A member of my family is taking an institute class, and she came home last week with a handout.  It attempted to describe the major sects of Judaism which existed during Jesus’ life, and this description of the Pharisees caught my eye:

The Pharisees were people who believed in strict obedience to a literal interpretation of the Law. They advocated adherence to the traditions which had been handed down to them, and they saw themselves as set apart, or different from the world.

That description hits a little too close to home for me, and I’m interested to hear what all of you think. For the purposes of this discussion, I suggest we set aside the secondary definition of Pharisee as a self-righteous blowhard, since that applies to all of us to some degree.


  1. Karen Armstrong portrays the Pharisees quite sympathetically. They were respected, recognized religious leaders of their community. She argues that their portrayal in the Gospels is largely a polemic against the established order by a breakaway sect – about as valid as a description of LDS leaders by UTLM.

  2. Others like Chadwick trace most modern-day Judaism to Pharisaic roots.

    I think that Pharisees were so obsessed with the law because they recognized that what brought on the Babylonian captivity was the breaking of commandments by so many of their predecessors. After the return from Babylonian/Persian Diaspora, you see the new-found Orthodoxy that focuses on strict commandment keeping. By the time Jesus showed up on the seen, that Orthodoxy hit another level.

  3. Ann, that is what I’m trying to get at. For whatever reason, they missed the biggest event of their lives. I wonder if their story holds any lessons for us, and if so, how can we avoid missing out the same way?

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Is this post about Bristol Palin?

  5. Steve Evans says:

    …cuz you mentioned the biggest event of our lives, and that was it, right there Mark.

  6. I suppose it’s a lesson in not letting our myopic vision get the best of us. Are we so focused on the minutia of the Gospel that we miss the bigger picture? Are we monitoring our brothers and sisters instead of monitoring our own hearts?

  7. Steve Evans, you are a very funny man.

  8. Well, some might say that a couple million folks missed the biggest event of their lifetimes because they didn’t accept the message of the restoration. Others might say that today’s LDS gerontocracy wouldn’t recognize a second coming if it bit them on their aged posteriors.

    Those who believe they would have been a follower of Jesus have the benefit of hindsight.

  9. Ann, a teensy bit more polite, please. (And I know you were quoting “others” :))

  10. I think the lesson is “beware of pride.” They believed they’d be saved through strict observance of the law, so they focused on that to the exclusion of the crucial virtues, such as charity. Hillel summarized the essence of the Torah as the Golden Rule and said everything else was commentary. Perhaps the other lesson is “don’t confuse commentary with basic principles.”

  11. today’s LDS gerontocracy wouldn’t recognize a second coming if it bit them on their aged posteriors.

    My understanding of the second coming is that it will be an event that it will not be possible to “miss,” as long as you are still alive (which may be more difficult than it sounds, considering what we know about the lead-in to that event). What is it we are concerned about “missing?”

    How is Bristol Palin the biggest event…I guess don’t get it.

  12. MCQ has fallen into the Pharisee trap!

  13. MCQ is right about it not being possible to miss the Second Coming. Perhaps what the octogenarian-haters mean is that our gerontocracy would be unpleasantly surprised at the Second Coming.

  14. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ, you talk about not missing the Second Coming and yet you are seemingly unaware of the phenom that is Bristol Palin? Motes and beams!

  15. Hillel summarized the essence of the Torah as the Golden Rule and said everything else was commentary.

    The problem, as I see it, is that there are some laws that need to be taken literally. And, at the same time, there are many others that fall into the category of commentary. Lacking direct revelation, how do we tell which is which?

    That is the wrong question. How do we transform ourselves into people who get direct revelation?

  16. Steve,

    I too am missing the Bristol Palin point.

    By the way, a threadjack here. Any reports on the BYU football pre-game fireside tomorrow night in Seattle would be greatly appreciated. I will be at the game, but unfortunately cannot make it to the fireside.

  17. I think the point is that the description of Pharisees describes us as Latter-Day Saints. While we can draw comparisons, there are huge differences.

    One similarity is that we do believe in strict adherence to the law of the gospel. We keep “the commandments” (the ten, the two greatest, and all the rest) and there are certain rules that qualify us to enter temples. We may be like the Pharisees if we judge additional rules as equal to these commandments (e.g., multiple piercings, blue shirts, caffeine = straight to hell).

