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A casual reader of the Gospels would clearly reject the idea that Jesus was a Pharisee. After all, they often accused him of breaking the Laws of the Torah and Jesus frequently denounced them as hypocrites and worse. In John 5, we are told that they wanted to kill Him, and in chapters 8 and 10, they tried to stone Him.

However, the honorific term "Rabbi" was most often a pharisaic title, and Jesus was referred to multiple times as a Rabbi. E.g.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (Mark 9:5)

Additionally, at one point a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod Antipas was trying to kill him.

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31)

If Jesus was considered a Rabbi (usually a Pharisaic title), and some of the Pharisees actively sought to protect Him, was Jesus a Pharisee?

If not, how should we understand his relationship to the Pharisees?



Appendix--additional relevant material

Biblical evidence exists that at least one Pharisee, namely Nicodemus, defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Nicode′mus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does? (John 7:49-51).

Joseph of Arimathea, a Sanhedrin member who was a "secret disciple" (John 19:38) was also most likely a Pharisee.

A Pharisee in Capernaum invited Jesus as a guest of honor in his home

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. (Luke 7:36)

In the 20th century interpreters began to question whether gospels' portrayal of the mutual animosity between Jesus and "The Pharisees" is an anachronism.

Religious historians point to the fact that in Jesus time, the Pharisees held diverse opinions on most matters of Jewish law and it was only later that the rabbis began expelling Jewish Christians from synagogues. In their view, the gospels' portrayal of the Pharisees reflects the reality of a later generation.

Later, scholars such as Jacob Neusner explored the Jewish Jesus in his book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. Hyam Maccoby went even further in his book Jesus the Pharisee. In his multi-volume study of the historical Jesus John P. Meir undertook a monumental re-evaluation of Jesus and the Jewish culture of his times.

Some scholars today thus believe that Jesus debated the Pharisees not so much as an outsider but as an active participant in arguments that the Pharisees themselves discussed, including such unresolved issues as: the paying taxes to Rome, washing hands before eating, healing on the Sabbath, when divorce is allowed, relations with Gentiles, the coming of the Messiah, and whether there will be a resurrection of the dead.

Was Jesus, who was called "Rabbi, a Pharisee?


added 9/6/22 Note that Jesus in Mt. 23 criticizes the Pharisees for their love of being called "rabbi" and forbids the title to his disciples. Yet in John's gospel he seems to accept the title himself on several occasions.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. ... they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.

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    Unfortunately this is not a question suitable for exegesis - no scripture is provided and this is a vague, open ended question, as I don't believe there were membership cards printed. I think it would be better asked on Christianity stackexchange or judaism stackexchange.
    – Robert
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:42
  • it is an opinion based slander based question. If Jesus was a fellow pharisee then they would have mentioned it clearly, theres nothing to be ashamed about it to hide it. Paulus was a pharisee studied under the feet of Gamaliel.
    – Michael16
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:48
  • @Robert - You apparently did not notice the references to John 7:49-51) (John 19:38) (Luke 7:36) (Luke 13:31). Or are you saying that the question would be acceptable if I provided the actual scripture rather than references and summaries? I'll do so in any case. Aug 18, 2022 at 1:37
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    @DanFefferman Of course I noticed. But I also understand that it's not enough for there to exist a reference in the body of the text of the question. The question itself needs to be about the reference, with the intention of using hermeneutic approaches to understand what the reference is saying. This is a hermeneutics site. You can't just throw in a reference like Psalm 14.1 and then ask "Was Herod an atheist?" Because such a question is not about interpreting Psalm 14.1 and no hermeneutic approach to Psalm 14.1 will answer such a question.
    – Robert
    Aug 18, 2022 at 2:33
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    I have edited the question to focus on the meaning of two specific passages, and nominated it for reopening. I kept most of your research in an appendix. Aug 18, 2022 at 3:55

2 Answers 2

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Jesus was not a Pharisee, but that didn't mean He disagreed with them on everything

Jesus' education certainly would have been influenced by Pharisaic thought, including Hillel (as noted by חִידָה and exemplified by Matt. 7:12), but no, Jesus was not a Pharisee like Saul was. In fact, one of the criticisms of Jesus by His opponents was that He was a common outsider (e.g. Matt. 13:55), not a formally trained scholar.

Jesus explicitly rejected some of the oral traditions that were central to contemporary Pharisaic teaching (e.g. Mark 7:6-13).

Was there overlap between the teachings of the Pharisees and the teachings of Jesus? Of course. In the debate on the resurrection, for example, Jesus' teachings were much closer to the views of the Pharisees than the Sadducees. However, the Christian message departed sharply from Pharisaic thought in that not everyone would have to wait until the end of the world for the resurrection.

That said, and as noted in the OP, Pharisaic thought was not monolithic. As already noted by חִידָה, the 2 major Pharisaic schools of thought in Jesus' day were Hillel & Shammai, and they had plenty of their own in-house disagreements. There evidently were some Pharisees who accepted that Jesus was their awaited Messiah, but plenty who did not.

--

Major branches of Judaism in the early 1st century

  1. Pharisees
  2. Sadducees
  3. Essenes
  4. Zealots

(there were other smaller groups, and subgroups, but this is a good high-level summary).

Different Gospel authors preferred different terms when referring to the Jewish leaders. John often just calls the leaders "the Jews" (which is sensible if he's writing in Ephesus), but Matthew (writing earlier, for a Jewish audience) uses far more specific terminology.

The Gospel of Matthew in particular speaks to an audience that does not need to have Jewish concepts explained to them. Bernard Orchard (see The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels? pp. 233-234) assembled a list of conspicuously Jewish features found in the Gospel of Matthew, a few of which include:

  • It makes conscious connection between the Old Testament and the New
  • Focus on the Law of Moses and temple ritual
  • The Gospel of Matthew expects it readers to be familiar with the views and customs of the groups named as the scribes, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. The author never explains who these groups are—the audience is expected to already know.

