Pharisees and Jewish Leadership – Evocations from Jesus

Pharisees and the Jewish leadership were the dogged antagonists of Jesus of Nazareth – what did their provocations elicit from Jesus about being the Son of God, the prophesied Messiah?

Key to understanding the dynamics is knowing the profile of the Pharisees and the Jewish leadership. Two famous Jewish historical figures were Pharisees who provided insider knowledge.

Flavius Josephus was as a Sanhedrin-appointed Pharisee General before he was captured by the Romans and became an official Jewish historian for Rome.[1] Saul, before his conversion to the Apostle Paul, was also a Pharisee who actively worked for the Sanhedrin.[2]

Three main religious factions played an influencing  role in Jerusalem – the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes – all with common ground on the written Law of Moses.[3]A very closed sect, Essenes kept to themselves whereas the Sadducees strongly disagreed with the Pharisees:[4]

“…[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”[5]Antiquities of the Jews

Jewish leadership was comprised of the high priests, Pharisees and Sadducees often with membership in the Sanhedrin (Sanhedrim), a supreme court of 71 judges established under Moses.[6] The Sanhedrin progressively gained  political power during its final years under the Roman Empire.

For the Pharisees, power and influence increased significantly under Jewish Queen Alexandra a generation before King Herod.[7] On his death bed, King Alexander advised Queen Alexandra to grant some of her powers to the Pharisees to gain their favor in the kingdom. [8]

Queen Alexandra granted the Pharisees “all things into their power, both to the dead body, and as to the affairs of the kingdom…”[9] In return, the Pharisees threw their support behind Queen Alexandra as ruler…but it came with a price:

“Now Alexandra hearkened to them to an extraordinary degree….while she governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her.” – Wars of the Jews [10]

Pharisees had their own contingent of officers with full arrest powers.[11] Once they were sent to arrest Jesus simply because the crowd was murmuring about things he was teaching.[12] Part of the posse that arrested Jesus on Mt. Gethsemane were officers of the Pharisees.[13] Saul admitted zealously arresting Christian before his own conversion.[14]

Josephus described the Pharisees as legal experts “esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their law.”[15] And so it was that the Pharisees “valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favored by God.”[16]

Gospel accounts of the Pharisees indicate Jesus of Nazareth had a very similar view as Josephus – Jesus acknowledged the religious authority of the Pharisees yet despised their hypocritical behavior.[17] References to the Pharisees in the Gospels are 10-fold greater than the Sadducees.[18]

Confronting Jesus numerous times, the Pharisees and Jewish leadership  wanted to know by what authority he was forgiving sins and performing miracles. Responses from Jesus came in the form of parables, riddles or not answered at all. On a few dramatic occasions shortly before he was captured and crucified did Jesus answer them directly…

October, the Feast of the Tabernacles celebration, now known as Sukkot, is observed in Jerusalem.[19] Six months before Jesus would be crucified, the Disciples of Jesus attended the week-long festival without him.[20] Midweek Jesus secretly slipped into the city and taught at the Temple.

Officers reported Jesus to the Pharisees and Jewish leadership prompting them to find him.[21] When they heard Jesus say “I am the light of the world,” the Pharisees objected pressing him further when Jesus said:[22]

JN 8:24 “…for unless you believe that I AM, you’ll die in your sins.” (ISV)

Turning to his Judean believers, Jesus explained further and the dialog turned to Abraham. When Jesus spoke as though he knew Abraham, it led to this exchange:

JN 8:57-58 “‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” (NKJV)

Blasphemy, according to the Law of Moses, was to be punished by stoning.[23] “They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area.”[24]

December before Jesus would be crucified, he attended the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, today known as Hanukkah.[25] Under Solomon’s Portico at the Temple, the Jewish leaders confronted Jesus asking, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”[26] They got a succinct answer:

JN 10:30 “The Father and I are one.” (NET)

Again, the reaction was severe – Jewish authorities picked up stones to kill Jesus and he asked them why – “I have shown you many good deeds from the Father. For which one of them are you going to stone me?”[27] Their response, “We are not going to stone you for a good deed but for blasphemy, because you, a man, are claiming to be God.”[28]

