Luke’s Pharisees[1]


Pharisees in Luke
Pharisees are prominent in each of the four gospels.  Matthew has 12 passages involving the Pharisees, but Luke has 16.  John has 9 and Mark 7.  Furthermore, if we include the lawyer who asked Jesus about eternal life in Luke 10 Luke’s count would be 17.  ‘Scribes’ are regularly mentioned with Pharisees (but only in John once – in the woman taken in adultery passage).  Luke mentions scribes separately from Pharisees as plotters for the death of Jesus in Luke 9:22 and 19:49 but especially in the Good Friday chapter 20.  I think Luke wants us to bracket the Pharisees with the Scribes as major participants in the conspiracy against Jesus.

In Matthew and Mark the Pharisees are a nameless group, but in John the Pharisee Nicodemus is named and one of Luke’s Pharisees is Simon, a host at a meal (Luke 7:40).  In fact Luke has two other occasions where Jesus is a guest of a Pharisee at a meal (11:37; 14:1).

All three meals are problematic.  In one the host (‘Simon’) objects that Jesus should have known that the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet was a ‘sinner’ (7:39).  In the second the Pharisee host was ‘astonished’ that Jesus ‘did not first wash his hands before dinner’ – probably more a matter of purity than hygiene (11:38).

In the third, a Sabbath meal, the host – a ruler of the Pharisees – ambushed Jesus by bringing into the room the man with dropsy (14:1-2).  Luke 14:1-23 is the extensive narrative of the remarkable Sabbath meal where Jesus tells three other parables that expose the foibles of the Pharisees.  He accuses the host of hypocrisy for attempting to trap him to heal on the Sabbath (which he did anyway).  To that Jesus added the charge of high-mindedness to those who rushed to get the best seats at the dinner.  He scathingly condemned the snobbery of those who invited only their social equals to their dinners.  Finally, he exposes the ingratitude of those who rudely declined the invitation of God to attend his banquet.  Ironically they (the Pharisees) will see those whom they despised being welcomed to the very seats they refused to take, that is, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame and the hated Gentiles.

Yet Luke’s Pharisees are not all bad.  Some warned Jesus of the evil intentions of Herod the tetrarch of Galilee (13:31).  It is possible that the Pharisees’ question about the coming of the kingdom of God was genuine (17:20).

So there is some light and shade in Luke’s portrayal of the Pharisees, more than in the other gospels.  But it is mostly shade and not too much light.  Luke’s negativity towards the Pharisees, however, is quite developed in a literary sense.  He has not set up a merely negative profile or stereotype.  Throughout his many nuanced references he lets the reader see the moral and spiritual darkness of the Pharisees.

Luke indicates that the Pharisees were unmoved by John the Baptist’s call for the nation to be baptised (7:30) whilst being outwardly hostile to Jesus for welcoming the tax collectors (5:30; 7:34; 15:1-2), for blasphemously claiming to forgive sins (5:21), for failing to fast (5:33), and for healing on the Sabbath (6:7; 14:1, 3).

Repeatedly Luke shows us Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees – for hypocrisy (11:39, 42; 12:1), for social pretentiousness, for lack of compassion towards the needy (11:43; 14:7, 12-14), for greed (16:14), for a self-justifying spirit that lacked humility before God (10:29), and for wilfully refusing the invitation of God (14:18-20).

This hostility intensified when Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem, the centre of the their movement.

The Pharisees’ goal was to make all the people of Israel as pure as the priests were at the time of their temple duties.  To that end the Pharisees acted like ‘religious police’, reinforcing Sabbath keeping, dietary law, fasting, tithing and the purity washings.  Their sphere of influence was the synagogue where they excluded people they classified as impure, people like tax collectors and those they called ‘sinners, that is, prostitutes and others who pursued ‘despised trades’ (for example, herdsmen, tanners, carters, bath attendants, physicians).

Tax Collectors
Tax collectors were outsourced contractors who collected taxes from the ordinary people on behalf of the authorities, whether in Galilee for the tetrarch or in Judea for the Romans.  Either way, the Jews despised tax collectors as brutal extortionists (a reputation they deserved) and barred their entry to the synagogues.  The gospels regularly bracket them with ‘sinners’.

