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Particulars of Christianity:
312 The Church Ethic

Being Like the Pharisees

The Church Ethic: Introduction
Church Ethic Scripture References
Being Like the Pharisees
Reason and Learning through Questions

A recurring theme in Jesus' ministry was the ongoing tension and struggle with those who were the leaders over the people of God in his day. This included two main groups, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. It is clear from the New Testament record that Jesus was adamant that the practices of these groups not take hold in the church. Three of the four gospels provide Jesus' explicit statements to this effect.

Matthew 16: 6 "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees and Sadducees."... 11 How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast (2219) used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Mark 8: 15 "Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch out for the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees and that of Herod."

Luke 12: 1 Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: "Be on your guard against the yeast (2219) of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

Paul also alludes to this reference from Jesus in Galatians were he is concerned that the Christians have been hindered in their following of Jesus' teaching. He describes what was undermining their obedience to the truth as "leaven" and uses the same Greek word that is translated as "yeast" in Matthew 16:6, 11, 12, Mark 8:15, and Luke 12:1.

Galatians 5: 7 Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? 8 This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. 9 A little (2219) leaven leaveneth the whole lump.

As persons who have at times been compared to the Pharisees and their teaching, we felt it would be helpful to provide some much needed historical clarity on who these people were, what it is that Jesus condemned about them, and what it is that Jesus forbid the church from becoming like.

The typical modern understanding of a Pharisee is someone who seeks to strictly uphold the letter of the law and overlooks what the Spirit is doing today. In what is an unbelievable irony, however, this characterization is completely reversed from the true historical case. In reality, what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for, and forbid Christians from doing, is really the exact opposite of what most people today think it is.

A few common resources make this fact clear by comparing the differences between the Pharisees and their contemporary rivals, the Sadducees.

Pharisee - The basic difference that led to the split between the Pharisees and the Sadducees lay in their respective attitudes toward the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the problem of finding in it answers to questions and bases for decisions about contemporary legal and religious matters arising under circumstances far different from those of the time of Moses. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004

As the quote above attests, the chief question at issue between the Pharisees and Sadducees was how to address modern problems in relation to God's Word, which had been revealed over 13 centuries earlier in times and circumstances that were much different. These two groups took two different approaches to solving the problem of applying God's Word to the new and different cultural landscape that they lived in. Their respective approaches were based upon how they viewed the Word of God itself. The following quotes describe these respective differences.

Sadducee - The Sadducees and Pharisees were in constant conflict with each other, not only over numerous details of ritual and the Law but most importantly over the content and extent of God's revelation to the Jewish people. The Sadducees refused to go beyond the written Torah (first five books of the Bible)...For the Sadducees, the Oral Law-i.e., the vast body of post-biblical Jewish legal traditions-meant next to nothing. By contrast, the Pharisees revered the Torah but further claimed that oral tradition was part and parcel of Mosaic Law. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004

Pharisee - In their response to this problem, the Sadducees, on the one hand, refused to accept any precept as binding unless it was based directly on the Torah, i.e., the Written Law. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that the Law that God gave to Moses was twofold, consisting of the Written Law and the Oral Law, i.e., the teachings of the prophets and the oral traditions of the Jewish people. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004

Pharisee - Second, the Pharisees believed that there were two Torahs. In addition to the Torah recognized by the Saducees, which both Saducees and Pharisees believed was written by Moses, the Pharisees believed that there was another Torah. - wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisee

The Pharisees and the Sadducees viewed God's revelation to mankind in very different ways. The Sadducees held that only the written Word of God was authoritative and divinely inspired. The Pharisees, on the other hand, not only accepted the written Word, but more to the point, they also regarded their ongoing oral traditions and the work of their own contemporary scholars as being equally authoritative divine revelation.

The difference in how their respective views on divine revelation affected their approach to religious practice and teaching was dramatic.

