Where Did The Pharisees Go Wrong?

I have written at some length previously about the usurpation of the Pharisees [1], and yesterday there was a sermon by one of our deacons (the second part of a message that is scheduled–so far–for four parts, of which I missed the first part because I was out of town).  This particular message went into some interesting details that will require some research and investigation about what went wrong with the Pharisees.  Rather than recap the message I would like to ponder on some of the aspects of the message that I found worthwhile and which will lead to further investigations of my own.  The general question to ask, though, is how did the Pharisees become the villains they are in scripture?  By the time we get to the New Testament, the Pharisees are grabbing power and authority that do not properly belong to them and creating laws that contradict the Bible out of whole cloth, and are in general an unsympathetic lot of people–and remain so to this day when one wants to obey the Bible for what it says without being ensnared in corrupt human tradition.

It is worthwhile to note that the speaker depended heavily on the writings of someone who is somewhat obscure, at least to me, the late Hebraic scholar Jacob Zallel Lauterbach.  Having had some time this afternoon to do a bit of investigation, I found quite a few books he had written that are available on Abe Books for reasonable prices, and so I have added them to my shopping cart, and hope to review them in the next couple of months or so, hopefully.  It was clear from the titles of the material from this author that the speaker had looked at a few of his books, in particular it appeared that he had read Midrash and Mishnah, as those two approaches were directly contrasted in the message as well.  Admittedly, I do not know much about why it was that Lauterbach wrote so critically about the Pharisees and the process by which they achieved dominance in the Jewish world, but his writing was certainly at the base of the message I heard yesterday as well as the Bible study by our retired pastor that was one of the sources of the material discussed yesterday.

While Lauterbach is an obscure figure, at least to me, his research is evidence of the somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the issue of Judaic studies that can be found in the Church of God as a whole.  The attempt to reconstruct as best as possible the practices and doctrines of the apostolic Church of God itself almost requires an ambivalent view towards Judaism.  On the one hand, one has to take the written law of God as well as the prophets and writings seriously.  One also has to make use of studies by scholars who seek to reconstruct the history of Second Temple Judaism, to see where things got wrong and where they got out of hand, and how it was that mainstream Judaism and Christianity both diverged from the biblical faith that we seek to practice today.  Likewise, there is a critical but important use of nonbiblical material, like the calculated calendar, given the fact that the Bible assumes the existence of a lunar-solar calendar already in existence when the Holy Days are spoken of, a living practice that we unfortunately lack in our own times.  Even so, there is a marked hostility to the approach of the Pharisees and their Orthodox successors.

And this was demonstrated by the speaker’s discussion of where it was that the Pharisees went wrong.  For one, the Pharisees started out as lay teachers who were seeking to understand the Bible as best as possible since the priestly aristocracy had abdicated their role as teachers of the nation as a whole.  In their efforts to legitimize social authority as a rival/successor to the priests, they did two things that set them on the wrong path that they continue on to this day.  For one, they supplemented the biblical and proper approach of midrash by which one looks to the scripture as an authority with the approach of mishnah where one’s human reasoning is viewed as a suitable authority that one can look at.  Additionally, the Pharisees sought to legitimize their positions and the traditions that the people had adopted from early Hellenism through the creation out of whole cloth of a supposed oral law that allowed them flexibility in claiming the legitimacy of non-biblical traditions that could not be justified by an appeal to the text of the Bible itself.  Viewing both the oral law and the mishnah approach as a whole as illegitimate puts us against the Pharisees.

Yet at the same time, and this was something I made clear to the speaker in talking with him after church, I can identify a lot with the Pharisees in their early days.  I speak and write as a lay person who has undertaken a fairly extensive amount of self-education when it comes to the Bible and interpretation.  Admittedly, my own opinion is not worth a great deal (neither is anyone else’s), and I have found problems of authority to be immensely vexing ones.  Like the Second Temple period where the Pharisees flourished, we too live in an age where accepted religious and moral authorities are few and far between and where many have abdicated their responsibilities in teaching believers according to God’s laws and ways.  In viewing the Pharisees as the “bad guys” of the New Testament, it is hard at the same to avoid adopting their approach should we seek to overthrow religious authorities as they did.  If we wish to avoid falling into the same trap as the Pharisees, we are placed in the awkward position both of educating ourselves about the Bible as best as possible while maintaining an attitude of respect towards authority even if our relationship with them is likely to be marked by considerable tension and ambivalence.  No one said it was easy doing what was right and proper, though.

[1] See, for example:




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Where Did The Pharisees Go Wrong?

  1. Pingback: Woe To The Scribes And Pharisees: Part One | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Midrash And Mishnah | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Bacher’s Tradition And Traditionalists | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Studies In Jewish Law, Custom And Folklore | Edge Induced Cohesion

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