Theological controversy is out of harmony with the temper of the twentieth century, but one can by no means understand the life and teachings of Jesus if he is wholly averse to such a topic. The short earthly ministry of our Lord, at most only three and a half years in length (about the duration of an average city pastorate), fairly bristles with the struggle made by the Pharisees to break the power of Christ's popularity with the people. Jesus is challenged at the very start, and is thrown on the defensive by the rabbis, who are the established and accepted religious leaders of the Jewish people. They wish no revolutionary propaganda that will interfere with their hold on the masses. They are jealous of their prerogatives, these men who 'sit on Moses' seat' (Matt. 23:2). ᾿Επὶ τῆς Μωυσέως ἐκαθέδρας κάθισαν. The aorist here is gnomic or timeless and suits well the hoary traditions of prerogative felt by the Pharisaic incumbents of Mosaic place and power. Note ὲπὶ, a more formal statement than ἐν would give. The thing to note here is that Jesus recognises the right of the Pharisees to sit upon their places of ecclesiastical eminence. He even commends the general tenor of their instructions: 'All things whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe' (Matt. 23:3). πoιήσaτe καὶ τηρεῖτε. The change of tense from the aorist (punctiliar) to the present imperative (linear) shows that Jesus had no objection to the existence of the Pharisees per se as religious leaders. But Jesus in the very next verse hastens to warn His hearers against the conduct of the Pharisees, 'for they say and do not' (λéγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν). And yet this sharp paradox is not to be taken with the utmost literalness, for not all the acts of the Pharisees were wrong, and not all their teaching is to be commended. But the heart of the criticism of Jesus is thus reached at once. It is the discrepancy between conduct and creed. When presented in this form one is bound to admit that the issue is not a merely antiquarian or academic problem, but concerns every lover and seeker after righteousness in our own day. The term Pharisee has come to signify hypocrisy wherever found. Is it unjust? This we must answer by and by.
The Pharisees are interesting, indeed, from the standpoint of historical study. They are 'the most characteristic manifestation of Palestinian Judaism in the time of Christ' (H. M. Scott in Hastings' D.C.G.). They alone of the Jewish parties survived the destruction of the temple and the city. Modern Judaism is immensely indebted to Pharisaism. 'The Pharisees remained, as representing all that was left alive of Judaism.' Indeed, Rabbi K. Kohler (Jewish Encyclopaedia, art. 'Pharisees') says: 'Pharisaism shaped the character of Judaism and the life and thought of the Jew for all the future.' He justified its 'separation' and exclusiveness in that it preserved in the Jew his monotheism in the wreck of the old world and the barbarism of the medieval age.
It is impossible to understand the atmosphere of Christ's earthly life without an adequate knowledge of the Pharisees. They largely created the atmosphere which the people breathed, and into which Jesus came. Our Lord had to relate His message and mission at once to this dominant theology of his time in Palestine.The people were quick to compare His message with that of the official rabbis, and to express their astonishment at His teaching, 'for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes' (Matt. 7:29). The point in ἐξουσίνα is that Jesus possessed the power (authority) of truth and stood on his own feet and spoke it. He felt no call to bolster it up with the decisions of the rabbis. It is not a question whether we like the Pharisees or not. The historical environment of Jesus in Palestine can now be quite definitely outlined, at least in its broader aspects. On the theological side, the Pharisees occupy far the major part of the space and transcend all other parties in importance, for our knowledge of the historical setting of the teaching of Jesus.
