Re-assessing the Role of the Pharisees in the New Testament


Christ and the Pharisees by Ernst Zimmerman

1. Premise: a common perception of the Pharisees
It has become traditional in the general readings of the New Testament to think of Jesus as being at war with the Pharisees, and their theological perspectives. This ordinary impression presents the Pharisees as perceived enemies of the Lord because of their criticism and confrontation of both Jesus’ theological and spiritual teachings, and way of living. A good example of these theological confrontations are the Sabbath disputes. According to their view, the Pharisees see in Jesus the embodiment of an unlawful way of living that implies a disobedience to the Torah which expresses the will of Yhwh. In this regard, the gospel of Mark says: “it happened that on one Sabbath day, he was taking a walk through the cornfields, and his disciples began to make a path by plucking ears of corn. And the Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing something on the Sabbath day that is forbidden?’” (Mk 2:23-24 NJB).1 In certain occasions, the Pharisees even join forces with other groups, like the Sadducees and Herodians, with the purpose to catch Jesus doing or saying something against the Torah in order to incriminate Him, e.g., “Next they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to catch him out in what he said. (Mk 12:13 NJB)2

Jesus, however, who was not scared of the authority and social status of the Pharisees, confronts them openly, evidencing their theological and spiritual shortcomings. By the way of an example of this, Matthew 23:13 states Jesus’ negative opinion of the Pharisees: “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut up the kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces, neither going in yourselves, nor allowing others to go who want to” (NJB). The same line of thought can be seen in the following assertions of the Lord: “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay your tithe of mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law—justice, mercy, good faith! These you should have practiced, those not neglected. You blind guides, straining out gnats and swallowing camels!” (Mt 23:23-24 NJB).3

These kind of affirmations in the Gospels lead to the general thinking that all Pharisees embody the wrong way of thinking, living, seeing, and understanding God. In other words, the Pharisees are usually seen and understood as the embodiment of the anti-Christian life. Nevertheless, it is very important to emphasize that the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was not always characterized by hate, controversy, and antagonism. In any kind of biblical approach, it is essential to find a balanced reading and understanding of the biblical texts that, according to the Catholic Hermeneutics, must be guided by the coordinates of the Tradition and Magisterium. Accordingly, the purpose of this biblical reflection is to rediscover some positive aspects of the spirituality and role of the Pharisees, using as a framework, and strategic guidance, the document entitled: “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2001. While the document does not talk specifically about the Pharisees, it is a solid academic reflection on the importance of the Jewish tradition, how it has influenced the Christian Scriptures, and the value of the Jewish faith, in order to understand the historical Jesus, and New Testament writings (NT).

2. Transforming a one-dimensional understanding
The aforementioned document, in its second part, tries to re-establish the positive contributions and dimensions of the Jewish Tradition and Scripture as the stepping stones of the theological reflection on the NT writings. Christianity, at its roots, was instituted by Jesus among the Jewish people. It is precisely within the Jewish tradition and religion where the original context developed the understanding of the Trinitarian God, who chose the Jewish people to manifest Himself in the fullness of the mystery of the incarnated Logos. However, the Jewish leaders, who radically opposed Jesus, influenced a significant number of Jewish people, predisposing them against the newly born Christian communities, and creating conflicted situations that clearly left its indicators in the Gospel narratives, and the Acts of the Apostles.4

The evaluation of the positive aspects of spirituality and theology in the Jewish tradition through Scripture allows a Catholic reader to reflect on the role of the Pharisees in the NT accounts. As a result of an attentive reading of the Gospels, I suggest the following notions and examples that help to create a more objective framework of the Pharisees’ role during Jesus’ time.

a) The relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus were not always controversial. The text of Luke 13:31 clearly indicates that some Pharisees were concerned for the well-being of Jesus to the point that they warned Jesus that He needed to leave the place because Herod was looking to kill Him: “Just at this time, some Pharisees came up. ‘Go away,’ they said. ‘Leave this place, because Herod means to kill you’” (NJB). This episode reveals that, among the Pharisees, there is a group of them who are Jesus’ followers or disciples in a broader sense. Another important element emerges from the aforementioned text. The Pharisees are acting as the protectors and custodians of the life of Jesus. Such an attitude is contrasted with the general Lukan portrait of the Pharisees, who are presented as opponents of the prophets and of Jesus (see 5:17.21.30; 6:2.7; 7:30.36.39; 11: Applying the principle of Lectio difficilior potior, the text of Lk 13:31 presents the most divergent information, making it stand out from the common negative behavioral pattern of the Pharisees. The contrasting behavior gives indications that it would be most probable a true historical fact. This means, in effect, that there was a group of Pharisees who were followers of Christ, and were very much concerned for His well-being. According to the normal development of the history of the redaction of a document through centuries, this kind of information could have easily been harmonized with the general negative pattern that predominates in the Lukan gospel account. Its contrasting characteristic, however, has been preserved as an historical exception that gives another portrait of the Pharisees.

b) Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, held an important role in the Jewish society of his time. John 3:1 qualifies him as a “ruler of the Jews” (archon ton Ioudaion). While it is evident that there is heavy opposition against Jesus from the Jewish authorities at that time, it was not an obstacle for Nicodemus to find a way to get closer to the Lord. By coming to Jesus during the night so that nobody will see him (Jn 3:2), Nicodemus could be His follower, and yet save his status in the Jewish community. The first words of Nicodemus in John 3 say the following: “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him” (Jn 3:2 NJB). It is significant to highlight that Nicodemus speaks in plural: “we know” from the Greek verb, oidamen (οἴδαμεν—first person plural), a notion that indicates that there are “others” like Nicodemus who think that Jesus is coming from Yhwh because they see His “signs” as the attestation of the divine intervention of God. Who were these “others” implied in the verb, oidamen? Most probably they were persons close to Nicodemus’ circle who were Pharisees, and given the heavy social pressure of the majority of the Jewish leadership, they could not publicly acknowledge Jesus for fear of losing their privileges. This means that they were Crypto-Christians,5 like Nicodemus, who in secret believed that Jesus is the one who comes from God, but they do not yet have the courage to profess it.

c) On some occasions, Pharisees invited Jesus to come to their homes in order to have dinner with them. Examples of these invitations can be seen in Luke 7:36: “One of the Pharisees invited Him to a meal. When He arrived at the Pharisee’s house, and took His place at table …” (NJB) and Luke 14:1: “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day, He had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees” (NJB). The invitation in both episodes is clearly not malicious, and suggests that the Pharisees seem to take pleasure in inviting a distinguished Rabbi, or scholar, into their homes. The invitation into their homes would indicate they were not seeing Jesus as an impure person, or someone who is despicable. If this were to be the case, a Pharisee, who is very much attached to the laws of purity, would never have allowed Jesus to enter into his most personal living space, i.e., his own home, to share a meal.

However, the episode previously indicated describes an opportune context in which Jesus would present His personal interpretation, or instruction, of a particular aspect of the law. For example, in the episode of Luke 7:36-50, the dinner would become the setting in which Jesus proposed the parable that is centered on the forgiveness of debtors. The attention of the episode focuses on a sinful, nameless woman who crashes the party, but whom Simon, the Pharisee owner of the house, did not have any idea that she would come uninvited into his home. This particular element provides evidence that the intention of Simon was only just for the pleasure of having dinner with a respected and learned person, not to criticize Jesus, or catch Him in a nomistic wrongdoing. This mindset is revealed by the omniscient narrator in the text when he says: “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself: ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is …’” (Lk 7:39 NJB). The original thoughts of the Pharisee, when he invited Jesus, were that this person is special, and is probably a “prophet” because Yhwh must be acting through Him. It is significant to highlight that the Pharisee is surprised because the Lord allowed a sinful woman, in a state of impurity, to touch Him, and a prophet can see a person’s heart (cf. Jn 4:19). The great irony of the episode is that Jesus can see and hear the heart and thoughts of not just only the woman, but also of the Pharisee.6

Consequently, while the episode presents the contrasting attitude between the sinful woman, and the Pharisee, the parable within the episode (Lk 7:41-42) emphasizes the forgiveness of the debtors by the moneylender. It is significant to note that the closing of the episode presents Jesus not condemning anybody. Therefore, Luke 7:36-50 becomes a didactic circumstance in which Jesus instructs Simon, the Pharisee, according to the heart of Yhwh.

The second episode, Luke 14:1-14.15-23, is very significant because the nameless Pharisee is qualified as “one of the leading figures of the Pharisees” (tinos ton archónton ton pharisaíon: Lk 14:1), an indication of the importance of this host among the Jewish leadership. Again, why would someone who is prominent among the Pharisees invite Jesus to have a dinner in his home? To spurn Him in public? It is important to remember here that a Pharisee can publicly despise Jesus outside of his own home. Therefore, the invitation does not imply a malicious plan to create polemic attacks during the party. The striking aspect of this episode is that Jesus Himself is the one who begins the query by presenting a case from the Torah regarding the Sabbath, although there are different guests who are carefully watching Him.