One of the principal themes of the Gospel of Matthew is that you can be a good Jew and believe in Jesus. Indeed, it goes further than that—Matthew argues that if you are a good Jew and believe the Old Testament you should believe in Jesus, because the Old Testament prophesied of Him. However, the Gospel of Matthew does not indicate that one needs to adopt the views of the Pharisees (or Sadducees, Essenes, or Zealots) in order to be a good Jew--because Jesus was teaching a message that was different from what the leaders of any of these groups were saying!

Jesus' message does not fit neatly into any of the contemporary Jewish philosophies--at times it had overlap with them--but it was a disruptive message, not a continuation of the status-quo debates (one does not generally get executed for carrying forward the status quo).

--

History is written by the winners

It is worth pointing out that after AD 70, only the Pharisees retained any significant power, and the Jewish records come down to us principally through them.

As a result, the quotations we have from rabbis skews towards rabbis of the Pharisaic tradition. "Rabbi" may have been a title more commonly used by the Pharisees (or it could be a bit of sampling error), but it was not exclusive to the Pharisees.

Scholars regularly seek out bias in Christian writings to a degree that they do not apply to other writings. Prior to the 19th century, the most typical approach was that the New Testament was studied as a means of understanding what happened in the past. The Tubingen school, starting especially in the 1830s, flipped that around and started using their philosophical worldview as a means of reinterpreting the past, and making the New Testament fit into their revised history.

Because the Tubingen school's philosophies have exerted such a tremendous influence on New Testament studies over the years, a large portion of scholarship takes as its default position that if a Christian source disagrees with a Jewish or pagan source, it is the Christian source that is wrong.

But as it pertains to the situation in Judea & Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew is an earlier source than Josephus, Tacitus, the Mishnah, or any other major source against which it is often compared. It is a text that historians ought to take seriously.

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    thanks for this good answer. Hoping that the thread can be re-opened so we can read more answers before I accept any of them. Aug 18, 2022 at 11:51
  • Glad to see the topic re-opened. Wondering... is there evidence that anyone other than Pharisees were called Rabbi? Sep 6, 2022 at 14:47
  • @DanFefferman it's difficult to be certain regarding specific individuals given the differences in nomenclature in different sources (e.g. the rabbinic literature never equates the rabbis with the Pharisees), but some plausible examples of people who appear to be considered rabbis but who had notable differences with the Pharisees would be Saddoq (a Zealot), John the Baptist, Yohannan ben Zakkai, and Simeon the Just. My understanding is that in the rabbinic period "rabbi" became more of a technical term, whereas in earlier times it was a more generic way to refer to a "master" or "teacher". Sep 9, 2022 at 2:28
  • @DanFefferman also the article you cited (good article!) acknowledges that although the Pharisees were probably dominant post-70, early rabbinic Judaism was not exclusively Pharisaic. And the rabbis have at times been seen to "rabbinize" earlier Jewish history. Sep 9, 2022 at 2:29
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Did Jesus the Nazarene claim to be a Pharisaic student of 1st Century Rabbi הִלֵּל Hillel the Elder or Rabbi Shammai? - No.

Jesus appears to quote [Shabbat 31a:6] teaching by Rabbi הִלֵּל Hillel, when answering Pharisees in [Matthew 7:12] to highlight importance of the mitsvah in Vayikra 19:18.

Rabbi Hillel's teaching from [Shabbat 31a:6] :

"דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד — זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ" (That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah)
is very similar to Jesus's teaching in [Matthew 7:12]
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἂν θέλητε ἵνα ποιῶσιν ὑμῖν οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ποιεῖτε αὐτοῖς· οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ νόμος καὶ οἱ προφῆται)

  • Depending on Jesus' pre-bar mitzvah-age (during 10 CE), Rabbi Hillel would have already been deceased before Jesus could attend Hillel's Yeshiva.

  • Both philosophical beliefs by Jesus & Hillel regarding Torah in reverence to the commandment in Vayikra 19:18 were not welcomed by all Yeshivot (Pharisaic schools) like the Yeshiva of the younger Rabbi Shammai.

  • Although Hillel would have agreed with Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:12 (Based on Shabbat 31a:6), Hillel & Shammai both would disagree with Jesus about the oral law (Based on Shabbat 31a:5).

Jesus' rejection of תוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה the Oral Torah in [Matthew 23:3] appears to distance his association from 1st Century Pharisaic teachings (Yeshivot of Shammai & Hillel).

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  • Similar statements doesn't mean quotation and direct inspiration from the older author. The golden rule is also found in Buddhist scripture.
    – Michael16
    Aug 18, 2022 at 9:41
  • thanks very much for this answer! I upvoted it but didn't "accept". It seems to me Jesus did not reject the principle of Oral Torah in Mt 23; rather he rejected not practicing what is preached. "so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice." I hadn't understood until your answer that Mt. 33.22, about sitting "in Moses' seat" is a reference to Oral Torah.. Aug 18, 2022 at 11:34
  • I agree that Jesus did not claim to be a disciple of Hillel and he certainly did not agree with Shammai on most halakhic issues except divorce. I'm fascinated by the question of how the historical Jesus thought of himself in relationship to contemporary Jewish movements. My personal opinion is that the Pharisaic movement was quite diverse, something like Protestantism in Christianity while the Sadducees with their priests were analogous to Catholicism. I picture Jesus as "Pharisee" in that general said. As @Robert pointed out, they didn't hand out membership cards. Aug 18, 2022 at 11:44

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