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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37 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

    • Well… Alf that is really a myth 🙂 (I mean what you stated in your comment about pharisees and scribes). I invite you to broaden your knowledge with taking one of the courses on the Stories of Jewish Christ (New Testament series).

  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.

  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.

  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”.

  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.

  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.

  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.

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