Jesus said to his followers: “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:20) In traditional reconstruction, the people who are referred to as “scribes and Pharisees” were among the holiest Jews. But was it really so?

First, most scribes were known for making alterations to the texts. Jesus even issued a warning to preserve the original words accurately as future scribes would copy the text: “if anyone adds to them… and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life…” (Rev. 22:18-19). Even though scribes were not considered in a negative light like the tax collectors, their level of righteousness was not considered to be high by many.

Second, the Pharisees too were not considered as most righteous of all Jews at least by some. Most notably by Essenes whose writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, in part preserves. Essenes believed that the Pharisees sold out Jerusalem to the Greeks and conspired with enemies of God to compromise the holiness of its Temple. To make their views clear, they called the Pharisees “the seekers of after smooth-things” (דורשי החלקות) instead of their own preferred name “the seekers of the (God’s) paths” (דורשי ההלכות). In short, these Jews (Essenes) did not think much of Pharisaic righteousness also (4Q169).

In the light of these examples, we should conclude that Jesus’ words should be taken literally – the righteousness level of scribes and of Pharisees was not enough to enter God’s Kingdom. Much more was needed.

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54 COMMENTS

  1. Daily life would also give Yeshua`s words merit in truth. In my country politicians especially high ranking would appear to be in a similar boat to the scribes and Pharisees. As they do in many Countries deceive and lie and continue to call it diplomacy or politics on behalf of the electorate. This attitude and their strategies continues the process, and projects the actions outside of politics, to others, believing it to be acceptable. No matter whether in politics, business, health care, or education. Yeshua suggests God is offended by these acts, and so we should not follow such acts.

      • Hi (18)

        The significance of this is the recognition of Jews considering the scribes and Pharisees to be the most religious.

        But the scribes and Pharisees only had outward show of self righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:5). Jesus is comparing the inward man, The inner attitude desired by God.

        Galatians 5:22,23

        Love,
        Grace

      • You could also read that to mean that no man is righteous before God. Mankind can only in the kingdom of God through Yeshua.

  2. #1) The record stated in the Babylonian Talmud itself, 6 out of 7 Pharisees were hypocrites. The Talmud goes on to enumerate different kinds of hypocrites. However, the Talmud [Sotah 22] also has an interesting statement by King Yannai, which says, ‘Do not be afraid of the Pharisees, or from those who are not Pharisees. Rather, fear only the pretenders, who look like Pharisees, for their actions are like the action of Zimri, and they seek reward like Pinchas.’ #2) The Sadducees, in general, not the Pharisees, in general, were the ‘Friends of Rome’, and the sellouts, historically.

  3. #3) Yeshua blasts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. At the same time, he says that they sit in ‘Moses’ seat’, All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.’ [Matthew 23] This likewise accords with the context of the passage quoted for your article, that whoever does and teaches “the least of the commandments” is great in heaven. Likewise in James [Jacob’s] letter this is emphasized. Likewise, we see Yeshua answer a man who asks about entering the kingdom by saying, keep the commandments.

  4. Yes, we should all strive to keep the commandments. There are some today who claim to be Ministers of God who are like the scribes and pharisees. Some are more interested in collecting money than keeping the commandments. Shalom

  5. Rev. 22:18-19 has nothing to do with changing the Bible but the book of Revelation itself(the book of this prophecy aka Revelation).

    Although we should never add to take away anything in the Bible this is not what those verses meant.

    • Yes, correct I beleive also…But the scripture is correct when Jesus talked about not a jot or tittle taken away I beleive refers to all the scriptures.

    • Shalom, Loyce. Not most (but many), alterations were usually meant to explain or clarify something they were sure about. Please, find and read Chicago Statement on Biblical innerrency. I think it brings and important balance.

      • Loyce is quoting the first sentence of the second paragraph of the article: “First, most scribes were known for making alterations to the texts.”

        • I got that, but I was talking about their alterations…many, but not most, alterations were meant for clarification. That does not detract from the reliability of the text. The inadvertent alterations are also not too problematic because of the science of textual criticism wherein we can compare extant manuscripts and restore mistakes to their original state.

          • Ah, I see the noun-shift now and understand your point. Thanks. Article X of the CSBI seems to sum up the balance sought in the document. Loyce question is legitimate, though, if most scribes made alterations, and most alterations were for purposes other than clarification/explanation/correction. Uncomfortable/necessary implication: 25+% is questionable!