Even if they did not believe his words, Jesus suggested they should instead consider the “good deeds” he had performed; miracles that could only be accomplished with the power of his Father – God:[29]

JN 10:36-38 “…do you say about the one whom the Father set apart and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I do not perform the deeds of my Father, do not believe me. But if I do them, even if you do not believe me, believe the deeds, so that you may come to know and understand that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (NET)

An attempt was then made to seize Jesus rather than to stone him. The reason for their change in reaction may have been more for political self-interests and less for religious reasons. The Pharisees were afraid of the people because they viewed him as a prophet and yet he threatened their controlling influence over the people.[30]

Just hours before he was to be crucified came the most dramatic moment involving the high priest himself. During his nighttime Sanhedrin trial at the Temple, undoubtedly knowing it would cost him his life, Jesus testified under oath that he is ego eimi, Greek for “I AM”.[31]

MK 14:62 Jesus said, “I AM, and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.'” (ISV)

Jewish leadership and Pharisees of the Sanhedrin bore witness to the fact that Jesus testified he is “I AM.” Caiaphas immediately exclaimed, “‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? Listen! You yourselves have just heard the blasphemy! What is your verdict?’ They replied, ‘He deserves to die!’”[32]

On three occasions, Jesus specifically identified himself as equal to God, the Son of God, and each time the Pharisees and Jewish leadership who heard it wanted to kill him. There can be no question Jesus said it; the question is, was he right? Is Jesus truly the Son of God, the Messiah?

 

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REFERENCES:

[1] Josephus, Flavius. The Life of Josephus. 12. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[2] Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-23. “Paul the Apostle.” Denova, Rebecca. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2013. <https://www.ancient.eu/Paul_the_Apostle/#:~:text=Paul%20was%20a%20Pharisee%2C%20and,was%20the%20Law%20of%20Moses> “St. Paul the Apostle.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Paul-the-Apostle>
[3] Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter V.9.  The Life of Flavius Josephus. I.2. “Scrolls from the Dead Sea.” Library of Congress. n.d. <https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/late.html>
[4] Whitson, William. The Complete Works of Josephus. Antiquity of the Jews, Book XIII, Chapter X.4 foot note *. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter VIII.7-11.
[5] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquity of the Jews. Book XIII, Chapter XI.6. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[6] “Sanhedrin.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13178-sanhedrin>  “Sanhedrin.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/sanhedrin> “Sanhedrin.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2020. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-sanhedrin>
[7] Whitson, William. The Complete Works of Josephus. Antiquity of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter IV.3 foot note †;   Book XIV, Chapter IX.4, footnote †; Dissertation I.V; Book XIII, Chapter XVI foot note †. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus. Antiquity. Book IV, Chapter VII.14; Book XIV, Chapter IX.4. Josephus. The Life of Josephus. 12.  Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter XV.6. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> “Salome Alexandra.” New World Encyclopedia. 2019. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Salome_Alexandra
[8] Josephus. Antiquity. Book XIII, Chapter XV.5, XVI.1.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XVI.1.
[10] Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter V.2.
[11] John 1:24; 7:32, 45; 11:57; 18:3, 12.
[12] John 7:32.
[13] John 18:1-12.
[14] Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-23.
[15] Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter VIII.14.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XI.6.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter II.4.
[17] Matthew 3:7, 16:6, 12, 23:1-13, 15, 25, 27, 29, 33; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 11:43, 12:1, 18:11, 20:45-47.
[18] 93 Gospel mentions of Pharisees, 9 Gospel mentions of Sadducees or which 6 also included the Pharisees.
[19] “Sukkoth.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sukkoth-Judaism>  “The Meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles.” One For Israel. 2020. <https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/the-meaning-of-the-feast-of-tabernacles>
[20] John 7:2.
[21] John 7:1-9, 14, 32, 45; 8:12.  CR John 1:24; 11:57; 18:3, 12.
[22] John 8:12.
[23] Leviticus 24:16.
[24] John 8:59.
[25] John 10:22. “Hanukkah.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah> “Hanukkah.” History.com. 2020. <https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah>
[26] John 10:24. NET.
[27] John 10:31-32. NET. John 10:24. Netbible.org. Footnote 1. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Joh&chapter=10&verse=24>  CR John 10:31. International Standard Version, New Heart English Bible. <https://biblehub.com/john/10-31.htm>
[28] John 10:33. NET.
[29] John 9:16. CR John 10:40-41
[30] Matthew 19:2, 21:46, 26:4-5; Mark 11:18, 14:1-2; Luke 12:1, 21:38; John 11:47-48; 12:18-19.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XI.5, Chapter XI.5-6, Book XVII, Chapter II.4.
[31] Matthew 26:63-64.
[32] Matthew 26:65-66. ISV. CR Mark 14:63-64.