Luke refers many times to the tax collectors, as those who came in repentance to be baptised by John the Baptist (3:12), whom Jesus welcomed and with whom he shared meals (5:29, 30).  Jesus called Levi, a tax collector in Capernaum, to join his band of disciples (5:27).  Another whom Jesus called was Zacchaeus, chief tax collector in Jericho (19:2, 9).

We may ask what lay at the heart of the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees?  Quite simply Jesus was teaching about the rapidly approaching kingdom or rule of God.  Radically, God’s kingdom was based on grace and was to be extended to the lowest of the low, the neediest of the needy.  Jesus embodied this kingdom by reaching out to lepers, cripples, the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ whom the Pharisees shut out from the synagogues.  The Pharisees saw Jesus as the obstacle to their vision of the kingdom, the all-purified people of Israel whereas Jesus saw the Pharisees as the absolute antithesis of his vision of the kingdom of God, the kindly rule of God in the hearts of all from the least to the greatest.

Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Luke devotes much of his Gospel to narrating Jesus’ contrasting relationships with Pharisees and tax collectors and to noting his diametrically opposite verdicts about them.  In this parable Luke brings together in starkest of contrasts Jesus’ attitudes to these two groups, as focused in just two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.

Luke endorses Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees, that they trusted in themselves that they were righteous and they treated others with (literally) ‘utter contempt’.

These two men are going to the temple to meet with God.  Both men stand to pray, the customary posture for prayer.  Outwardly it would appear that both men were praying devoutly and acceptably, but it is the attitude of the heart not outward appearance that reveals all.  Appearances are deceptive.

The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like others (including the tax collector) and pointed out how he fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, the expectations of the Law.  The Torah prescribed one day of fasting per annum, but he fasted twice each week; he tithed not only his income but also his possessions.

The Pharisee would have been a student of the Bible yet he did not understand that all prayer depends on humility, self-awareness and contrition without which it is not possible to engage with God.

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
‘I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with himwho is of a contrite and lowly spirit…’

Isaiah 57:15

The Pharisee did not pray to God but ‘with himself’ (RSV).

By contrast, the tax collector stood ‘far off’, unworthy to be close to the righteous Pharisee.  He did not even lift his eyes to heaven, that is, to God.  Deeply aware of his unworthiness (as a tax collector) he cried out to God for mercy on him, ‘a (literally the) sinner’.

Jesus the teller of the parable has, as it were, been watching these two men, but through the eyes of God the judge.  The Pharisee who ‘exalted’ himself will not be ‘justified’ on the Last Day, but ‘humbled’.  By contrast, the tax collector who ‘humbled’ himself will be ‘justified’ and ‘exalted’.

It is as if the Pharisee is looking admiringly at himself in the mirror whilst catching a sidelong glimpse of a despicable tax collector.  He is puffed up with adulation with the image of himself but filled with loathing towards the other.  Does he see God?  He does not, indeed cannot.  The Pharisee’s self-idolatry has blinded him to God and poisoned his eye with jaundice towards all others.  It is God’s prerogative to judge our fellows, not ours but the Pharisee usurped that role.  Even his expression of thanks to God was nothing more than haughty condescension towards the tax collector.

Jesus’ parable, as told by Luke, is profoundly challenging to our idea of God.  If we think God is pleased with our moral, spiritual or theological superiority then God is not who we think he is.  If we think God is not God also to the sinner who cries out to him, again he is not the God whose mind Jesus knows.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable is both elegant in its brevity but powerful in its stark intensity and moral challenge.  In these few words Luke captures the many passing references to Pharisees and tax collectors who have figured so significantly in his unfolding narrative, especially on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, of course, is the home of the Pharisees, the holy city where they rule supreme, to which Jesus will soon arrive.

Luke 14 and 15
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector exposes that Pharisee’s dual failure of dependent humility before God and condescending arrogance toward the penitent tax collector.  Luke’s chapters 14 and 15 expose their failures in even more detail.

In chapter 14, as we have noted, Jesus is a guest of a Pharisee and Ruler at a Sabbath meal, where there is a deeply hostile atmosphere.  Recall that Jesus calculatedly healed the dropsical man – Sabbath or not – then told parables that attacked their social pretentiousness and high-minded hard-heartedness towards the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  Then he gave the Parable of the Great Banquet where those invited – Pharisees in particular – came up with feeble, paper-thin excuses, whereupon the host threw open his banquet first to the poor, crippled, blind and lame of the town then finally to the pathetically indigent who waited in the hedgerows to glean the droppings of the harvest.  The parable tells the Bible’s great story of redemption first of Israel but then of the nations because of the failure of Israel (symbolised by the leaders of Israel – the Pharisees and the temple leaders – rejecting the Messiah when he came to them).  Is this Jesus’ insight that Paul would spell out in Romans 10-11?

