to either the time or culture.

      After all, Palestine was occupied by a foreign power; one that was, in many ways, cosmopolitan and pluralistic. I wish I could find a word other than pluralistic, though, since that also carries a lot of baggage, but there are only so many words to describe it…

      • Further, yes – Paul was a Pharisee, but from a cosmopolitan Hellenistic port city in Asia Minor, where his education included Greek poetry and likely philosophy as well. For a Pharisee, he was pretty au courant

        • Wright discusses diaspora Pharisaism vs. that in Israel. Paul is an interesting case, since he studied under Gamaliel (of Hillel’s more lenient school) but acted like a zealot when he persecuted Christians.

          • But… I can kind of see why the claims of Jesus’ divinity were so disturbing for him and for other Jews of the time. The Jewish understanding of messiah and the messianic era has zip to do with that, ditto for a sacrificial death. It probably seemed like an extreme aberration, even a new, sycretic religion, to them. (Am not meaning anyone was justified in persecuting or killing, but the NT doesn’t exactly provide an objective account of other views…)

            please understand that I’m very much in favor of attempting to puzzle out the actual history; much of what is said in the NT about both the Pharisees and “the Jews” seems to be quite biased… And has certainly been misunderstood and misused in disastrous ways since xtianity became the province of gentiles rather than Jews.

          • I don’t doubt that your precis is accurate per Wright’s views and interpretations. I just plain have serious doubts about some of his ideas and conclusions.

          • One of the difficulties, numo, is that all of our sources on the Pharisees are biased. Since the Pharisees were the only Jewish sect to survive the 70CE Destruction of the Temple, most all of the extant Jewish writings (i.e. the writings of the Rabbis) about them are from the Pharisees’ own biased perspective. For example, the way the Talumd presents the messianic expectations as relatively monolithic certainly reflects how those expectations were influenced *by* the rise of Christianity. Other texts of the time (e.g. stuff from the OT Apocrypha, psuedoepigripha, Qumran writings, Josephus, Philo, etc) show that the nature of messianic expectations was *very* diverse indeed.

          • Wow!!! Wow!!! Wow!!!!

            It does sound familiar Chaplin Mike!!!! I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Further, yes – Paul was a Pharisee, but from a cosmopolitan Hellenistic port city in Asia Minor, where his education included Greek poetry and likely philosophy as well. For a Pharisee, he was pretty au courant…

          I wonder whether he caught flak from Israeli Pharisees for “not being a REAL Pharisee” because of that. Would explain his zeal in the lynching of Stephen and his rampage for the Faith up until the Damascus Road — proving to those Jerusalem types that he was a REAL Pharisee (and going overboard as is common in such “Prove It!” situtations — more Pharisee than the Pharisees).

      • Oh, but I think it may offer an appropriate parallel, especially given the U.S.’s rather unique self-understanding as a “new Israel,” with her own exceptionalism conceived as sourced in God’s blessing.

        • Ah – would probably help clarify if you said that in the body of your post. I definitely agree with that, though am still uneasdy about the whole culture wars parallel, since it seems the Pharisees weren’t at all like modern US “culture warriors” in most respects.

          But hey, I’m enjoying the exchange of views here! And I’ll freely confess my fascination for Judaica, which comes from my upbringing plus an awareness that Jewish perspectives are generally discounted by xtians unless said perspectives happen to tally with xtian beliefs.

          • Volkmar (aka Tom) says

            Numo, I have absolutly no problem seeing the parallel between the past and present “culture warriors”. Both were committed to “purity” at any cost, including violence to those both inside and outside their “traditions.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Oh, but I think it may offer an appropriate parallel, especially given the U.S.’s rather unique self-understanding as a “new Israel,” with her own exceptionalism conceived as sourced in God’s blessing.

          America as “the City on the Hill” (again invoking images of Jerusalem). Going back to 1620 — Remember when Massachusetts was settled? The MA Puritans viewed themselves as The New Israel settling The Promised Land, England as Egypt and the Church of England as Pharoah — and the native tribes in The Promised Land as the Canaanites.

        • I do not understand why many evangelicals see the United States as being a modern Biblical “Israel”. That seems and leads to a lot of twisted theology. Americans are never nor will be ever be “the chosen people”. We don’t have the Bibilcal history so how can some evangelicals believe that?!?

          Now that I am back in faith one of my determinants is to avoid people caught up or who heavily push end times theology under this guise. Its dark, dangerous, and outrageous.

          • I think it might be more accurate to say that a lot of twisted theology leads up to that view, and that more proceeds from it…

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Ditto, the “New Israel” thing is just weird and without any justification at all [except that it is an old claim]. That or the USA as “God’s experiment” which is one I’ve also heard many times.