    But I think that even many of the most judgmental Latter-Day Saints would accept Christ if he showed up in church with a blue shirt drinking a Coke. The Pharisees, on the other hand, couldn’t handle Christ healing people on the Sabbath.

    To sum up: Are there similarities between us and Pharisees? yes. Can we learn from the similarities and change? Yes. Are we much like the Pharisees? Not really.

  18. To quote other candidates … there is no Bristol Palin.

  19. But I think that even many of the most judgmental Latter-Day Saints would accept Christ if he showed up in church with a blue shirt drinking a Coke.

    I disagree strongly. Christ has a genuine understanding of the laws– that means that he probably won’t be adhering to any of the laws in the way that we expect. In fact, I would suspect that he would seem to be breaking all the most important laws. I doubt that more than a very few could hear his truth — in fact, I suspect that most would be more likely to label him as an agent of evil.

  20. The Right Trousers says:

    Is our approximation to celestial law really that bad an approximation? Which “important laws” would you expect him to seem to break?

  21. But I think that even many of the most judgmental Latter-Day Saints would accept Christ if he showed up in church with a blue shirt drinking a Coke.

    Perhaps. (Martha, Martha)

    And if they even recognized Him for who He was…

  22. Which “important laws” would you expect him to seem to break?

    Well, “love God” and “love your neighbor” may be seen in a context that includes a complete understanding of the reason for that love. That reason may need to be weighed against other considerations, both worldly and eternal.

    That is, what if violating “love God” helped move others closer to God? And an omniscient understanding of this made it obvious that the gains were greater than the costs — even if those costs include pain and suffering beyond our comprehension.(And could this partially explain the many belief systems allowed to coexist?)

    I believe that Christ may not appear as “Christ” and may not necessarily embrace the Mormon church. Not because those things aren’t true, but because he reflects the transcendence of God.

    Really, I wouldn’t expect Christ to keep any of the laws or commandments. Isn’t there some scripture that says they were created for us?

  23. I think one of the main failings of the Pharisees is that when Christ came, he didn’t come in the way they expected, and so they didn’t recognize him. Their understanding of the nature and purpose of the Messiah, was based on their interpretations of the writings of their prophets. When Jesus came, it wasn’t how they expected it, and so they missed it.

    Could that happen to the LDS? In pretty much the same way? Uh, yeah, I think so.

    That doesn’t mean that we’re like the Pharisees because they were evil and prideful – because I don’t think they were. They were just part of the system, and expected the Messiah to be part of the system. But he wasn’t.

    My bishop sees Jesus in homeless people. He’s a good egg.

  24. Pharisees were blind guides. They studied the law without understanding the true meaning of it. Jesus taught as one having authority from God, and not as having authority from the Scribes.

    I think the lesson is to humble ourselves, study it out in our minds and then ask if it be right.

  25. TonyD, of course the commandments were created for us. But Jesus subjected himself to those commandments as well. That’s the whole point of 2 Nephi 31.

    The Pharisees had a difficult time accepting the changes in the law but were not being led by their own modern revelation. When large changes in commandments changed, they couldn’t handle it. I would think that LDS are better suited to cope with this. Though difficult for many at the time, that Manifesto was a total change from what leaders had been teaching. Though sometimes difficult, the membership conformed.

  26. The Right Trousers says:

    Here’s another fun parallel: the Pharisees stretched their scriptures’ truth statements to the breaking point to discover new truth (such as an objective ordering on the commandments) rather than rely on revelation. Do we do that? Sometimes. Our early apostles were notorious. Our latest… not really. I feel that the Saints are catching up as well.

  27. I recently watched some highlights of the last worldwide training meeting, and it struck me that the leadership of the church seems to be actively addressing this issue, at least in that format: trying to turn people back to principles, identifying the problems of judgement, trying to explain how ‘high standards’ interact with real life, etc. I’m not sure how it trickles down, however.

  28. Great food for thought. I think I’m probably being too Pharisaical most of the time. Would Christ recognize my heart?