The narrative continues presenting an argument not originating from the side of the Pharisees. On the contrary, it is Jesus who presents some possible scenarios from the Torah, motivated by the man with dropsy, in order to give wise and practical instructions (Lk 14:3.5). The guests remained silent on the subject of the presented cases (Lk 14:4.6). How does the reader interpret their silence? I am inclined to say that the silence is a subtle agreement, or respect of Jesus’ view. In other words nobody dares to be wiser than Jesus.7 Afterwards, Luke 14:15 indicates that one of those who were at table with Jesus—probably another Pharisee—after hearing His teaching, proclaims a blessing regarding those who will eat in the kingdom of God which becomes the introductory statement of the parable of the great banquet (Lk 14:16-23).

d) The episode of Mark 12:28-34 presents a scribe (grammateús), a predominant Pharisaic profession, who came to hear Jesus debating a few issues of Jewish theology. The text says: “One of the scribes who had listened to them debating, appreciated that Jesus had given a good answer, and put a further question to him” (Mk 12:28 NJB). It is significant to highlight that the scribe was positively impressed by Jesus’ good answers to the debate. The positive attitude of the scribe motivated him to search for more of the goodness and knowledge of Jesus. For this reason, he presented his question to the Lord, as was customary in the rabbinical circles. The episode does not describe a malicious confrontation, or a will to create a polemical theological discussion with Jesus. On the contrary, the scribe embodies the attitude of a Talmid Chacham, a wise student who is opened to know more. The verses 29-33 describe a rabbinical dialogue that tries to elucidate the priority of the mitzvoth (commandments). In rabbinical circles, this was a valid question that implied multiple answers depending on the theological point of view of the Rabbi. In the Jewish tradition, it is well-established to recognize 613 mitzvoth, or commandments. The vast number shows the scrupulosity and seriousness of the Jewish spirituality that does not see anything superficial in the Torah, but at the same time implies a complex, legalistic system in which it is difficult to summarize or simplify delicate aspects of the will of Yhwh manifested in His Torah. So the question “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” presupposes that Jesus was perceived as a Jewish scholar who is very well versed in the Torah, and respected enough by the grammateús. Jesus answers with authority and veracity citing one of the most important texts of the Torah, the Shemah Israel (Deut 6:4-5) and combines it with the golden rule of Lev 19:18. The scribe is in perfect agreement and harmony with Jesus’ answer in this very important theological notion which conveys a profession of faith. The attitude of the Pharisee, scribe, provoked in Jesus a positive judgment and praise: “Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mk 12:34 NJB).8

3. Gamaliel and the mission of the apostles
Gamaliel, the head of the rabbinic school of Hillel during Jesus’ time, is well-known in the Christian Tradition through the episode of Acts 5:33-40.9 However, Gamaliel, the Elder, is not cited often in the rabbinic literature of the early writings of the Mishnah, though the following statement is said about him : “when he (Gamaliel) died, the glory of the Torah ended” (Mishnah Soṭa 9.15).10

The author of Acts 5:33-40 describes Gamaliel as one of the members of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee. However, the text does not give other information that could help better understand why the other members of the Sanhedrin listened and followed Hillel’s advice in such important matters as the one regarding apostasy and heresy, which was the accusation given to the apostles for proclaiming Jesus as the crucified Messiah, who was raised and exalted by God (Acts 5:30-31).

The Jewish tannaitic tradition indicates that Gamaliel was the son of Rabbi Simon, and the grandson of Rabbi Hillel, the founder of the famous homonymous school (Shab. 15). Gamaliel was their successor as the head of the School of Hillel, and became the first president of the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, occupying a leading position of great respect, in both the highest court in Jerusalem, and in the Jewish tradition. As president of the supreme tribunal in Judaism, he maintained close contact, not only with the Jews of Israel, but also with those of the diaspora (Tosefta Sanhedrin 2:6; TJ Sanhedrin 1:2, 18d; Sanhedrin 11b). Because of his great wisdom, righteousness, and virtuous life, he received the cognomen of “ha Zaken,” the Elder.11 Following the steps of his grandfather, Gamaliel was the architect of diverse theological Jewish ordinances, and theological reflections called: takkanot. Many of them bears the formula “tiḳḳum ha-҆olam” or “for the benefit of humanity” (Git 4:2-3) which convey some notions for a better ordering of the society.12

