• Ancient Torah Scroll. Photo: Canva Pro

Rehabilitation of the Pharisees

Rev Kees de Vreugd - 21 June 2021

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses…” Matthew 23:2

In the common parlour, the Pharisees do not have a good name. According to Dutch dictionaries – and I suppose it will be the same in English – a Pharisee is a hypocrite. That seems to find support in verses from the Bible. But is that all the New Testament tells about the Pharisees?

It is remarkable that it was Pharisees who came to warn Jesus for Herod. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were prominent Pharisees. In the Book of Acts, it is no one less than Gamaliel, who takes up for the followers of Jesus (Acts 5:34). There exists a natural kinship between the Pharisees and the ‘first church’, just as that was felt with Jesus (compare Matthew 22:34 and Marc 12:28).

Presumably, the negative image of the Pharisees is fed mainly by their alleged role in the trial of Jesus (although they gradually disappear from the scene), by certain parables, and by the eightfold ‘Woe’ in Matthew 23.

Jesus’ warnings there – for that is what I believe it is – are by no means soft. As a matter of fact, you can find comparable critique in the Talmud as well. So also, Matthew 23 is not disconnected from Jewish tradition.

Meanwhile, we could easily read over a fundamental saying of Jesus: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe,” even if they perhaps do not do it themselves (Matthew 23:2-3). So, according to Jesus’ saying, the Scribes and the Pharisees have the authority to explain and apply the laws of the Torah (Moses). Jesus is speaking to ‘the crowds and His disciples’. Implicitly, He thus affirms the validity and the legitimacy of the ‘oral Torah’ (the tradition of the Pharisees, continued by the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple AD 70). And this is after that, in the previous chapters, the bankruptcy of the Sadducees was declared (Matthew 21:43; 22:29).

Despite their own shortcomings, the leadership over the people is entrusted to the Pharisees. They may be called ‘rabbi’ (teacher), even though only One is ‘your Teacher’. Therefore I plea for the rehabilitation of the Pharisees.


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