  29. In fact, I would suspect that he would seem to be breaking all the most important laws.

    Really? Christ shows up at Church in shorts, with a beer, a toke, and his live-in girlfriend?

    Can you flesh out your comment a bit, or define “the most important laws” ?

  30. The Pharisees were people who believed in strict obedience to a literal interpretation of the Law. They advocated adherence to the traditions which had been handed down to them,

    I see these as antithetical. A strict, literal reading of the WoW (and prophetic council), for example, doesn’t include anything about caffeine.

    The Pharisees problem was making the traditions equivalent to the law, not keeping the law strictly.

  31. It seems that the Pharisees’ problem wasn’t so much care in keeping all the commandments as much as it was careful delineation of the commandments to figure out what they could get away with. The corban thing, for example.

  32. Yeah, the Pharisee’s creeds were a bit of a problem. If we substitute our own “creeds” and won’t let go of them when changes occur, I don’t see much of a difference.

    I agree with Norbert, in that I see a major push from the Brethren over the last 10-15 years to eliminate much of the “trappings” of religion and focus much more on the good news of the Gospel. A simple example is our current embrace of grace – not works-less grace, but truly empowering grace.

  33. A true pharisee would never believe he is pharisee.

  34. Re #18 – Queuno, to deny Bristol Palin is an unforgivable sin.

  35. I still don’t get it.

  36. The Pharisees missed the arrival of the Messiah because they were looking for a warrior King who would lead his people in a glorious rout of the Romans, not a teacher and healer who moved among the very least of their society and spoke of an Eternal Kingdom to come.

    By that reckoning, I find it *highly* likely that those who believe the Second Coming will unfold according to the Apocalypse of John will likewise miss the Messiah’s return. Once again, they’ll be looking for their Savior to bring suffering and defeat to the wicked and unrighteous, to wield his flaming sword at the head of an army of Saints. God help them if instead, Christ chooses to come again as one who minsters to the poor, the sick, the sinful and the outcast.

    It wouldn’t surprise me *at all* if the most “faithful” failed to recognize a Second Coming for the same reasons many learned Jews missed the First.

  37. A true pharisee would never believe he is pharisee.

    Then I’ll get my bases covered: I’m pretty sure I’m a pharisee.

  38. I believe the key to unlocking the mystery of the Pharisees lies in the Book of Mormon. Multiple verses discuss keeping the law of Moses, despite knowing it to be a temporal law, but one of the more poignant speaks of the converted Lamanites in Alma 25:15:

    Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them.

    In other words, although the law we now live under is a temporal law, full of “do-not” as well as “do”, it is still important to keep that law, always remembering to what purpose the laws were given. It is absolutely vital to research the scriptures—not just read them—to know in what context and for what purpose our current laws were given.

    Take the word of wisdom for example. You can debate endlessly over the points of the law, but it doesn’t matter what points you follow and which you don’t if you never ponder the purpose of the law and make it part of your heart. The word of wisdom was given to show the will of God for the temporal salvation of latter-day saints, and to combat the evil that is in the hearts of conspiring men. Those who follow it can expect a physical salvation from illness (the destroying angel like that of the Israelites.) Therefore, the purpose of the law is to protect earthly health. Therefore, truly following said Word of Wisdom would entail avoidance (or in some cases moderation) of all things unhealthy. If there is anything you have difficulty moderating beyond the specific things mentioned in the Word of Wisdom (caffeine, sugar, chocolate), then it would be healthier and better for you to categorize it within the word of wisdom.

    The Pharisees made the mistake of taking their own, personal issues and applying them to the world at large. For example: my addiction to chocolate is unhealthy for me; that does not justify condemning chocolate for all. That is where pride takes its place in the Pharisaical approach.

    All laws of God have balance and purpose. We are blessed for following them with exactness. We are also blessed for making certain personal covenants to help us fulfill those purposes for our own, personal welfare. We are not blessed when we seek to make ourselves an authority in any way not given us by God.

  39. James McMurray says:

    A teacher of mine once pointed out that we probably ought to be a little more tolerant of the pharisees in general, since likely a large, untold number did in fact follow Christ. We use a very broad (and my guess, fairly incorrect) brush when painting our image of what the pharisees were probably like. Were there some bad apples? Sure. Were they also outliers? Possibly. Like today, there were all types.