The fidelity of the picture in the Gospels is so manifest, that even Wernle says: 'One thing is certain, that Jesus and His Gospel are intelligible from Judaism alone; and for this, for Jesus and His relation to Palestinian Judaism, other and more accurate data are available. He appeared in the last dying moments of the theocracy, and before the exclusive rule of the Rabbis which succeeded it Here, it is true, it can be affirmed that only a few decades later the origin of Christianity would be inconceivable.' Certainly no one who knows Wernle's writings will accuse him of being an apologist for Jesus or for Christianity. He is therefore a good antidote for the theory that denies the historicity of Jesus, and seeks to dissipate all the evidence into the mist and myth of subjective imagination. The sharpness of the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees in so many fundamental matters argues for the reality of the controversy, and the date before the destruction of Jerusalem as the time for the picture drawn in the Gospels. It is a pathetic outcome of Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910, p. 401), when he laments: 'We can find no designation which expresses what he is for us.' He has tried to overthrow 'the modern Jesus' of theology by the 'true historical Jesus,' but he is so confused by the dust of his own learning that he cannot recognise Jesus when he sees Him. The Gospels in a wonderful way preserve and reproduce the colouring of the life in Galilee and Jerusalem, while Pharisee and Sadducee shared the power, and were full of jealousy of each other, while the Palestinian Jew still felt his superiority in privilege over the Jew of the Diaspora, while the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile was still unbroken and seemed unbreakable.
It is now a common remark in books about the Pharisees that they are not treated fairly in the New Testament. The usually fair Rabbi Kohler says: 'No true estimate of the character of the Pharisees can be obtained from the New Testament writings, which take a polemical attitude toward them, nor from Josephus, who, writing for Roman readers and in view of the Messianic expectation of the Pharisees, represents the latter as a philosophical sect.' But Josephus was himself a Pharisee of the liberal sort. However, Oesterley (The Books of the Apocrypha, pp. 136 f.) notes that besides comparing the Pharisees to the Stoics (Vita, § 2) and the Essenes with Pythagoreans (Ant., bk. xv. ch. x. § 4), Josephus apparently wrote more about the Pharisees in a paragraph which is lost from the War, bk. ii. ch. viii. § 14. His account is certainly incomplete, besides its Hellenising basis. Certainly Paul had been a Pharisee and knew intimately the doctrines and practices of the Pharisees. And yet Herford bluntly says: 'Paul's presentation of Pharisaic Judaism is, in consequence, at its best a distortion, at its worst a fiction.' Surely one cannot forget that this same Paul was once the pride of Pharisaism and the heroic champion of Pharisaic Judaism, in its apparently-triumphant conflict with the heresy of Christianity. Montefiore puts the case against Paul much more mildly when he says: 'I am, however, inclined to think that even in 60 Rabbinic Judaism was a better, happier, and more noble religion than one might imagine from the writings of the Apostle.' Herford also pointedly charges Jesus with not being able to comprehend Judaism. 'And alike to Christian and Jew, it is almost impossible to comprehend the religion of the other. Even Jesus could not do it.' Herford in particular takes up the phrase, 'Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,' and adds: 'That such a statement should be made of the Pharisees is to Jews hard to endure,' as hard, he argues, as for Christians to stand this sentence in the Talmud: 'Jesus practised magic and led astray and deceived Israel,' or the phrase about Jesus in the Mishna, 'the sinner of Israel.' And Wernle ruthlessly brushes aside Jesus as an interpreter of Pharisaism in the almost brutal words: 'It was His incomplete knowledge of the law which was in this point the cause of an entire deception on the part of Jesus.... The law necessitated the existence of the scribes, the murderers of Jesus. But all this Jesus concealed from Himself throughout His life on earth.... The converse of Jesus' positive attitude towards the law is His uncompromising rejection of Pharisaism. He is so unsparing, so entirely without any exception, that the very name of Pharisee has become a term of abuse for all ages.' Herford, it should be added, does draw a distinction between the method of Jesus and that of Paul: 'Paul condemned Pharisaism in theory, while Jesus condemned it in practice.' The attack of Jesus was more concrete and hurt most, and has lasted till to-day. We see, then, that moderate Jewish writers, like Kohler and Montefiore, and some non-Jewish writers like Herford and Wernle, expressly claim that Jesus, Paul, and New Testament writers generally have distinctly misunderstood and misrepresented Pharisaism. The closing chapter of Herford's book on 'Pharisaism' is entitled Pharisaism as a Spiritual Religion. He admits that 'it is easy to make Pharisaism appear ridiculous, a mere extravagance of punctilious formalism,' and claims that 'Pharisaism is entitled to be judged according to what the Pharisees themselves meant by it, and its worth to be established by what they found in it.' This claim has a large element of justice in it, but Pharisaism, like Christianity, must submit to the judgment of all men, the universal conscience. Certainly it is true that Christians should be willing to look at the facts about Pharisaism. It is probably true, as Montefiore charges, that many of the modern antagonists of Rabbinic Judaism 'have been somewhat lacking in first-hand knowledge.' On the other hand, Montefiore frankly admits that 'the Jewish scholar has hitherto shown little capacity for appreciating Paul,' or Jesus, as he would freely add, though he does claim that the standpoint of a modern Jew towards Jesus should be of interest to Christians. At any rate, it is perfectly clear that the subject of the Pharisee demands reinvestigation in the light of the repeated charges of unfairness in the New Testament pictures, and in particular on the part of Jesus Himself.