The Greatest Offer in History – Turned Down

King Ahaz knew the trustworthy reputation of Isaiah who had prophesied to two previous kings, his father King Jotham and grandfather King Uzziah.[1] When the prophet spoke, Ahaz was fully aware that Isaiah was speaking directly for God. How then did the King botch the greatest opportunity offered by God to a man?

Ten generations earlier, the House of David was split by God as a punishment for worshipping pagan gods Sidonian goddess Astarte, Moabite god Chemosh and Ammonite god Milcom.[2] For David’s sake and to preserve His chosen home, Jerusalem, God retained the city and split off 10 tribes of Israel whom He promised to bless if they followed God like David had done.[3]

King Rehoboam, son of Solomon, ruled the nation of Judah in Jerusalem while the 10 tribes followed Jeroboam, son of Nebat from the tribe of Ephraim, who became their King of the nation Israel.[4] The two nations became enemies and with time fractured even further when tribes Manasseh and Ephraim split off from Israel warring with each other and then allying against Judah. [5]

During the reign of Ahaz, King Pekah of Ephraim allied with King Rezin of Syria (Aram or the Arameans) to attack Judah besieging Jerusalem. Inside the city, Ahaz and the people were greatly distressed.[6]

To calm their fears, God sent Isaiah promising protection to Jerusalem and King Ahaz, even foretelling that Ephraim as a nation would be eliminated within 65 years.[7] To assure the shaken King of God’s promise, Ahaz was given the unparalleled opportunity to ask for a miraculous sign with boundless limitations – any sign between Heaven and Hell to prove His promise was indisputable:

Is 7:11 “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”(NASB)

Unbelievably, King Ahaz refused to take the offer! He said to Isaiah, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!”[8] Knowing the true reason for Ahaz’ response and not taking kindly to this attitude, God’s response to Ahaz certainly didn’t ease the King’s anxieties.

Isaiah replied, “Is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God as well?”[9] No longer speaking just to the King, Isaiah response was now addressing a much broader audience, “Listen now, O house of David!”[10]

Isaiah’s response to Ahaz’ attitude in was, in effect, “let me tell you about God’s marvelous sign!” The unsurpassed parameters of the sign were already established – it had to be something between Heaven and Hell so miraculous, so fantastic it would be unequalled:

Is 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” (NKJV)

Three explicit details make the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy precise. The prophesied female would be a specific virgin, “the virgin,” a reference to a female used only twice previously in Hebrew Biblical history – Rebekah, the virgin bride of Isaac, and Miriam, the virgin sister of Moses.[11] Gender of the virgin’s child was foretold to be a boy and he was named by God, also a Biblical rarity.

Various rationalizations are proposed claiming Isaiah 7:14 is not a Messiah prophesy. Some argue the prediction was really about an unidentified young female who was present with King Ahaz and Isaiah, even going so far as to say the female was already pregnant.[12] Jewish sage Rabbi Rashi taught that the prophecy was about Manoah’s wife, mother of Sampson, the Biblical strongman.[13]

Others contend the Christian Bible translations are a mistranslation, a misinterpretation, or an error.[14] A few go so far as to accuse Christians of a conspiracy to intentionally change the text as a false means to support Christianity.