  40. Forget about Bristol, what is up with naming your boys “Track” and “Trig”?

  41. I teach gospel doctrine and whenever a discussion about commandments comes up they are usually identified as things like the following:

    No R-rated movies
    One pair of earrings
    No tattoos
    Food storage

    They are always very measurable. Rarely do I hear things like have patience, love, and long suffering. Nor do I hear commandments as they were viewed in Joseph Smiths Day: Specific direction about what to do after inquiring of the Lord (Build a temple, gather to Ohio, etc.)

  42. #36, Banky:

    Interesting point, I wonder though if we reversed things how it may affect peoples perceptions. In other words, if Christ actually is to come as the revelations say, as a warrior King to use your terminology. Would that cause many of us to miss the mark, who have become overly benevolent hippies because of our determined conceptions of Christ from myopic readings of the New Testament. Lets not forget that we still believe the Jesus of NT was Jehova of the OT, so if we cling too tightly to a confined perspective we may be rocked if we get an OT shade of his personality at the second coming.

    BTW – Has anybody else noticed how recent artwork of the Savior, or the portrayal of him in the “Testaments” film, depicts him more as a hippie than a Jew.

  43. . . . cause we all know that there have never been any Jewish hippies.

  44. Jim Donaldson says:

    BTW – Has anybody else noticed how recent artwork of the Savior, or the portrayal of him in the “Testaments” film, depicts him more as a hippie than a Jew

    Sure. It has always been thus–but more long haired renaissance Italian than a hippie. I always try to picture him in my mind as a youngish, short, slightly dumpy, prematurely balding Jewish guy with the stereotypical nose. It helps give new life to otherwise told-to-death (usually inaccurately) stories. Makes them alive for me again. I really like the cryptic little guy. I’m serious.

  45. 42: Cowboy, I having grown up with among hippies, I find the term “benevolent hippie”, a bit of an oxymoron. I found the ‘movement’ the procurer to Libertarianism, not Liberalism. The chant was “drop out, down with the Establishment!”

  46. #43: Allen Ginsberg.

  47. #44 Jim Donaldson
    Unless he is a Sephardic Jew ( Mediterranean). He would be tall, thin, high cheek bones, dark hair and olive skin with deep set blue or brown eyes. That is my Jesus.

  48. #44: Sounds Yoda like (?)
    The Bible gives two hints: OT= “Of no apparent beauty….” and NT= he had to be pointed out to the Roman guards…(looked like all the others ?)

  49. Harold Curts says:

    I would simply disagree with the institute teacher’s handout.
    The Sadducees were the literalists; the Pharisees were the ones who believed in the Oral Traditions/interpretations of the law. It was the oral traditions that the Pharisee’s believed in that lead to most of the Jewish converts to Christianity being Pharisees.

    I think in many ways we are much like the Pharisees. As much as our scriptural literalists have pushed us to Sadducean side of things, oral understandings/applications of scripture are still hugely important to Mormons.

    Even the most read article in the Ensign every month tends to be simply written talks–i.e. reports of our oral tradition—not the scriptural literalness of the Sadducees amongst us.

  50. SilverRain:
    Did you really have to suggest that moderation of chocolate consumption was necessary to live the spirit of the WoW?

    About learning from the pharisees, I think a key, as may have been mentioned (I got distracted about the chocolate) is our hearts. The pharisees took great pleasure and comfort in adhering to meaningless laws. They thought that salvation was in this strict adherence. Where are our hearts? Are we full of pride? Do we think we are somehow better than others? Or, are we looking toward Christ and striving to humbly follow him through serving and helping others?

  51. #49 – Actually, both were literalists. The Pharisees simply had additional things to take literally. It is interesting, however, that those who accepted more than just the written word became the ones associated with hypocrisy. Perhaps that is because the Pharisees said they accepted extra-canonical statements but condemned Jesus by denying that possibility for his words. They believed in his role, but they rejected him. At least the Sadducees were internally consistent in their rejection of Jesus.

    Or, maybe “Sadduceeical” just doesn’t roll off the tongue well enough.

