If Yeshua was a real person, as most historians believe, there is no doubt that he was a Jew. Not only was he a Jew of the Galilee, but he was even considered to be a Pharisaic rabbi, by the earliest 1st-century Jews who wrote about him and promoted the faith in him as Israel’s Messiah. At least two of Yeshua’s twelve disciples in separate Gospels, call Yeshua, ‘rabbi.’ “And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered away. (Mark 11:21)” “Nathanael answered and said to him, “Rabbi, you are the son of G-d! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). As “America’s rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach recently wrote in his book Kosher Jesus, “None but a well-trained Pharisaic rabbi would draw so reliably and so heavily on the knowledge of his rabbinic predecessors in such a textbook way. And we can only conclude that Jesus was exactly that – a classically trained rabbinic scholar… Not only how much of Jesus’ teaching was rooted in Pharisaic Judaism and Torah, but how similar the rabbis and Jesus sound. In many ways, Jesus and the rabbis shared both purpose and vision. Jesus was a trained rabbi, who taught like a rabbi, spoke like a rabbi, and thought like a rabbi” (Boteach).
When and where Yeshua lived, in 1st-century Israel (the Romans renamed it, ‘Palestine,’ in reference to the ancient arch-enemies of Israel, the Philistines, after crushing the Jewish revolt in the 2nd-century CE), and until this day, a rabbi was a Pharisaic Jewish teacher. They were deeply versed in not only the written Torah, but also the Prophets and the rabbinic oral traditions of how to practice and fulfill the commandments of the Torah. There were no Sadducee rabbis or Essene rabbis throughout Israel or the world, similar to how there weren’t Sadducee or Essene synagogues, since the Sadducees centered their religious life around the Temple in Jerusalem and the Essenes lived communally in the region of Qumran. Pharisaic Judaism survived the destruction of the Temple and Qumran, partly because of its system of rabbis and synagogues, who could thrive anywhere, even outside of Israel, promoting the observance of the Torah in a locally communal way.
We see the Gospel author write that both Yeshua and Paul, Yeshua’s greatest shaliach (apostle), were regular attendees of synagogues. Concerning Yeshua, “when he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read…” (Luke 4:16). “Then Yeshua went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Mark 9:35). Concerning Paul, “20 Immediately he preached the Messiah in the synagogues, that he is the son of G-d” (Acts 9:20). “14 But when they [Paul and Barnabas] departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. 15 And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on”” (Acts 13:14). New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, teaches that anything written in the New Testament which undermines orthodox Christian theology and underpins heterodoxy or heteropraxis (including rabbinical Judaism) can be considered more likely to be authentic to the original authorship, since Christian scribes would be much less likely to later insert these passages which contradict their own theological priors.
Paul the Pharisee
Even after his ‘conversion’ to belief in Yeshua as Israel’s Messiah, not only did Paul attend synagogues wherever he traveled, especially on the Sabbath, but he never stopped considering himself to be a Pharisee and he never advocated the violation of the Torah. “When they heard it, they praised G-d. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Torah. 21 They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake Moses and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. 24 Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you but that you yourself observe and guard the Torah“ (Acts 21:24). After his final ‘missionary journey’ and after his final arrest, Paul referred to himself as a Pharisee in Acts 23:6. “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” Not only was Paul a Pharisee until his arrest and execution by the Romans, but he claims to have been taught by one of the greatest Pharisaic rabbis referenced in the Talmud, Rabban Gamaliel. ““I am a Jew born in Tarsus in Cilicia but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for G-d, just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:3).
It’s no surprise then, for a Pharisaic disciple of Rabban Gamaliel to later follow the rabbi who spoke thus, “then Yeshua spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do…” (Matthew 23:1-2). Moses was the lawgiver who had the authority to interpret the law. According to Yeshua, the Pharisees now sat in Moses’ throne and had his authority to interpret the Torah.
Important Note: This means that even when the Pharisees tell Jews to curse Jesus, they must do it, just as Yeshua cursed the fig tree because its fruit was not ready to eat. According to Ariel Cohen Alloro, this curse (ימ״ח שמו) actually contains all of the blessings in the world. The fig tree represents the Knowledge of the Tree of Good and Evil. If Adam and Eve had waited only three hours, they would have been able to eat from the Tree. Since they didn’t wait, just as King David didn’t wait for his wife Batsheva, they suffered the consequences of their sin. Yeshua rectified this sin by cursing the fig tree before it was ripe, the ripening of which he says will be the sign of his return (Matthew 24:32). Yeshua is the Knowledge of Good and Evil (הדעת טוב ורע = ישוע ישוע = 772). He was sold by Judas (Yehuda) to the Aaronic Priests (Cohanim), who represent the Gentile Nations in holiness. Anything that belongs to the Priests is off-limits (חרם) to the People of Israel, according to the Torah, unless it is redeemed with money, as in the Redemption of the Firstborn. This is what Ariel Cohen Alloro, as a Priest, wants to do with his rabbi, Yitzchak Ginsburgh, for the redemption of Yeshua. Until the sin of the selling is reversed and Yeshua is redeemed from the Priests, he cannot return to and the fruit is not ready for the People of Israel. Therefore, the fruit must be cursed and it is the Torah wisdom of the Pharisees to do exactly that.