It can be said at once that it is not easy to do this. Oesterley and Box (The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue, p. ix.) indeed say that 'the time is hardly ripe for a full discussion of the important issues' connected with the Pharisees. But surely we cannot agree that it is impossible for Christian scholars to be just even to the enemies of Jesus. It is not necessary, however, for one to become a blind champion of the Pharisees in order to do them justice. This is precisely what Herford has done in his Pharisaism. In order to do 'justice to the Pharisees' (p. 6), he conceives it necessary to divest himself of Christianity and not to judge Pharisaism 'by the standard of the Christian religion,' as Oesterley and Box do in The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue. That is to claim that 'no one but a Jew, of whom it may be said that the Talmud runs in his blood, can fully realise the spiritual meaning of Pharisaism' (p. 3). But it is merely special pleading to assert that no one has a right to pass judgment upon a system of thought or upon a religion save the devotees of the system. That is the plea of the Christian Scientist, of the Mormon, of the Buddhist, of the Mohammedan, but surely not of the enlightened Christian, who stands in the open and invites comparison between Christ and all other teachers in the world. Herford poses as the pioneer in the business of treating the Pharisees fairly.'Something was still left to be done, by way of treating the Pharisees fairly, that is, without either contempt or condescension; and that "something" I have tried to do.' Certainly he has set before himself a laudable ambition, but he proceeds to boost the Pharisees by depreciating Jesus while disclaiming it. 'I will yield to no one,' he says, 'in my reverence for Jesus; He is to me simply the greatest man that ever lived in regard to His spiritual nature. Some may think that too little to say; others may think it too much.' He adds (p. 125), 'I do not contend that all the Pharisees, or any of them, were the equals of Jesus in spiritual depth.' Suffer another word from Herford: 'He was really rejected, so far at all events as the Pharisees were concerned, because He undermined the authority of the Torah, and endangered the religion founded upon it. That Jesus really did so is beyond dispute.' Once more (p. 146) Herford says: 'Torah and Jesus could not remain in harmony. The two were fundamentally incompatible. And the Pharisees being determined to "abide by the things they had learned," viz., Torah, were necessarily turned into opponents of Jesus.' Thus does Herford justify the Pharisees at the expense of Jesus, as a dangerous heretic who had to be put down in order to save the religion of the Jews. Herford calls this treating the Pharisees 'fairly.' What shall we say of his treatment of Jesus?
Apart from the matter of prejudice on both sides of the problem of the Pharisees, we are bound to make serious inquiry about the sources of our knowledge of the subject. We have already seen that Herford rules out Jesus and Paul as witnesses. Montefiore appeals to modern criticism as justifying the most cautious use of the Gospels and Epistles of Paul, though he finds himself more at home in the atmosphere of the Synoptic Gospels than in that of the Gospel of John and Paul's Epistles (ibid., p. 8). He sees no essential reason why Jews and Christians cannot understand one another just as learned Christians have written just presentations of Buddhism and Confucianism (p. 3). He recognises, however, that the Jew will seek to show the superiority of the Talmud to the Gospels, since 'the Jew has been told over and over again of the immense superiority of the teaching of the New Testament over the Old' (p. 7).