          • Well, “most” alterations were unintentional (skipping a word or words by accident, mishearing or misunderstanding a word, misspellings or word order). The intentional alterations were meant for clarification.

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  6. The Scribes and Pharisees in Christian thought are generally regarded as low life scum pretending to be holy. However if they were really that bad as the stereotype portrays, then Jesus is really setting the bar low. Thus if the Scribes and Pharisees were low life scum what is the point as saying unless your Tzedkah surpasses theirs? By the common Christian definition almost everyone’s Tzedkah would far surpass those lowly scum. Is it possible they were not the low life scum as they are often portrayed as?

  7. I can see that the words of wisdom have come so far yet, the translations of the word are such that, they have become sparse. This was the word that was taken in context . I can overcome the boredom but, the translation is wrong. I can reiterate in saying.. I was not the maker of tales

  8. Y’Shua reminds them that not even a “Yod” (the smallest letter in the Alef – Bet) could be added nor omitted.

    Revelations speaks of the plagues that Wii be brought on as a result.

    Be Blessed

  9. Thank you Dr Ely for another interesting work. I would like to add that their is no mention of the Pharisees in the O/T. They were not authorised by God through Moses but came into being at the time of Antiochus. As our Lord said their religion was outward show but God sees the heart. It is true to say that they were hypocrites who used their position to spiritually oppress the people. Our Lord exposed their hypocrisy as clean outside while the inside is full of filth. Again thank you Dr for stimulating thought.

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    • Don’t condemn all Pharisees. Nicodemus, a Pharisee,met with Jesus John3:121 Defended Jesus7:50-51 and Joseph of Arimathea A member of the Council Mark15:43 John 19:38 Waited For the kingdom Who buried Jesus’s body And the scribe Mark12:28-34. Obviously some Pharisees were willing to listen to Jesus and be His followers

      • Additionally, Paul was a Pharisee, definitely an advocate of the faith, and so was Gamaliel (his teacher) who wisely dispelled the Sanhedrin’s consternation of the disciples in Acts.

  10. Dear Sir:
    The scribal traditions followed in copying the scriptures were well known to be meticulous, so the scribes had intimate knowledge of scripture and therefore saw themselves in a righteous light. The “lesser mortals” around them could not argue points of the law with them. Likewise, the ritual practices and clothing etc of the Pharisees was socially beyond reproach. But Jesus looked at the heart. What Jesus was really saying was that only the ruighteousness of Christ Himself freely given to uscwas ever going to suffice before a Holy God.

  11. Seems to me Jesus is pointing to our need of a Saviour. He is the only one with the righteousness to enter the Kingdom. we only obtain it by the faith he gives us. It is not by the works of the Law (as it only leads to death) but by faith on him.

  12. “Righteousness” in Matt 5:20 refers to the indwelling Christ lived out of us as our righteousness. This surpassing righteousness can be produced only by the resurrection life of Christ. Both in nature and in standard, the righteousness of life far surpasses the lifeless righteousness practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. The righteousness of Jesus lived out of us fulfills the requirements of the Torah.

    • Hi Bill, and thanks for joining the discussion. I agree that the Hebrew Bible offers many passages about the spirit of hypocritical pharisaism (some of which Yeshua cited), but technically the group called Pharisees itself did not exist during Ezekiel’s day.

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  13. How can you say that? Jesus jeot calling thecscribes and pharisees hypocrites and serpents. They killed an innocent man and lied about why he died. Sacrifice is a lie. God hated it. Isaiah 1:11-15, Matthew 3:6-7, Matthew 23:33-38. Jesus did not come to sacrifice, he taught repentance and reinstated the commandments of God. Matthew 9:13, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 19:17-27. It is not impossible to obey God’s commandments. Zechariah and Elizabeth obeyed them and their son was a miraculous birth. John the Baptist. was born with the spirit in him. He was from the family of Aaron. Luke 1:5-18.

    • HUMAN sacrifice is a lie, sacrifice was not. Self sacrifice, as someone throwing themselves on a grenade to save others is not a lie/not wrong either. Yeshua (metaphorically) threw Himself on a grenade so others might live. He was not sacrificed on the altar, He went willingly to be hung on a cross/execution stake for us.

