Toward a Better Understanding of Passover by Jim Rector

Part 9 - The Authority of the Pharisees

Although we all know that Yahshua was a Jew, we often don’t consider what that would have really meant in the first century. He is seen observing the weekly Sabbath, going to the Temple, and keeping the annual holydays right alongside His Jewish countrymen. He never raises any question regarding the current calendar in use, the scheduling and orchestration of the annual festivals, the timing of those days, their method of execution, or any such issue. He gives every indication of approval in all such matters.

Even though He confronts the Pharisees on many points, He never is critical or corrective concerning the timing aspects of the Sabbath or holydays.  It is clear from numerous sources, not the least of which is Josephus, that the Pharisees were the real religious power in first century Judea. Although the Sadducees are mentioned, it is almost always in connection with the Pharisees. On only one occasion are they addressed separately, whereas the Pharisees are mentioned quite prominently in the New Testament. 

Christ Himself sanctions the authority of the Pharisees by saying:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not you after their works: for they say and do not” (Matt. 23:2-3).

Josephus makes the following statement about the Pharisees and Sadducees. Speaking of the Sadducees, he says:

“But this doctrine (of the Sadducees) is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity; but they are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.1.4).

Josephus goes on to establish the supremacy of the Pharisees in all religious matters, even when the High Priest was a Sadducee. The sect of the Sadducees were in opposition to the Pharisees on many matters. The apostle Paul, who was a Pharisee of note, makes clear that the Sadducees refused to believe either in the existence of angels or in the resurrection from the dead (Acts 23:6-8).  In fact, the Sadducees was a sect of the rich, who bribed the Herodian rulers and purchased titles and position for themselves. Even the High Priesthood was up for sale among these Sadducees, but it did them little good as far as convincing or leading the people of the country.

It is a foregone conclusion that the Pharisees controlled the religious aspects of the Jews in the first century, including even the Temple worship.  Christ took no exception to their rightful position of authority in these matters, even though He was critical of the conduct of many of these leaders. 

As you know, there were at least two outstanding schools of Pharisaical rabbinic training in the early part of the first century–namely, those of Hillel and Shammai. There were distinct differences between these two camps, both in temperament and in interpretation. Students of the Shammai tradition were reputed to have been much more like the Biblical description of the Pharisees than were those of Hillel.

Please remember that, not only did Christ accept the position held by the Pharisees among the Jews, but also that a number of them became followers of the Messiah. We know that two of His closest adherents were Pharisees, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. We are also told in the book of Acts 15:5 that a number of the Pharisees were believers. And, of course, we should not forget that it was Pharisaical rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, under whom Paul was taught, and who came to the aid of the early disciples when the Sadducees had them arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-40). The Pharisees are generally disdained by most Christians, due to the harsh correction directed at them by the Savior; but it would be a gross exaggeration of history to suggest that all the Pharisees were evil or that all the Pharisees were even being referred to by Christ. The fact is that they were the dominant force in first-century Judaism; they traced their heritage back to Ezra and the great post-exhilic Jewish reformation; and their position of authority was clearly recognized by Christ Himself.

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