Scribes and Pharisees


If we are to correctly understand a given passage of scripture we need to observe as much as we can. We want to examine the details. Let’s look again at John 8:3-5.

3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” (NKJV)

Before I get very far into the verse, I find myself asking what’s a scribe? What’s a Pharisee? Let’s take a brief look.

Some scribes were part of the sect of the Pharisees or Sadducees, and some were also priests and Levites. (The Lexham Bible Dictionary)

The scribes functioned in many roles. Chief among those roles was as copyists of the Holy Scriptures. New copies would have to be made to replace worn manuscripts or the text would eventually be lost forever. This very important task fell to the scribes. As you can imagine, the one whose career was to copy the text over and over, day after day, year after year, would come to know the text better than anyone. They became the teachers and lawyers of the people.

I would like to suggest that scribes were God’s chosen method for preserving the text of the scriptures. Consider the following quote.

Josephus also explains how carefully the Jewish scribes copied scripture. He notes that scribes were careful not to add, remove, or alter any syllable, and that they regarded their texts as decrees from God that they needed to abide by and perhaps to die for due to their reverence for them (Ag. Ap. 1.37–43). (The Lexham Bible Dictionary)

Sometimes I think we hold an incomplete perspective of the scribes and Pharisees. We read passages like this one where we see Jesus in conflict with them and assume that if you were a scribe or a Pharisee you were wicked. In many cases that maybe the perspective of the scriptures, but we need to be careful. Remember when we see Jesus in conflict with these groups, it is a specific set of individuals that make up these groups. Jesus never communicates that all scribes or all Pharisees are wicked. Why is it important for us to understand that they weren’t all wicked? Well, for one thing, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. We see Jesus and Nicodemus in conversation about being born again in John chapter 3.

John 19:39 tells us that he prepared to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, it says, “And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds.” (NKJV)

I believe the scriptures indicate that Nicodemus, a Pharisee, became a believer.

So what was a Pharisee? Pharisees were separatists. The Hebrew word persahin, from parash, means to separate. These people separated themselves from the people as the religious elite. There were several sects of Pharisees, which we won’t be able to cover here. The Easton Bible Dictionary gives us some interesting insight.

They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters appertaining to the law of Moses (Matthew 9:14; 23:15; Luke 11:39; 18:12). Paul, when brought before the council of Jerusalem, professed himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:6–8; Acts 26:4-5).

So here we have two distinct, yet interrelated groups of people, both interested in the details of their religious text. As a whole, they tended to pay closer attention to the letter of the law, while ignoring the intent of the law. The Pharisees added their own laws to God’s. They felt that if there was a layer of law between Moses’ law the the people, one would be less likely to break the law of Moses.

The scribes and Pharisees missed God’s perspective of the law. They saw the law as revealing sin and pronouncing judgment, which is correct, but incomplete. The law demonstrates man’s sinful condition, his lost state, his need for a savior. The law pronounces judgement, while pointing to the Messiah, the very person of grace and love. This Messiah was then, and is now the only one who can forgive man’s sin and restore him back into fellowship with God.

I hope you will take the time to do a more detailed study of the scribes and Pharisees. If you do, you may be surprised by what you learn.

Just to whet your appetite, did you know that the Pharisees would strain their wine to avoid accidentally consuming unclean insects? Does that affect your understanding of the following passage?

Matthew 23:24, “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (NKJV)

Do we harshly judge these highly educated, dedicated scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day? Are we ready to stone them, before examining our own hearts? If we were to perform a self-examination what would we find? Would we, like the scribes and Pharisees, be guilty of pointing the finger at the sins of others, without first dealing with the sin in our own hearts?

If so there is hope. Praise God that He makes repentance and forgiveness available to us! We can correct our actions and our thinking by His grace. As believers, we can calibrate again on Jesus, making the adjustments that His Holy Spirit reveals to us. Let’s get our hearts right so our actions will be right. Let’s make the following verse our prayer.

Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer.

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