Almost immediately we have the famous chapter 15.  Do we recall how it begins?  It is another mealtime motif.  Here, though, Jesus is actually eating with tax collectors and sinners as he did earlier with Levi when the Pharisees grumbled (5:29-30) and later with Zacchaeus when everyone in Jericho grumbled (19:6).  These are the tax collectors and sinners, the kind of people who were brought to the table in the Parable of the Great Banquet just before chapter 15 who were invited in place of the Pharisee-types who made those weak and offensive excuses.

So Jesus in chapter 15 gives us three more parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons.  Note the plural: lost sons.  In each parable the climax is a celebration of the lost being found.  The shepherd and the woman searched till they found the lost item; the father waited patiently until the lost son returned, and welcomed him effusively.

The lost – ‘prodigal’ – son represents the tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus welcomed.  The elder brother who would not join the celebratory banquet and who complained bitterly represents the Pharisees who ‘grumbled’ – there’s that word again – about Jesus welcoming and eating with the tax collectors and sinners.

A Kingdom for the Lost
It is striking how in Luke’s Gospel the narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem brings out the mercy of Jesus towards the needy and marginalised.

He sent messengers to the Samaritans 9:52
He told a parable about a merciful Samaritan 10:25-37
He endorsed the woman Mary who sat at his feet                           10:39
He said, ‘sell your possessions and give to the needy’ 12:33
He healed the man with dropsy (on the Sabbath)                           14:2
He said, ‘Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind 14:13, 21
He said, ‘
Invite those from highways and byways [Gentiles]’         14:23
He received and ate with tax collectors and sinners 15:1-2
He approved the Samaritan leper who alone thanked God            17:11-19
He welcomed children 18:16-17
He told a parable favourable to the tax collector 18:9-14
He healed the blind beggar 18:35-43
He promised salvation to Zacchaeus, the tax collector 19:1-10
He promised salvation to the Penitent Criminal 23:43

Jesus declared that he came to seek and to save the lost (19:10).  These included the moral outcasts (tax collectors and sinner), the economic outcasts (the poor, the needy), the sexually inferior (women), the maturity inferior (children), the physically defective (the man with dropsy, the crippled, the lame, the blind), the hygienically and ritually contaminated (the lepers), and the ethnically contaminated (Samaritans, Gentiles).

The Marginalised
It may be asked: who marginalised these people?  Israel itself began as a ‘marginalised’ tribe, slaves in Egypt.  In rescuing them God called them to be ‘holy’, as he, their Lord, was holy.  The problem was that in their attempt to distinguish themselves from other nations they so emphasised issues of holiness and purity that they forgot about the mercy of God that took them out of Egypt and gave them the land.  In the time of Jesus it was the Pharisees and their Scribes (leading teachers) who intensified the demand for ‘separation’ from the nations, by means of washings, fasting, Sabbaths, festivals and the like.  The religious elitism and legalism of the Pharisees inevitably created an underclass of those on the fringes of the mainstream.

Even more elitist than the Pharisees were the Essenes, especially the male celibates in the Qumran community (near Jericho).


No madman, or lunatic, or simpleton, or fool, no blind man, or maimed, or lame, or deaf man, and no minor, shall enter into the community, for the angels of holiness are with them.[2]

We cannot help noticing that the very people Qumran excluded – the mentally unwell (including demoniacs), the blind, the crippled, the deaf, the children – were the very ones that Jesus reached out to.

Jesus’ inclusiveness towards the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ is thrown into sharp contrast by the rigorous standards of the Pharisees and the Essenes.  Jesus, the Son of Man, proclaimed the kingdom of God, the God who was the Creator of all men and women and children.  Consistently, Jesus extended the promise of the kingdom to all people, Essenes, Pharisees and the ‘lost’ ones.

Were these needy and marginalised automatically included in the kingdom of God?  Clearly they were not.  The prodigal son returned, penitent, to his father.  The Samaritan leper who was healed came back to praise God.  The justified tax collector had pleaded for mercy.  The blind beggar believed Jesus’ promise.  Zacchaeus repented of his fraud.  The crucified criminal repented of his crime and pleaded for mercy.  Being marginalised of itself did not bring one under the kingdom of God.  God’s grace needed to be met with repentance and trust.

