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.