Would You Have Been a Pharisee?

by Melissa Proctor
Meridian Magazine

It has been said that men are "ecclesiastically born either as a Pharisee or as a Sadducee." Some of us may squawk at such a statement, saying that we are, in fact, neither, since both seem to have unfavorable records in history. Though such generalizations have certain inherent flaws, nonetheless, we may say that these two groups represent fundamental schools of thought that have divided society up even until the current day.

Origins of the Sadducees

The beginnings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees can be traced back to the reconstruction of Jewish society upon the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity. Those who had remained behind in Jerusalem had learned to accommodate themselves to the foreigners in order to live in peace in the land. They were quite willing to continue making political and military compromises, inter-marrying, and associating with the foreign nations that surrounded them, gradually losing everything that made them distinctive.

They evolved from the priestly elite who stayed behind and saw conformity to the ruling powers as an opportunity to increase their prestige by alliance. They willingly submitted to whatever conception of life was imposed upon them. They claimed legitimacy and priesthood through their progenitor, the famous Zadok, who had been appointed to the high priesthood by King Solomon. Deriving their name from Zadok, they became known as the Sadducees.

Origins of the Pharisees

The returned exiles burned with zeal against the idolater and were dismayed at the compromises made by those who had stayed behind. For two generations the remnant of people who had stayed in Jerusalem had acquiesced to their heathen neighbors, making it impossible to sympathize with, or scarcely understand the exclusivity and social aloofness of their returned compatriots.

Those who returned from captivity were filled with a passionate love for the Holy City from which they were taken and they refused conformity. They would become a revolutionary force advocating nationalistic separation. The Pharisees grew out of these non-conforming separatists. This group possibly coined the phrase, "holier than thou," for they believed that, indeed, they were above everyone else. The Pharisees were filled with self-righteousness even to the point of making their manner of dress a matter of religious significance.

This conflict between the remnant Jews and the returning exiles is apparent in the writings of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Malachi. These prophets favored the separation, summoning to the cause all who were uncompromisingly for Jehovah. They taught that the heathen was contaminated, and that no conformity with the foreign nations could be allowed. By the reign of Nehemiah the concept of separation had become the dominant one, and those leaders who followed this course had great popularity.

Though the poison of egotistical arrogance saturated the Pharisees' souls until many became hollow or hateful to the core, they still produced and attracted sincere inquirers like Nicodemus, true believers such as Joseph of Arimathaea, and powerful leaders like Saul of Tarsus.

People could not fail to see the isolation in which this disciplined group lived. They separated themselves from the rest of their community in regard to custom and ceremony. It must have been the Sadducees who labeled them 'Perushim,' meaning Separatists. They were most likely proud to accept the title, as they wanted nothing more than to be separate from people they regarded as heathen. The Perushim thus became the Pharisees.

The Pharisees saw themselves as an elite society, closely organized with solemn initiation rites. The Pharisees believed in free agency coupled with divine providence and felt that though the righteous suffer at times on the earth, they will be vindicated by a just God in the next life. Standing in opposition to the Sadducees who saw this life as the end, the Pharisees believed in resurrection and judgement. They also placed great importance on moral purity, the laws of tithing, and observance of fasting and the Sabbath. The Sadducees did not care for these things. In fact, the Sadducees were men with no specific beliefs or faith. As much as the Pharisee viewed the Sadducee as an irreligious idolater, so also the Sadducee saw the Pharisee as a radical fanatic.

Attributes of the Pharisees

Doctrinally speaking, the Pharisees seemed to have it right. At one point in the gospels, Jesus even recognizes the truth of the Pharisees' teachings to his disciples when he said, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do . . . " (Matt 23:3).

If the Pharisees were correctly teaching the law, why then were they the most condemned of all by Jesus? Their problem, according to Jesus, was not that they were teaching false doctrines, but rather, that "all their works they do to be seen of men," (Matt 23:5) and they "love the uppermost rooms at the feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues" (Matt 23:6). Christ called them hypocrites, meaning that though they honored him "with their lips," their hearts were far from him. In their attempt to preserve their national integrity and the purity of their worship, they strangled themselves spiritually and became as "whited sepulchres" with the appearance of virtue, while being rotten and decayed inside.

Set Apart

As members of the Church we are called Saints. Saints are people who are set apart from the unhallowed world, so that they might be ceremonially clean, sufficiently pure to be of special service in the worship of God. Israel herself is called a peculiar people, even chosen and elect. We desire to be called such and numbered among the Saints of God.

Nevertheless, there is profound danger with such a special and separate status. The Pharisees saw themselves as set apart in much the same way that we as members of the Church call ourselves Saints. Within the Gospels, the Sadducees are mentioned only nine times and always in association with the Pharisees. In contrast, the Pharisees are referred to 80 times. Why would the Pharisees be singled out? Was not the ideal of the Pharisee higher than that of the Sadducee?

Many great souls were found among the Pharisees, but nothing ever came from the Sadducees. Yet Christ condemns the one and never specifically the other. Isn't it ironic that those who are most appalling to Christ are those who are also most zealous for the law? There is perhaps a greater possibility for evil in the earnest man gone wrong than in the merely apathetic.

The Temptation to be a Pharisee

Christ's constant criticism of the Pharisees is possibly most relevant to those of us who, like them, hope to find safety in the exactness of the law alone. Somehow we get the notion that if we can run quickly enough, accomplish a great deal, and keep smiling, we can earn our way by means of our external observances into the kingdom of God. What's more, it is tempting to be always taking our spiritual temperature to see how we are doing.

We often quote Nephi "we are saved by grace after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). Somehow the focus of that scripture becomes the "all we can do" part. It turns quickly into that heavy consideration - "all that we should do," until we get to the "all that we would do. . . if only we had more time." The beauty and power of the verse and also the theology is easily overlooked. No matter how long our list of good deeds, we are still saved by the Savior's grace through his atonement.

Our misunderstanding of this truth can have painful consequences. Do we think that we must earn the grace of Christ by successfully checking off our all-too-often-arbitrary lists of what constitutes righteousness? Yet there is nothing that would make us somehow deserving of exaltation. We cannot merit such a reward, but rather it is given as the "greatest of all the gifts of God" (D&C 14:7).

To believe otherwise has profound ramifications in our lives. Under the 'salvation-by-works-alone' paradigm, which sometimes traps us, disappointment and discouragement with ourselves would become a daily experience, and we would know little of the joy that we are promised through a knowledge of the gospel. Likewise, it would become easy and natural to place the same perverted expectations upon others that we have placed upon ourselves. This is true Pharisaism that has lost all sense of compassion and brotherhood.

Instead, when we truly love God, our good works become an expression of that love, and of the knowledge that we have been saved through Christ, not a vain attempt to win the Lord's favor. Our faith in the mercy and grace of God humbles us and inspires noble and selfless living.

To both the ancient and modern Pharisees, who pride themselves on their strict obedience to the law and their own fitness for salvation, the Savior's call is one of repentance.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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