            I’m with you on that point – I just try my best to avoid those people. It is a weird idea and only more weirdness can emanate from it.

          • Radagast says

            Being from a predominantly cultural Catholic area, I never hear about this stuff… always interesting to learn new things…

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Radagast, I am happy to hear it is regional. In west Michigan “New Israel” and “God’s Great Experiment” are commonly held beliefs among Evangelicals and groups with Evangelical sympathies. I’ve been told that criticism of the US military is treasonous as the United States is God’s new chosen nation. It is a very creepy angle.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I’ve been told that criticism of the US military is treasonous as the United States is God’s new chosen nation. It is a very creepy angle.

            Remember just who was calling for a military coup during that last big bout of deadlock in Congress…

  2. See, “Who was Paul?” for some very interesting reading suggestions, including recent reappraisals of Paul by a number of Jewish scholars. (Tablet Mag is a Jewish site; I’d paste a link but it isn’t easy to do with Android, which I’m using right now.)

  3. Yes…they were the good church people.

    They were the do-gooders of their day.

    And they gave Jesus the most trouble…eventually seeing to it that He was done in.

    Sound familiar?

    Spunds a lot like me…and many of you…when we think we are handling our humanity pretty well.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      No, I believe describing them as “do-gooders” is incorrect. They were aggressive and political, not Polly Anna tsck-tsck-ers. Unless you want to describe Pat Robertson as a “do-gooder”, that feels odd.

    • I find little pity for the Pharisees. The feud with the Sadducees was nasty, with persecution and acts of revenge on both sides. The fall of the kingdom to Roman rule may have been inevitable, but both sides attempted to buy the favor of Rome. The Sadducees and Pharisees were both complicit in selling Judea out to the political powers of the day. That is where parallels drawn with current events get disturbing – especially with figures like Franklin Graham speaking such praise of Vadimir Putin, or the Tea Party threatening an armed overthrow of the government. As Bruce Cockburn once wrote, when the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means. Liberty through foreign occupation. It will be spun to make so much sense.

      • Both sides are playing these games. I hope someone remembers that two wrongs don’t make a right.

        • Volkmar (aka Tom) says

          “The opposition of two stupidities does not mean that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

          — Wendell Berry

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > were both complicit in selling Judea out to the political powers of the day

        That is one way of reading it. Israel was under military occupation, so “selling” out seems to me uncharitable. You have to deal with the day you wake up in; it is easy to see choices made in those conditions from a safe and lofty place and frown on them. They had to deal with the Roman occupation, one way or another. What is “right” may be much clearer from thousands of miles or centuries distant.

        I think this distinction in power makes the Pharasee’s position hard for us to sympathize with.

        But that is aside from the point if they parallel certain modern american movements. I see the similarity, so long as one doesn’t make too much of it. Rhetoric of “God’s chosen” is old, widely used, and the meaning can depend on the god being referred to.

  4. No. I think this is a dangerous kind of anachronistic eisegesis, frankly. At the very least I am beginning to reluctantly wonder if there should be some kind of “Shammai’s Law” that is the equivalent of Godwin, where the person to engage in reductio ad pharisee of his opponent has to go back to the starting square and try again.

    Applied this way, you could just as easily say that radical left culture warriors are their own kind of pharisees. If you don’t believe that, watch a few episodes of Portlandia which is a satire, but a satire of something very real. Watch one of the paranoid, hysterical circular firing squads that regularly forms on the far left, for instance when a lesbian feminist turns out to be bisexual, or a vegan defends honey.

    Anyhow that cancels out the gotcha, when both sides are capable of the same screeching heights of totalitarian idiocy, doesn’t it?

    And this assessment does not ring true with what I know of the rabbinic tradition. One thing it leaves out is that for the Jews, salvation is partially a collective endeavor. It’s not so much as getting your own butt safely into olam ha ba, but rather, about all Jews cooperating together towards increased holiness that brings about the coming of the Messiah. In a collective moral culture like that, the kind of individualism-driven purity that goes on in American political culture makes no sense.

    • Clay Crouch says

      How can Wright’s conclusions be anachronistic when he draws them from the context of post exilic Judaism’s own writings? To me, at least, it appears that in your argument you have actually agreed with Wright. Of course legalistic zeal is an equal opportunity endeavor – has been and continues to be. I’m not sure that I understand how the conclusion you draw in your last paragraph disagrees with premise of the post.