Pharisee - Whereas the priestly Sadducees taught that the written Torah was the only source of revelation, the Pharisees admitted the principle of evolution in the Law; men must use their reason in interpreting the Torah and applying it to contemporary problems. Rather than blindly follow the letter of the Law even if it conflicted with reason or conscience, the Pharisees harmonized the teachings of the Torah with their own ideas or found their own ideas suggested or implied in it. They interpreted the Law according to its spirit; when in the course of time a law had been outgrown or superseded by changing conditions, they gave it a new and more acceptable meaning, seeking scriptural support for their actions through a ramified system of hermeneutics. It was due to this progressive tendency of the Pharisees that their interpretation of the Torah continued to develop and has remained a living force in Judaism. - Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004

Pharisee - they asserted that the sacred scriptures were not complete and could therefore not be understood on their own terms. The Oral Torah functioned to elaborate and explicate what was written... Thus, one may conceive of the "Oral Torah" not as a fixed text but as an ongoing process of analysis and argument; this is an ongoing process in which God is actively involved...by participating in this ongoing process rabbis and their students are actively participating in God's ongoing revelation. That is, "revelation" is not a single act, and "Torah" is not a single or fixed text. It is this ongoing process of analysis and argument that is itself the substance of God's revelation. - wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisee

While the Sadducees held to the authority of the written Word alone for determining religious belief and practice, the Pharisees were extremely liberal in what they considered authoritative. Unlike their counterparts, the Pharisees viewed God's revelation not as fixed in the written Word, but as evolving over time. For them, the written Word became outdated and at times would be superceded by ongoing revelation through which God's word would have a meaning more accommodating to contemporary living. To the Pharisees, the written Word of God was inadequate, incomplete, and couldn't even be properly understood without ongoing revelation and guidance through men such as themselves.

It is these practices of the Pharisees regarding God's Word that Jesus fervently rejected. Throughout the course of his ministry he repeatedly and decisively rebuked them by appealing to the written Word to correct the errors brought by their acceptance of "ongoing revelation," the traditions of they themselves invented. He declared over and over that their ongoing evolution and adaptation of God's written Word contradicted God's will and was not from God, but was merely the vain teachings of men. The following passages all bear this out.

Matthew 15: 6 Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

Matthew 15: 9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

Mark 7: 7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

Mark 7: 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."

Matthew 12: 3 He answered, "Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?

Matthew 19: 4 "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' 5 and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Matthew 21: 16 "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, "'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise' (Psalm 8:2)?"

Matthew 21: 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'(Psalm 118:22,23)?

Matthew 22: 29 Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead--have you not read what God said to you, 32 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob' (Exodus 3:6) ? He is not the God of the dead but of the living."

Mark 2: 25 He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."

Mark 12: 10 Haven't you read this scripture: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes' (Psalm 118:22,23)?"

Mark 12: 24 Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising--have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob' ( Exodus 3:6)? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!"

Luke 6: 3 Jesus answered them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."

With all of this in mind, it is almost impossible to comprehend how many in the modern church community could have gotten this so wrong. In the New Testament, Jesus condemns those who malign the written Word as insufficient and outdated and who assert an ongoing revelation from God, which alone can properly explain and adapt the scripture to our modern culture. In his day, the Pharisees were such men. And Jesus sternly warned his disciples from adopting such an approach.

Today, many of those who claim to be Jesus' followers, adopt this very approach of the Pharisees and apply it to Jesus' own teaching passed on to the church in the New Testament writings of His apostles. Such persons adapt and evolve the written word in order to more comfortably suit the changes in times and cultures in which God's people live today. Just like the Pharisees, they justify this with appeals to ongoing revelation, claims of outdated scriptural protocols, and supposed insufficiency in the written Word. And ironically they condemn as being Pharisaic those who, like Christ and his apostles, hold tightly to the written Word as authoritative, as wholly sufficient and understandable, and who reject manmade traditions, which nullify God's commands.

In conclusion, the idea that the Pharisees are characterized by strict adherence to the written Word is patently false. They were strict in their adherence, but not to the written Word of God. Instead they firmly held to the ongoing traditions and teachings of men with which they had replaced it. Sadly, the modern church has not heeded Jesus' instructions, but has indeed embraced this type of yeast from the Pharisees, which has now spread through the whole lump and persuaded many away from the truth of God's Word, turning them instead unto the teachings of men.

Perhaps after a review of the historical information above, those who might have previously criticized us as "Pharisaic," might think that their criticism is valid but that they simply matched us to the wrong group. In light of this, perhaps they might seek to maintain their criticism by labeling us as Sadducees. However, such a labeling is not possible. The Sadducees were defined by characteristics, which do not at all apply to us. Specifically, they did not believe in the existence of spirits, in angels, or in the resurrection - all of which we affirm.

In addition, it has been suggested that the Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch or written Torah) and did not regard the writings of the prophets with the same authoritative esteem.

"Sadducee - The Sadducees refused to go beyond the written Torah (first five books of the Bible)..." - britannica.com

"Christianity, The relation of the early church to late Judaism - ...Sadducees, who accepted only the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch), and the more popular and strict Pharisees. The Pharisees not only accepted biblical books outside the Pentateuch..." - britannica.com

"Sadducees, Decline of Sadduceeism - (see Hippolytus, "Refutatio Hæresium," ix. 29; Epiphanius, l.c. xiv.; and other Church Fathers, who ascribe to the Sadducees the rejection of the Prophets and the Hagiographa..." - jewishencyclopedia.com

This suggestion itself might be an overstatement. In other words, the Sadducees' rejection of the ongoing oral tradition of the Pharisees might be interpreted as a rejection of anything after the Pentateuch, including the prophets, when in fact perhaps the prophets were retained and only the ongoing oral tradition was rejected. Nevertheless, for the sake of answering a potential criticism of our approach, we will address this suggestion that the Sadducees may have rejected the writings of the prophets.

In modern terms, this might be equivalent to accepting only the Gospels (and perhaps Acts), while rejecting the epistles of Paul or the Book of Revelation as later extensions of Jesus' teaching (perhaps in the same sense that the Old Testaments might be seen as later extensions of the Torah). However, while we deny that post-canonical human traditions are authoritative or are "ongoing revelations" (such as the works of Christian scholars down through the ages), we fully embrace the entire New Testament canon (Gospels, Acts, epistles, and Revelation) as equally authoritative. So we do not fit this suggested trait of the Sadducees either.

But ironically, some of those who might falsely describe us as "Pharisees" do indeed fit this suggested trait of the Sadducees. For example, some modern Christians have become uncomfortable with the writings of Paul. To illustrate, Paul makes many explicit statements concerning excommunication and the submission of women to men, which are vastly out of vogue with modern western culture and postmodern concepts of "loving others." As a consequence, some such persons may even reject the writings of Paul and in some sense may claim to follow "only the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels." Such a practice would in fact be quite similar to the Sadducees (if indeed the Sadducees did regard only the five books of Moses and rejected the prophets). And just as the Sadducees may have been motivated in this regard by their own embrace of pagan Greek culture, modern Christians may be motivated in this regard by their embrace of contemporary western culture, following the pattern of the Sadducees in this way as well.

"Sadducees, In Literature - Sadducees, if not in name, at least in their Epicurean views as opposed to the saints, are depicted also in the Book of Wisdom (i. 16-ii. 22), where the Hellenistic nobility, which occupied high positions likewise in Alexandria, is addressed." - jewishencyclopedia.com

"Sadducees - They espoused the hellenizing tendencies of the Asmonean princes in which they were strongly opposed by the Pharisees..." - www.newadvent.org (the Catholic Encyclopedia)

"Sadducee - They came under the influence of Hellenism..." - britannica.com

Ultimately, if this suggestion regarding the Sadducees is true, the Sadducees and the Pharisees would represented two extreme approaches to God's word, one that rejected huge portions of the canon of scripture (the Sadducees) and the other who accepted the full canon but made their own ongoing, evolving oral tradition of equal weight to the canon (the Pharisees). Both approaches obviously overturn portions of the teachings of God. And perhaps both views have inevitably found their way into the Church. In chapters XI.7 and XV.1 of Book III from his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus even documents that syncretistic and heretical sects were already rejecting certain New Testament books including Paul as early as the first few centuries A.D.

"7. ...So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book. Since, then, our opponents do bear testimony to us, and make use of these [documents], our proof derived from them is firm and true." - Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter XI

"1. But again, we allege the same against those who do not recognise Paul as an apostle: that they should either reject the other words of the Gospel which we have come to know through Luke alone, and not make use of them; or else, if they do receive all these, they must necessarily admit also that testimony concerning Paul..." - Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter XV

Perhaps even Paul's own words in 2 Timothy 3 were in part a warning anticipating such a tendency.

2 Timothy 3:14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

There is of course a valid alternative, a middle ground between these two extremes, one which accepts the full canon without recognizing an evolving, ongoing evolution through post-canonical theologians. And that is exactly the approach that Jesus prescribed and that we wholeheartedly embrace.