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The New Testament mentions a group called “Pharisees”. Those who have read the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, may have noticed that Jesus warned people about the Pharisees and their teachings, and that he called them “snakes” and “actors” (pretenders).
This article takes a closer look at what the Scriptures tell us about the Pharisees. Even Matthew 23:2, the matter of “Moses’ seat”, will be sorted out here.
There are different theories in regard to the origin and meaning of the old Greek noun pharisaios (whence the English word “Pharisee”). Some have suggested that pharisaios might have meant “separatist” (in the religio-political context), possibly derived from the old Hebrew word persahin, from the verb parash which meant “to separate”. Whether that is correct, is hard to say.
The writer Josephus (37 – c. 100) was a renegade Jewish general who went over to the Roman side. He claimed that the Pharisees
“live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet, and they follow the contract of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them, they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years […]”
(‘Antiquities of the Jews’, book XVIII, chapter 1; translation by William Whiston.)
So, Josephus claimed that the Pharisees “lived meanly” and “paid respect to such as are in years”. In contrast to that, Jesus said to certain Pharisees that they devoured widows’ houses. [a] Also, the New Testament shows that [at least some of] the Pharisees were lovers of money. [b] So, whom should we believe – Josephus, or Jesus and the Bible?
a Devoured widows’ houses – stated in Matthew 23:14. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” (NKJV; see even Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47.)
b Lovers of money – stated in Luke 16:14. “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him” (NKJV). The Greek text has philarguroi which simply means “lovers of money”.
Matthew 3:7 is the first bible-passage where the Pharisees are mentioned. It records something John the Baptist said to certain Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 3:7 But when he saw a number of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, Offspring of snakes, at whose word are you going in flight from the wrath to come? (BBE, highlighting added)
On an occasion when some Pharisees had spoken evil of Jesus, Jesus told them off and made it clear who were evil.
Matthew 12:34 You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. 35 A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. (NLT04, highlighting added)
Matthew 23 contains a similar passage.
Matthew 23:33 Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell? (NLT04)
A note: This does not mean that all who at some time were associated with the Pharisee party, or had at some time been influenced by its teachings or been in favour of it, were wicked.
Matthew 16:6 And Jesus said to them, Take care to have nothing to do with the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (BBE)
Mark 8:15 And he said to them, Take care to be on the watch against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. (BBE)
Luke 12:1 At that time, when thousands of the people had come together, in such numbers that they were crushing one another, he said first to his disciples, Have nothing to do with the leaven of the Pharisees, which is deceit. (BBE)
In those passages, the word “leaven” (sourdough) refers to the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. That is explained here:
Matthew 16:12 Then they saw that it was not the leaven of bread which he had in mind, but the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (BBE)
So, Jesus warned about the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ teachings. Those teachings were bad, something to keep away from.
Jesus said to certain scribes and Pharisees:
Matthew 23:13 But a curse is on you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! because you are shutting the kingdom of heaven against men: for you do not go in yourselves, and those who are going in, you keep back. (BBE)
Matthew 23:15 A curse is on you, scribes and Pharisees, false ones! for you go about land and sea to get one disciple and, having him, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (BBE)
Right here, the point is that those scribes and Pharisees were lethal – they were harmful, deadly, poisonous as snakes. Several NT passages record how Jesus called them evil, offspring of snakes, and so on.
We know that Jesus castigated the Pharisees, and warned people regarding their teachings. So, let us consider what Matthew 23:2 might mean and refer to.
Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses (NASB95, highlighting added)
The Greek text of verse 2 says that the scribes and Pharisees had “sat down in the seat of Moses”. That is: They acted as if they had such a seat, as if they were judges acting for God. They created countless rules of all kinds, and demanded people to follow them.
In Matthew 23:2–3, many bible-translators have made it seem that Jesus told people, “all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do”. But, it appears that the meaning of the Greek text is something like this:
The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Consequently, they demand you to follow all kinds [of rules], without limit – “Observe, and do!”
There is more on verses 1–4 and their translation and meaning, in an appendix at the end of this article.
A note: There was no “office of Moses” that was passed on from person to person, generation after generation. Jesus was the second Moses (cf. Acts 3:22–23), and not the 36th or 63rd one.
The earlier quoted verse 15 records that Jesus said that the Pharisees’ followers became “sons of hell” (Greek gehenna). This probably meant that they became bound for destruction, death. Verse 33 records that Jesus asked those Pharisees how they thought that they could escape the damnation of gehenna.
Matthew 23:14 records that Jesus said that the Pharisees and scribes “devoured widows’ houses”. Matthew 15:1–6 and Mark 7:9–13 mention an example of how (in what way) they did that: They caused people to neglect their ageing parents, and give the assets that should have been used for taking care of those parents, into the hands of the [Pharisee and Sadducee] priests.
Matthew 12:14 Then the Pharisees went out and took council against him that they might destroy him. (JB)
Mark 3:6 And as the Pharisees went forth, they took counsel with the Herodians against him, to kill him. (JB)
John 11:47 Then the high priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, What shall we do? for this man does many signs. […] 53 So that from that day forth they took counsel together to kill him. (JB)
The end of those things was that Jesus was captured, and that the Jews at the behest of the priests demanded that the Roman government must kill him. And, it did.
