Let’s start off this new series with a short quiz. Simply identify the bad guys in the following lists:

  1. At Thermopylae, was it (A) the 300 Spartans or (B) the Persians?
  2. In Star Wars, was it (A) Luke, Leah, Hans and Chewy or (B) Darth Vader and the Empire?
  3. At Atlanta, was it (A) Sherman and the Union forces or (B) Hood and his Confederate army?
  4. In Get Smart, was it (A) Max, 99 and the agents of Control or (B) Siegfried and the agents of KAOS?
  5. At Little Big Horn, was it (A) Custer and the US Calvary or (B) Crazy Horse and the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians?
  6. At Hastings, was it (A) William-soon-to-be-the-Conqueror and his Norman Army or (B) lying King Harold and his Saxon army?
  7. In the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, was it (A) Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and the beloved Boston Bruins or (B and it is) the very dislikable and despicable Vancouver Canucks?

I told you, it was an easy quiz. The answer is B every single time . . . unless you are of Persian descent, of Confederate descent (or simply believe Sherman was an arsonist), or of native American descent (and even if you aren’t, you might be right here going with answer “A”). In fact, every question could be up for debate because identifying the bad guy often depends on which side you are on (except for question 7, because there is no debate there; the Bruins are always the good guys; and the Canucks are/were/and always will be the bad guys).  And that leads us to our bonus question. It also is easy: 

In the gospels, who were the bad guys?

  1. The Disciples
  2. The Zealots
  3. The Galileans 
  4. The Pharisees

I told you it was easy. Everyone knows that the Pharisees were the bad guys. They were legalistic, hypocritical, blind guides. They were so consumed with externals that they forgot that the key was to love God with all one’s heart (hence the reason Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs”). And, worst of all, they opposed Jesus at every turn. In short, in the Gospels, the Pharisees were unmistakably the bad guys. And just to make my point perfectly clear, we have one more quiz question. 

Of the following choices, which is the best definition of a “Pharisee”?

A) A hypocrite
B) An irredeemable fundamentalist
C) A legalist
D) Any Jew who witnessed Jesus’ miracles, but still denied him as the Messiah-King
E) A term that has come to stand for any hard-hearted opponent of Jesus
F) A Christian who is legalistic, hypocritical, arrogant and sure of their own righteousness
G) All of the above
H) None of the above

If you said “G,” congratulations. Your answer corresponds to what I always believed about the Pharisees. They were bad to the bone legalists. But recently, historians and scholars have begun to do new research on the role of the Pharisees in second temple Judaism (the time from the rebuilding of the temple after the exile to the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD). And their findings are both interesting, engaging and important for the church today, especially as we try to best understand Jesus in his historical setting. Some of those findings were published in a 25-chapter, 444-page book, entitled, The Pharisees (edited by Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Levine and published by Eerdmans in 2021). This book sought to answer one big question: “Who were the Pharisees?” That’s also the question we want to ask in this blog series, with one additional thought: “Who were the Pharisees and how does understanding them help us to understand Jesus?” 

But in asking this question, we (Christians) often get off on the wrong foot. Since we are not sure what the word “Pharisee” actually means, we turn to etymology so that we can glean some “factual” data. Now, it is well established that when you are dealing with a serious question, it is always good to follow Jonathan Edwards’ advice: “Go ye into all the internet and seek your answers.” And what do we find there? We find clear answers. My quick search resulted in these findings:

  • From Christianity.com – “The root meaning of the word ‘Pharisee’ is uncertain. It is probably related to the Hebrew root meaning, ‘separate’ or ‘detach.’” The site then asks from whom did the Pharisees separate? And the answer: almost everyone! They separated themselves “from any type of impurity prescribed by the Levitical Law.”
  • From Don Stewart and The Blue Letter Bible – “The word Pharisee is derived from an Aramaic word meaning, ‘separated.’” But then he adds: “In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees practiced righteousness externally–they were more concerned with the outward appearance than the inward feeling.
  • From Bibleinfo.com – “The word Pharisee means separated. [They] were against assimilating with non-Jewish people or even being friends with them.” At the end of the article, we read this piece of sage advice: “Hypocrisy is never the way to go. . . . Remember, being perfect on the outside and flawed on the inside gets you nowhere with the Lord!

With a simple click and an eye for etymology, we find out everything that we really need to know about the Pharisees. Buried in the etymology of the word is this idea of separation which tells us that the Pharisees were separatists. They loved the law and separated from anyone who didn’t keep it. And many of us are very much like them. We are both legalists and hypocritical! To prove my point, ask yourself if you or someone you know could benefit from the following book by Larry Osborne: Accidental Pharisee: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith?  In short, the etymology paves the way for understanding the Pharisees.

Sorry, it doesn’t. Not at all. See, the etymology of a word gives us great insight into the history of the word, but it rarely tells us anything about its current meaning. Now, I know that sounds wrong, so consider these four quick examples.

  • The etymology of the word, “bunny,” derives from “bun” which in old English meant “squirrel.”
  • The etymology of the word, “butterfly,” tells us nothing about the insect. 
  • The etymology of the word, “awful,” speaks of being full of awe or being worthy of respect. 
  • And the etymology of the word, “explode,” speaks of jeering a performer off the stage (“plode” is derived from the same root as “applaud”). 

In other words, disregard everything I said, because the etymology of the word “Pharisee” will tell us nothing about its current meaning. 

Worse, the etymology of names is even more sketchy than the etymology of words. Craig Morrison, in his chapter “Interpreting the Name, Pharisee” provides a simple illustration of this that I found hilarious. He said: “Mr. and Mrs. Baker down the street may not even own an oven!” In other words, whatever we want to say about the Pharisees, it cannot be based on the etymology of the word. If the Pharisees were separatists, we will have to determine that based on their actions, not on the etymology of the word. 

To argue the point even further, there are three other very good reasons why we should not call the Pharisees separatists based on a tenuous etymology. 

  • First, even if the etymology of the word “Pharisee” clearly meant “to separate” or “to detach,” we would still have no idea from what they wanted to separate. 
  • Second, even hinting that someone is a separatist puts a negative spin on the whole debate, which may never have been intended. When we hear someone is a separatist, we unconsciously think that the Pharisees must have been self-righteous, bigoted, and a little hateful. 
  • Third, in many cases there is not just one possible etymology of a word, but several. In this case, some argue that the proper etymology of the word, “Pharisee,” comes from a root meaning “to explain” or “to clarify.” And if that is the case, then that changes everything! 

So, if we can’t use etymology, how will we ever find out anything about the Pharisees? We must look at the data we do have. We will look at what the Pharisees perceived their mission to be.  We will look at what their contemporaries said about them. We will look at how other Jewish religious and political philosophies of the day differed from the Pharisees. We will look at the values that the Pharisees lived by and proclaimed. And we will do all of that, starting next week. 

But if you are feeling a bit disequilibrated and unsteady as a result of all this, be of good cheer. Here’s the line that struck me from Craig Morrison’s article. Morrison concludes saying, “We know less about the historical Pharisees today than we knew 50 years ago.” 

And all God’s people said, “Yikes!”