Today, we have Democrats, Republicans, Tea Baggers, Libertarians, Evangelicals, and any number of other political, religious, or special interest groups that account for the diverse and often volatile discourse we regularly encounter. In Jesus’ time, things were no less volatile. Various religious and political groups flourished in Judaism, resulting in a discourse that was often heated and, at times, outright hostile.
In his book, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, Fr. Donald Senior, C.P., does a wonderful job of identifying the various groups that made up the “world of Jesus,” including the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Scribes, just to name a few.
In the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees are the groups that are mentioned most often, usually in conflict with Jesus. The Pharisees were not priests or Temple officials. They were not the aristocracy or elite such as the Sadducees. Rather, they were common Jews who sought to apply the Law to everyday situations in order to live lives of holiness. In addition to the Torah or written Law, the Pharisees looked to a revered oral tradition, recorded in what became known as the Talmud, for guidance.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Pharisaism became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism. The bottom line is that the Pharisees were looked to as the experts on the Law. It is no surprise, then, that the Pharisees are often depicted in the Gospels as clashing with Jesus over the interpretation of the Law. Another group that was looked to as experts in the Law and a voice of authority was the scribes, for obvious reasons: in a mostly illiterate society, they were the ones who were learned enough to transcribe religious, legal, and historical texts. Those who copied such texts were immediately looked to as authorities on those texts. Once again, it comes as no surprise that the scribes are depicted in the Gospels as questioning Jesus’ authority: how could a carpenter’s son claim greater knowledge of the Law than those who copied the texts with their own hands?
It is important to recognize that, by the time that the Gospels were written, the early Christian community was experiencing a break from the Jewish community. As a result, the Gospels tend to portray the scribes and Pharisees in a bad light. While Jesus clearly had conflicts with these groups, it would not be accurate to dismiss all members of these groups as hypocrites. In fact, the Gospel of John portrays Nicodemus, himself a member of the Pharisees, in a positive light.