Humans have a natural tendency to ignore or forget data that conflicts with our current worldview. Sadly, this inclination makes it difficult to understand the Bible in ways that differ from how we have been taught in the past.
For example, the concept that all Pharisees are evil is so ingrained that people often completely ignore or dismiss passages that present Pharisees in a positive light. The Gospels provide both positive and negative depictions of Pharisees. They also assume a cultural setting that esteemed Pharisees, and this fact should mitigate and contextualize the criticisms leveled against them. Without that cultural context, and with a theological construct that villainizes traditional Judaism, some people miss what is in plain sight.
Concern for Yeshua’s Life
Everyone remembers passages in which certain Pharisees plot how to “destroy” Yeshua (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6). It is plausible that this figure of speech means literally killing him, but there are some reasons to see it as a rhetorical attack, not a physical one. The Gospels consistently use the euphemism “destroy” when referring to the Pharisees’ plan, but when talking about the priests and Sadducees, it overtly says that they sought to “kill” him (Matthew 26:3-4, 59; 27:1; Mark 14:1).
And then there is this passage:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." (Luke 13:31)
These particular Pharisees attempted to save Yeshua’s life by warning him to flee when Herod sought to kill him. They went out of their way to approach him with this news, which shows that they considered his life to be valuable.
Reclining at the Table
The high purity standards of Pharisees led some to form exclusive fraternities whose members were known as chaverim (friends). They were choosy about who could join them.
Some Pharisees criticized Yeshua for the company he kept. This indicates that they perceived Yeshua as being a Pharisee like them, not like the sinners who were beneath them. Immediately they called him a “friend of tax collectors and sinners,” we read,
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. (Luke 7:36)
An invitation to eat in a Pharisee’s home? They did not grace just anyone with such an honor. And yet, it happened over and over again:
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. (Luke 11:37)
One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. (Luke 14:1)
Even though his teachings and behavior sometimes astonished them, it speaks volumes about the Pharisees’ perception of Yeshua that their elite circles welcomed him.
Paragons of Piety
Yeshua told the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son as a response to Pharisees who disapproved of his outreach to sinners:
And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable. (Luke 15:2-3)
Yeshua justified his outreach to sinners by comparing them to a lost sheep. We may deduce that the sheep who never wandered stand in for the Pharisees. Yeshua referred to them as “righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother is jealous of the attention the younger receives when he repents. Again, the younger brother represents the sinners Yeshua received. The jealous older brother symbolizes the Pharisees who criticized Yeshua. Notice what the father says about this older brother: “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).
In Mark, Yeshua answered the same Pharisaic criticism by saying, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Mark 2:16-17). The “sick” are the non-Pharisee “sinners.” The Pharisees are called “healthy” and “righteous.”
Thus, when Yeshua needed a symbol of a righteous person, he turned to the Pharisees. In his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the ironic and surprising reversal of acceptance works only because Pharisees are expected to be righteous.
Pharisees for Jesus?
Hence, it should not surprise us that many Pharisees accepted Yeshua. This includes Nicodemus, who admitted that Yeshua came from God (John 3:2), and stood up for him in front of other leaders (John 7:50-52). Gamaliel similarly stood up for the believers in the Council (Acts 5:34-39).
Many disciples among the Pharisees retained their identity with the Pharisees after they became believers (Acts 15:5). This even included Paul (Acts 23:6, 26:5, Philippians 3:5).
The Pharisees of the Gospels certainly deserved the condemnation they received. Indeed, the sin of that generation resulted in the destruction of the Temple, which Yeshua sought to prevent. But to avoid being equally contemptible ourselves, it is important for us to understand exactly what the charges were. Simply being a Pharisee is by no means a reproachable behavior, any more than being a sinner is something to be praised. Wrong ideas on this issue can lead to errant behavior and even anti-Semitic attitudes. Through diligent study, let’s make the effort to read the Gospels with fresh eyes.