    • I didn’t say anything about “left” or “right,” Kathe.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        To expand on this, I am just old enough to remember when the Left’s culture warriors were still a factor. The student newspaper at my college was firmly controlled by that faction, as a holdover from the hippie era. It induced much eye rolling. The Left’s culture warriors are every bit as ridiculous as the Right’s, and also every bit as potentially dangerous. The difference is that in early 21st century American society, the Left is an irrelevant fringe. The Overton window has moved so far to the right that policies espoused by Ronald Reagan are denounced as socialism. (It is never put in these terms, of course. The real Ronald Reagan is suppressed and forgotten, with a mythical Ronald Reagan put on a pedestal.) So while “Both sides do it” is entirely true, it is not relevant. It could become so in the future. At this point in American political history I am considered a wild-eyed leftie. The day may come when I am considered a reactionary rightie: all without my moving an inch. But that day is not now, nor is it the immediate future.

        • David Cornwell says

          Exactly. I remember the administration of Eisenhower. He did everything he could to preserve the New Deal, while at the same time balancing the budget. And being a general, he had some built-in distrust of the Pentagon. If it were possible to place him into today’s political spectrum, which actually is probably impossible, it might be somewhat to the left of Obama on some issues, to the right on others. The Republican Party of today would not like him. In fact they seldom mention him. He was popular across party lines. He considered running as a Democrat, but Harry Truman did not like him personally.

          Today we lack a capacity for discussion, civil discourse, and basic human kindness. We prefer propaganda and yelling to reasoned argument. And have lost all capacity for compromise politically.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            We have become just Great Houses in The Game of Thrones.
            Us Infinite Good, THEM Infinite Evil. To the Death.
            Because the Iron Throne has room for only one.

          • I have some recordings of old JFK and Hubert Humphrey speeches. Lefties today would think they were republicans. A government moves to the left when it takes away choices and brings in more mandates because they are smarter than us and know best for us. If you disagree you want children to starve.

            When you get to the stratosphere of politics and Wall Street there is basically no difference in the parties.

            Mike, you did not mention left or right but your commenters did. Back on topic, the Pharisees are a great example of why culture wars do not work.

        • Josh in FW says

          I find this opinion, “The difference is that in early 21st century American society, the Left is an irrelevant fringe,” very interesting. From my perspective it is the other way around and what use to be called irrelevant Leftist fringe now seems to be accepted as mainstream. I agree that some on the Right have overreacted to the cultural shift of the last 20-30 years, but what is now described as mainstream in America appears quite Leftist to me. Maybe I’m defining Left and Right incorrectly and I need to find a different vocabulary.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > From my perspective it is the other way around

            America is quite a ways to the Right, so much appears to be Left that is not very Left. If you believe Medicate is a Leftist idea – then you demonstrate how very far to the right the center of America has moved, as government provided health care was a Nixonian [R] goal.

            You also may be thinking in terms of social issues – which do not define the traditional Left. Abortion is not, for example, a traditional Left/Right issue; even today the correlation of abortion positions to the left/right-ness of a politician is a regional thing. Social issues are very regional, and fog people’s Left/Right perception.

            As a demonstration –

            – Unionism and workers rights have been neutered. Even whistle-blower protection has been rendered a legal fiction.
            – The voting rights act has been neutered; with all manner of requirements imposed on people, in places with no demonstrate level of ‘fraud’. Absentee ballot policies have been modified to exclude rather than include.
            – Oversight of corporate activity has been essentially defunded.
            – The Bureau of Consumer Protection has been essentially deunded and has gone significant periods of time without a director.
            – Campaign financing is now a free-for all.
            – Gerrymandering is openly practiced and unchallenged. In my state the parties even debate the definition of districts in a give-n-take manner; thus dividing the vote spoils based on perceived strength and weakness.
            – What little power the EPA still has will likely be washed away by the “Energy Consumers Relief Act” [heh, what a name!]
            – Border patrol agents act to violate the rights of people, including US citizens, with absolute legal impunity.

            These are traditional Left issues – and well demonstrate that the Left has been effectively marginalized in the United States.

          • Josh in FW says

            Thanks for the feedback, Adam. Your right about social issues clouding my judgment and you made a good list for me to consider. I want to think of myself as a moderate, but I keep getting reminded that what’s described as moderate in Texas is considered far right in much of the rest of the country.

      • Well pardon me but the ending of this piece makes it sound as though you’re trying to “gotcha” someone, like “hehehe, the people who we around here are *not* are TOTES Pharisees, amirite?”

    • But even the “individualism-driven purity” has a nationalistic component. The concern of the “culture warriors” for public mores and avoiding “the judgment of God on America” is to some extent communal. (Now, you *can* argue that there are individualistic, even selfish reasons for this – I suspect that a lot of the concern to avoid God’s judgment on the nation is to avoid losing a comfy upright-appearing middle-class lifestyle, but that’s just my ingrained cynicism talking…)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        It also paints God as The Biggest Hand holding The Biggest Whip, and He’ll use that Biggest Whip on US if we ever step out of line. Like God has no function other than to Exist and to PUNISH.