The aforementioned Jewish information that works as extra biblical data helps the Christian reader to have a better historical background of the episode of Acts 5:33-40. First of all, Gamaliel is not only a Pharisee, but the Ha Zachen, the Elder, who is one of the leading scholars and theologians of his time, and who used to be the head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin. It is quite understandable then to see the Sanhedrin’s willingness to listen to Gamaliel when he made his request to address the assembly. The text of Acts explicitly says because he “was honored by all the people” (Acts 5:34).13

The speech of Gamaliel is a judicial advice and counsel for the other members of the Jewish tribunal, being the first speech in the book of Acts given by a non-Christian.14 The content of Gamaliel’s discourse is equally impressive because of his profound theological and spiritual approach to the problem of the apostles, who are about to be condemned because of their proclamation of Jesus as the son of the living God. The Sanhedrin wanted to put them to death (Acts 5:33) after the apostles refused to accept and obey the command of the high priest who gave them the strict orders not to teach in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:28). Amid this context of zealous protection of the unadulterated Yahwism, Gamaliel is the voice which appears to be speaking differently than the current thoughts presented by the Sanhedrin.

Gamaliel began his appeal asking his Jewish brothers to consider carefully what they intend to do, because it is essential to discern first if the hand of God is acting through these men. It is quite extraordinary to see this spiritual and theological attitude of a Pharisee, who truly loves God, and because of this love, has the capacity of discernment in times of high emotional distress to be willing to speak against what the majority apparently thinks is the right thing to do. It is significant to highlight that Gamaliel is not a Christian, so his appeal is unbiased. His greater concern is Yhwh, and his greatest fear is to fight against God (Acts 5:39). The essential criterion of Gamliel’s discernment consists in acting according to the will of God, by being an instrument of His action, and not an obstacle of the divine intervention through human circumstances. This behavior portrays an attitude that comes from a Pharisee’s well-formed religious conscience.15

Following this line of thought, Gamaliel proposed the “evidence of History” 16 as another criterion in the process of discernment. As a historical proof, Gamaliel describes the cases of Theudas 17 (Acts 5:36), and Judas the Galilean18 (Acts 5:37), two charismatic leaders with Messianic characteristics, who had a good number of followers. The “remembering” of those past events verifies that both cases end up with the death of the leaders, and the dispersion of the followers, because such movements did not have their origin in God. The human origin of these movements determine their failure and disappearance because of their mortal nature and genesis (Acts 5:38). The “evidence of History” substantiates the point, and the solidity of Gamaliel’s spiritual discernment who becomes God’s instrument to illuminate the members of the Sanhedrin. Gamaliel’s request of asking for the apostles’ freedom is based upon the notion of love, and fear of Yhwh, that leads him to see beyond the pure human circumstances, in order to perceive how God operates behind the human curtains. This criterion of discernment is based on the Pentateuchal spirituality of Deut 18:20-22. Yhwh affirms that if somebody has doubts about a true prophet, one must wait to see if the spoken word becomes true.19

Gamaliel’s reflection and appeal on behalf of the apostles corroborates what was described by the voice of the narrator in Acts 5:18-19, when the apostles were put in prison, and during the night, were freed by the intervention of the angel of the Lord. The words of Gamaliel are the theological elucidation that echoes what was already happening, but nobody within the Sanhedrin was aware of this.20 Only Gamaliel could perceive the “possibility” of the divine intervention. If such possibility wouldn’t have existed, Gamaliel would have nothing to worry about because a movement of human origin is destined to fail.

The Sanhedrin accepts Gamaliel’s advice, but with a certain degree of reservation that is manifested in the flogging (forty lashes less one) 21, and the command to stop speaking in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:40).

As a précis, Gamaliel’s attitude functions as a blueprint in the process of discernment that can be useful in the Christian life. The most significant notions are a) do not act rapidly according to the emotions of the moment; b) reflect if the hand of God is acting in a particular human condition or situation; c) review the “evidence of History” in order to identify a behavioral pattern of God or humanity; and d) act even if it is against the current, and the voice of others, in order to avoid fighting against God.

