Negative depictions of the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes

  • PASSAGE: “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain . . .” LUKE 15:1-3
  • PASSAGE: [Jesus “cleanses” the temple and…] The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him;  LUKE 19:45-48
  • PASSAGE: The chief priests and scribes were seeking for a way to put him [Jesus] to death. LUKE 22:2

PERILOUS: To understand these passages, one must first recognize that charges against the “scribes,” “chief priests,” and “Pharisees” are all connected, as they are references to various leaders of the Jewish community at the time of Jesus.

In most instances where the Gospels refer to the Pharisees, they are described as being among Jesus’ strongest and most tenacious opponents.  Their vision and program for what Judaism should be differed significantly from Jesus’ view.  These differences may have led to heated exchanges on both sides.  However, the negative depictions of the Pharisees throughout the New Testament, including the passages above, likely date from a generation later.  (See below)

The fact is the Pharisees were a diverse group, not all of whom deserve such sweeping negative characterization.  After the destruction of the Temple, they were the group who helped the Jewish community transition its form of worship to practices in the home and later in synagogues, with rabbis as their primary religious leaders.  Many had positive qualities and some were sympathetic to Jesus, including Nicodemus “who went cautiously to Jesus at night and asked him respectful questions about his teachings” (John 3:1-9) and Joseph of Arimathea, who made sure that Jesus had a proper burial (Mark 15:43, 45-6).

One reason for the negative depictions may well be the time the Gospels were written. Many do not realize that they were authored decades after Jesus’ death, which occurred in about 30 AD/CE.   Luke’s Gospel was written more than 40 years later, therefore, these texts are more likely to reflect the friction between the Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus rather than a conflict with Jesus himself.

The three main points to be made here are: 1) It was not the whole Jewish leadership who rejected Jesus and wanted him killed, 2) the historic context adds a dimension to why these words were written and 3) To make a connection between these ancient leaders and modern-day Jews is an enormous leap. 


Generating negative stereotypes through parables

  • PASSAGE: [Luke relays a parable attributed to Jesus about those who are convinced of their own righteousness:] “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income. “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” LUKE 18:9-14

PERILOUS: The problem in this passage comes especially in verses 10 and 11, in which the person with the self-congratulatory attitude, praying “to himself,” is identified as a “Pharisee.”  Clearly, the prayerful attitude of the “tax collector” is to be commended, and Jesus does so.

Associating the self-congratulatory attitude with the “Pharisee” can be read as an association with Judaism, as the Pharisees were the leaders of the Jewish community in Jesus’ time.  There is also no evidence of such a self-congratulatory attitude being in any way characteristic of the historical Pharisees.  Unfortunately, throughout history people have accepted these descriptions as “fact” and made the exaggerated connection between these ancient leaders and the Jews of their day, including modern-day Jews.

We remind you that all negative depictions of the Pharisees are due to the fact that their vision for what Judaism should be differed significantly from Jesus’ view.  After Jesus’ death the tension between these Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus grew even more volatile.  Therefore, the passages we read about the Pharisees in the Gospels are more likely to reflect their discord with the followers of Jesus rather than with Jesus himself.


Passages on the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus (Passion Narratives)

  • PASSAGE: Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the crowds, “I find this man not guilty.” But they were adamant . . .” LUKE 23:4   [This proclamation of Jesus’ innocence (by Pilate) also occurs in 23:14 and 23:22, thus three times in total.]
  • PASSAGE: “The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile, stood by accusing him harshly.” LUKE 23:10
  • PASSAGE: “But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man [Jesus]!  Release Barabbas to us.” LUKE 23:18
  • PASSAGE: “…but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” LUKE 23:10
  • PASSAGE: “With loud shouts however, they persisted in calling for his crucifixion.” LUKE 23:23
  • PASSAGE: “The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him . . .” LUKE 23:25

PERILOUS:  Just as in Matthew and Mark, Luke clearly implicates the chief priests, scribes and elders in the arrest, trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus.  One distinction is that  he does not go so far as to associate them or their actions with pejorative words like “treachery,” “false testimony,” “blasphemy” or “mocking.”  Neither does he put in the Jewish leaders’ mouths the damning statement, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Nevertheless, Luke’s charges are very damaging to Jews as it is historically certain that Jesus died by crucifixion, and that crucifixion was a Roman form of execution.  Some Jewish leaders/officials may well have collaborated with the Romans at the time, but any claim that “the Jews” crucified Jesus is historically inaccurate and to be attributed to the followers of Jesus, decades after the fact, who wished to assign blame to “the Jews.”  The emphasis in the Gospels on the (relative) “innocence” of Pilate, the Roman governor depicted as wanting to release Jesus, served that end, as well as trying to prevent trouble with the Romans.  In fact, it is highly unlikely and has no historical evidence that Pilate would have released another prisoner in Jesus’ place, especially one who had been “put in prison for insurrection and murder” (Luke 23:25).   Blaming “the Jews” enabled Luke and the other Gospel writers to bolster the argument that the followers of Jesus had “replaced” the Jews