Skip Navigation Links

Is Judaism the Law of Moses? (part 9)

The Pharisees seize authority from the priests, the "traditions of the elders" replace the Bible,
laymen claim to be prophets — these surprising facts are discussed in this ninth installment.


THE last installment revealed how laymen came to power through "Judaism" — how they called pagan customs the "traditions of the elders." Now see what occurred in the century just before Christ's birth.


Innovation of Precedents Which Helped Form Judaism

The acceptance of the "traditional laws," supposedly handed down from Moses, placed the lay leaders in a position of power and authority among the people. It was the people themselves who had inherited the many new customs, and when the lay leaders condoned the customs, claiming them to be Jewish in origin, the people looked upon the lay leaders with honor and respect.

The lay leaders were quite aware that there was no truth in their assertions that these new customs came from Moses. But in order to please the people they deliberately propagated this falsehood. In consequence of their newly found authority, the lay leaders set themselves up as ultimate teachers in matters pertaining to every phase of religious activity. In the matter of accepting the customs inherited from Hellenism, they maintained their prerogatives, as religious authorities, to decide which of the customs to accept and which ones to reject.

"No one except the recognized teachers could say what the tradition contained" (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 68). Of course, the customs to which the people were most wedded were necessarily accepted.

Many of the priests in the Sanhedrin objected to the lay leaders' assumption of power and especially of their raising to divine law the new customs from Hellenism. The priests were also obstinate in their belief that the authority to rule should be accorded to them alone, for they properly maintained that they were the descendants of Aaron and the only ones recognized by Scripture to be in authority to rule over the people. But the lay leaders would not concede to the priests' demands, and they had the majority of the people behind them. Too many of the priests had deserted to outright Hellenism in the anarchial period and the people were still wary of their tactics.


The Pharisees and Sadducees

The differences of opinion between the lay leaders and the priests caused a permanent breach between these two groups. The lay leaders, with the religious Jews on their side and believing in the traditional laws, gathered themselves together into one major group. The priests, on the other hand, who tended to agree with one another, gravitated into another group.

This breach between the two leading religious factions among the Jews was the beginning of two prominent New Testament Jewish sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The lay leaders comprised the Pharisaic group. Most of the priests represented the Sadducees. Members from both groups remained in the Sanhedrin, but they were almost always divided on policy.

It is not to be supposed that the whole Jewish population was anxious to get back to some form of religious observances after the period of religious anarchy. The great majority of people were not overly interested in religion. As stated before, 95% of the Jews in Christ's time were not members of the Jewish sects. This lack of real interest in religion among the Jews in New Testament times had its origin within the period of religious anarchy.

The Jewish people as a whole never recovered from the condition that existed within that anarchial period. There was, of course, a limited amount of religious compunction, but not enough for the whole nation to become members in the sects of Judaism.

The Pharisees, however, did have on their side those Jews who were religiously inclined, but the majority showed varying degrees of indifference to the religious squabbles among the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, has this to say about these Pharisees and Sadducees:

"The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, and are not written in the Laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our fathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side" (Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, 10, 6).


Pharisees Repudiate Sole Authority of Priests to Teach Law

A major decision of the Pharisees was that of rejecting the sole authority of the priests to be the religious authorities. The Pharisees admitted that the priests were the only ones with the right to perform the ritualistic services in the Temple. But other than this minor role in directing the religious life of the people, the priests henceforth had little to do, religiously speaking. The Pharisees came to recognize themselves as the only real religious leaders.

In assuming the religious leadership, the Pharisees reasoned that they were taking the place of the priests whom they considered unfit to govern the people on account of their rejection of the traditional laws.


Pharisees Reckoned Themselves as Prophets

Upon appropriating to themselves the religious authority among the Jews, the Pharisees thought themselves also competent to be the ultimate judges concerning all religious questions. This gave them, so they reasoned, the right to speak in the name of the Eternal even as the prophets of old had done.

"It is certain that they [the Pharisees] regarded themselves as the successors of the prophets, and that not merely in fact but by right" (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 71).

The Pharisees contended, by their own statements, that they had been given the spirit of prophecy as had the prophets of old.

They had already accepted the new customs as divine law — and they reckoned that only individuals under the influence of the Spirit of God could do such things! In the Jewish Talmud, a compilation of Jewish writings from the days after Alexander the Great to about 400 years after Christ, there are several statements of these early Pharisees in regard to their belief that they had the same authority as the prophets. In the talmudical tractate called Baba Bathra, in section 12a, we read this: "Prophecy was taken from the Prophets and was given to the Wise [the Pharisees]." To this remark is added: "and it has not been taken from these."

Herford deduces from this particular reference, among many others in the Talmud: "The relevance of this passage . . . is that the Rabbis [the Pharisees] felt that they had, no less but even more than the prophets, divine authority for what they taught, and that this was given to them after the time when the prophets ceased, to function. It was the way of expressing the belief that the revelation did not cease with the extinction of prophecy" (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 72).

The audacious Pharisees considered their laws and commandments as having more weight than those of the Prophets! That divine revelation did not cease with the prophets, but was now in action in the Pharisees as well! They were confident that what they were teaching — even though in so many cases it did not agree with the plain and simple commandments of God as revealed in Scripture — was divine teaching as prompted by the Spirit of God.

The Pharisees felt that God was "revealing Himself now as He had revealed Himself to the prophets, and speaking not alone in the words of an ancient text, but in words which came from the heart and conscience of men who felt His hand laid upon them to 'guide them into all truth' " (ibid., p. 69).

Notice this! The Pharisees came to the place of believing that God did not reveal Himself in the Scriptures alone — "speaking not alone in the words of an ancient text" — but that He was actively revealing His present truth to the Pharisees through influencing their hearts and consciences! You can imagine what unlimited authority this gave the Pharisees among those who accepted their beliefs.

By appropriating the role of modern prophets, they maintained the right of free prophetic utterance. That is, they claimed the prerogative to speak the current will of God without the necessity of appealing to the Scriptures. They did not believe they had to be shackled to the teaching of the Scriptures!

This opinion gave the Pharisees extreme latitude. They believed, as Herford puts it, "in the continuous progressive revelation of God, and that His authority was made known in the reason and conscience of those who sought to know His will, and not only in the written text of the Torah [the law of God]" (Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 73).

The ideas and beliefs of the Pharisees originated in their own minds!

The Pharisees claimed that the Holy Scriptures alone were not sufficient to give the complete truth of God — especially since environmental conditions change. To the Scriptures, they claimed, had to be added the so-called traditional law (which they determined to be the Word of God).

There are Churches today who claim the same prerogative. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not derive its authority from the Bible. It rejects, in many cases, the plain teaching of Scripture to proclaim its own church doctrines.

"They [the Pharisees] upheld the authority of tradition as superior to individual intelligence, and taught that no Scripture should be of unauthorized, or private, interpretation" (Conder, Judas Maccabaeus, p. 203).

It is indeed amazing to what extent the Catholic Church parallels the actions of the Pharisees in this matter.