Science says otherwise. Written centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born, the Qumran discovery of the complete Great Isaiah Scroll written in ancient Hebrew contains the Isaiah 7:14 words ha-almah, “the virgin.”[15]

King Ahaz botched the opportunity to choose any sign between Heaven and Hell that resulted in God providing a seemingly impossible prophetic sign – was it a Messiah prophecy? The test of truth is straightforward – would the ability of a virgin to naturally conceive a baby boy who was named by God rise to the level of an unparalleled, matchless sign of God?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] 2 Chronicles 26.22-23; 27:1-2; 2 Kings 15:32-34, 38; Isaiah 1:1; 7:1.
[2] I Kings 11:4-8, 33; I Chronicles 3:10-13.
[3] I Kings 11:26-49.
[4] I Kings 12:16-20, 26.
[5] I Kings 14:30. Isaiah 9:21.
[6] Isaiah 7:2.
[7] Isaiah 7:2, 8.
[8] Isaiah 7:12. NASB, NKJV.
[9] Isaiah 7:13.
[10] NKJV.
[11] Isaiah 7:14. Bible Hub. Hebrew text. <https://biblehub.com/text/isaiah/7-14.htm>  Genesis 24:43. Bible Hub. Hebrew text. <https://biblehub.com/text/genesis/24-43.htm>  Exodus 2:8. Hebrew text. BibleHub. <https://biblehub.com/text/exodus/2-8.htm>
[12] Nahigian, Kenneth E. “A Virgin-Birth Prophesy?” Skeptic Tank Files. n.d. <http://www.skeptictank.org/files/sr/2virgi93.htm>  Cramer, Robert Nguyen.  “The Book of Isaiah.”  The BibleTexts.com.. 1998 <http://www.bibletexts.com/verses/v-isa.htm>  Cline, Austin. “Who Was Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus? Was She Really a Virgin?” About.com|Agnosticism/Atheism. n.d. <http://atheism.about.com/od/biblepeoplenewtestament/p/MaryVirgin.htm>  Yosef, Uri.  “Isaiah 7:14 – Part 1: An Accurate Grammatical Analysis.” The Jewish Home. 2011. <http://thejewishhome.org/counter/Isa714_1.pdf>  Bratcher, Dennis. “Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues.”  The Voice. 10 Feb. 2014.  <http://www.crivoice.org/isa7-14.htmlThe Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary. Yeshayahu- Isaiah 7:14.   <https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/15938/showrashi/true>  “Who is the Almah’s son?” Teshuvas HaMinim. 2011. <http://web.archive.org/web/20120425022737/http://www.teshuvashaminim.com/isaiah714.html>
Robinson, B.A. “Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…”” Religious Tolerance. 2007  <http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_proi.htm>  Gill. John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible.  Isaiah 7:14 commentary. <https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-7.html>
[13] The Compete Jewish Bible- with Rashi Commentary. Isaiah 7:14, CR Judges Chapter 13.
[14] Nahigian. “A Virgin-Birth Prophesy?”  Cramer. “The Book of Isaiah.”  Cline, Austin. “Who Was Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus? Was She Really a Virgin?” Yosef, Uri. “Isaiah 7:14 – Part 1: An Accurate Grammatical Analysis.” Bratcher, Dennis. “Isaiah 7:14: Translation Issues.”
[15] “Isaiah 7:14-Deception In The Name Of Jesus.” Agnostic Review of Christianity. n.d.  <http://agnosticreview.com/isaiah7.htm>  Miller. Fred P. “The Translation of the Great Isaiah Scroll.” Book of Isaiah. Column VI Isa 6:7 to 7:15. 2001. <http://www.moellerhaus.com/qa-tran.htm>  Miller. Fred P. “Commentary on Isaiah – In-depth verse-by-verse study of Isaiah.” Moellerhaus Publisher. 1999. <http://moellerhaus.com/7-8.htm>  Isaiah 7:14. Bible Hub. Hebrew text. <https://biblehub.com/text/isaiah/7-14.htm>  Isaiah 7:14 BibleHub.com. Interlinear Bible Hebrew text  “5959 [e] hā·‘al·māh”. <http://biblehub.com/interlinear/isaiah/7-14.htmOrthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) translation for Isaiah 7:14. <https://biblehub.com/ojb/isaiah/7.htm>