4. Corollary
My reflection focuses exclusively on the re-evaluation of the understanding and role of the Pharisees, their spirituality, and theological conceptions. As it was said at the beginning of this essay, their negative perception is what predominates in the common modern Christian knowledge, and it is important to appreciate the positive side of this rich tradition within which St. Paul received his education, and through which he grew up in his love and devotion to God.

The New Testament passages that portray a negative image of the Pharisees, or the Jews, must be understood and studied under the lens of their proper historical context. This particular analysis of Scripture also implies the understanding of Judaism as a very complex and diversified movement. It would be erroneous to make generalizations that marginalized such beautiful episodes as the aforementioned accounts.22

The Magisterium of the Church establishes firmly that the Scripture, in its entirety, is divinely inspired, and the Old Testament prefigures, and speaks the event of Christ, made fully explicit in the New Testament. By studying the theology, spirituality, and great themes of the Old Testament, it is possible to understand Jesus’ spirituality, and the theological context of most of the New Testament authors. For example, important elements of Jesus’ spirituality and beliefs are common and well supported in the spirituality of the Pharisees. Among these notions, it can be mentioned their belief in the resurrection of bodies, the works of mercy and almsgiving, fasting, and prayer (Matt 6:1-18).

St. Paul is not ashamed of saying that he is a Jew before the Pharisees (Phil 3:5; Acts 23:6). Additionally, his letters are a monumental testimony of the practice of Jewish Rabbinical exegesis, where a reader can see applied to the explanation of Old Testament texts, the seven hermeneutic rules (middot) of the school of Hillel23 and the Pesher methodology that also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls.24

Through the continuity of the history of salvation throughout the two testaments, Catholic readers can perceive the symbiosis of the two parts of the Bible, and the strong ties that unite the Church of Christ with the Jewish people. This essential reasoning is expressed by St. John Paul II during a visit to the synagogue of Mainz (1980). He said:

The encounter between the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been abrogated by God (cf. Rm 11:29), and that of the New Covenant, is also an internal dialogue in our Church, similar to that between the first and second part of its Bible.25

Following this same line of thought, it is important to meditate and study the essential values of Judaism in order to have a glimpse of the same spirituality of the Lord, and mindset of the New Testament hagiographers, so one can appreciate with better understanding the mystery of the revelation manifested through the Jewish race. Following this notion, I would like to conclude with the words of St. John Paul II, expressed to the Jewish communities in Rome:

The Church of Christ discovers its “links” with Judaism by pondering its own mystery. The Jewish religion is not extrinsic to us, but in a certain manner, it is intrinsic to our religion. We have, therefore, a relationship with it which we do not have with any other religion. You are our favored brothers and, in a certain sense, one can say our elder brothers.26

