In an article entitled "Pharisee Nation," American peace activist and Jesuit priest, John Dear wrote the following:
"We have become a culture of Pharisees. Instead of practicing an authentic spirituality of compassion, nonviolence, love and peace, we as a collective people have become self-righteous, arrogant, powerful, murderous hypocrites who dominate and kill others in the name of God. The Pharisees supported the brutal Roman rulers and soldiers, and lived off the comforts of the empire by running an elaborate banking system which charged an exorbitant fee for ordinary people just to worship God in the Temple. Since they taught that God was present only in the Temple, they were able to control the entire population. If anyone opposed their power or violated their law, the Pharisees could kill them on the spot, even in the holy sanctuary." (Dear, John Pharisee Nation Common Dreamshttp://www.commondreams.org/views05/0215-21.htm)
Dear's view of the Pharisees is typical of many Christian groups, who seem to take an inordinate pleasure in lampooning the oral law, merging and confusing the many Judaic groups that existed in the first century and just generally flaunting their considerable ignorance of the respective histories of both Christianity and Judaism. Jehovah's Witnesses are no exception to this rule.
If the regularity with which it is repeated by ex-JW's is any indication, it appears that this particular meme seems to survive the process of leaving the JW's relatively unscathed. "I told my mother just yesterday that Jehovah's Witnesses are nothing but modern day Pharisees!" is a common announcement on ex-JW discussion boards and is usually greeted with approval. Another is: "Jehovah's Witnesses do not act like Christians, they act like Jews." Perhaps this is because that stereotype is typical not only of most Christian groups, but of society at large. Consider for example, the following definition of "Pharisaic" in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary: "Pretending to be highly moral or virtuous without being so; hypocritical."
With respect and no wish to cause offense to anyone, I would like to explain two things:
(1) Why this common perception is wrong.
(2) Why a Jew might find this attitude at least mildly offensive.
In reference to the second item, the Pharisees were not simply an antiquarian sect with no relevance for Jewish life today. Out of all the various Jewish parties that flourished during the Second Temple period, only the Pharisees survived the Jewish-Roman war as an identifiable continuing entity. The semi-monastic Essenes eventually died out, the Sadducees were all but wiped out in the fall of Jerusalem and the last of the Zealots were crushed at Masada.
Jewish legend holds that Yohanan ben Zakkai, a leading scholar of the School of Hillel slipped out of Jerusalem during the siege by feigning death and his own funeral to get past the Zealot guards. He was the first to greet Vespasian as emperor. (Although Josephus claims this honor for himself.) As a reward, Vespasian granted him one request. He asked for the preservation of the lives of the Sages, particularly the family of Gamaliel. He further requested the right to reestablish the Sanhedrin under Pharisaic rule in the village of Yavneh. All this was granted. This legend may or may not have any truth to it. However, it is a fact that the reconstructed Judaism of the second and third centuries was based on the Pharisaic beliefs and practices of pre-70 A.D.. The Pharisees are in a real sense, the fathers of modern Rabbinic Judaism and this is affirmed without apology by modern Jewish scholars:
"Pharisaic Judaism became normative Judaism. Its principal features — the synagogue, the rabbi, prayer, Torah study, and belief in the oral law — became the modes of religious expression guiding Jewish life ever since. All Jewish life today, therefore, stems from the Pharisaic tradition and derives its central religious characteristics from it." (Eckstein, Yehiel, What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism. Word Books 1984, p. 258.)
From a Jewish perspective then, it is understandable why using the term "Pharisee" as a synonym for "Self-righteous, arrogant, powerful, murderous hypocrite" smacks of outright religious bigotism. Therefore even if this perception were true, one might hesitate to repeat it either on a public forum or in front of someone they knew to be Jewish. Of course, we could take the attitude that, "If the truth hurts, that's your problem" as the saying goes, but is there any justification for that statement in this instance? Does modern, scholarly opinion support that view of the Pharisees?
