Jesus and the Pharisees

A thorough reading of the Gospels calls for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees than traditionally assumed

by Marc Turnage

What was Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees? Most readers of the Gospels assume they were the chief opponents of Jesus. In support of such assumptions, people point to places within the Gospels where the Pharisees questioned Jesus and where He challenged them and pronounced “woes” against them.

Many overlook, however, that within the Gospels, Jesus ate with Pharisees; they sought Him out for His decisions; and they warned Him against Herod Antipas (Matthew 22:35; Mark 12:28; Luke 7:36; 10:25; 11:37; 13:31; 14:1; 17:20; John 3:1; 8:3).

A thorough reading of the Gospels calls for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees than traditionally assumed. For an accurate understanding of Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees, you must place both within the historical-cultural world of first-century Judaism.

Jesus the Sage

In book eighteen of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus spoke about Jesus of Nazareth and His movement.1 Josephus described Jesus as “a wise man.” The Greek word for “wise” has a common root with the Greek term “sophist.” Elsewhere in his writings (Jewish War 1.648, 650; and Antiquities 17.152), Josephus referred to two outstanding Jewish Sages2 as sophists. He regularly used this title to designate prominent Sages, which indicates that Josephus viewed Jesus as a Sage.3

In one version of Josephus’ testimony concerning Jesus, Josephus described Jesus’ “learning” as “outstanding.” The words of Jesus found in the Gospels read within the cultural framework of first-century Judaism betray a genius and sophistication connected to the highest level of academic training. In fact, Jesus’ formal education was superior to that of Paul’s.4 Jesus used simple language that communicated with those who were unlearned in His audience and allowed them to enjoy the profound simplicity of His message. Yet underneath His simple words runs a complex current of thought with deeper meaning the intelligentsia of His day would have grasped. His genius as a communicator comes through clearly in His use of story parables. This form of teaching is unique to Jesus and the Sages. No one else in the ancient world taught in story parables.5

On the one hand, the story of the parable entertains people, much like television and movies do today. It showed them true-to-life scenarios that had a central driving point, either about God and His actions or how He expects us to behave. Yet embedded within the words of the parables lay manifold hints and allusions to biblical passages and contemporary language. Educated listeners in Jesus’ audience would catch these and understand the deeper meaning of His teachings. These meanings become clear as we understand the Jewish cultural world of the land of Israel in the first century.

Jesus, the Hasidim, and the Pharisees

During the first century B.C. and first century A.D., a group of holy men emerged in the land of Israel, concentrated in Galilee, known as Hasidim (“pious ones”), or “men of deeds.” This group, known for its exceptional piety and working of miracles, healed the sick, brought rain, and rescued people from troubles. Although mentioned in rabbinic literature, they were not Sages. Because they felt obliged to care for anyone in need, even those deemed ritually impure, they often came under the scrutiny of the Pharisees because they did not follow the strict purity observances of the Sages.

The Hasidim stood on the fringes of Pharisaic Judaism; nevertheless, they exerted considerable influence upon the public and among the Sages. They strictly emphasized a person’s relation to another, particularly those in need (i.e., the poor), prayer, and embracing poverty as an ideology. They taught primarily through story parables. Their relationship with God was very intimate, like a father and a son.

There are many similarities between Jesus and the Hasidim, both with regard to their actions and their piety.6 Jesus, like the Hasidim, emphasized the preeminence of a person’s relationship toward their fellow human being. The quality of this relationship established the basis for one’s relationship with God.

These Hasidic impulses upon the teachings and actions of Jesus, as well as the tensions created between the Hasidim and the Pharisees, appear in the gospel story of the healing of the man with the withered hand (Luke 6:6–11). This healing on the Sabbath punctuated Jesus’ teaching: “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9; cf. m. Sanhedrin 4:5).

In this instance, He took a well-known argument (m. Sanhedrin 4:5) and applied it to doing good on the Sabbath. The healing underscored His message, but it left some within the synagogue baffled7 and discussing “what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11; cf. Acts 4:16).

If we read this story outside of the context of first-century Judaism, we can draw unwarranted conclusions about the aggressiveness of the opposition to Jesus. First, Jesus’ healing did not break the Law (either the oral or written Law) in any manner. Second, and most importantly, readers should consider this story in light of the tensions between the Hasidim and the Pharisees.

A similar story appeared within rabbinic literature concerning the Hasid, Honi the Circle-maker:

Once they said to Honi the Circle-maker, ‘Pray that rain may fall.’ He answered, ‘Go out and bring in the Passover ovens that they will not be softened.’ He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, ‘O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for that I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you have pity on your children.’ Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, ‘Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.’ It began to rain with violence. He said, ‘Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.’ Then it rained in moderation [and continued] until the Israelites went up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain … Shimon ben Setah [a Pharisee and head of the Sanhedrin at the time] sent to him [saying], ‘Had you not been Honi I would have pronounced a ban against you! But what shall I do to you? — you importune God but he performs your will, like a son that importunes his father and he performs his will.’ (m. Ta’anit3:8).