        During the late Cold War (heyday of Hal Lindsay and Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War), I remember radio sermons literally yelling “GOD’S JUDGMENT FOR AMERICA’S SINS SITS READY AND WAITING IN THE NUCLEAR MISSILE SILOS OF THE SOVIET UNION!!!!!” Fear, Fear, Fear. Guilt, Guilt, Guilt. Punish! Punish! Punish!

        I wonder if this is the reason benevolent, approachable, and even playful fictional god-figures like Aslan and Princess Celestia have such appeal in various Fandoms.

  5. Robert F says

    One thing missing in the Pharisees-as-culture-warriors as you describe it: they considered violence in the name of their cause as legitimate and righteous. We would call them terrorists. That makes a significant difference between them and most American culture warriors, who have not resorted to violence in their cause, despite some of their rhetoric (I know, there are a few exceptions, but they are so few as to prove the rule). But it marks a significant similarity between the Pharisees and a powerful and active minority of extremist Muslims, who regularly exercise such zealous, violent action internationally in the name of their religious ideal.

    • Robert F says

      That is, regularly exercise such zealous, violent action internationally in the name of their religious/political ideals.

      Like the Pharisees, according to Wright’s interpretation.

      • I simply asked, “Sound familiar?” Perhaps the application can be seen in many groups with a zeal for purity.

        • As Scot McKnight once wrote about this topic: “”Pharisees were judicial activists; Sadducees were judicial conservationists. Now stick this in your pipe for a puff: Jesus was more critical of the liberals than the conservatives! And I’m willing to bet money that most think Jesus was opposing the conservatives when he took a swat at the Pharisees. Or did Jesus think they weren’t liberal enough or for those who didn’t get their liberalism right? Precisely.”

          • Richard Hershberger says

            “Pharisees were judicial activists; Sadducees were judicial conservationists. Now stick this in your pipe for a puff: Jesus was more critical of the liberals than the conservatives”

            Judicial activism is not the same thing as being liberal, as that word is used in modern American politics. We make the association because there was a period of time, during the Civil Rights era, when judicial activism did indeed align with liberal politics. This was a brief period, and neither the historical norm (remember Dred Scott, or what Roosevelt had to do to get the New Deal past the court?) nor the present situation. The Roberts court, for all that he talked up stare decisis and legislative authority during his confirmation hearings, is radically activist. It has overturned clear precedent to restrict Congressional power to ensure minority voting rights, while also overturning Congressional power to limit the power of individuals to buy elections. If this isn’t judicial activism, nothing is. But it is activism in support of the power of rich white people, so calling it “activism” is controversial. feh.

        • br. thomas says

          Yes, it does sound familiar. This belief and subsequent practice can be seen in the Ultra-Orthodox Judaism practiced in Israel (attacking non-observant women riding the “wrong bus” in Jerusalem) and in parts of the US, as well as radical Islam practiced throughout much of the world (i.e. a strict adherence to Sharia law and women dressed in burqua’s); like fundamentalist Christianity in the US, often these movements are aligned with the ultra-conservative political movement in their respective countries as well.

        • Exactly.

          Try being a conservative speaker on just about any college campus.

          You’ll get a very good dose of zealot purity.

          • Yes, you will. Hypocrisy is in everyone.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And remember the 80% rule. Once a consensus or conformity reaches 80% within a given population, groupthink conformity hits critical mass and the Pure 80% close ranks and Purge the Impure 20% from the face of the earth. This tendency holds no matter what the underlying belief system or definition of Purity.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            Any? Liberty U.?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Zealotry in this involves forceful, even violent, action. Vociferous disagreement is not zealotry.

            And I think it depends on what type of “conservative” is speaking. There are Evangelical moral conservatives, Paul Ryan “libertarian” conservatives, Acton Institute conservatives, Buckley conservatives – some of these would be quite comfortable on many campuses, others less so.

          • Only if you don’t get cancelled first.

      • Volkmar (aka Tom) says


        The only difference is that our present day “culture warriors” use the power of the State to do their violence for them.

  6. To not be distracted is related to the Latin words luxuria and castitas. I’ll let luxuria be debated by others. In a wikidictionary, castitas is first defined purity, then morality, and thirdly chastity. Today it is first thought of in sexual terms, but that is a distraction from what purity is about. To give purity its due, knowledge and honesty should be in its understanding way before any sexual connotation. Now Jesus was not distracted, and in his Sermon on the Mount he gives the result of those being pure in heart as seeing God. Humans lust for many things, but who can deny that we are distracted from seeing God. The bottom line of the Humanist Manifesto III is that the responsibility for our lives and the kind of world we live in is ours and ours alone. That is so distracted that it is close to the very definition of sin.
    I think it’s obvious from Jesus example that your not impure if you interact with the culture( and the impure, as opposed to avoiding). And to me his method of discipline, as highlighted in the situation of the woman caught in the act of adultery, is exemplary.
    And I would like to say again. Mind your own business. If anyone sins against you( not others, or the Bible, or the culture, or morality) go and tell it between you and that person alone. Amazing if you really think about it. If Caiaphas had followed that simple teaching , his world would have been a much better place.

  7. One thing that the Pharisees were able to do that the other sects of Judaism were not able to sufficiently do is survive exile. They were able to create a version of Judaism that neither required the Temple, nor was a reaction against the corruption of the Temple. “Shimon the Righteous was among the survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: The world depends on three things — on Torah study, on the service [of God], and on kind deed” (Pirkei Avot 1:2). This mindset made them much more robust and resilient than their fellows.

    • cermak_rd says

      Yes. This. The Pharisees were able to morph Judaism from an animal sacrifice in the Temple type religion to a lived religion that needed no Temple nor sacrificial animals. Most Jews consider them to be the fathers of modern Judaism.

      So to me, the Pharisees are the good guys. Of course, I don’t have to deal with the nutty Pharisees described in the Christian Scriptures.

      • I hear you, cermak!

      • Danielle says

        I’m not sufficiently up on the scholarship, having not thought about this in a while. But I suspect one could make a sound argument for understanding Jesus and Paul are to some extent participants in the broad tradition of Phariseeism. Paul clearly began his career as a Pharisee, and even after his conversion, he’s asking the same kinds of questions. Hence the Book of Romans. I think Wright has gone through some lengths to point that out. Jesus, meanwhile, was constantly quarreling with Pharisees. This tells me that Jesus and they were constantly in each other’s way, which is exactly what one would expect from next of kin.

        If I’m on the right track in suggesting this, this fact makes Jesus and Paul’s criticism or adaptations no less important or biting. But it does help us to see how all these players are situated in the same context–and asking the same questions: Who will Israel survive and how will God’s promises be be kept, vindicated?

        • Danielle says

          *How will Israel survive and how will God’s promises be be kept, vindicated?

          Excuse various other types.

        • But I suspect one could make a sound argument for understanding Jesus and Paul are to some extent participants in the broad tradition of Phariseeism.

          You’re absolutely correct about this. There is a very real sense that both Jesus’ and Paul’s criticisms of the Pharisees were somewhat of an in-house debate. They certainly shared most of the same basic root assumptions about God and Israel; assumptions that they would not have shared with, say, the Sadducees or Essenes. The major issue was not the hypocrisy of the Pharisees as a group anymore than we would say the same about Evangelicals as a group. The major issue was whether Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah and what the implications for the People of God would be if that were the case.

          Criticism of hypocrisy is something that the Pharisees did to each other. In the Talmud, we see a description of seven types of Pharisees (Sotah 22b, paraphrased by Robert Stein):

          “1) the “shoulder” Pharisee, who wears his good actions on his shoulder for all to see; (2) the “wait-a-little” Pharisee, who finds excuses for putting off a good deed; (3) the “bruised” Pharisee, who to avoid looking at a woman runs into walls; (4) the “pestle” or hunched-over Pharisee, who walks bent over in pretended humility; and (5) the “ever-reckoning” Pharisee, who is always weighing his good deeds against his bad. . . . (6) the “God-fearing” Pharisee, who lives in holy awe and the fear of God, and (7) the “God-loving” Pharisee, who loves God from his heart.”

          The first five are all hypocrites. The latter two are genuinely pious. One of my favorite bits of Rabbinic literature is Pirkei Avot “The Ethics of the Fathers” from the Mishnah. Chapter 5 includes several lists of hypocrites as contrasted with the real deal with regards to students of Torah, disciples of the sages, contributors to charity, temperaments among people in general. . .

          The fact is, I get the Pharisees. I like those guys, ‘cuz I can identify with them, even the hypocrites.

  8. Okay, so if evangelicals = Pharisees, then would that mean that post-evangelicals = Sadducees?

    • No one simply equated “evangelicals” with Pharisees here, Aaron.

      I asked the question, “Sound familiar?”

      As discussed above, perhaps this characterization may apply to any group concerned about “saving” a tradition they deem valuable by exercising an active zeal for purity. Perhaps many of us are prone to the Pharasaic approach.

      On the other hand, you raise an interesting question for another post — in what ways are some of us prone to the Sadducean approach?

      • Perhaps in depending too much on culture, and deep pending too much on material things? The Sadducees were more closely associated with the Romans at that time, and they were the ones in charge of the temple.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        On the other hand, you raise an interesting question for another post — in what ways are some of us prone to the Sadducean approach?

