The Eighteen Measures, Part 1: Introduction

Deutsch: Christus im Hause des Pharisäers, Jac...
Deutsch: Christus im Hause des Pharisäers, Jacopo Tintoretto, Escorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yeshua’s relationship to the Pharisees has been routinely characterized among Christian authors as universally hostile.  Indeed, “Pharisee” is actually defined in modern dictionaries as, “a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person” (  This low view of the Pharisees has long been promulgated by most of the most respected Christian commentators:

But it deserves inquiry, whether he does not rather blame the corrupted manner of teaching, which the Pharisees and Scribes followed in instructing the people. By confining the law of God to outward duties only, they trained their disciples, like apes, to hypocrisy. They lived, I readily admit, as ill as they taught, and even worse: and therefore, along with their corrupted doctrine, I willingly include their hypocritical parade of false righteousness.  (John Calvin on Mat. 5:20)

Unsurprisingly, I am not an enormous fan of John Calvin.  While certainly an erudite writer to a point, it is very evident that he had little exposure himself to Judaism, and certainly not to the writings of the rabbis that he so casually slanders.

Modern scholarship, by studying the Pharisees from their own writings—the rabbinic sources such as the Talmud and the Midrash—has come to a conclusion that Calvin, Henry, etc. would find incredible:  While the Pharisees certainly had their problems, their ideals and their lives were actually quite admirable.  Indeed, several scholars have come to the conclusion that Yeshua Himself was a Pharisee:

The argument between Jesus and some of the Pharisees is a legitimate family dispute. This is like when the ancient prophets condemn the children of Israel. They talk about the bad behavior, but they don’t disassociate themselves from Israel. They see themselves as part of it.

So I believe that Jesus was a Pharisee who knew that there were wonderful Pharisees around, probably the majority, but there were some who were actually desecrating the name, the message, and the tradition they were meant to be the custodians of.  (Rabbi David Rosen, interviewed by R.T. Kendall in “Interview with a Pharisee—and a Christian,” Christianity Today, 10/12/2007; see also Hyam MacCoby, Jesus the Pharisee, 2003)

In the Messianic movement there is a great push to defend the honor of the Pharisees, and thereby defend the honor of traditional Judaism.  Of course, Yeshua did seem to spend most of His time around Pharisees, suggesting that He felt a kinship with them, and they with Him.  Pharisees even invited Him over for dinner on multiple occasions (Luke 11:37, 14:1) and warned Him of danger from Herod (13:31).  Many of us are quick to say that the Pharisees did not believe in the death penalty while under Roman law (see m.Makkot 1:10) or that the Pharisees were not directly involved in the actual trial of Yeshua (which is true; none of the four Gospel accounts says that the Pharisees were at the various trials, though some of the scribes and elders were).

However, this does not entirely square with the Gospel accounts’ testimony that the Pharisees conspired with the Sadducees (John 11:47) and that the guard that came to arrest Yeshua was sent by both the chief priests and the Pharisees (John 11:57, 18:3).  Some Jewish scholars may attempt to argue that these passages were written by later authors with an anti-Jewish bias, but simply discounting the testimony of the Apostles is not an option for the Messianic movement.

How then are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction between the ideals espoused in the Talmud and the apparent murderous intent in the Gospel accounts?

Let us consider a possibility:  What if the Pharisees, instead of being a monolithic organization, were actually split into two or more groups?  And if so, was the group that had control in the time of Yeshua indeed everything He describes in the “Seven Woes” of Matthew chapter 23?

Is there evidence for such a split?  Indeed there is, imbedded in a strange, often overlooked passage from the Talmud.  And as we explore this passage over the coming weeks, we will see that not only does it open up to us a fuller understanding of Yeshua’s own interactions with the Pharisees, but also to the conflict evident in Acts and the Epistles as well.


3 Replies to “The Eighteen Measures, Part 1: Introduction”

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