In the Gospels, the Pharisees seem to be Jesus’ most persistent opponents, and Matthew devotes a whole chapter (23) to giving them what he clearly considers a well deserved roasting. Jesus is said to regard them as “Snakes and children of snakes”, “deserving of going to Hell’. “On the outside”, he says, “you appear good to everybody, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and sin”.
Before taking this at face value, we should consider some historical background. After the exile of all 12 tribes of Israel to Assyria, then Babylon, most Jews lived outside of Palestine, where the language and culture were predominantly Greek, even after the Roman Empire takeover. Many Jews were assimilated into that culture, which put at risk the continuance of the Jewish language and religion. The Pharisees resolved to combat this, by encouraging their fellow Jews to keep, and fully abide by, the “Torah” (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible), which is more than the ‘Law’, since it also includes guidance on worshipping and serving God, as well as how to relate to their fellow Jews.
Jesus would have had no quarrel with that. He’s reported as saying that he hadn’t come “to destroy the Law, but to fulfil it”; that “not one small letter” could be omitted from the Law until the end of the present age; and that anyone “who relaxes one of the least of these commandments” would be held to account. He was most definitely not a law breaker. Why, then, do the gospels present such a picture of mutual antagonism, and claim that the Pharisees “plotted how they might kill Jesus”?
To keep looking at the historical background, the ‘Jesus movement’ began in Jerusalem as a sub-set of Judaism. Its earliest members continued to be devoutly practising Jews. Their movement ceased to exist, however, after 70 CE, when the Roman legions turned Jerusalem and its Temple into ruins. By then, in any case, the ‘Jesus movement’ outside Palestine was mostly pagan converts, now known as ‘Christians’. In line with the views of Paul, the self-appointed “Apostle to the Gentiles”, they were not required to be circumcised, nor to follow the dietary, sabbath and other laws in the Torah. Increasingly, instead of being a ‘subset’ of Judaism, they became competitors as they actively sought converts. Such competition can turn nasty, and we see this in the Gospels.
As the Gospels succeeded each other, alongside developing views about the divinity and messiahship of Jesus, indications of mutual antagonism grew. The vast majority of Jews could not accept the idea that Jesus was YHWH, the Jewish God come in the flesh, nor that he was the Jewish Messiah, since the promised arrival of the Kingdom of God and divine Restoration of Israel had not taken place. Christian claims that the Hebrew Bible foretold a Messiah who would be killed by crucifixion (citing such passages as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53) cut no ice. The Jews had never understood their own scriptures in that way, especially since the word ‘messiah’ doesn’t appear in any of these texts. Any Christians still attending synagogues, and promulgating such views, would have been shown the door.
This antagonism, retrojected, colours the Gospel stories. The Pharisees become Jesus’ implacable opponents, stalking and picking quarrels with him, and thinking up ways of getting rid of him. By the time we reach John’s Gospel, Jesus opponents are referred to as “the Jews”, as if he and his followers were not themselves Jews. Pontius Pilate is increasingly portrayed as “finding no fault” with Jesus, and being pressured into condemning him by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, and by the pressure of a hostile mob. He washes his hands of all guilt, while “the Jews” say “his blood be on us and on our children”. This picture of Pilate, in fact, is at total variance with a man notorious for his autocratic arrogance, brutal behaviour, and utter contempt for any Jewish mob.
So, if we set aside all that contrived high drama, what are we left with? How did Jesus differ in his approach to the Jewish Law, when he is compared to the Pharisees?