Although Jesus proclaimed the mercy of the kingdom of God to the whole nation it was the people on the margins like those mentioned above who tended to respond. Jesus the Messiah, God’s Chosen One, sought to gather the whole nation under him. Tragically the nation’s leaders rejected him and then killed him (13:34-35).

Luke’s Pharisees
So, why does Luke have so much to say about the Pharisees and why is it so negative?  We cannot be certain when Luke wrote his great Luke-Acts work.  But it was sometime after Paul’s two year imprisonment in Rome, after AD 62.  Let us suggest AD 70 as about the time Luke finished writing.  I am not wanting to make too much of the date, or the place where he wrote (which was probably Rome).

Put yourself in Luke’s shoes writing Luke-Acts in the mid-60s, about thirty years after Jesus’ historical lifespan.  His maximum scroll length for each ‘book’ is about 10 metres, 30+ feet in imperial measure.  He has various shorter texts that he is consolidating in his sequential work.  It is likely that he has to omit some material.  Clearly the material he does include is a priority for him.  Luke is very interested in the Pharisees and they play a large and largely negative part of his narrative.  Why?

A Pastoral Motive
Luke is very interested in narrating his Gospel and Acts historically, with as much rootage in the soil of world history and actual geography as possible.  He want his readers to know that the events he described actually happened, including his accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees.  Historical integrity is one reason for these details.

But I believe he has pastoral concerns as well.

Luke’s experience as missionary co-worker of Paul may have shown him that the spirit of the Pharisee all too easily lives on among Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile Christians.  Christianity calls for outward identification with Christ by baptism and church membership.  That outward identification implies a standard of behaviour that is all too frequently not matched by right behaviour behind closed doors, or within the ultimate privacy of our thoughts.  There are spectacular examples of hypocrisy, for example where a morals crusader is shown to be a serial fornicator.  Less spectacular but not uncommon are those who present as decent, caring and upright people in public who are quarrelsome and short tempered at home.  In continuity with the Jewish Pharisees are the Christian Pharisees who are publicly prominent as preachers but who plot and scheme behind the scenes to secure preferment for themselves or others in the ecclesiastical pantheon.  In other words, the very public aspect of Christianity – which is intrinsic to its character – runs the risk of its members not being what they seem, in a word, hypocrites (play actors).

It must not pass unnoticed how frequently the NT letter writers exhort against hypocrisy, usually unhelpfully translated as against ‘insincerity’.  No.  The word is anupocritos – ‘un-hypocritical’ (e.g., Rom. 12:9; 2 Cor. 6:6; 1 Tim. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:5; James 3:17; 1 Pet. 1:22).  Paul, James and Peter clearly think hypocrisy is an issue amongst their readers.

Because none of us is free from this temptation we can readily understand why Luke labours the point about the Pharisees.  We do well to listen carefully to his narratives.  In particular, the message of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector should be etched in our hearts, for we who are Christians are all too easily the Pharisee in that parable.  One of our problems is that we think that knowing about believing is the same as believing and knowing about trusting God is the same as trusting God.  So we pass our days knowing about believing and trusting and easily think we are actually believing and trusting, whilst harbouring a sense of superiority towards those who don’t believe and don’t trust.  Like the Pharisee in the parable my god is very easily me, and I am trapped in the most insidious and pernicious idolatry of all.

This short parable reaches into the hearts of those on the ‘Jesus Journey’.  He forces us to ask ourselves, who am I in the presence of God, the Pharisee or the tax collector?  There is peril in being a Christian and a church member.  It is all too easy to have the attitude of the Pharisee, to feel that I have no moral need for God’s forgiveness but to believe I am superior to others.  Jesus calls us to earnest and honest soul searching and to approach God honestly and humbly and with no sense of superiority over others.  We look to the teller of the parable who a few weeks later was nailed up on the cross to propitiate the wrath of God towards our sins, that we might go to our homes ‘justified’.

So here is the challenge.  I know my theology.  I am a church person.  I am moral and upright.  But there is something not quite right about my inner life, my attitudes – how I think about me and God and how I think about myself and about others.  How do I think about people who have things wrong, people like sexual deviates, transvestites, atheists, the deliberately unemployed?