That this question even needs to be asked at all is particularly perplexing for a Jew. When Jesus began his prayer with "Our Father that art in heaven..." he was following the pattern of Pharisee prayers which still form part of the Jewish Daily Prayer Book today. When he spoke in parables and used startling phrases such as, "Swallow a camel" or, "The beam in thine own eye" he was using methods of expression familiar to any student of the Talmudic writings. To a Jew, it is strikingly obvious that not only was Jesus a Jew by ethnicity, he was a Jew by faith as well.
Christians often associate parables exclusively with Jesus and believe that he invented a new method of teaching. But anyone familiar with the Talmud will recognize Jesus' parables as the common form of rabbinic expression in the Second Temple period. To a Jew, Jesus comes across as a trained rabbi who thought like a rabbi, taught like a rabbi, and spoke like a rabbi. More to the point, as almost every Bible scholar in the last fifty years has observed, of all the Jewish groups that existed in the first century including the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Herodians, the Essenes and the Pharisees, Jesus was closest to the Pharisees by far.
Why do they say this? Well, in Jesus’ discussions with the Sadducees, we find that he had major doctrinal problems with them on a number of points including the existence of angels and demons, the resurrection and judgment on the last day, the coming of a Messiah, and the necessity for preserving and keeping the Law.
However throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus is close to the Pharisees. For example, although Pharisees did not fellowship with anyone outside of their order, (cf. Berakot 43b) Luke mentions that on several occasions Jesus was extended (And accepted) the dinner invitation of a Pharisee (7:36; 11:37; 14:1) and that it was the Pharisees (Who allegedly wanted him dead) who warned Jesus of Herod's intent to kill him (13:31; cf. Acts 5:34). Jesus has other friendly contact with Pharisees as well. (Mark 12:28-34) Also among the Pharisees were some who admired and respected Jesus. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who become followers of Jesus, were almost certainly Pharisees and a number of other early converts to Christianity were definitely Pharisees. (John 3:1; 7:50;: 19:38,39) In the early years of Christianity, the boundary between Christian and Pharisee appears to have been at least semi-permeable. (Acts 15:5)
Like the Pharisees, Jesus held himself apart from non-Jews, referring to them as swine or dogs. (Matthew 7:6;15:26; Mark 7:27) He exhibits a knowledge of both written and oral law (Idiosyncratic to Pharisaism as opposed to Sadducism and Essenism) and appears to accept as binding, at least some of the requirements of the latter. (i.e. Rulings that can't be found anywhere in the Torah or Tanakh --Matthew 12:5; 24:20; 23:16) He holds an almost fanantical devotion to the Torah, declaring in Matthew that:
"..whoever goes against the smallest of the laws of Moses, teaching men to do the same, will be named least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who keeps the Law of Moses, teaching others to keep them, will be named great in the kingdom of heaven." (5:19)
He repeatedly affirmed the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the eternal life of the soul. We find normative Pharisaic teachings echoed again and again in his words. Phrases such as "No one can serve two masters," "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s," and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" are all directly traceable to Pharisaism. For example, the Talmud records an incident that occurred roughly a generation before Jesus was born. This concerns two prominent Pharisees who represented very different schools of thought that at the time divided the sect into antagonistic branches. In rabbinic literature, these were known as Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai: The story goes like this:
A Gentile came to Shammai with the strange request that he be taught the entire Torah, but that it be done during the time he could stand on one foot. Shammai, a surveyor by trade, chased him away, swinging a cubit stick. When this Gentile approached Hillel with the same request, instead of being scolded for such an impudent demand, he was told, "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary — now go and study."
