Pharisees & Sadducees [Part 3]: Legalism Schmegalism

What They Believed

Pharisees vigilantly guarded Mosaic Law and attempted to ‘build a fence’ around it by adopting Oral Law or tradition as authoritative in interpretation and application of that Law.  This explains why, for example, they demonstrated such concern over Jesus’ lack of emphasis on ceremonial cleanness in Mark 7:3-5.  Their theology emphasized both God’s sovereignty and human free will, guarding the sanctity of the Sabbath and ritual purity, and the immortality of the soul and its future judgment.[1] They were known for their care and precision with the Law.  As Scott notes, Josephus described Pharisees as adhering to “the laws of which the Deity approves” and that they were “considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws.”[2]

Are you getting this?  They loved what was good.  They were orthodox.  They loved doctrine.  They knew God’s word and wanted to pass on their knowledge for God’s glory and the good of their people.  But in their sincerity and their passion, they missed the most important thing.

What They Did and Why

They weren’t all talk.  The Pharisees were as vigilant to live according to Oral and Written Law as they were to teach and preserve it.  They were known as having “…a more austere lifestyle, following their reason, and [for] respect[ing] their elders.”[1] They rejected materialism and lived simply.  They tried to love God and His truth more than money or comfort or status.  Pharisees refused to take a meal in the home of a ‘sinner,’ as an obvious violator of Mosaic Law was known, while they could invite such a person to their own home.  They would carefully provide the sinner with clothing to guard against his or her ritually unclean clothing.[3] Pharisees would also do things like avoid spitting on the ground on the Sabbath so that their saliva would not inadvertently cultivate the ground (meaning they were performing work).  Further, they would refuse to travel further than three-fifths of a mile on the Sabbath, though they found ways to travel further and still maintain this tradition.[4]

While these kinds of calculated actions seem artificial and the very definition of legalism to the modern and, perhaps even more so, the postmodern mind, in the 1st century the Pharisees saw themselves as guarding the faith of the one true God, the faith of their forefathers.  Many of their fellow Jews regarded Pharisees as “paragons of virtue.”[1] This made it truly shocking when Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ righteousness as He repeatedly did.  Far from commending their ‘fence’ around the Law, He accuses them of placing more value on human tradition at the expense of God’s law.  When he asked, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” in Matthew 15:3, it it cut them to the quick.  They were angry.  They were outraged.  Why…How could Jesus say such things about them?  They were just trying to honor God as holy.  They were trying to stand firm against the evil one.  They wanted to protect their people from being corrupted by a fallen world and by the evil one.  How could that be wrong?

[Tomorrow: The group that John the Baptist may have been part of before his public ministry…]


[1] Ibid.


[1] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 134.

[2] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings, trans. Paul L Maier (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1988), 260.

[3] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 74.

[4] Ibid.


[1] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 134.

[2] J. Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 203.

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