If we let the ancient Pharisee speak for himself, as he surely has the right to do, we are not without resources, apart from Josephus who must be considered, in spite of Kohler's protest quoted above. In particular we find the Pharisaic teaching in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, certainly in those portions which are clearly pre-Christian, though Charles would place all these writings before Christ. Charles has a very high estimate of this collection of sayings, and says: 'Their ethical teaching, which is indefinitely higher than that of the Old Testament, is yet its true spiritual child, and helps to bridge the chasm that divides the ethics of the Old and New Testaments.' Some scholars, Plummer, for instance, will not admit that these portions of the Testaments that come so near the level of the New Testament in some points, are earlier than the Christian era. Shailer Matthews (Hastings' one vol. B.D., p. 40) dates the Testaments in the first and second centuries a.d., and says that 'it is full of Christian interpolations.' But at any rate we find here the view of some of the Pharisees about the time of Christ. The Psalms of Solomon, which belong to the period b.c. 70 to 40 a.d. and were written by a Pharisee, voice bitter antagonism toward the Sadducees and justify the downfall of the Maccabean dynasty. The Apocalypse of Esra or Second Esdras was written shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem and 'is the most complete expression of Pharisaic pessimism.' It is thus possible to get an inside view of the Pharisaism of the time, and to compare it with the pictures in Josephus and the New Testament.
But the great storehouse of Pharisaic teaching is in the Talmud and the Midrash. We may let Herford state the case for Pharisaism here: 'In the Talmud is contained the main source for the knowledge of what Pharisaism meant; because it was made the storehouse in which all, or nearly all, that was held to be valuable in the Tradition of the Elders, the explicit religion of the Torah, was stored up. There is a huge literature contemporary with the Talmud, to which the general name of Midrash is given; all of it is traditional, and all of it bears on the religion of the Torah, in one way or another. This is the written deposit of Pharisaism, the mark which it has left upon the literature of the world. It is there, and not in the writings of those who did not understand its ideals or share its hopes, that its real meaning can alone be found.' Here we seem to have struck bottom at last. But, unfortunately, the Talmud in its written form is much later than the time of Jesus. The Mishna or Second Law belongs to the period 210 a.d. This writing down of the tradition of the elders or comments on the law came to be in turn 'a code of the law for the guidance of the Jews' (Herford, Pharisaism, p. 52). 'The Mishnah became, in its turn, the subject of study in the Rabbinical schools' (ibid., p. 53). Then the comments of the rabbis on the Mishna were written down, and were called Gemara (completion). There were two centres when the Gemara was written out, one in Palestine and one in Babylonia. The Talmud is the Midrash plus the Gemara. Hence we have the Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud with the same Midrash, but a separate Gemara. We can see at once that it is a precarious master to appeal to these late comments (both Midrash and Gemara) as a certain proof of the Pharisaic teaching in the first century a.d. It is for this reason that Montefiore says in all candour: 'The greatest caution is necessary in using the Rabbinical literature to illustrate—whether by way of contrast or parallel—the statements and teachings in the Synoptic Gospels.... You can hardly count up the number of rules about the Sabbath in the Midrash and say, there is what the average Jew or Gentile in a.d. 29 was expected to observe.' Certainly we know more of Palestine and of the Jews than we once did. In fact, we know entirely too much to be as dogmatic as Herford in his special plea for the Pharisees. Montefiore says there were many 'Judaisms of the first century,' and adds: 'And of Palestinian or early Rabbinical Judaism it may be said, that we realise better the limits of our knowledge; we realise how meagre is its literary remains; and we realise how the purest Rabbinical Judaism of 50 a.d., whether in doctrine or in the type of the average believer which it produced, may not have been wholly the same as the Rabbinical Judaism of 500 a.d.' This is well said. It is to be remembered also about the New Testament writers that they assume a knowledge of the Pharisees and nowhere give full details about their tenets. The background has to be depicted largely by implication. The lines have to be filled in to avoid undue emphasis. Josephus certainly toned down his picture to please the Romans. He does not mention the Messianic hope of the Pharisees. As to the Talmud, Thomson says that the lateness of the Gemara, which has most to tell about the Pharisees, 'renders the evidence deduced from the Talmudic statements of little value.' He adds: 'Even the Mishna, which came into being only a century after the fall of the Jewish state, shows traces of exaggeration and modification of facts.' And yet it is possible to look at Jesus and the Pharisees side by side, and to see the facts and to tell the truth about them.