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Pharisees & Jewish Leaders vs. 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?

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.[1] Key to understanding the friction between the Jewish leadership and Jesus of Nazareth is knowing the backdrop of the Jewish religious power base, especially the Pharisees. Four prominent Jewish historical figures were Pharisees who provided insights to their 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.[2] Nicodemus along with Josephus of Arimethea were both Pharisee members of the Jewish Council. Saul, before his conversion to the Apostle Paul, was also previously a Pharisee.[3]

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.[4] The Sanhedrin progressively gained political power during its final years under the Roman Empire.

A very closed sect, Essenes, kept to themselves and are not mentioned in the Gospels. References to the Pharisees in the Gospels 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 [5]

Power and influence increased significantly for the Pharisees under Jewish Queen Alexandra a generation before King Herod.[6] 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.[7]

Queen Alexandra granted the Pharisees “all things into their power, both to the dead body, and as to the affairs of the kingdom…”[8] 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 [9]

Pharisees had their own contingent of officers with full arrest powers.[10] Once they were sent to arrest Jesus simply because the crowd was murmuring about things he was teaching.[11] Officers of the Pharisees were part of the posse that arrested Jesus on Mt. Gethsemane.[12] Saul admitted zealously arresting Christians on behalf of the Sanhedrin before his own conversion to Christianity.[13]

Josephus described the Pharisees as legal experts “esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their law.”[14] 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.”[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] Six months before Jesus would be crucified, the Disciples of Jesus attended this week-long festival without him.[18] 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.[19] When they heard Jesus say “I am the light of the world,” the Pharisees objected pressing him further when Jesus said:[20]

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” meaning Jesus just equated himself with God. Blasphemy, according to the Law of Moses, was to be punished by stoning.[21] “They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area.”[22]

December before Jesus would be crucified, he attended the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, today known as Hanukkah.[23] 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.”[24] 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. [25] 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.[26]

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.”[27] 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.[28]

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”.[29]

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 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!’”[30]

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. Jesus said it – the question is who was correct, the Jewish leadership or Jesus?

 

Updated April 4, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XIII, Chapter V.9.  The Life of Flavius Josephus. I.2. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> “Scrolls from the Dead Sea.” Library of Congress. n.d. <https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/late.html>
[2] Josephus, Flavius. The Life of Josephus. 12.
[3] John 3:1, 7:50; 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>
[4] Exodus 18:25-26; Deuteronomy 1:15-17, 16:18-20.  Josephus,. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter X.4 foot note *. Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter VIII.7-11.   “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>  *93 Gospel mentions of Pharisees, 9 Gospel mentions of Sadducees or which 6 also included the Pharisees.
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XI.6.
[6] 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. Wars. Book II, Chapter XV.6. “Salome Alexandra.” New World Encyclopedia. 2019. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Salome_Alexandra>
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XV.5, XVI.1.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XVI.1.
[9] Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter V.2.
[10] John 1:24; 7:32, 45; 11:57; 18:3, 12.
[11] John 7:32.
[12] John 18:1-12.
[13] Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-23.
[14] Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter VIII.14.  Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIII, Chapter XI.6.
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter II.4.
[16] 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.
[17] “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>
[18] John 7:2.  Footnote [18 (previously 17)  DELETED (references added to #4)
[19] John 7:1-9, 14, 32, 45; 8:12.  CR John 1:24; 11:57; 18:3, 12.
[20] John 8:12.
[21] Leviticus 24:16.
[22] John 8:59.
[23] John 10:22. “Hanukkah.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah> “Hanukkah.” History.com. 2020. <https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah>
[24] John 10:24. NET.
[25] 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>
[26] John 9:16. CR John 10:40-41.
[27] John 10:33. NET.
[28] 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.
[29] Matthew 26:63-64.
[30] Matthew 26:65-66. ISV. CR Mark 14:63-64.

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