        Sounds like a topic for the next posting, contrasting the Pharisee with the Sadducee. I suspect the two would be funhouse-mirror reflections of each other, like Communists and Objectivists. Total opposites on the surface, but very similar beneath.

  9. “We picture them holding various hoops and requiring ordinary folks to jump through them to prove their worthiness, their fitness for the kingdom of heaven.”

    It seems that this drew the ire of Jesus more often than anything else in scripture, no? I don’t remember their “zeal” being an issue with our Lord, other than not being able to live up to the standards they set.

    • I guess the question is why they did this. It wasn’t simply because of a belief that they were showing people the way of “salvation.” It was because they thought if people didn’t shape up Israel was doomed.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says


      • “This was about national survival, the Kingdom of God vs. the kingdoms of this world.”

        Irony of ironies that in taking the impetus of establishing the “kingdom of God” into their own hands they were blind to the King in their midst.

  10. The Sadducees were ultimately the ones who conspired for Jesus’ death after he condemned the temple cult and over turned the tables of the money lenders and sellers in the temple. They were the ones in charge of the temple, and where the high priests came out of. As far as they were concerned, God’s Word was just the Torah. Anything after that was not, so they didn’t believe in things like the resurrection from the dead, coming messiah, and that sort of thing. The Pharisees did, therefore Jesus had more in common with the Pharisees than the other Jewish sects. I think that’s why he debated with them the most, as he had more in common with them.

    From my New Testament studies, the Sadducees were more closely associated with the Romans, and often tipped the Governor off in terms of who might be causing trouble, like they did with Jesus as many think the guards that came to start him included Roman and Jewish soldiers, so Pilate was kind of in on it. They were also corrupt in other ways beyond having too close ties to the Romans. They were the ones Jesus directed Matthew 23 to and they met their end in 70CE as their sole place was the temple and with no temple, there was no need for them.

    • Drena, the book under consideration is about Paul. And Paul was a Pharisee. That is why we’re talking about them. The fact that the Sadducees controlled the temple was of great concern to the Pharisees.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Like the gang-fights you get in Jerusalem to this day — between monastic orders (often between Eastern and Western Rites) as to WHO is supposed to be in charge of which Holy Site in the Holy CIty.

      • I’m aware of that. But I noticed people talking about the Sadduccees, so thought I’d add some information on who the Sadduccees were and how they differed from the Pharisees.

  11. Sounds very familiar. I am now of the opinion that any zealous embrace of political banter, right or left, becomes a convenient diversion from the way of the cross. Politics couched in religiosity, blended with some prosperity gospel, is a virtual salvation from the way of suffering and descent that Christ exemplified, epitomized and mandated. In a slightly tweaked social and political environment ones own suffering would be absolutely assured by speaking against that shining path to glory and domination for God’s ‘Kingdom’.

    • David Cornwell says

      Wow! Amen ChrisS. You are preaching the Word.

    • Final Anonymous says

      +1. Religion + politics = politics.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        I disagree. The two are indivisible. My religion is the foundation for my politics. I doubt one can have one without the other – although the degree two which the two are coherent certainly – like all human things – varies. One informs one perception of ones’ fellow citizens/neighbors, what type of society should exist, how people should be addressed – these are all absolutely fundamentally political questions.

        The politic is the citizens of the nation, their religious beliefs matter.

        • I disagree with your disagreement, Adam. While religion may shape your politics, you better not let poltics shape your religion. And trying to mix politics and JESUS can get real messy and ugly, with Jesus losing. For example, if I’m trying to witness and mix in my polticial stances to people who don’t agree with me politically, there’s a good chance they’ll miss out on Jesus. The Good News of the Gospel gets trumped by politics. Not good.

    • Volkmar (aka Tom) says

      Ditto, Chris.

  12. Why do I think some of the directions this discussion is taking would be different if the US had ever been invaded and occupied by another country’s armies?


    • That’s a fair point, numo. Their approach didn’t come about in a vacuum. And the history they saw themselves heirs of was a long and difficult one of being under foreign powers. Modern Israel maintains this aggressive defensive posture. Many who try to talk about Israel’s policies forget that when you have the history they do, life looks different.

      • CM, I’d have to take issue with the comparison between 1st c. /Palestine and the modern state of Israel *if* that’s what this post was about. I don’t think they’re anything close to a 1:1 thing – not that I think that was the point you were attempting to make. So I won’t open that particular can of worms.

        But I’m willing to bet that what Wright says about the Pharisees isn’t true of all Pharisees by any means. Nor am I certain that our understanding of 1st c. Palestine and its culture is on the mark, either. It might be true of some of the population, but not all, and might be quite varied depending on who is being spoken to/about – urban, rural, educated, uneducated, farmers and artisans or the well to do, etc. There’s lots we don’t know.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Depends on when that invasion happened. Maybe so if it happened before the image of the Pharisee as a finger-wagging hair-splitter became the accepted image – when did that happen? It seems well established by the time I came of age [1980s]. People used it colloquially to mean that.

