Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees so Much?

Perhaps, we malign the Pharisees more than we should.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus engaged more with certain groups of people than with others? In the 1st century Judea, there were at least five distinct Jewish groups: the Herodians, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. The record we have in the Gospels shows that Jesus engaged one of these groups far more than the others.

My interest in this question goes back to the very first time I read the Gospels in a college world religion class. The way Jesus focused on the Pharisees virtually leapt off the pages at me! He was brutal to them! And, that is putting it politely.

Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), blind guides (Matt. 23:16, 19, 24, 26), blind fools (Matt. 23:17), “white-washed tombs” that “appear outwardly righteous”, “but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27), and snakes, a “brood of vipers”! (Matt. 23:33)

I am not saying that Jesus didn’t engage the other groups. It’s just that he engaged one group far more than the others. Perhaps it’s because that one group engaged him more than any other.

Unlike the other groups, the Pharisees engaged often with Jesus and Jesus with them. The Pharisees are mentioned ninety eight (98) times in the New Testament, mainly in the Gospels.

The Pharisees were not friendly with Rome. They held on to the hope of the restoration of the throne of David. Unlike the Zealots, who actively opposed Roman rule to the point of violence, the Pharisees more or less ignored Rome. They devoted themselves to God and following the Law.

Unlike the Essenes, who retreated to the desert and removed themselves completely from Judean communities and life, the Pharisees remained in the community. Like Jesus, they remained engaged.

The religious views of the Pharisees were in opposition to the Sadducees on resurrection, the reality of supernatural and demonic activity and the authority of the Prophets and other writings. The Pharisees were not just devoted to ritual observances in the Temple, but in every day life.

Though some Pharisees were wealthy, they were elite primarily in their religious study and devotion. The Pharisees were more of a populist movement. Though they were popularly influential, they wielded no political influence or position. They were the religious leaders of the common people.

Thus, the Pharisees were most like Jesus, and Jesus was most aligned with them in their social orientation and religious views. “They were the holy men who kept the law; they pursued purity with a passion and wanted nothing more than to live lives that pleased God. They were sincere, albeit sincerely misguided.”

So, that brings me to the question: Why did Jesus pick on the Pharisees so much? In the remainder of this article, I will give you my current answer.

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