The parallels with Hillel’s statement are readily recognized in Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:12 and Paul’s "summary" in Galatians 5:14. Hillel's negative formulation of Jesus' Golden Rule is sometimes referred to as the "Silver Rule". It, in turn, is derived from even earlier Jewish tradition: "Do to no one what you would not want done to you." (Tobit 4:15)
The similarities between Jesus and the Pharisees were not just theological either. Jesus' entire lifestyle as an itinerant teacher expounding the higher principles behind the Law to his fellow Jews is exactly the pattern that was considered virtuous by the Pharisees. This desire to teach the ame ha ‘aretz (The people of the land) is diametrically opposed to the attitude of the Sadducees. Jesus' willingness to relax and enjoy himself once in awhile (cf. John 2:1-12) also distinguishes him from the austere Essenes. Like the Pharisees, Jesus is found teaching in the synagogues. (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31) Even when Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees, the criticism comes across as that of one Pharisee to another. (e.g. It hardly seems likely that Jesus' choice of associates would have been an issue otherwise. It is equally doubtful whether all Jews practiced ritual hand-washing.)
Taken together, these similarities have led some scholars to argue that Jesus actually was a Pharisee. (albeit a maverick or reformer) Examples where this argument is expressed include Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus, by Rabbi Harvey Falk; King of the Jews: Resurrecting the Jewish Jesus by D. Thomas Lancaster and Jesus the Pharisee by Hyam Maccoby. While as Vermes observes, that idea is probably a gross overstatement, the fact that the case can be made at all should at least pique the curiosity of anyone who calls themselves Christian and perhaps even cause them to rethink their understanding of the term, "Pharisee."
Who exactly were the Pharisees? How were they different from other contemporary Jewish groups like the Sadducees? One thing that is important to remember is that the majority of Jews were members of no particular group. According to Josephus, in the first century the Pharisees numbered about six thousand and the Essenes, four thousand. The Sadducees were probably smaller still. The total Jewish population at the time was about three and a half million, with roughly half a million living in Palestine.
In ultra-condensed form, this is how Sadducees and Pharisees developed: The priesthood in Israel was hereditary, being restricted to the male descendents of the Levite Aaron. Later, a monarchy was instituted, also on hereditary lines, with kingship restricted to descendents of David of the tribe of Judah. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland and resume their religion, but he did not allow the restoration of the monarchy. During the Hasmonean period, when Israel became independent once more, a new monarchy was instituted. It was during the rule of the Hasmoneans, and largely in reaction to it, that the various Jewish sects emerged. The Hasmoneans ruled as "priest-kings", claiming both the titles of high priest and king simultaneously and for obvious reasons, the legitimacy of this dynasty was questioned by some of the Jews. The Sadducees emerged as Hellenized supporters of the Hasmonean dynasty and the Pharisees emerged as a party of separatists. These movements were largely political, but during the Roman period, they both lost power and in the view of many scholars, essentially became sects. (However that qualification is primarily for the benefit of the modern reader. The whole concept of a difference between politics and religion was likely alien to the time period and at no point did any of these groups regard themselves as sects.)
In this discussion, probably the most important differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees are these: The Sadducees supported centralized religious authority via the priesthood while the Pharisees promoted a more decentralized religious authority via scattered synagogues. The Pharisees believed that Israel should become a "Kingdom of priests" (cf. Exodus 19:6) and to that end, taught that everyone should conform to the purity laws; not just the priests. (A mild "The People vs. The System" parallel of sorts exists in the JW religion in the ideological struggle between those who promote the idea of a centralized governing body that is necessary for "True worship" and those who reject that concept in favor of a more personal relationship with God.) The Sadducees, jealously guarded the privileges and prerogatives established since the days of Zadok, high priest during David's rule. (The name "Sadducee" itself is likely derived from Zadduki, an adjective denoting "an adherent of the Bene Zadok.") The Pharisees, on the other hand, claimed Mosaic authority, asserting the principles of religious democracy and progress. The Sadducees were the powerful, often wealthy members of the temple hierarchy, while the Pharisees came from every level of society, even the poorest. Sadducees were usually to be found in and around the temple. Pharisees were usually to be found in and around the synagogues. Most of the temple priests were Sadducees, most of the rank and file priests were Pharisees.