Shammai & Hillel
If Yeshua was a Pharisaic rabbi and placed Mosaic authority in the hands of the Pharisees, then why do we see such criticism by Yeshua towards Pharisees? It has been suggested that this criticism from Yeshua was really an in-house debate between Pharisees, which was all-too-common during this chaotic period of Jewish history. The largest division amongst the Pharisees, which took place exactly during the life of Yeshua, was between two schools, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, who represented two very different Pharisaic schools of thought. Rabbi Hillel was an older contemporary of Yeshua and Paul’s alleged rabbi, Gamaliel, was the grandson of Hillel. Hillel was recorded in the Talmud as having taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary, now go and study” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a:6). This bears a striking resemblance to Yeshua’s Golden Rule, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
The House of Shammai was originally thought to be more dominant amongst Pharisees (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah 2:3), but eventually, the House of Hillel won out and Torah interpretations almost always followed their opinion. In general, the House of Hillel was understood as ruling more leniently in regard to the observance of Torah commandments, which may be why they eventually gained more popularity amongst the common people and why Yeshua and Paul were more aligned with their school. Debates between the House of Hillel and House of Shammai got so intense sometimes that in the Talmud, a rabbi follower of Hillel called his younger brother who followed Shammai, “the firstborn of Satan.” (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 16). This is reminiscent of some of the language used in the Gospels between Yeshua and other Pharisees, which Rabbi Harvey Falk believes were aligned with the House of Shammai. There is evidence that the Pharisees of the House of Shammai also denied eternal life for Gentiles, as opposed to the House of Hillel (Falk). Here we can see a big reason for dispute between Yeshua, Paul (House of Hillel) and the House of Shammai.
Sadducees vs. Pharisees
Didn’t the Pharisees want Yeshua killed? The Israeli Bible scholar Israel Knohl argues that the Pharisee leaders never would have condemned Jesus to death, according to their Torah interpretations. Even though there were both Pharisees and Sadducees on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court, Yeshua’s trial largely took place at the Sadducean high priest Caiaphas’ house, in the middle of the night, and would not have included Pharisees primarily, but Sadducean priests. The Sadducees did not believe in angels, demons, the resurrection of the dead, or the authority of the Prophets. The Sadducean high priest condemns Yeshua as a blasphemer worthy of death, when Yeshua says that he will come in the clouds with G-d’s power, because the Sadducees rejected the Davidic Messiah figure of the Prophets, especially Daniel, who attributed to him a “quasi-divine nature” (Knohl). “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven!” (Daniel 7:13).
The Pharisees held beliefs about the Messiah from the Prophets, and therefore would not have considered Yeshua as blaspheming like the Sadducees would. “Based on the evidence we have, the Sadducee sect is the only movement of the period in which there is no suggestion of messianic faith… Even if the Pharisees had participated in the trial, they would not have condemned Jesus to death” (Knohl). This would also make sense, since the Messianic clamor would challenge the Sadducees’ position of power and leadership within Israel. Condemning Yeshua according to their interpretation of Judaism would justify them in delivering him to death at the hands of the brutal Roman occupiers, the Sadducees’ political allies.
Do we see other evidence that the Pharisees would not have condemned Yeshua to death? First of all, we see in the Gospels some Pharisees who tried to save Yeshua from danger. “31 On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to him, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). If all Pharisees wanted Yeshua dead, some would not have protected him here. It appears that if some Pharisees wanted to protect Yeshua, then only some, if any, Pharisees would want him killed.
After Yeshua is crucified, we still see defense by Pharisees of Yeshua’s apostles, including by Paul’s alleged rabbi, Gamaliel. “Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, 18 and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison… Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while… And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; 39 but if it is of G-d, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against G-d” (Acts 5:39).
Regarding Paul, after he said, “I am a Pharisee,” “a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. 9 Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against G-d” (Acts 23:9). The similarity of the language between these two passages demonstrates the willingness of the Sadducees to condemn the Yeshua Movement and the unwillingness of Pharisees to do the same.
