You Pharisee!

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Anyone who has spent any length of time in church during their lifetime has inevitably heard about the Pharisees.  Beyond that, we’ve probably all heard, and repeated, phrases like this; “Don’t be a Pharisee!” or “Quit acting like a Pharisee.”  When we hear the term “Pharisee” is your emotional reaction to it one that is positive, or negative?  If a poll were to be conducted there is no doubt that it would overwhelmingly show that our view of them is negative.  “Of course they were the bad guys!” we instinctively think.  “They were just a bunch of hypocrites!” is another claim we take as the gospel truth, and something we each have undoubtedly uttered at least once in our lives.
phariseesHowever, there is something that we’ve missed.  And we’ve missed it because, sadly, context is something that is not highly valued (generally) in the church as a whole today.  When we read the Scriptures we instinctively do so through our cultural lens, from our perspective, and generally have no inkling of thought to ask ourselves about the context of them.  We would do well to remember that the Scriptures were not written in a vacuum.  They were written at a specific time in history to a specific people in history, which lived in a culture generally foreign to us.

contextWhat is it that we are missing regarding what we’ve heard about the Pharisees?  What is it in the context that, if we are humble enough to learn and try to understand, will give us a better picture of this “hypocritical” bunch of people Yeshua (Jesus) was always seemingly fighting with?

When we think of the Pharisees, we think of one cohesive group of people (hypocrites, naturally).  But the Pharisees weren’t robots, they weren’t all of the same.  In fact there were 7 (yes seven!) types of Pharisees in the first century.  We assume that they were the only face of Judaism and they all spent every waking minute out to “get” Yeshua.  But did you know that historical Jewish writings also criticized Pharisees?  We ‘assume’ only Yeshua had an issue with them (outside of the Sadducees which were a very (very!) small group within 1st Century Judaism).   At least two of the Jewish historical writings records this list of seven Pharisees.  The Jerusalem is critical of five and complimentary of only two types.  The Babylonian Talmud records seven also, and is critical of at least five types.

What are the seven types?  They are as follows:

Hypocrites (‘Bad’ Pharisees):
1. The Pharisee “shoulder” exhibited their good works before men as if they carried a badge of honor on your shoulder or chest. Yeshua began his allegations against this type of Pharisee as we see in Matthew 23:4.
2. The Pharisee “expect to see” asks someone to wait on a good deed he could do for them in order to perform an act of charity to be seen.  Also described as using preoccupation with a commandment to get out of doing a good deed.
3. The “blind” Pharisee goes to great lengths (or pretends to) to avoid looking upon a woman, that causes him to stumbles into walls and bleeds on them
4. The Pharisee “mortar” walked with his head down, in a bent posture, to avoid seeing any temptation.
5. The Pharisee “counter” commits one sin and follows it up with a good deed, thinking he has made up for it and more, always telling others of his good deeds
Good Pharisees:
6. The “God-fearing” Pharisee, who was a good and virtuous man, who feared Elohim (God) like Job.

7. The Pharisee “lover of God”, who had a real love of Elohim, like Abraham.

Hopefully this gives you a different perspective and causes you to realize that not all Pharisees were ‘hypocrites’ and, going forward, resist the urge to call others who you disagree with by the same term.  The real ‘bad guys’ in the Apostolic writings (New Testament) are more likely the Sadducees.  But that’s a topic for another day!
Did the Pharisees have issues, generally?  Sure!  Do we have issues today with how we approach the Scriptures and conduct ourselves?  Yes.  It is safe to say that they meant well, but many of them lost focus.  Perhaps you can relate to that?
Is this an apologetic piece for the Pharisees? No.  Rather, as stated above, this is to help us understand that behind the accounts we read in the Scriptures is a real world with real people with real issues.  There is a context to be searched out.  And by grasping that context, the Scriptures then begin to come alive.  Sometimes it even feels like a light in a dark room has been turned on.  There is an excitement about the Word of God that is experienced when we understand more of the picture.

May we be a people who sets out to understand the Scriptures in a greater manner.  Who realize that if we don’t understand the context we are shortchanging ourselves and those whose lives we have the privilege to speak into.  Especially the lives our children, the next generation.

To learn more about this subject we highly recommend an excellent teaching by Rico Cortes entitled “First Century Context of the First Century Writings (Complete Series)” at

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