In this story, the tension between the Hasid and the Pharisee appears over the miracle wrought through the Hasid. In fact, Shimon ben Setah’s response to Honi, “What shall I do to you,” is similar to that of the baffled Sanhedrin in Acts 4:16.

Jesus, like the Hasidim, came into conflict with the Pharisees over issues pertaining to handling on the Sabbath and purity concerns, with Jesus and the Hasidim favoring actions and rulings that focused on the human individual and his or her need. The primary critique of Jesus by the Pharisees in the Gospels centered on His table fellowship with those they deemed unclean (Luke 5:30). Yet in the Gospels, if He is not eating with tax collectors — those who need a physician (Luke 5:31), He eats with Pharisees at their table.

The Disputes and Jesus’ Woes

Judaism is a culture of conflict. There is an old saying in Hebrew: “Without debate (argument), there is no learning.” It was common within Jewish circles of the first century for nonlocal or up-and-coming Sages to face public questioning in order to determine their level of expertise (cf. b. Shabbat 108a; and b. Baba Batra 22a). If the Sage answered well, he earned a respected reputation (cf. John 8:3,4). At various points within the Gospels, we find Pharisees and scribes asking Jesus public questions in order to “test” Him (cf. Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 10:2–9; and Luke 10:25–37). In light of the cultural norm of posing difficult questions to Sages, we should not read the motivations of Jesus’ questioners as wicked or antagonistic; rather, it seems that they sought to see whether this up-and-coming Galilean Sage knew what He was talking about.

Most students of the Gospels read Jesus’ “woes” against the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 23:1–36) as a blanket condemnation of the Pharisees. Few, however, remember how Jesus began this discourse: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat [the place of authoritative teaching in the synagogue]. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you ….” (Matthew 23:2,3). He endorsed their authority and their theology; His problem with them was the discrepancy between their belief and their actions, particularly toward others.

If we overlook Jesus’ endorsement of their authority and doctrine, it is easy to read His words as a categorical condemnation of the Pharisees. When read, however, within the context of contemporary Judaism, we find the same anti-Pharisaic polemic within rabbinic literature, which reflects the world and beliefs of the Pharisees (b. Sotah 22b; y. Berakhot 14b).8 Jesus chastised the Pharisees because they “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

The rabbinic list likewise criticized the “shoulder-Pharisee who lays commandments upon men’s shoulders” (y. Berakhot 14b). While Jesus probably was not a member of the party of the Pharisees, His faith and piety expressed itself within the broader stream of Pharisaism.

When we read Him outside of His world, we find ourselves making Jesus into our image instead of encountering the reality of the Incarnation. It removes our preaching and teaching from Jesus of Nazareth and His message.


1. Christian scribes corrupted every Greek version of Josephus’ testimony concerning Jesus. In the 10th century A.D., the Christian author Agapius wrote a history of the world in Arabic, in which he reproduced Josephus’ statement about Jesus, which is basically that of Josephus. Cf. S. Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences, 1971).

2. In this article, I use the terms Sage and Pharisee interchangeably.

3. The Greek author Lucian from Samosata (born circa 120 and died after A.D. 180) referred to Jesus as “the crucified sophist.”

4. When one is equipped with a knowledge of ancient Jewish sources and the intricate nature of ancient Jewish hermeneutical method, the superiority of Jesus’ formal education to that of Paul’s is clear. This was first pointed out to me by my late professor Chana Safrai; see also David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders, ed. J.H. Charlesworth and L.L. Johns (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 71–107.

5. Cf. R. Steven Notley and Ze’ev Safrai,Parables of the Sages: Jewish Wisdom from Jesus to Rav Ashi(Jerusalem: Carta, 2011), see especially 1–70; Brad Young,The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation(Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1998).

6. Within the New Testament, we can also detect the influence of Hasidic piety upon the family of Jesus. Rabbinic literature often identified the Hasid with the title tzaddik (“righteous one”); for example, Honi, the Circle Drawer (m. Ta’anit 3:8), the Hasid is also called “a righteous one” (Josephus, Antiquities 14:22; y. Ta’anit 3, 67a). Joseph, Jesus’ father, is identified as “faithful to the law”—literally “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19). In the Epistle of James, the brother of Jesus, we find the Hasidic impulse upon doing, which was the source of the Hasidim being called the “men of deeds” (cf. James 2:1-26; 5:13-18; m. Avot 3:9; cf. also, Flusser, “A Lost Jewish Benediction in Matthew 9:8,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 535-542; idem, “’It Is not a Serpent that Kills’,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, 543-551).

7. Most translations of Luke 6:11 translate the Greek word ἀνοίας as “fury” or “rage.” This Greek word is never elsewhere translated “anger, fury, wrath” (cf. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon [New York, 1940], 145). Those watching were filled with “frustration, bafflement.”

8. The Talmudic list mentions seven types of Pharisees, five bad and two good. Jesus addressed seven “woes” against the Pharisees, which find parallels within the Talmudic list.