A Good Word for the Pharisees

Several Jewish groups oppose Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. The most frequent of these sparring partners are the Pharisees, who are roughly coterminous with the “scribes” and “teachers of the law.” As portrayed in the conservative Christianity of my upbringing, the Pharisees were strict moralists who had lost view of God’s compassion and boasted in their superior religiosity. Sometimes we do indeed get a snapshot of them that fits this image (e.g., Luke 18:9–14). But this presentation by itself, if not filled out with the fuller witness of Scripture, is caricature.[1]

So let me put in a good word for the Pharisees.

Christians & Pharisees: Kindred Movements

A closer reading of the New Testament reveals that Pharisees are sometimes allies of Jesus and His followers.

  • Luke 13:31: Pharisees warn Jesus of Herod’s plot against his life.
  • Luke 20:39: Teachers of the law applaud Jesus’ scriptural defense of the resurrection.
  • Acts 5:33–42: Gamaliel’s counsel dissuades the Sanhedrin from killing Peter and other apostles.
  • Acts 22:30–23:11: The Pharisees in the Sanhedrin side with Paul on the resurrection and vigorously demand his acquittal.

More than that, a number of Pharisees were Christians. There was a noticeable enough contingent of them to precipitate the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:5). Although the apostolic decision went against them, they were likely motivated not by ill will or prejudice, but rather by a straightforward reading of Genesis 17:9–14: circumcision is required of all males joining the people of God. This is not the only indication of Pharisaic Christianity in Acts. When James the brother of Jesus speaks of “many thousands of Jews [who] have believed,” who are “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), presumably no small share of them were Pharisees. Perhaps also a Pharisee was the Ananias who prayed for Paul after his vision of the glorified Jesus, whom the apostle calls “a devout observer of the law” (Acts 22:12). The language of “zeal” and “devotion” for the law was particularly apt for Pharisees.

The most famous Christian Pharisee by far, however, is the apostle Paul. We learn of this association both from Acts (26:5) and his own letters (Phil 3:5). It is easy to read these two references as simply a relic of his pre-Christian past. Although he classifies his Pharisaic background as a “loss” compared to Christ (Phil 3:7), this is not a loss absolutely, but only relative to the Messiah. Indeed, most of the items on that list (Phil 3:5–6) Paul retained as a Christian: he did not cease, for example, to be “of the people of Israel.” Rather, his Jewish heritage held value for him throughout his life (Rom 9:4–5; 11:28–29). Nothing in Acts or Philippians implies that he dispensed with his Pharisaic roots upon meeting Christ. To the contrary, in his trial before the Sanhedrin mentioned above, Paul declares himself to be, in the present, “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). This is after more than two decades as a Christian and missionary work spanning the northeast quadrant of the Mediterranean basin. Were this a onetime occurrence, we might be tempted to explain Paul’s declaration as gamesmanship to play a divided crowd, but in concert with the prior references, it seems instead that he remained to the end a Christian Pharisee, if perhaps an atypical one.

Historical and Contemporary Importance

This is of interest historically. Our understanding of early Christians is skewed if we neglect their several commonalities with Pharisees. But it is also of contemporary importance. If someone today slanders Jesus, we ourselves feel the slight. Similarly, since modern forms of Judaism derive from Pharisaism more than any other Jewish party of Jesus’ day, they likewise may take offense at our words. Without doubt, most often the Pharisees are characterized in the New Testament as being overly rigorous in their interpretation of the law, as when they oppose Jesus’ healings simply because “work” should not be done on the Sabbath (e.g., Mark 3:1–6 pars.). Nonetheless, as Christians, we can do better than employ the Pharisee as a trope for a self-righteous, judgmental legalist. We must take care lest we unintentionally insult contemporary Jews, with whom we share much.

Written by Timothy Gabrielson

Timothy Gabrielson is assistant professor of biblical studies at Sterling College in Kansas and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute.

[1] I was first alerted to positive aspects of the Pharisees in a class at Denver Seminary with Craig Blomberg. Luke 13:31 is one of his examples. See his Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 50–51.