To further show just how thoroughly confused, ignorant and misinformed John Dear, author of the article Pharisee Nation is, consider the following:
The Pharisees were not collaborators with Rome. To make such an absurd claims ignores the fact that during Jesus' lifetime, Rome was the source of political power and the Pharisees had not held any since the time of Salome Alexandra:
"It seems more likely that after their brief period of power during the reign of Salome, the Pharisees fell out of power. They were powerless in the time of Herod and the Roman procurators. They returned to power only after the destruction of the Temple." (Wylen, Stephen M. The Jews in the Time of Jesus An Introduction Paulist Press 1995 p.66)
This is not to say that the Pharisees were not influential. Collectively, they wielded considerable influence in the form of support from the common Jews. On this point, Josephus remarked:
"And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side. (Antiquities Bk. XIII, X, 6)
It is far more likely that the Sadducees collaborated with Rome:
"It is certain that the chief priests and leaders of the dominant families cooperated with the Romans and sought to keep the peace and the status quo, upon which their power and prosperity were built. The Romans, for their part were noted for developing and patronizing provincial elites. (Saldarini, Anthony J. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society Eerdmans Publishing 2001 p.302)
"During Jesus own day, the Sadducees were evidently the real power players in Palestine. They appear to have been by and large members of the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem and to have been closely connected with the Jewish priesthood in charge of the Temple cult. Most of the Sadducees were themselves priests, though not all the priests were Sadducees. As members of the aristocracy, granted some limited power by their Roman overlords, Sadducees appear to have been conciliatory toward the civil authorities, that is, cooperative with the Roman governor. The local Jewish "council" that was occasionally called together to decide local affairs, commonly called the "Sanhedrin," was evidently made up principally of Sadducees." (Ehrman, Bart, D. Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet Of The New Millennium Oxford University Press 1999 pp. 110-111)
Dear also ignores a basic theological difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were awaiting a Messiah to deliver them from Rome. The Sadducees were not.
The Pharisees controlled neither the Temple nor the Sanhedrin:
"Many Christians are under the impression that the temple occupied a comparable position in the Jewish religion to the Vatican in the Roman Catholic Church, and that the high priest was a figure like the Pope to whom all his coreligionists looked as a Father in God. In Paul's lifetime, this was not really the case. The temple was indeed under the jurisdiction of the high priest, and the hierarchy of priests and Levites was largely drawn from the Sadducee party within Judaism who in turn made up the bulk of the Jewish administrative assembly or Sanhedrin. But far from being revered by all the Jews who came to the temple to worship, the high priest was regarded with a mixture of distrust and open hostility. Just as the temple was not Solomon’s temple but a showy replacement built by a hated Arab client-king: so the high priest was appointed by the Romans, and in the period following the death of Herod the Great he was in effect a client ruler exercising power on behalf of the [Roman] empire." (Wilson A. N. Paul The Mind Of The Apostle W.W. Norton & Co. 1997 pp. 44-45)
The Pharisees were not a class of wealthy bankers. Some individuals within the sect undoubtedly were wealthy, but like Jesus, they considered a simple life virtuous.
"Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason's dictates for practice. (Antiquities, Bk XVIII, I, 3)
Similarly, Hillel once said:
"The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more care" (Avot 2:7)
Finally, there is no real evidence to definitely link the temple money-changers either with the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Again, the majority of Jews belonged to neither group.
But didn't Jesus condemn the Pharisees in the strongest possible terms though? Didn't he pronounce seven "woes" upon the Pharisees? (Matthew 23) Didn't he call them
upokrithV (Hypocrites), tafoiV kekoniamenoiV (White-washed tombs), gennhmata ecidnwn (Generation of vipers) odhgoi tufloi (Blind guides), etc?