Nakdimon the Pharisee
“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus (Nakdimon) who was a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1). Later in John, it says that along with Joseph of Arimathea, another member of the Council and likely also a Pharisee, Nakdimon helped prepare and bury Yeshua’s body. Fascinatingly, there is a ‘Nakdimon’ mentioned in the Talmud and he is even praised alongside Moses and Joshua! It’s said about him, “A Sage taught: Nakdimon was not his real name; rather his name was Buni. And why was he called Nakdimon? Because the sun broke through [nikdera] for him. The Sages taught: With regard to three people, the sun broke through and shone at an irregular time for their sake: Moses, Joshua, and Nakdimon ben Guryon” (Taanit 20a:4b-5a). There is only one other person in the entire Talmud who is called by the name, ‘Buni,’ and he is called a disciple of Yeshua. “Apropos the trial of Jesus, the Gemara cites another baraita, where the Sages taught: Jesus the Nazarene had five disciples: Mattai, Nakai, Netzer, Buni, and Toda” (Sanhedrin 43a:22). Could it be that the Nakdimon of the Talmud is the same as the Nakdimon of John?
The Seven Commandments
The Talmud and Moses Maimonides say that Gentiles who keep just the Seven Commandments given to Noah will inherit eternal life in the World to Come. These are the Seven Commandments: 1) Not to worship idols, 2) Not to curse G-d, 3) Not to commit murder, 4) Not to commit adultery or sexual immorality, 5) Not to steal, 6) Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal, 7) To establish courts for the administration of justice.
In the Book of Acts, some Pharisee followers of Yeshua thought that Gentiles had to become circumcised (become Jewish) and keep the Torah of Moses in order to be granted eternal life. This seems to be in keeping with the House of Shammai’s view that Gentiles can’t have eternal life, so they must convert (circumcise) to become Jewish. “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question… But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses…” And after they had become silent, Yaakov answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: 14 Shimon has declared how G-d at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 ‘After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; 17 So that the rest of mankind may seek the L-rd, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the L-rd who does all these things.’ 18“Known to G-d from eternity are all His works. 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to G-d, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath”” (Acts 15:21).
We see here in the Book of Acts that Gentiles were not obligated to keep the Torah of Moses and be circumcised in order to be ‘saved’ (receive eternal life), but they were only obligated to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood, another commandment which Noah was explicitly given (Genesis 9:4). This same verse is interpreted by the rabbis to prohibit ‘eating flesh torn from a living animal,’ one of the Seven Commandments. This means that the apostles in the Book of Acts are actually stricter than the majority rabbinic opinion in their interpretation of this verse and its injunction for Gentiles. However, the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin (59a:7) does relate that Rabbi Hanina son of Gamliel (Paul’s rabbi) was also of the opinion that this verse prohibits Gentiles (Noah’s children) from consuming blood. This is essentially a command to eat only kosher meat, since kosher slaughter and salting is the best way to ensure the removal of prohibited blood from meat. However, only Jews were prohibited to eat the sciatic nerve (according to Genesis 32:32), which is why Jews give this part to Gentiles.
There’s much more to be written on this topic, but this shall suffice for now to demonstrate that Yeshua and his earliest followers were in harmonious alignment with the Pharisees of the House of Hillel…
5 thoughts on “Once Blind, Now Pharisee”
Another outstanding article and very eye opening! I would agree that in Matthew 23:1-3 that the scribes and the Pharisees are to be followed when they sit on the seat of Mosheh but do not do according to their works for they say, and do not do.
In several versions of the Hebrew Matthew 23:3 Therefore, whatever he says do (in reference to Mosheh). This a very important subject and I’m glad you are discussing it!!!
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I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘several versions,’ since I only know of Shem-Tob’s version, which is much later than the Greek versions which miraculously say, ‘they,’ and that interpretation still doesn’t make sense because even in those versions, Yeshua says ‘because they say [what should be done], but don’t do.” I can read the Hebrew… The point of this article is to prove that Rabbi Yeshua and Paul were Pharisees of Beit Hillel, and therefore commanded Jewish obedience to the elders and judges of Israel – the Pharisees (Deuteronomy 17:11).
Hebrew Gospel of Matthew by George Howard is Shem Tob’s version. In Howards first edition he had 8 or 9 different manuscripts that he used to write his book. It has been stated that Shem Tob’s Hebrew version is from around the 14th century. When Howard wrote his second edition he stated that he believed that it was much older. Since Howard wrote his second edition there have been many other manuscripts in Hebrew found. Some vary slightly from “Shen Tob’s”
I thought that the article was very well written and I learned a lot. I think you made your point very well that Rabbi Yeshua and Paul were Pharisees of Beit Hillel, and therefore commanded Jewish obedience to the elders and judges of Israel – the Pharisees. I did not mean to leave an impression that you were wrong.
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Manuscripts that old are usually just fragments, not the whole gospel, so we don’t how many manuscripts had this exact passage in it with this variant – maybe all, or just one. It’s amazing that the oldest manuscripts (in Greek), have the reading that more clearly gives Pharisees authority, but it also just makes more sense in the context of what Yeshua is saying (“do what they say, not what they do”).
I always appreciate the feedback, especially if it challenges me! Thank you!!