The Woes of the Pharisees is a list of criticisms by Jesus against Scribes and Pharisees and Lawyers that is present in the Gospel of Luke 11:37-54 and Gospel of Matthew 23:1-36. Seven are listed in Matthew, and hence Matthew's version is known as the seven woes, while only six are given in Luke, whose version is thus known as the six woes. They do not occur in the same point of the narrative, in Matthew they occur shortly before Jesus returns to Jerusalem for his last few days before being crucified, while in Luke they occur shortly after the Lord's prayer is given and the disciples are first sent out over the land. Since they occur in Luke and Matthew but not the Gospel of Mark, and in different positions of the narrative, they are considered likely to derive from an earlier source known as the Q document. The woes mostly criticise the Pharisees for hypocrisy and perjury. Before introducing the woes themselves, Matthew states that Jesus criticised them for taking the place of honour at banquets, for wearing ostentatious clothing, for encouraging people to call them Rabbi.
Many New Testament passages criticise the Pharisees and it has been argued that these passages have shaped the way that Christians viewed Jews. Like most Bible passages, however, they can and have been interpreted in a variety of ways.
During Jesus's life and at the time of his execution, the Pharisees were only one of several Jewish groups such as the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes; indeed, some have suggested that Jesus was himself a Pharisee. Arguments by Jesus and his disciples against the Pharisees and what he saw as their hypocrisy were most likely examples of disputes among Jews and internal to Judaism that were common at the time. (Lutheran Pastor John Stendahl has pointed out that "Christianity begins as a kind of Judaism, and we must recognize that words spoken in a family conflict are inappropriately appropriated by those outside the family.")
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE the Pharisees emerged as the principal form of Judaism (also called "Rabbinic Judaism"). All major modern Jewish movements consider themselves descendants of Pharasaic Judaism; as such, Jews are especially sensitive to criticisms of "Pharisees" as a group.
At the same time that the Pharisees came to represent Judaism as a whole, Christianity came to seek, and attract, more non-Jewish converts than Jewish converts. Within a hundred years or so the majority of Christians were non-Jews without any significant knowledge of Judaism, although until about 1000 there was an active Jewish component of Christianity, see also Jewish Christianity. Many of these Christians often read these passages not as internal debates among Jews but as the basis for a Christian rejection of Judaism.
Moreover, it was only during the Rabbinic era that Christianity would compete exclusively with Pharisees for converts and over how to interpret the Hebrew Bible (during Jesus's lifetime, the Sadducees were the dominant Jewish faction).
Some have also suggested that the Greek word Ioudaioi could also be translated "Judeans", meaning in some cases specifically the Jews from Judea, as opposed to Jews or non-Jews from Galilee or Samaria for instance.
The woes themselves are all woes of hypocrisy:
- Hypocrisy: They taught about God but did not love God - they did not enter the kingdom of heaven themselves, nor did they let others enter. (Mat. 23:13-14)
- Hypocrisy: They preached God but converted people to dead religion, thus making those converts twice as much 'sons of hell' as they themselves were. (Mat. 23:15)
- Hypocrisy: They taught that an oath sworn by the temple or altar was not binding, but that if sworn by the gold ornamentation of the temple, or by a sacrificial gift on the altar, it was binding. The gold and gifts, however, were not sacred in themselves as the temple and altar were, but derived a measure of lesser sacredness by being connected to the temple or altar. The teachers and Pharisees worshipped at the temple and offered sacrifices at the altar because they knew that the temple and altar were sacred. How then could they deny oath-binding value to what was truly sacred and accord it to objects of trivial and derived sacredness? (Mat. 23:16-22)
- Hypocrisy: They taught the law but did not practise some of the most important parts of the law - justice, mercy, faithfulness to God. They obeyed the minutiae of the law such as titheing spices but not the real meat of the law. (Mat. 23:23-24)
- Hypocrisy: They presented an appearance of being 'clean' (self-restrained, not involved in carnal matters), yet they were dirty inside: they seethed with hidden worldly desires, carnality. They were full of greed and self-indulgence. (Mat. 23:25-26)
- Hypocrisy - They exhibited themselves as righteous on account of being scrupulous keepers of the law, but were in fact not righteous: their mask of righteousness hid a secret inner world of ungodly thoughts and feelings. They were full of wickedness. They were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men's bones. (Mat. 23:27-28)
- Hypocrisy: They professed a high regard for the dead prophets of old, and claimed that they would never have persecuted and murdered prophets, when in fact they were cut from the same cloth as the persecutors and murderers: they too had murderous blood in their veins. (Mat. 23:29-36)
The gospel writer of Matthew precedes the woes with a discussion of the Great Commandment (or two greatest commandments, see also Ministry of Jesus:General Ethics). The woes can be seen as the consequence of violating these commandments, and of neglecting them in favour of the minor observances of the law, see also 613 Mitzvot. Jesus is portrayed as impatient with outward, ritual observance of minutiae which made some of his critics look acceptable and virtuous outwardly but left the inner person unreformed. This type of religious behaviour neglected to help those in need--"They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shouders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. See also Letter and spirit of the law.
- Funk, Robert W. et al. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993. ISBN 0-02-541949-8, p. 238
- Robert J. Miller, ed. Complete Gospels, 1992, page 193, The Judeans