  14. The scriptures are written in the hearts of the believer. Even if all bibles were burnt, the truth would still prevail. The holy Spirit residing in the heart of believer brings them to remembrance of the Holy scriptures or simply Holy living summed up in one law called LOVE.( Agapao not phileo)

  15. If Jesus should appear today is most probable he will make the same comment but in place of scribes and pharisees it will be our so called men of God especially in African and America.

  16. Very interesting. The Essenes are the likely writers of the Dead Sea Scroll I agree, but this is still a matter of debate, is it not? The Qumran may have been a scrollery or a retreat for wealthy Israelites. It may have been a bath or a priestly purification center. Source: Hershel Shanks, “Understanding The Dead Sea Scrolls”.

    • There is a majority scholarly consensus, but yes there are still dissenting opinions on the matter. But in this article, I am addressing the content of the DSS, not the identity of the authors.

  17. I don’t think it is right to condemn the Pharisees as a whole as hypocrites they came out of exile with the aim of promoting observance of the covenant they were zealous for the law and in teaching faithfulness to God. Paul was a Pharisee was he a hypocrite? Did not his background give him a massive advantage when he came to Jesus? Was Nicodemus a hypocrite? The Gospel writers suggest there were other Pharisees who became followers of Jesus. The Pharisees had their issues so do most ‘religious groups’ today.

    • Of course there were truly pious Pharisees. But a large majority of them (as attested both by the Essene’s writings and by the Talmud) were hypocritical, more interested in the prestige of being a Pharisee than they were in the zeal of God’s Law. Did Jesus’ audience have only those righteous Pharisees in mind when he gave this teaching? I’m not so sure.

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  18. This reminds me of the warning of Yeshua to ‘beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (Matthew 16:6). The link between leaven and impurity is clear in Rabbi Shaul’s teaching on personal and corporate holiness: ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (1 Cor.5:6-8). (He also uses this principle to warn against the congregations in that region teaching that Gentile believers should be circumcised (Gal.5:1-6).) Here are stark lessons for us today!

    As a Gentile grafted in to the olive tree, I thank you for your insights into our Jewish roots.

    • In regards to leaven, is it always referring to something sinful, like hypocrisy? What about Matthew 13, the kingdom is like a Woman who hides leaven in three pecks of meal? Should we read this parable as hypocrisy entering and spreading through the kingdom fellowship ( I see the three pecks as referring back to Abraham’s heavenly visitors who are given a meal) or do we see it simply as the miraculous nature of kingdom growth, the tiny growing into something that feeds and shelters, if read together with the previous parable of the ,mustard seed sheltering birds of the air. Are these parables double edged?

  19. Amazing! I had no proof or belief that God existed, yet I entered the kingdom of heaven (saved). How was that possible? “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” seems like a description of repentance. I can’t use the word belief here because it is connected to actions (Ten Commandants). The righteousness the surpassed all was God’s goodness (connection to the law). This is what lead me to repentance. (Romans 2:4) Thanks for the history and context lesson.

    • Incidentally, the word “belief” is translated by the word Emunah. But this is equally translated “faithfulness” which is consistently loyal obedience. So yes, belief is indeed connected to actions, actually. Faith is what leads to and is evidenced by good works.

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Story of Our Hebrew Fathers: Abraham and Isaac and Leviticus and The New Testament. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

      • Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg et all James chapter 2 answered that Faith without works is dead We Have works because we have faith and our faith leads us to do good works not to be saved but because we are saved God’s love in action Flows From Him to us and out to the world

  20. dedication and devotion can be misdirected or mis applied, but that does not mean the attributes themselves or the impulse towards them is all bad

  21. The English word ‘hypocrite” is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘actor’: i.e., invididuals who are engaged in (for) SHOW business- in contrast to those who live authentic lives. Thus, in 2lst century idiom, when Jesus castigates his opponents as ‘hypocrites’ he is deriding them as REALITY TV celebrities!

  22. Another way to look at it, based on other scriptures, is that the rightessnous on man, even those considered to be holy, is NOT enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you need the righteousness of God, only found in Jesus, the Messiah, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. One must receive Him and be ‘born again’ in righteousnous to a Holy God.

  23. Those in the Old Covenant were considered righteous for believing in ‘The One’ who WAS to come. Those in the New Covenant are considered righteous for believing in ‘The One’ who HAS come.

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