  1.  See also Mt 12:1-14.
  2.  Mk 11:27-28: “They came to Jerusalem again, and as Jesus was walking in the Temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, ‘What authority have you for acting like this? Or who gave you authority to act like this?’”(NJB).
  3.  Other passages in which is reflected the same idea are Matt 5:20; 15:3-6; 16:11-12; 23:2-9.
  4.  PBC, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, n. 70: “The Gospels and Acts have a basic outlook on Jews that is extremely positive because they recognize that the Jews are a people chosen by God for the fulfillment of His plan of salvation. This divine choice finds its highest confirmation in the person of Jesus, son of a Jewish mother, born to be the Savior of His people, one who fulfills his mission by announcing the Good News to His people, and by performing works of healing and liberation that culminate in his passion and resurrection. The attachment to Jesus of a great number of Jews, during His public life, and after His resurrection, confirms this perspective, as does Jesus’ choice of twelve Jews to share in His mission and continue His work. The Good News, accepted wholeheartedly in the beginning by many Jews, met with opposition from the leaders, who were eventually followed by the greater part of the people. The result was that between Jewish and Christian communities a conflict situation arose that clearly left its mark on the redaction of the Gospels and Acts.”
  5.  Cf. Raymond Brown, “Other Sheep Not of This Fold: The Johannine Perspective on Christian Diversity in the Late First Century,” JBL 97, no. 1 (1978): 9.11-12.
  6.  Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1991), 127.
  7.  Johnson sees this episode as a conflict in which Jesus is the one attacking the Pharisees. Cf. Johnson, Gospel of Luke, 225-226.
  8.  Cf. Klemens Stock, Marco. Commento contestuale al second Vangelo (Roma: edizioni ADP, 2013), 253-254.
  9.  PBC, The Jewish People and their sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, n. 75: “Nevertheless, the Christian preaching quickly stirs up opposition on the part of the Jewish authorities. The Sadduccees oppose the apostles’ “proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead” (Ac 4:2) in which they do not believe (Lk 20:27). But a very influential Pharisee, Gamaliel, takes the side of the apostles in thinking that their enterprise possibly “comes from God” (Acts 5:39).”
  10.  Cf. Andrew Overman, “Gamaliel,” in Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford – New York – Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993), 242.
  11.  Cf. Cecil Roth, “Rabban Gamaliel,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. VII (Jerusalem-New York-Detroit: Thomson – Gale, 22007), 364-365.
  12.  In this regard, see for example the Babylonian Talmud in the Tractate Gittin which is the tractate that deals with the issues of divorce, in the folio 32a, Chapter IV says: “If a man after dispatching a get to his wife meets the bearer, or sends a messenger after him, and says to him, the get which I have given to you is cancelled, then it is cancelled. If the husband meets the wife before (the bearer) or sends a messenger to her and says, the get I have sent to you is cancelled, then it is canceled. Once, however, the get has reached her hand, he cannot cancel it. In former times a man was allowed to bring together a beth din wherever he was and cancel the get. Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder, however, laid down a rule that this should not be done, so as to prevent abuses.” Tractate Gittin. Translated by Maurice Simon and Edited by Rabbi Isidore Epstein (London – New York: Soncino Press, 1963) (
  13.  This authoritative figure was held in honor by Paul as a respectable Rabbi, scholar of the Law, and spiritual leader. Paul is proud to express that he was educated at the feet of Gamaliel in his speech in front of the Jews in Jerusalem: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors” (Acts 22:3). Such statement indicates that Paul presents in front of his fellow citizens his scholarly credentials in matters of Jewish Law, Theology, and Spirituality, proving that he comes from a solid Jewish tradition and is not a fanatic. His captatio benevolentiae predisposed his audience to listen to his plea that will lead to profess his faith in Christ by narrating his personal encounter with the risen Lord on the way to Damascus (Acts 22:4-21).
  14.  Cf. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ., The Acts of the Apostles. A new translation with introduction and commentary (The Anchor Bible. New York-London-Toronto: Doubleday, 1998), 333.
  15.  Luke Timothy Johnson indicates that it would be a mistake to interpret the benign speech of Gamaliel as evidence of Luke’s positive vision of the Pharisees. Johnson re-affirms the negative connotation and portrait of the Pharisees given by the Lukan author of Acts. Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1992), 102.
  16.  It is significant to mention the classification of Gamaliel’s speech by Joseph Fitzmyer. He distinguished three parts: a) a prudent warning (5:35b), b) historical examples of other leaders will gather at followers (5:36-37), and c) conclusion (5:38-39). Cf. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ., The Acts of the Apostles, 333.
  17.  heudas was a charismatic leader who promised to a large crowd to perform miracles and is in the style of Moses. For example, he promised to divide the waters of the river Jordan so all his followers could cross it dry-shod. Cf. Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles. Introduction, translation and notes (Anchor Bible Series. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1967), 48; Joseph Fitzmyer SJ., The Acts of the Apostles, 339-340.
  18.  Judas, the Galilean, was a revolutionary Jew, probably a charismatic leader of the Zealots. According to the information given by Flavius Josephus, he was very active during the time of the collection of taxes and the census under Quirinius in the year 6 AD. Cf. Flavius Josephus, Jewish War II, 8.1; Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles, 48; Joseph Fitzmyer SJ., The Acts of the Apostles, 340.
  19.  Cf. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ., The Acts of the Apostles, 341.
  20.  Cf. Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts. A Literary Interpretation. Volume II: the Acts of the Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 66.
  21.  The custom of the time was the flogging that consists in forty lashes less one. Such practice is verified in 2Cor 11: 24.
  22. See the explanation of the expression “the Jews” in the Gospel according to John in PBC, The Jewish People and their sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, nn. 76-78.
  23.  The seven rules are the following: 1. Kal Vahomer (Light and heavy), 2. G’zerah Shavah (Equivalence of expresions), 3. Binyan ab mikathub echad (Building up a “family” from a single text), 4. Binyab ab mishene kethubim (Building up a “family” from two or more texts), 5. Kelal uferat (The general and the particular), 6. Kayotze bo mimekom akhar (Analogy made from another passage), and 7. Davar hilmad me’anino (Explanation obtained from context). Cf. Pasquale Basta, “Paul and Gezerah Shewah: the Judaic method in the service of justification by faith,” in Paul’s Jewish Matrix. Edited by Thomas Casey and Justin Taylor (Rome: Gregorian Biblical Press, 2011), 125-126; PBC, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, nn. 12.14.
  24.  Cf. PBC, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, n. 13.
  25. PBC, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, n. 86. Documentation Catholique 77 (1980) 1148.
  26.  Papal speech addressed to the Jewish communities of Italy during a visit to the synagogue of Rome (1986). PBC, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, n. 86. Documentation Catholique 83 (1986) 437.
Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, SSL, STD About Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, SSL, STD

