Were there No Pharisees in Galilee to Debate with Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus
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At least a couple of well-known biblical scholars do give us reason to doubt the popular gospel image of Jesus bumping into Pharisees with every step he took in Galilee. They met him in the corn-fields, they argued with him in the synagogues, they were even found in houses with him. Jesus warned his Galilean followers to beware of them. They even plotted his death from Galilee.

Along with this image we are frequently told in scholarly tomes that Jesus and his disciples were devout Jews who followed the customs one reads about in later rabbinical literature, and that were said to be led by the religious leaders based in Jerusalem and Judea (south of Galilee). The assumption is usually made that the Old Testament writings (Jewish scriptures) were on the lips, fringes, doorposts and hearts of the generally devout Jews (such as Jesus’ disciples and closer followers) throughout not only Judea but also Galilee where Jesus preached.

So it is interesting to stop and consider the implications of the following scholarly claims that Pharisees were really quite a rare site in Galilee in the time of Jesus.

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician

. . . there is strong evidence that there were practically no Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime. A generation later, when the great Pharisee Yohanan ben Zakkai lived there for eighteen years, only two cases were brought to him for decision; he reportedly cursed the country for hating the Law – it was destined to servitude. Y. Shabbat XVL.8 (15d. end). The story may be a legend – the curse looks like a prophesy ex eventu of the results of the later revolt – but at least the legend shows that the Pharisees remembered Galilee before 70 as a land where they had few followers. More important is the evidence of Josephus; it is clear from his War II. 569-646, and even more from his Vita (28-406 and especially 197f.), that as late as 66 Pharisees might be respected in Galilee for their legal knowledge (through Josephus’ suggestion of this is suspect as part of his pro-Pharisaic propaganda), but they were certainly rare: the only ones Josephus encountered were sent from Jerusalem, and had been chosen to impress the Galileans by their rarity. Thus the synoptics’ picture of a Galilee swarming with Pharisees is a further anachronism. John at least avoided this, his Pharisees all appear in Jerusalem, and Jesus goes to Galilee to get out of their reach (4.1ff.) (p.157)


Finally, a further confirmation of our conclusion is to be found in the extreme poverty of the rabbinic tradition about Jesus . . . . The rabbis inherited the traditions of the Pharisees; among these traditions, it seems, there were none about Jesus. The lack can be explained in various ways, but the most natural and easiest explanation (and in view of the above evidence, the likeliest) is that few Pharisees encountered him and those few did not think their encounters memorable. (p.157)


The following extract was originally copied from a Jesus and the Pharisees website that no longer appears active:

Richard Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (1998) p. 182

The regional differences between Galilee and Jerusalem (and Judea) were rooted in many centuries of separate historical development prior to the Hasmonean takeover. Galilee was then under Jerusalem rule, presumably with exposure to the Torah of ‘laws of the Judeans’ and some sort of relations with the Temple, for only one hundred years before the death of Herod and the birth of Jesus. There is no literary or material evidence and little historical likelihood – given the political crises raging in Jerusalem, Palestine and the Roman empire during the first two thirds of the first century BCE – that over such a short period of time traditional Israelite culture and local customs in Galilee had become conformed to what may have been standard in Jerusalem or Judea. It is highly unlikely that the high priesthood or its scribal ‘retainers’ (including the Pharisees) would have been able to mount a program by which the Galileans could have been effectively ‘resocialized’ into habitual loyalty to the Temple and the Torah (or the ‘laws of the Judeans.)


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11 thoughts on “Were there No Pharisees in Galilee to Debate with Jesus?”

  1. I think why the absence of Pharisees in Galilee, along with the the possible lack of Galilean synagogues and the questionable habitation of Nazareth during Jesus’ lifetime is felt so keenly is because these areas are prime real estate where many HJ scholars look to build their their depictions of Jesus. Jews disagreeing with other other Jews about Torah is by no means historically unbelievable. As EP Sanders has shown, it was perfectly normal for first century Jews to argue the finer points of the Law (with, of course, not threatening the other person with destruction if they disagree).

    Take the above three (potential)things – no Pharisees, no synagogues, no Nazareth – into account, and it creates a massive unsightly gash in the gospel accounts; all we have is a cluster of clunking anachronisms instead of any reliable historical data. Perhaps this is why some scholars simply ignore these problems and hope that they might go away. Their possible factuality simply causes too many problems for the HJ quest.

  2. Purely by coincidence I’ve been reading Stemberger’s Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. A point he brings out that’s easy to gloss over is Matthew’s penchant for continually adding Pharisees to Mark’s narrative, as the ubiquitous bogeyman.