  52. Also remember that while the Pharisees were strongly against Jesus and tried to injure him on some occassions, it was the Sadducees, the representation of the priestly society, that advocated his crucifixion.

  53. So “Blessed are the cheese makers” was supposed to be taken literally?

  54. *Threadjack*

    Truth be told I didn’t live in the hippie era, and I don’t know much about it other than what most people know. I should have been less general in regards to contemporary art depictions of Jesus, but the Jesus portrayed in the “Testaments” film fits the Hollywood depiction of hippies, almost to a tee. The only thing he is missing is a dirty bandana and a flower painted on his cheek, and mabey a VW van with tyedye curtains.

    Most of the contemporary art depictions of Jesus probably more closely resemble the 60’s generation hippies, in the 90’s. You know, the ones who used to be hippies but then finished college, became psychologists and trimmed their beards.

  55. I have many times stated that I think the main stream Christian masses would crucify our Lord all over again today if he appeared now. That being said I think that plenty of us LDS types are sitting pretty atop our pedestals while we wear our “True Religion” crowns at a jaunty angle. It is easy to get caught up in doing everything right when we should be doing things for the right reason.

  56. “I believe that Christ may not appear as “Christ” and may not necessarily embrace the Mormon church. Not because those things aren’t true, but because he reflects the transcendence of God.

    Really, I wouldn’t expect Christ to keep any of the laws or commandments. Isn’t there some scripture that says they were created for us?”

    This is incomplete thinking. There are temporal laws even in the governing of the Church or our individual selves relative to the Gospel, but many of the laws (if not most) of the Gospel are eternal. This means that God himself abides by these laws and must. That is why the Atonement is necessary. No matter how much God loves and wants to forgive us, justice MUST be met for our sins. We are told quite explicitly in scripture as well as modern revelation that there will be no mistaking Christ this time around. He makes it abundantly clear that He most certainly will come “as Christ”. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is the Savior. It never says that all those people will be converted, but they will darn well know who they’re refusing this time.

  57. Re #53 – David T., Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

  58. Becky, I’m with #22 on this. I agree that God has to abide by the laws of the Gospel, but it sounds like you are equating “commandments” with “laws of the Gospel.” Justice/mercy is a law of the Gospel, for sure, but I don’t think most of the commandments are. If Christ (as himself or as Jehovah) can both prohibit and sanction killing, wine-drinking, polygamy, etc. among his people, then it leads me to believe that he has the latitude to choose when to obey those things himself. It would actually surprise me if Christ’s first dinner back didn’t include a glass of wine. That commandment never was for him.

    The transcedence point is sublime. When Christ returns to reclaim his throne, I don’t think he’ll head for a corner spot in the Church Office Building. His work is so much bigger than that, and we (just like the Catholics, Evangelicals, etc.) will have to make some serious shifts/expansions in thinking to get to a place where we can take his work forward. For Mormons, the biggest obstacle will be letting go of our perceived exclusivity on Christ/priesthood/etc and embracing the fact that Christ will be just as excited to see his other followers as he is to see us. The parable of the workers is all about us.

  59. #54: I think *maybe*, Ahmadinejad would be a close likeness, at least in size and build.
    A ‘Hippie ‘, was very different from the “Rebel” of the 60s. Hippie, think Gandhi. Rebel, think Woodstock.

  60. Sorry, but when I think Hippie, I think Woodstock.

  61. Bob (#59)

    I think you’re referring to the Yippies:

  62. D’oh!

  63. Apparently my URL tool isn’t working. Here’s the URL:

  64. #42 (cowboy) – I’d forgotten about the Jesus/Jehova link (I am not Mormon), that does makes the question more interesting. John’s Apocalypse is certainly steeped in Old Testament imagery; perhaps Christ will complete the circle and return as an OT-style priest/king. Personally, I’m highly skeptical of Revelation, at least as a “guide to the Second Coming.” (Wasn’t Joseph Smith somewhat reticent about counting Revelation as true prophecy as well?) In any case, my point still stands – those who put all their faith in man’s interpretation of prophecy stand an excellent chance of missing their Savior’s return. Similarly, those who spend their time divining world events for signs of the impending Apocalypse are missing the chance to do God’s will in the here & now.