Father Dempsey Rosales Acosta attained his Baccalaureatus in theology (STB) from the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome in 1998. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1999, he graduated in Exegesis and Biblical Languages at the Pontifical Biblicum Institute of Rome (SSL) in 2004, and achieved his doctorate in Biblical Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2009. Since 2008, he has worked as a peritus and collaborator for the Presidential Liaison for Roman Catholic Ministries at the American Bible Society (ABS), and since 2010, he has been a full-time faculty member of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX.


  1. Avatar Regina Perry says:

    A beautiful exposition of biblical reasons for us to see the Pharisees in a nuanced way that does them no unjustice.

  2. Avatar Fr. Mark Neal says:

    Thanks. A helpful article as I am working in a homily for next week. (30th Sunday of Ordinary Time). This essay provides a good perspective in which to begin to view both the Pharisee and the tax collect were in the gospel passage.

  3. Avatar James Foley says:

    I think the irenic tone of this piece is quite correct. Christians all too quickly dismissed the good-faith of the Jewish people and convicted them for failing to accept their Messiah. We fail to empathize with their very difficult situation. Jews today are the inheritors of the ethical traditions of the Pharisees and they tend to be very accepting of Jews with differing views. I recall the case of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menaḥem Mendel Schneersohn, who led an extreme Messianic version of Judaism. During his life many of his numerous followers openly proclaimed him the long-awaited Messiah. When he died in 1994, his followers mounted a 24-hour vigil at his grave site awaiting his resurrection.
    What I found very interesting is the accepting attitude of mainstream Judaism to this behavior. It is true a few accused Schneersohn of leading a thinly disguised Christian cult, but the overwhelming number of rabbis treated him and his movement with great respect. I think this points up the fracture line between Jesus and the normative Judaism of his time. Jesus went way beyond the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Jesus rather clearly proclaimed himself God’s Son and used language that clearly implied that he participated in some way in Yahweh’s divinity. This was the unacceptable blasphemy that they took up stones to stop. We today who accept these extreme claims must appreciate how difficult it was for religious contemporaries to welcome Jesus as their Messiah-God.

  4. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    It has always been clear that there were some Pharisees that seriously considered the possibility of Christ as the Messiah but in the final analysis could not bring themselves to act forcefully on his behalf and either postpone or stop the actions of the Chief Priest that led to the crucifixion of Christ. Even Pilate saw no reason to kill Him under Roman Law and offered a way out that the Chief Priest thwarted. In the end, when decision time came, the Pharisaic leadership went along with the Chief Priest and failed to act in accord with whatever doubts they may have had. In essence, they acted like Peter in denying Him. We know what happened with Peter after his denial. What they chose to do individually afterwards is not recorded and therefore unknown.

  5. Seeing outside the box of the traditionally held perspectives brings to life Gamaliel’s attitude, most timely I.e., “act even if it is against the current and the voice of others in order to avoid fighting against God.” This article gives the readers not only a new perspective, but also gives sustenance within the material to think, reason and discern not only the topic here but apply in their lives of daily discernment. Thank you Fr Dempsey for another excellent and soul provoking article.

  6. Avatar bill bannon says:

    There were good pharisees but not many percentage-wise. If there were many percentage-wise, Christ misled us in the entire 23rd chapter of Matthew….check this sliver in this non- Luke passage:
    Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)
    Matthew 23: 27 “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness.”
    Seem small to you, readers. The entire chapter 23 of Matthew is Christ denouncing the scribes and pharisees repeatedly….with “woe to you scribes and pharisees” repeated seven separate times.
    It is Christ’s long denunciation of the scribes and pharisees in Matthew 23 that is perfectly in keeping with the 1900 years of the Church seeing them mainly to have been offensive spiritually at the time of Christ.