Scribes and Pharisees

I’ve been writing down some theological reflections on Mark’s gospel. Perhaps at some point these will constitute the makings of a short book, but for now they’re just reflections. Here are some brief thoughts on the scribes and Pharisees in Mark. I’d appreciate any constructive feedback you have. 

Let’s clear something up about the scribes and Pharisees. After all, they are often the straw men who are destroyed in sermon after sermon in Christian churches each Sunday. When we want to describe someone as legalistic, short-sighted, and generally missing the whole point of the Gospel, we call that person a “Pharisee.” We normally do this, moreover, with very little idea who the scribes and Pharisees actually were.

Scribes were professional interpreters of the law. Some of them were also Pharisees. The Pharisees themselves were a renewal movement within the Israelite religion of Jesus’ day. They wanted to help Israel become the holiest people it could be. They developed traditions in addition to the Torah (the Jewish law) in order to make sure that they were living as righteously as they possibly could. Generally speaking, they weren’t trying to make everyone else live the way they lived. Rather, they saw themselves as an example of the way that people should live before God, and those who opposed Jesus seem to have done so because his teaching undermined their way of trying to be faithful. Keep in mind that not all of the Pharisees opposed Jesus. In Luke 7:36, Jesus is invited to eat dinner in the house of a Pharisee, and he accepts the invitation. In the story that follows, the Pharisee does show misunderstanding of how to regard people who are sinners, but then this misunderstanding is no more pronounced than the kinds of misunderstanding we see among the disciples from time to time. In Acts 15:5, we read of followers of Jesus who are also Pharisees. While some Pharisees strongly opposed Jesus, then, others did not. It’s easy to paint in broad strokes when we need an enemy, but broad strokes don’t always make for the best paintings.

There’s also  a serious theological problem with blaming the Pharisees, or even the “Jewish leaders,” for their opposition to Jesus. The problem is that it is the natural tendency of human beings to oppose Jesus. Christians believe that while human beings are created good, we are strongly influenced by a tendency to oppose what God wants. In other words, we are under the influence of sin. Here sin is not just something we do wrong. It is a cosmic force that leads us into ways of thinking and acting that oppose what God wants for us. Paul talks about sin in this way when he says that “both Jews and Greeks [in other words, everyone] are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9).

We all oppose Christ. We can’t help it. That’s what sin does to us. The scribes, Pharisees, and Jewish leadership were a part of Jesus’ cultural context, and so they were the ones who first had the opportunity to oppose him. But let’s be clear: regardless of what culture Christ had been born into, human beings would have opposed him. We human beings are under the power of sin. It is only by the power of God that we are able to stop opposing Christ and start following him. And even then, we are likely to stumble and fall. Sin is powerful. There’s a reason that Jesus calls Satan the “strong man.” There is a reason that God had to come in person to break the power of sin and death. There is a reason that the world seems as chaotic and out-of-control as it does. That reason is sin. Sin is both real and powerful, and we are every bit as susceptible to its power as the scribes and Pharisees were.

Before we point fingers, then, let’s acknowledge that we also oppose Jesus. When we behave selfishly, we oppose Jesus. When we cave in to the sins of prejudice, hatred, and vindictiveness, we oppose Jesus. When we plot against our enemies rather than loving them, we oppose Jesus. When we succumb to the temptations of greed, pornography, or affairs, we oppose Jesus. Human beings oppose Jesus all the time. We just don’t have the opportunity anymore to oppose him to his face.


4 thoughts on “Scribes and Pharisees

  1. Prof. Watson, nice piece! As a Jewish reader, I appreciate your sensitive portrayal of the Pharisees. Your point is a good one: Jesus was a Jew who lived in a Jewish context and culture, and if he was going to have arguments, he was going to have them with other Jews. The Pharisees were prominent in Jesus’ time, and even more so when the Gospels were written. Of course, your main point here is theological, and as a Jew I hold a different set of beliefs on the nature of sin. But I appreciate that your theology takes what I think to be an appropriately nuanced view of Jesus’ relationship to his opponents. Thanks for your good work here.

    • Larry, thanks for the comment. I really appreciate your feedback on this issue. It’s good to know that you found my remarks to be appropriately sensitive. I hope if I write posts in the future that are of interest to you, you’ll comment again.

  2. Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:20).

    John Wesley added a few traditions and rules of his own to the Methodist movement. The General Rules are in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. They are good rules to live by.

    Thanks for a helpful and informative post, David.

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