Was the apostle Paul a “Pharisee”, after his conversion? No, certainly not. In his earlier life, he had been taught by Pharisees and had probably been a supporter of the Pharisee party, but after his conversion he regarded those things of the past as “dung”. He wrote about this, in a letter to the saints in Philippi:
Philippians 3:5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yes doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ (AKJV)
Verse 8, “dung”: Paul used the Greek word skubalon which meant such things as “filth”, “refuse”, “dung”. The context shows that among other things, he was talking about his Pharisee past. He rejected those things of the past, and left them behind as refuse.
A note: Acts 23:6 does not mean that Paul still supported the Pharisee party. It is obvious that when he, in connection with the matter of resurrection, said to the Jewish council “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee”, he did that merely for the purpose of dividing the council where accusations against him were being examined by both Sadducees and Pharisees. And, he succeeded in that, see Acts 23:6–9.
Some preachers and writers have said that Jesus “commended” the scribes and Pharisees for their meticulous manner of exacting a tithe on certain things. Is that true – did he really commend them? No. Instead, he said to them, “woe to you”. We read:
Matthew 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. […] (ESV01)
Here, one must keep in mind that the tithe was only on the Promised Land’s agricultural produce, and that it was the farmer who set aside the tithe and not the consumer. It is not likely that those scribes and Pharisees would have been farmers, and so, the probable meaning of Matthew 23:23 is that they meticulously “tithed” the produce of their own kitchen gardens.
As you can see, Jesus did not “commend” those scribes and Pharisees. He castigated them.
(The article nma011.htm has more on the “tithe question”, including Matthew 23:23.)
Jesus called several Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes “actors”. Here is one of the passages in question:
Matthew 23:13 “But alas for you, you scribes and Pharisees, play-actors that you are! You lock the doors of the kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces; you will not go in yourselves neither will you allow those at the door to go inside. (PH72)
Where that translation has “play-actors”, the Greek text has hupokritai. Clarification: The old Greek noun hupokritês meant “an actor”, “a stage player”. For instance a kômikos hupokritês was an amusing actor, or an actor who played a part in a kômôidia, comedy. By extension, the word hupokritês was also used in the meaning “dissembler”, “pretender”.
A note: In a theatre of the old Greek type, the actors often represented “the deity” and announced “the words of the gods”. It was the same with the Pharisees: Not only did they put on an act in the meaning “pretence”; they even acted as if they somehow were “representatives of God”.
The Pharisees were wicked. They deceived, manipulated and used the people of Israel. Jesus warned about them and their teachings, and compared them with whitewashed tombs and death and snakes.
The Sadducees were another sect (party), separate from the Pharisees, but they were not praised for their deeds, either. The article noa131.htm has some notes on the Sadducees.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendix below.
Many bible-versions have in Matthew 23:3 wordings which might cause casual bible-readers to think that Jesus told people to follow the Pharisees’ teachings.
As is noted in the main part of this article, several New Testament passages record how Jesus warned people about the scribes and the Pharisees and their teachings. Also: Anyone who reads all of chapter 23 in the book of Matthew, slowly and with thought, should be able to see that Jesus was not telling anyone to follow the Pharisees or their teachings. For instance verses 6–10 show that Jesus made it clear to his disciples whom they were to follow, instead. We read:
Matthew 23:6 “They [the Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. 8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB95, comment added)
So, what about verses 2–3?
Here is the Byzantine Greek text of Matthew 23:2–3, transcribed into the English alphabet and with phrase-translations:
2 legôn (saying,) epi tês môseôs kathedras (in the seat of Moses) ekathisan (have sat down) hoi grammateis kai hoi pharisaioi (the scribes and the Pharisees.) 3 panta oun (And so, all kinds [of rules]) hosa an (much, countless) eipôsin humin têrein (they tell you to observe, [saying]) têreite kai poieite (“Observe, and do!”) kata de ta erga autôn mê poieite (But, do not do according to their works [or tasks],) legousin gar kai ou poiousin (for they teach but they do not do [those things].)
And so, here is a suggested translation of verses 1–4:
Matthew 23:1 Then spoke Jesus to the crowds, and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. 3 And so, they demand you to follow all kinds [of rules], without limit, [saying], ‘Observe, and do!’ – But, do not do according to their works [or tasks], for they do not do the things they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves do not touch those burdens with one finger.”
Verse 3, “without limit”: The Greek text has hosa an. In old Greek, the word hosa/hosos had many meanings, among them (of size), “as great as”, “as much as”, “as long as” – and, it was also used to denote indefinite size or number. It appears that in the case of Matthew 23:3, the phrase hosa an is used in the meaning “countless”. And indeed, the Pharisees and the scribes invented countless rules, “without limit”, and then they demanded people to follow them – “Observe, and do!”
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa091.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? → nma011.htm
Who were the Sadducees, and what were their teachings? Also: Who were the Herodians and the Boethusians? → noa131.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm
What does the word “doctrine” really mean? Likewise, what is the meaning of the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”? → nsa081.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga081.htm
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