It cannot be denied that in the gospels, the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees is very real, and is especially apparent in the Mathean account. This is another area that is somewhat puzzling from a Jewish perspective. To a Jew, Jesus throughout the course of his ministry often appears to be knocking down straw men, as time after time, the positions he takes in opposition to the Pharisees are those of normative Judaism. Take for example the account of Pharisees wanting to kill Jesus because he healed on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:10-14) As Hyam Maccoby observes:
"The Pharisees never included healing in their list of activities forbidden on the Sabbath; and Jesus’ methods of healing did not involve any of the activities that were forbidden. It is unlikely that they would have disapproved, even mildly, of Jesus’ Sabbath-healing. Moreover, the picture of bloodthirsty, murderous Pharisees given in the Gospels contradicts everything known about them from Josephus, from their own writings, and from the Judaism, still living today, which they created..." (Maccoby, Hyam Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance Taplinger Publishing Co. 1980 pp. 11-12)
In the above quote, Maccoby is probably alluding to the fact that the Pharisee's had an established history of demuring in the face of the death penalty and recommending leniency --Sometimes to their own detriment (cf. Antiquities Bk. XII, X, 6; Acts 5:33,34)
He also notes:
"It is an amazing fact that, when we consult the Pharisee law books to find out what the Pharisees actually taught about healing on the sabbath, we find that they did not forbid it, and they even used the very same arguments that Jesus used to show that it was permitted. Moreover, Jesus' celebrated saying, 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,' which has been hailed so many times as an epoch-making new insight proclaimed by Jesus, is found almost word for word in a Pharisee source, where it is used to support the Pharisee doctrine that the saving of life has precedence over the law of the sabbath. So it seems that whoever it was that Jesus was arguing against when he defended his sabbath healing, it cannot have been the Pharisees." (Maccoby, Hyam The Mythmaker Paul and the Invention of Christianity Barnes & Noble Publishing 1998 pp. 33-34)
Somewhat more reserved, but still along the same lines is the opinion of Bassar:
"To look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus' healing on the Sabbath in the light of Jewish teachings may help us to understand the behavior and attitudes to which these Christian accounts testify. They also show us the antiquity of laws which otherwise might be mistaken for late rabbinic innovations. In all cases, it is likely that Jesus' healing in itself constitutes nothing that many scribes or Pharisees, if not all, would have found as breaking Torah law." (Basser, Herbert W. Studies In Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses 70-300 C.E. Brill 2000 pp. 17-18)
Why would the Pharisees want to kill Jesus for supporting the teachings of Pharisees? The Talmud states: "The Sabbath was handed over to you, and you were not handed over to the Sabbath." The Talmud takes it for granted that human life must be saved at almost all costs and the question of keeping the Sabbath when life is in jeopardy is not even an issue. The locus classicus for the source of why saving a life overrides the Sabbath is a passage in Yoma (85a-b). To this very day, this is an integral part of Jewish medical ethics. It's called pikuach nephesh.
Many people, even after they become familiar with this concept, don't fully grasp its scope:
"A common misperception is that healing was permitted on the Sabbath only in the most extreme circumstances only when life was in danger. When this supposition is applied to these controversies, one inevitably concludes that the issue was Jesus' humanitarianism versus the inflexibility on the part of the Pharisees to bend the Law in the face of human need or suffering. But according to Mishnah, the rubic on Sabbath healing is "whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath" (Yoma 8:6) The discussion shows how very lenient was the interpretation of "doubt" including ravenous hunger, a sore throat, or a pregnant woman's craving for food." (Salmon, Marilyn J. Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism Fortress Press 2006 p. 90)
Another incident occurs when Jesus' disciples pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) As with healing, the idea that this desecrated the Sabbath is a stretch.
