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How Were the Pharisees Legalistic?

Stephen Davey

In many ways, the Pharisees were the worst people in the world. They were cold and legalistic. At the same time, the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. They were the holy men who kept the law; they pursued purity with a passion and wanted nothing more than to live lives that pleased God. They were sincere, albeit sincerely misguided.

There were never any more than six thousand Pharisees in the country. They were known as the “chaburah,” or “the brotherhood.” They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge, in front of three witnesses, that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.

That was the problem! The scribes had created the Mishnah, the writings that codified scribal law. Then there was the Talmud, which is the commentary on the Mishnah. I have read of a Rabbi who spent nearly three years studying one chapter from the Mishnah.

A perfect illustration is seen in the simple Sabbath law. The Bible clearly told the Israelite, “Do not work, do not bear burdens, but rest and keep it a holy day.”

Well, work had to be defined; carrying burdens had to be defined. For example, one could

  • get milk enough for one swallow, and
  • carry a spoon weighing no more than one fig.

It was the scribes and Pharisees who were embroiled over the discussion as to whether or not, on the Sabbath, a woman could wear a brooch, a mother could pick up her child, or a man could wear his wooden leg. These were burdens.

Taken from "Reborn - The Declaration (John 3:1-15)" by Wisdom for the Heart Ministries (used by permission).

Originally published July 27, 2010.

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