    For example, in Mark 12:28 it’s a scribe who asks Jesus to identify the greatest commandment. And after a bit of back and forth dialog, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” However, when Matthew tells the story, it’s a Pharisee, a lawyer, who asks. As Stemberger puts it, “the entire scene changes into one of hostility.” By the end of the exchange, nobody dares ask Jesus any further questions.

    Not only does Matthew pepper the landscape with Pharisees, but he often throws the Sadducees in with them, as if they were working in concert. Stemberger writes, “In general, the Pharisees are the regular, ever-present, principal enemies of Jesus. The are largely indistinguishable from the Sadducees.”

    It strikes me that Matthew’s tossing together of the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees shows that he’s writing many years after Mark. He uses them as cartoon enemies, exactly the way American Teabaggers lump fascists and communists together. They don’t have a clue about what those terms really mean; they just need a bad guy. For them, like Matthew, it’s all about giving the demon a dirty name. Actually understanding the terms would undermine the process.

  3. You have to admit, it makes the stories more interesting when Jesus has intellectual foils with whom to argue and illustrate theological points.

    Luke, at least, seems to know the sects well enough and uses them properly in his version.

      1. I am enjoying catching up some reading here.

        This conversation is most important to me as you address the exact problems I find in determining what to take as fact and what has been taken “on faith”.

        Anyway, this particular conversation brings up other questions. Like if Jesus was well known among the Jews, and had so much interaction with them, then why did Judas have to point him out to them for the 30 pieces of silver?

        I am so thankful for this blog. Now back to more catch-up reading.

        1. It’s one of those questions that probably hits most readers when they first hear the story. Why a need for Judas at all? Why not just have Jesus followed and taken one night from a house at Bethany, etc? One of the advantages of a good seminary education is that one can learn to lose sight of such questions and even scoff at them as being “hypersceptical” whenever they do arise.

          So many of the “historical problems” that arise from the gospels are, like the case of Judas, the result of overlooking their nature as entirely literary artifices from their inception.

  4. Interesting as Josephus was born in Jerusalem, the head of the Jewish forces in Galilee until surrendering to Vespasian, and trained as a Pharisee.

    What do you make of Luke 5:17, “One day He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.”?

  5. I read that passage in Luke first and foremost in the context of Luke’s broader narrative. Luke is telling readers how his Jesus witnessed to the whole of Israel — all of Judea and Galilee and the centre of them both, Jerusalem as representative of the whole.

    It is a fundamental error of method to read a narrative as if it is a window to events beyond the narrative unless we have sound rational arguments for doing so. (I know probably 90% of theologians read the gospels this way — as a window — but I’m not the only one saying they are flat wrong for doing so.) Luke is writing a story and it is as a story we must interpret its various parts. That we are habituated to reading the gospels as windows into past events is the result of our (or theologians) longing to find the “real Jesus” behind the gospels. They are read as ciphers for the historical Jesus instead of as the literature they are.

    Josephus was born 10 (or even 20 by some reckonings) years after the supposed death of Jesus and given his family status and responsibilities I don’t see his experience as typical of what Pharisees were generally doing.

  6. Neil, I think you have it correct about not only Luke but all the Gospels, they are not windows on history in the direct sense. But I do think they reflect history in a different way. The Gospels were a type of literature that can be compared to say the (Cowboy) Western movies. There is an excepted setting (the US West after the Civil War), and certain archetypal characters. The drama which ensues and the characters issues and their dialogue however is contemporary; any history represented is at bets coincidental, at worst complete nonsense. The Gospels are the same sort of work.

    With that concept in mind, and looking specifically at the Gospel of John (I have not applied the same logic yet to Luke) the Pharisees appear to represent proto-orthodox clergy of the 2nd century, while disciples represent followers of John’s Christ. What ensues is a debate over every aspect of Jesus’ identity. This is clear in verse 8:31 when Jesus says “If you continue in my doctrine (λόγῳ τῷ ἐμῷ), you are truly my disciples” when compared to verse 6:66 when many of the disciples fall away because they do not agree with his teaching/doctrine. The divisions in the rulers, priesthood (pharisees), and congregation (crowd) are a picture of the 2nd century church, but in the setting of the 1st century Palestine.

    Luke’s western gives a different view than John’s western, which is different than Matthew’s or Marcion’s. It is the type that became accepted as the setting for the Gospel genre. Each author presented his theology, and the collection we have is somewhat sanitized and Catholicized. These are literature not history books.

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