You see, the thing is it is not only those who are obviously sinners who are lost from God.  The really scary part of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in Luke is that upright, religious people can also be lost.  That’s why the great parable in Luke 15 is about two sons, not just one.  The second son – the upright, dutiful son – was just as lost as the ‘prodigal’ son, maybe more so.

In some ways the longer we have been saved, the more prone we may be to a judgmental attitude about others and moral blindness about ourselves.  Years of upright living mean we easily forget how sinful we were, the reality of our fallen-ness.

So one of Luke’s pastoral concerns may have been the perennial reality of Pharisee-ism amongst Christians, as well as amongst Jews.  This may be why we find Luke’s Gospel so painfully challenging.

A Polemical Motive
But there is another possible motive that Luke may have had in writing the way he did about the Pharisees.

We discover from Luke’s second ‘book’, the Acts of the Apostles that some Jewish believers in Jerusalem also belonged to the sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5).

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them [Gentiles] and to  order them to keep the law of Moses’.

‘Believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees…’  They are believers in Jesus the Messiah who belong to the sect of the Pharisees by a kind of dual membership.  These believers in Jerusalem held the same viewpoint as those who had recently gone to Antioch saying, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15:1).  Paul in Galatians speaks of this incident in Antioch and describes these men as ‘the circumcision party’ (Gal. 2:12) who drove Jewish believers – including Cephas and Barnabas – from table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles.  Their message was simple: no dietary compliance, no circumcision means no table fellowship with us, including presumably the Lord’s Supper.

A year or so earlier Paul deliberately brought the uncircumcised Titus to Jerusalem where he successfully warded off the efforts of ‘false brothers’ who had demanded the circumcision of Titus (Gal 2:4).  The ‘pillars’, James, Cephas and John, did not disagree with Paul.

Then followed Paul’s and Barnabas’s mission in southern Galatia preaching a circumcision-free gospel to Gentiles.  A counter-mission – almost certainly from Jerusalem – went to the Galatian churches and sought to impose circumcision, the Jewish calendar (‘days, months, seasons, years’) and other ‘works of the law’ on Gentiles.  Paul refers to them as ‘troublers’ or ‘agitators’, but it is almost certain that they were either ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ or those who were in principle sympathetic to their views.  ‘False brothers’, the ‘circumcision party’, ‘troublers’ or ‘agitators’ and ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ – these are various ways of describing the one point of view.

According to Paul in Galatians these counter-missionaries were opposing the grace of God.  Because the Galatian believers – Jewish believers as well as Gentile believers – have been ‘bewitched’ by the counter-mission Paul says, ‘You are severed from Christ – using the language of ‘cutting’, as in circumcision – you who would be justified by law, you have fallen away from grace’ (Gal. 5:4).  Paul pleads with them: ‘For freedom Christ has set you free: stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery’ (5:1).  It seems too much a coincidence that Paul should use the word ‘yoke’ that Jesus had used in his invitation to those who labour and are heavy laden to take ‘my yoke’ and ‘learn from me’ who am ‘meek and gentle’ and a source of ‘rest’ (Matt. 11:28-30).

Jesus sought to relieve the ‘weary and heavy-laden’ tax collectors and sinners from the yoke of Pharisee-inspired slavery and Paul his apostle fought to spare the Gentiles as well as the Jews from the yoke of slavery of the ‘works of the law’ like circumcision, the dietary rules and the calendar.

Our earliest historical window through which we see early Christianity is Galatians, written circa 48, a decade and half on from Jesus.  What do we see?  We see a ferocious argument within Christianity between Paul and ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ over the same issues that Jesus ferociously fought with the Pharisees a few years earlier for the sake of the tax collectors and sinners: the grace of God.

Jesus’ keywords were ‘kingdom of God’ and Paul’s keyword was ‘righteousness’.  Yet Jesus used both words (‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…’ – Matt 6:33) and Paul used both words (‘the kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ – Rom 14:17). Jesus said, ‘Fear not little flock, it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (Luke 12:32).  Paul said, ‘we are justified by grace as a gift’ (Rom 3:24).  For Jesus ‘kingdom of God’ was grace-based, God’s gift, and for Paul ‘righteousness’ was grace-based, God’s gift.  Jesus insisted on grace for the sinners and Paul insisted on grace for the Gentiles, as well as for the Jews.

Luke even uses the Pauline language of ‘righteousness’ and justification.