"It seems that the Evangelists had little idea about the details of Jewish laws, and only by careful analysis can we establish what lay behind their words. We must note that in all cases in legal debates about Sabbath in the Synoptics, the question of dispute revolves around scribal laws and whether or not the questioning Pharisees know these laws as well as they think they do. The debate about eating in the fields is of this order too. When people pluck out grain, if they then push out the kernel of wheat which is an unusual or rare circumstance (normally wheat is harvested in large amounts with an instrument) they do not violate biblical Sabbath rules." (Basser, Herbert W. Studies In Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses 70-300 C.E. Brill 2000 pp. 26-27)
One striking thing about the controversy stories is the apparent juxtoposition of characters. Jesus argues as if he were a Pharisees and the "Pharisees" argue as if they were something else entirely --perhaps Sadducees. Another example also occurs in Matthew:
"Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!" Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! (15:1-7a NIV)
A Jew would ask, "When did the Pharisees ever teach this?" As R. Travers Herford has noted:
"The alleged practice of evading the fifth commandment is nowhere known in the Halakah." (Herford, R. Travers The Pharisees, Macmillan Company, New York, 1924)
Love for one's parents has always been the mitzvoth that takes priority, even justifying the breaking of a vow. The position advocated by Jesus is once again that of normative Judaism and the position that he is actually arguing against appears to have been lost in history.
There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon. One holds that post 70 A.D., in the late first century, Jewish and Christian relations broke down entirely and there was a great deal of friction between early Christianity and Judaism. Later gospels overemphasized this conflict, mirroring the struggle between church and synagogue. The Pharisees in the early first century became vignettes for later Jewish leaders (Who also were probably Pharisees) that opposed the Christian community/ A good representation of this view is expressed by Martin Pickup:
"The case is more dubious for Matthew, a gospel which is commonly dated in the 80's or 90's at a time when the Pharisees appear to have risen in prominence and power (though to what extent remains debatable), and a time when the relationship between Jews and Jewish Christians collapsed. That late first-century setting provides a possible Sitz im Leben for Matthew's gospel, which suggest to many scholars that rather than providing historical information about the Pharisees of Second Temple Judaism, Matthew's portrayal of the Pharisees is really a representation of the Jewish leadership toward the end of the first century." (Neusner, Jacob; Chilton, Bruce In Quest of the Historical Pharisees Baylor University Press 2007 p. 67)
And there is textual evidence for this view. For example, compare the following Marcan and Mathean pericope. Note the mutual respect between Jesus and the Pharisee in Mark:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these." "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (12:28-34 NIV)
Now read Matthew's redaction.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (22:34-40 NIV)
In the Marcan account, both Jesus and the Pharisee appear respectful and even pay each other compliments. Not only does Matthew edit this out, the tone of the exchange is morphed into veiled hostility:... ephrwthsen eis ex autwn nomikoV peirazwn...
On this, Repschinski states:
"The double love commandment is interpreted by Mark to imply a critique of the temple cult. Such a critique has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, continues through Jewish Hellenistic writings and continues into the Qumran writings....The Matthean redaction of the story brings Matthew's argument closer to a Jewish context. This context was, in Matthew's eys more controversial; and so Matthew forms a controversy story out of the didactic conversation of Mark." (Repschinski, Boris The Controversy Stories in the Gospel of Matthew Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2000 p.224)
Another possible explanation concerns the division that existed amongst the Pharisees in Jesus' day. It has already been pointed out that there were two competing schools of thought at the time: The liberal Bet Hillel and the hardline Bet Shammai. Most Christians are familiar for example with Gamaliel, who advises the other members of the Sanhedrin not to put Peter to death (Acts 5:34-40) Even to Christians, Gamaliel appears to be a decent individual. In that regard, it's interesting to note that Gamaliel was the grandson of Rabbi Hillel and the apostle Paul allegedly studied under him. Jewish tradition records that the rigid Shammaites held religious control throughout Jesus' life and during the early decades of the Christian Church. But after 70 A.D., it was the Hillel approach to the halakah that was adopted in the academies at Yavneh and in Galilee during the second and third centuries. It was Hillel-type Pharisaism that became the "Judaism" of subsequent generations.