  65. #56 Becky: I don’t want to disagree with you…but allow me to point out that multiple things can be true — even if those things are contradictory in this existence.

    Stated another way, laws coexist with other laws. Trade-offs can and often must be made. One result of those trade-offs is that if God or Christ were here, His actions would most likely not appear to conform to the laws we know and simplistically interpret.

    All I’m really trying to say is that God is truly outside our understanding.

  66. God help them if instead, Christ chooses to come again as one who minsters to the poor, the sick, the sinful and the outcast.

    Yeah, but the problem with this is that the prophets have said multiple times things like this:

    46 And it shall be said: Who is this that cometh down from God in heaven with dyed bgarments; yea, from the regions which are not known, clothed in his glorious apparel, traveling in the greatness of his strength?
    47 And he shall say: I am he who spake in brighteousness, mighty to save.
    48 And the Lord shall be red in his apparel, and his garments like him that treadeth in the wine-vat.
    49 And so great shall be the glory of his presence that the sun shall hide his face in shame, and the moon shall withhold its light, and the stars shall be hurled from their places.

    And this:

    44 And then they shall look for me, and, behold, I will come; and they shall see me in the clouds of heaven, clothed with power and great glory; with all the holy angels; and he that watches not for me shall be cut off.
    45 But before the arm of the Lord shall fall, an angel shall sound his trump, and the saints that have slept shall ccome forth to meet me in the cloud.
    46 Wherefore, if ye have slept in peace blessed are you; for as you now behold me and know that I am, even so shall ye come unto me and your souls shall live, and your redemption shall be perfected; and the saints shall come forth from the four quarters of the earth.
    47 Then shall the arm of the Lord fall upon the nations.
    48 And then shall the Lord set his foot upon this mount, and it shall cleave in twain, and the earth shall tremble, and reel to and fro, and the heavens also shall shake.
    49 And the Lord shall utter his voice, and all the ends of the earth shall hear it; and the nations of the earth shall mourn, and they that have laughed shall see their folly.

    How can you reconcile those prophecies with your hypothetical? Answer: you can’t. And moreover, if he does come some other way, I think that I would have a legitimate excuse if I missed it. If you tell me to meet you at the airport, but then you come by greyhound, you can’t complain if I’m not there to meet your bus.

  67. #61: In 1960s, I spend time on the Broad Walk at Venice Beach, CA. The Gas House hotel was a center for Hippies.
    The front wall had been taken and the floor covered with sand. They would stand and read poetry (bad), and play their Bongo drums. They were “Bohemians “.
    Yippies were more of a anti-war and anti-government group. They would speak on my college campus all times, as we had a bigger open grass spot than UCLA or USC. More of the big names came there, (think of Jane Fonda).
    Woodstock was very grass rooted, mostly high on drugs/sex , and into 60s music.

  68. I skimmed the comments after having read some student essays, and it occurs to me we use the word ‘pharisee the way Holden Caufield uses the word ‘phony.’

  69. A little-known fact is that 1st century Pharisees also called what they did “correlation”.

  70. It has also been stated by some that Jesus was a ” Pharisee” himself. That is why he mingled with the Pharisees much more than the Saducees. In fact, he even praised the Pharisees’ teachings, but condemned their actions. The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t that they had strict rules. It was that they never lived by the rules or used them as a way to marginalize others.

  71. #58 Red – It would actually surprise me if Christ’s first dinner back didn’t include a glass of wine. That commandment never was for him.

    Doctrine & Covenants 27:5-14

    Two things worth mentioning here.
    1) It appears, according to this scripture, that when the Savior returns he clearly plans to have a glass of wine with his dinner, as you suggest. He also plans on inviting all of his friends. This should not suprise us, since this is more or less what happened at Cana.

    2) While it is clear that Christ, nor his Apostles, observed the Word of Wisdom, there are at least two historical precedences for the law of which I am aware. Sampson, and John the Baptist. Alcohol was proscribed as part of their nazaritic vow. This is interesting because in verse 7 of this section John the Baptist is listed as the first or second specific figure (depending on how you interpret Elias).