The tax collector’s plea, ‘Be merciful to me’ (Luke 18:13) is more literally understood as ‘be propitiated to me’ reminding us of Paul’s words that Christ’s death ‘propitiated’ the wrath of God due to sin (Romans 3:25).  Furthermore, the parable is directed ‘to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and concludesthis man went down to his house justified (literally, “righteoused” – Luke 18:9, 14)’.

In two other occasions Luke brings this language into his narratives.  The lawyer who enquired about eternal life sought to justify himself (Luke 10:29) and later Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.  For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’ (Luke 16:15).

Luke, as Paul’s travelling companion and biographer understood the struggles of his friend against ‘believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’.  When he finally came with Paul to Jerusalem in 57  they were confronted by ‘thousands…among the Jews of those who have believedall zealous for the law’ who ‘have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs’ (Acts 21:20-21).  In short, many if not most of the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem by the late 50s were ‘zealous for the law’, Pharisee-influenced.

These believers who were Pharisees believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but they insisted on Gentiles scrupulously keeping the laws of Judaism.  They are merely a continuation of the Pharisees of the Gospel of Luke who insisted in sinners keeping the Sabbath, fasting, washing and tithing.

The believers who were Pharisees required male Gentile believers to submit to circumcision and all Gentile believers, male and female, to keep the Sabbath and the ‘months’ and ‘years’ that Jews observed.  Just as Jesus protected the ‘lost’ in Israel from the legalistic ‘yoke’ of the Pharisees so the apostle Paul protected the ‘lost’ Gentiles from the legalistic ‘yoke’ of the believers who were Pharisees (Matt 11:28-30; Gal 5:1; cf. 2:3-5).  Jesus insisted that the kingdom of God was a ‘gift’ (‘Fear not little flock it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’) – Luke 12:32); and his apostle Paul likewise insisted that ‘justification’ was God’s ‘gift’ (Luke 12:32; Romans 3:24 – ‘all have sinned…and are justified freely by his grace, as a gift’).  From the New Testament we learn of Pharisees, both non-Christian and Christian, changing God’s mercy from a ‘gift’ of to be humbly received into a ‘wage’ to be earned.

One small speculation, if I may.  Many believe, as I do, that Luke was from Antioch.  Clearly he was a believer in circa 50 when he joined Paul in Alexandria Troas to cross to Philippi where he seems to have stayed for the next seven years before rejoining Paul in the journey to Judea and later to Rome.  If Luke was a believer in 50 he almost certainly was in 48 when the incident in Antioch occurred prompting Paul to write to the Galatians.  In other words, Luke may have witnessed the attempt of the ‘false brothers’, ‘the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees’ to impose ‘works of the law’ on the Gentiles in Antioch.  If so, and this is conjecture, it would help explain Luke’s attitude to the Pharisees and the reason he narrates them the way he does in his Gospel.

Luke’s powerful, yet nuanced account of the Pharisees and their counterparts the tax collectors invites reflection.

Luke wrote his two-volume masterpiece several decades after Jesus’ engagement with these groups.  Our author was strictly limited as to the amount of material he could include in his scrolls so that his priority in including so much about the Pharisees is indeed a matter of interest.

Two possible motives come to mind.

One is Luke’s perception that the spirit of the Pharisee is endemic within us humans, especially amongst ‘religious’ people, the Christians of the early decades.  Unbending theological purity accompanied by blindness to oneself and a sheer lack of care for the elderly and needy is very easily a mark of the evangelical Christian.  We are at our Pharisaic worst when we are involved in theological criticism of those with whom we disagree,  whether Catholics, Charismatics or Liberals.  Never are our own blind spots less apparent to us than when we are critical of others.  It was not for nothing that Paul said, ‘Look to yourself, lest you also be tempted’ (Gal 6:1).

Another possible motive for writing was Luke’s reaction against the efforts of Pharisee-connected believers who sought to impose the ‘works of the law’ upon Gentiles, in particular circumcision as in the disputes in the late 40s in Jerusalem, Antioch and Galatia.

It is possible, but beyond proof, that Luke himself had been caught up in those disputes in Antioch, thus colouring attitudes that would influence his narratives in his Gospel in the coming years.


Paul Barnett
Easter 2011



































[1]A paper by Paul Barnett at Conference at Wesley Institute 16th April 2011.


[2]4Q Dam d; cf. 1 Q Sa 2:3-9.  Translation is from G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 109.