The Gospel accounts make no such distinction, treating the Pharisees homogenously:ouai de umin grammateis kai farisaioV ( But woe to you scribes and Pharisees...) A possible exception to this rule is Luke, who introduces dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees with tineV de twn farisaiwn... (But some of the Pharisees...) (Luke 6:2; cf 18:9) It's possible that most of Jesus' denunciations were actually more specific than they appear, being aimed at the Shammai school, and not Jews in general, and not even at all Pharisees. That would explain why to the modern Jewish reader, Jesus often appears to be jousting windmills. The Shammai school died out and it's harsher approach to halacha was lost.
But isn't it true that the Pharisees went beyond the Law and made lots and lots of additional rules and regulations that were an artificial and unnecessary burden?
This question refers to a basic difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees:
"What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers." (Antiquities Bk. XIII, X, 6)
The Pharisaic approach to the Law is basically that which is practiced by modern Judaism today. For example, Exodus 21:24 demands compensation for personal injury in the form of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." The Pharisees even in Jesus' day recognized that this need not be applied literally and that enforced monetary compensation would satisfy the spirit of the law. The Sadducees did not. Civilizations and cultures change; laws become outdated, inappropriate in literal form or only marginally applicable and have to be reinterpreted. It is the only practical solution to living by a set of laws originally given to a prmitive bronze age culture. Who today would seriously suggest that diseases should be treated in exactly the same methods as prescribed in Leviticus? .
A modern Rabbi gives this summary:
"Like a snowball, the core which originated in Divine revelation grew larger and larger as each generation had to apply these core principles to new situations, applications which sometimes generated disagreement (machloket). Although the core principles were part of a received tradition, the specific applications were the function of the Torah leadership/halachic authorities in each community to apply. This growing "snowball" or avalanche was preserved orally for hundreds of years. Indeed, Jewish law forbade the writing down of the oral law, perhaps to insure that the meaning of the tradition would be communicated through flesh and blood human interaction, rather than exclusively through a literary medium. (It should be noted that many cultures - Native American, ancient Greece - preserved huge amounts of data through oral transmission for hundreds of years.) Only when (as a result of Roman persecutions in the first and second centuries of the common era) the oral law was in grave danger of being forgotten was it reduced to some type of written form as the Mishna. Several hundreds of years of commentary on the Mishna eventually formed the work known as Gemara. (There is both a Babylonian and Palestinian Gemara though the Babylonian is regarded as the more authoritative.) Mishna and Gemara together form the work known as Talmud, second in importance only to the Pentateuch but whose influence on Jewish law has even been greater." (Breitowitz, Yitzchok A. How A Rabbi Decides A Medical Halacha Issue Synopsis of Presentation, Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics 1996 http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/decide.html)
Christians sometimes lose sight of the fact that originally, the Law was not just a code of religious conduct, it was a criminal and civil code as well. It is easy to make fun of the exhaustive, seemingly ludicrous level of detail on what constitutes work on the Sabbath, but remember that throughout much of Jewish history, deliberate desecration of the Sabbath carried a very real, very severe physical penalty. Under those circumstances it is only natural that people would want to know and need to know clearly and in no uncertain terms what did and did not constitute work. The oral law did not develop in a vacuum, it evolved to fill a need.
None of this is presented in an effort to deny that Jesus did have some real, substantial differences with the Pharisees. Jesus, for instance had a much more positive view of women than did any Jewish leader of the time. (John 8:7; Mark 15:40,41; Luke 8:1-3; 10:42; John 4:7-27) The point is that Christians often seem to read more into the rich polemic than is warranted, given the nature of the dispute:
"But when Jesus refers to Pharisees as "hypocrites" (Matthew 23:13) and a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 23:33), he is berating fellow Jews. Jesus undoubtedly regards his violent language as following the tradition of the prophets when they castigated fellow Jews of their day. In other words, it is a family quarrel. Jesus looks upon himself as continuing the Jewish tradition of self-criticism." (Feldman, Louis Is The New Testament Antisemitic? Moment, December 1990)
Knowing and appreciating the historical setting of the Gospels has at least three advantages: First it helps revise popular misconception. It helps to avoid anti-Semitism. And it allows everyone to better appreciate the Jewish roots of Christianity.