      Also the USA probably doesn’t have a significant enough Jewish population for them to serve as a icons in revolutionary rhetoric. We’d be cherry picking quotes Thomas Paine, George Washington, etc… and a few select verses – just like we do now; not that there is anything wrong with that, so long as you recognize if for what it is.

      On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to even imagine who could invade and occupy the United States; we have after all the largest standing army in all of human history, unparalleled industrial capacity, and planet scorching weaponry at our disposal. From these heights it is easy to forget the survival stress that is a day-to-day reality in even the halls of the powerful of many nations; we don’t live in a house of cards, many many many people do. We tell ourselves scary stories for amusement, and laugh at them because they are so absurd. In this way we are so far from the Pharisees. Hmmm, indeed.

      • Danielle says

        “On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to even imagine who could invade and occupy the United States…”

        Just this fact alone means so much.

        As contemporary Americans, we are tempted to read the gospels as though they are directed specifically at “us” as individuals and as modern day citizens.

        Some are tempted to view the US as new “Israel”.

        Actually we are the Romans.

      • Adam, there were Jewish immigrants in the original 13 colonies, and the 1st N. American synagogue, Touro, is in Newport, RI. They’ve got a letter from George Washington in their archives.

        It might not be as difficult as you think to establish the contributions of Jewish people to 18th-early 19th c. American history, though the earliest immigrants were Sephardic (originally from Spain and Portugal, they fled from the Inquisition), in contrast to the wave of Ashkenazic (central and Eastern European people) who started arriving here later on in the 19th c.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          I agree with you; they have always been here, but demographically they have always been a small minority. The colonial Jews did make significant contributions to American history – but they do not exist in the memory of the culture-at-large – along with many many other groups who contributed [positively and negatively] to where we are now. History as remembered in the zeitgeist is, sadly, not meritocratic.

          • I think you make a good point re. popular imagination vs. history and historical fact. They’re often poles apart.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Exactly. This in one problem many people overlook – that when you are talking about history you are talking about HIstories [emphasis – plural], this contributes to so many discussions descending into dog-fights.

            There is capital-H Histrorian History, and there is popular-history, and in fact many popular-histories as popular histories can be regional. A historians meaning of a term like “Yankee” and New Yorker’s meaning and a Georgian’s meaning may be very different. But it is easy to assume when you hear a term that the speaker means *your* meaning, and the dogs are loosed.

  13. Michael Spencer made an effort at one time to stop us from thinking of the Pharisees as the “bad guys” of the Jesus story. They wanted the Israelites of the first century to prove they were serious about keeping God’s Law. The Kingdom of Israel during the time of Saul, David and Solomon failed to do so and the divided Kingdom was a result of God’s judgement. The Babylonian captivity was an act of judgment but a remnant returned to rebuild. The Pharisees of the first century recognized they lived under Roman occupation and still thought that keeping the Law, and convincing others to do the same, would bring about an expulsion of the Romans and a king to their throne. When Israel put away other gods and lived faithfully as his people only, God was respond.

    The Pharisees are not bad guys, they are religious guys. We will always fail to keep the Law perfectly and what we needed was an all-sufficient sacrifice. They feared Jesus and any other rebel rouser that would evoke a response from the Romans, which of course did happen in A.D. 70.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > The Pharisees are not bad guys, they are religious guys.

      They were also the nationalist guys. This part is hard for us xtians, today, to parse. You cannot even really fault them for this – Israel was a nation, and its people were united by their religion, … this does not fit the modern concept of the nation-state or the modern thoughts about religion [separate from nation or ethnicity]. Native american tribes may be our nearest equivalent, and even that seems like a rough equivalent. There is something collective about Israel in OT scripture, and even a bit in the NT, which just doesn’t apply to gentile Christianity.

      But from the [understandable in its context] nationalist tone of much of scripture the modern Evangelicals have adopted an `updated` version of that message – so they sound much the same, although there message has much less [or no] historical merit. The Evangelical culture-warrior message cannot really be the same as they are (a) not a subjugated/occupied people (b) they not in diaspora but full citizens in a sovereign [and *VERY* powerful] homeland. Hence they sound alike, but are different at the same time.

      Also violent or forceful means are not available/feasible for Evangelicals – an open-rebellion would be a *short* fight and the modern legal system would not turn a blind eye [as might have to priest in 0AD] towards out-right violence [which is not to say it does not show leniency towards certain marginal activities in some parts of nation].

