Pharisees & Jewish Leaders vs. Jesus
Pharisees and the Jewish leadership were the dogged antagonists of Jesus of Nazareth. Their provocations elicited from Jesus his revelations about being the Son of God, the prophesied Messiah, to which they had forbidding reactions.
Three main religious factions played an influencing role in Jerusalem – the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes – all with common ground being the written Law of Moses. Key to understanding the friction between the Jewish leadership and Jesus of Nazareth is knowing the backdrop of these Jewish religious power base, especially the Pharisees.
Essenes were a very closed sect keeping to themselves and are not mentioned in the Gospels. References in the Gospels to the Pharisees are 10-fold greater than the Sadducees who strongly disagreed with the Pharisees:
“…[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” – Josephus 
Jewish leadership was comprised of the high priests, Pharisees and Sadducees who often had membership in the Sanhedrin (Sanhedrim), a supreme court of 71 judges established under Moses. The Sanhedrin progressively gained political power during its final years under the Roman Empire.
Four prominent Jewish historical figures were Pharisees who provided insights to the Jewish authority apparatus. Flavius Josephus was a Sanhedrin-appointed Pharisee General before he was captured by the Romans and became an official Jewish historian for Rome. Nicodemus and Josephus of Arimethea were both Pharisee members of the Jewish Council. Saul, who became the Apostle Paul after his conversion, also was previously a Pharisee.
Power and influence increased significantly for the Pharisees under Jewish Queen Alexandra a generation before King Herod. On his death bed, King Alexander advised his daughter, Queen Alexandra, to grant some of her powers to the Pharisees to gain their favor in the kingdom.
Queen Alexandra followed the King’s advice and granted the Pharisees “all things into their power, both to the dead body, and as to the affairs of the kingdom…” In return, the Pharisees threw their support behind 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.” – Josephus 
Officers of the Pharisees were part of the posse that arrested Jesus on Mt. Gethsemane. Saul, later known as Paul, admitted zealously arresting Christians on behalf of the Sanhedrin before his own conversion to Christianity.
Josephus described the Pharisees as legal experts “esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their law.” According to Josephus, 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.”
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.
Confronting Jesus numerous times, the 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 arrested and crucified did Jesus answer them directly.
October is the month when the Feast of the Tabernacles celebration, now known as Sukkot, is observed in Jerusalem. Six months before Jesus would be crucified, the Disciples of Jesus went to this week-long festival without him, however, midweek Jesus secretly slipped into the city and taught at the Temple.
Officers reported the appearance of Jesus to the Pharisees and Jewish leadership prompting them to find him. When they heard Jesus say “I am the light of the world,” the Pharisees objected and pressed him further when Jesus said:
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, then 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)
God referred to Himself as “I AM” and Jesus just claimed to be I AM. Blasphemy, according to the Law of Moses, was to be punished by stoning. “They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area.” The Greek word Ioudaios is translated as Jews or Judean, but it does not say the Pharisees were the ones wanting to stone Jesus.
December before Jesus would be crucified, he attended the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, today known as Hanukkah. 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.” 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. Instead, Jesus suggested they should consider the “good deeds” he had performed because miracles could only be accomplished with the power of his Father – God.
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)
Response from the Jewish religious authorities: “We are not going to stone you for a good deed but for blasphemy, because you, a man, are claiming to be God.” An attempt was made to seize Jesus rather than to stone him.
A change in reaction may have been more for political self-interests and less for religious reasons. The Jewish leaders were afraid of the people because they viewed Jesus as a prophet yet he threatened their controlling influence over the people. Raising Lazarus from the dead caused his popularity to reach a point that became the catalyst for eliminating Jesus.
Just hours before he was to be crucified came the most dramatic moment involving the high priest himself. During his nighttime trial by the Jewish leadership at the Temple, undoubtedly knowing it would cost him his life, Jesus testified under oath that he is ego eimi, Greek for “I AM”.
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 the Sanhedrin bore witness to the fact that Jesus testified under oath that 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!’”
On three occasions, Jesus specifically identified himself as equal to God, the Son of God, and each time those who heard it wanted to kill him. Jesus said it – the question is who was correct, the Jewish leadership or Jesus?
Updated January 8, 2023.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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