In Defence of the Pharisees

Mihaly MunkacsyRegardless of which Christian tradition you belong to, I would wager that when a Pharisee is encountered in the Bible reading your expectation is overwhelmingly negative. After all, literary critics would label them flat characters, for in the Gospel narratives they are fairly consistent and predictable. But I do not think I am alone in growing weary of pre-packaged and predictable explanations of 1st century Pharisaism, which is an unhelpful and inaccurate generalisation. Though beguiling legalism threatened Israel’s faith throughout the nation’s history, “There was certainly a more humane and spiritual tendency within [the Pharisees]. It produced men of lofty character and genuine piety who did lasting service to religion” (C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today). So in this post I want to challenge the oversimplified view of the Pharisees and how they understood the relationship between their works and justification.

Apart from the lazy reproduction of what we have heard from the pulpit or read in popular-level Christian literature, I think one of the reasons for our misapprehension of the Pharisees is owed to the Reformation. In the introduction to The Justice of God, James Dunn critiques the Protestant understanding of justification by faith. And while I disagree with Dunn on a host of issues, I think he makes an excellent point worth reflecting on: the Reformers’ imagined that 1st century Judaism was identical to the Catholic medievalism of the 16th century; in other words, they were guilty of eisegesis, reading the stifling legalism of the established church they knew into the Gospels. Today, in our interpretation of the Gospels, I wonder if we make the same mistake.

Rembrandt But how should we view, interpret, and teach about the Pharisees in the Gospels? Firstly, in Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson argues that Philippians 3:6-9 should encourage more nuance than lawful obedience leading to self-righteousness: “Paul does not mean he had attained sinless perfection. Far from it: the law provided the remedies for sin, prescribing certain sacrifices, teaching earnest young Jews to look to the God who was addressed each ‘day of atonement’ by the high priest who sprinkled the blood of animals in the Most Holy Place, to atone both for his sins and for the sins of the people. Paul followed the entire pattern of religious life carefully.” Though misunderstandings of the law undoubtedly crept in, central to the old covenant was God’s forgiveness appropriated through faith. Since Yahweh prescribed obedience to his law, works were not irreconcilable with grace. Thus the Pharisees’ emphasis on religious duty cannot be oversimplified to works righteousness.

Secondly, developing the above point, Calvin (Institutes, 3.11.3) writes, “When Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves, he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid.” The difference between this and our view inherited from the Reformation is subtle, but significant. Calvin argues in 3.11.2 that justification by faith was not a novelty of the New Testament, but clear throughout the Old Testament. Right standing with God has always been an imputed status and not an attribute, a gift rather than achieved merit. As Calvin says, Jesus’ searching criticisms of the Pharisees were not merely an indictment on law keeping and dutiful faith. His issue with the Pharisees was the pride that accompanied their supposed righteousness, which the sacrificial system should have emphasised none of them possessed. The Pharisees’ exaggerated self-righteousness was not the means by which they thought they were justified before God but rather it became their identity, providing them with self-image and worth, in place of God’s gracious acceptance.

HoffmanI have briefly touched on major ideas in this post, which presently fuel massive theological debates, so in closing let me restate my purpose in writing and summarise my points. Biblical studies and hermeneutics has always been a richly diverse gathering of disciplines, therefore we should be weary of reductionistic handling of the biblical texts, both in private study and from the pulpit. To think of the Pharisees we meet in the Gospels as advocates of an entirely self-righteous and solely works-based religion is a historical – and, in many places, an exegetical – fallacy. We must work hard to understand the historical and textual nuances when Jesus encounters Pharisees. And we must stop smoothing over those details in order to preach works versus grace. These things should not be so.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch