The Pharisees: Their History, Character, and New Testament Portrait

Written by Kent L. Yinger Reviewed By Benjamin Laird

As part of a growing body of recently published works on the Pharisees, Kent Yinger’s introduction provides an accessible and clearly written treatment of the historical background of the movement, its influence among the Jewish people, its teachings, and the manner in which it is portrayed by the Gospel writers.

Following a brief introduction that offers a concise survey of the relevant historical sources for the study of the Pharisees, Yinger considers what may be known of its origin and history in the first two chapters. He suggests that the Pharisees likely “began sometime in the mid-second century BCE in connection with the Maccabean struggle against Hellenism over Israel’s true identity” (p. 15). He also concludes that any significant political influence of the Pharisees is likely to have been limited to the period in which Salome Alexandra ruled over Judea (c. 76–67 BCE), that is, to a brief period shortly before the Romans began to exert their influence in Judea (pp. 17–20). On several other occasions, the Pharisees were embroiled in significant controversy with Jewish leaders or were the subject of harsh treatment.

Chapters 3–5 consider the unique practices and beliefs of the Pharisees. As Yinger explains, the Pharisees were known for their careful and meticulous observance of the Law and a number of traditions which they assumed were implied by the written Law or were at least consistent with it (pp. 33–37). He offers an insightful discussion of key doctrines that were affirmed by the Pharisees but were either rejected or not emphasized by members of the Sadducees or others (e.g., the acceptance of fate, the hope of a future resurrection, and post-mortem rewards and punishments). Yinger also notes that the Pharisees enjoyed a favorable reputation among the general population, an achievement that would be difficult to explain if they were the oppressing ruling party that is sometimes assumed.

At the heart of the volume (chs. 6–12) is a substantive treatment of Jesus’s interaction with the Pharisees. Yinger considers not only how each of the canonical Gospels portray the Pharisees, but what might be concluded about Jesus’s rebuke of their teaching and lifestyle. Among other things, Yinger suggests that Jesus shared many of the same beliefs and practices as the Pharisees (p. 86), that the Pharisees did not despise the common people (pp. 101–3), and that many of its members were not, at least in the majority of cases, the legalists they are often thought to be. As Yinger contends, “Concerns about trying to earn God’s favor through good works, through eating the right food with the right people, played no role in the Pharisees’ thinking” (p. 107). He further explains that conflict with Jesus largely centered around matters of purity and authority, that is, over the precise manner in which the Law is to be applied and who possesses the right to instruct the people.

The final chapters of the volume (chs. 13–15) make several conclusions about the nature of the Pharisees and address some of the common ways that they are often portrayed. Yinger is sensitive to the fact that many contemporary readers may be conflicted by the noticeably more positive manner in which the Pharisees are portrayed by Josephus (see Jewish War 2.162–66 and Jewish Antiquities 13.171–73; 18.11–25) than in the Gospel accounts. How could members of this group manage to exert such widespread influence if they were anything like the way they are described and characterized in the gospels, it might be asked. For Yinger, it is unnecessary to side with either Josephus or the Gospel writers. The Gospels provide reliable and credible testimony, he explains, but their characterization of the Pharisees has often been misunderstood. Rather than an oppressive group which espoused a legalistic understanding of the Law, Yinger argues that many Pharisees understood that “the Torah was built on a foundation of God’s electing grace to Israel and was seen as the way to walk in faithfulness to this God, not the way to earn his love” (p. 152). But even if this point is granted, is it not clear that Jesus charged the Pharisees with hypocrisy? Yinger concedes that Jesus did make such a charge but contends that his criticism of the Pharisees has been largely misunderstood. He emphasizes that Jesus’s notable rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13–36 should be understood as a “warning-invective,” a particular type of criticism that was characterized by generalization, exaggeration, and stereotyped language (p. 173). On the basis of this observation, Yinger concludes that the Pharisees were indeed hypocrites in the sense that they “claim[ed] to love and listen to God,” while “refus[ing] to listen to the one whom God had sent.” As a whole, however, the “Pharisees were not characterized by hypocrisy” (p. 176).

While some readers may not resonate with all of Yinger’s conclusions, his introduction serves as an ideal starting place for non-specialists looking to learn more about the background and teachings of the Pharisees. In addition to addressing a number of important questions related to their practices, beliefs, and traditions, Yinger makes a compelling case that some of the modern caricatures of the Pharisees are in need of reevaluation.

Benjamin Laird

Benjamin Laird
Liberty University
Lynchburg, Virginia, USA

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