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        You cannot even really fault them for this – Israel was a nation, and its people were united by their religion, …

        They came from a time and place where religious identity, national identity, and tribal/racial identiy were all mixed together until you couldn’t separate them.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          It would be several centuries before the notion that you could separate these things would start to take root. And today not everyone accepts such an untangling.

          • Rick Ro. says

            Indeed, there are churches in America today where the flag almost gets equal billing with the cross.

          • Volkmar (aka Tom) says

            ndeed, there are churches in America today where the flag almost gets equal billing with the cross.

            As in every Southern Baptist denom. building I’ve ever set foot in (more than a few).

      • Israel – it was also God and Nation and not God and personal relationship. Also, Israel in Jesus’s time was fragmented with Greco-roman cities interspersed among traditional Jewish lands. Keeping an identity, keeping the temple from being ransacked or destroyed played heavily on their minds. The ultra-nationalists, the zealots were among the chief worry, upsetting the status quo. What a powder keg those times must have been.

    • Who said they were bad guys? In fact, as Wright says, they were respected, popular, and influential.

  14. The Sadducees upheld the books of law as ultimate authority, while the Pharisees the teachers of “smooth things”, upheld oral traditions with equal authority. It’s difficult to say who truly held the high ground.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      There was also diversity within the Pharisee ‘movement’, at least what I’ve read indicated that [they were not homogenous, except in a tone and desire]. I know less about the Sadducees, except that they were fewer in number, so possibly just more homogenous due to the numbers.

      But I don’t think this is an argument about who held the high ground.

      Both views seem to hold some merit; but the Pharisees clearly ‘won’.

      From the little I’ve read my question is: For the Sadducees, what was the point? Mere continuance? They seem [again from what *little* I’ve read] to almost have removed The Spirit [*1] from the religion, and just… it **seems** to have been reduced to a literary club. Obviously they felt differently. If there is a well-written book on the Sadducees for the amateur historian, I would be interested in the recommendation. The Pharisees have earned themselves a lot more pages.

      [*1] for lack of a better term. I cannot bring myself to use the term “spirituality”, as at this point in my life any and every use of that word fires my gag instinct, hard.

  15. Joe Rigney says

    “Sound familiar?”

    Kinda sounds like the folks who got Mozilla’s CEO fired for donating to an impure cause…

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I do not see that parrallel.

      The Pharisees were nationalist, identity was very important to them, the preservation of their way of life. This is why the portrayal of them as hair-splitting tsck-tsck school-marm moralists is incorrect. That is not like the Mozilla people at all.

      I’ve been an Open Source developer and administrator of primarily Open Source software stacks for 25 years. What has happened in the Mozilla foundation is more along the line of ‘do gooders’. This has taken root to various degrees in a variety of OSS foundations and projects. Where once OSS was proud of it’s meritocratic ethos – he who commits wins – there is now a strong [and IMNSHO *weird*] agenda politic. There are posts about supporting our fellow LGBT developers, and women developers, and whom-ever. Not the Best developers, or the developers most eager to learn, but developers identified by some non-meritocratic attribute. This is really sad, as the meritocratic meme has been what made OSS so much fun. I’ve worked with people from all over the world who had all manner of identities from priests and pastors to monarchists to hippies and athiests. But their identity was always a side-bar, if it ever came up, and it only came up with (a) people you worked with a lot for a protracted period of time or (b) if someone wanted to bring it up. Most of the people I’ve worked with – I have no idea who they are beyond possibly a location – other than “Man, that guy/gal is good at what he/she does”. And why would it? It was the joy of the project, working on the task-at-hand. These `activist developers` are not doing anyone any favors; but “Man, that guy/gal sure is pompous and annoying, can we look at the code now?”

      In my admittedly not charitable opinion – I think the cause of the LGBT is currently vogue, and easy [what personal sacrifice does this crusade require?]. It is ideally suited for the arm-chair moral warrior; so he’ll off-topic it into any thread he can.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        What has happened in the Mozilla foundation is more along the line of ‘do gooders’. This has taken root to various degrees in a variety of OSS foundations and projects. Where once OSS was proud of it’s meritocratic ethos – he who commits wins – there is now a strong [and IMNSHO *weird*] agenda politic.

        AKA The Kyle’s Moms have taken over.

      • “In my admittedly not charitable opinion – I think the cause of the LGBT is currently vogue, and easy [what personal sacrifice does this crusade require?]. It is ideally suited for the arm-chair moral warrior; so he’ll off-topic it into any thread he can.”

        Totally agree. Especially when you are visited by the Gay Lobby and told to pony up as a sponsor for their event or suffer business consequences. Talk about “culture warrior”. And I have no prob with civil marriages as a Libertarian. I have a big problem with strong arm tactics that are similar to what the Klan used back in the 70’s over busing.