Among the People and With the Pharisees
The sketch that was given in #25 will be of very practical use to help to fully realize the contrast presented between the dress and manners of ordinary people and the Pharisees.
It didn’t matter if a Pharisee was of a severe, meek, or earnest temperament, he carefully avoided all contact with one who was not of the fraternity. He even avoided contact with another Pharisee that was of a lower rank or degree than he was.
Each one was recognizable by the extravagant dress that they wore. In the language of Jesus, they “made broad their phylacteries” and “enlarged the borders of their garments.” The wearing of memorial fringes on the borders of their garments was a Divine ordinance, but everything else was just for show. God had prescribed these fringes to be blue, which was the symbolic color of the covenant that God first made with the Israelites. They are also frequently referred to in the New Testament, and were worn on the border of the outer garment – probably by every pious Israelite.
This practice of the fringed borders started to be somehow bound up with Jewish mysticism in later New Testament times. Somehow it was said that the Shechinah enwrapped itself in creation, and taught that if they looked at it and remembered, it was as much as if they had seen the throne of the Glory, which was like unto blue. All those who believed this would cover their heads as they prayed with this mysterious fringed garment. Paul protested against this practice strongly and told them that they were dishonoring God by doing such things.
The observance of wearing phylacteries arose from a literal interpretation of Exodus 13:9. The term used by the Rabbis for phylacteries is “tephillin”, or prayer-fillets. It is of comparatively modern origin in the fact that it does not occur in the Hebrew Old Testament. The Samaritans did not consider them to be something that was handed down from the time of Moses, and also some of the other sects of Jews did not consider them to be something that must be done. From the historical writings of the time of Christ, it seems that phylacteries were not universally worn, and were not even worn by the priests who officiated in the Temple.
The ordinary Israelites would only put them on at prayer time or solemn occasions, while the Pharisees wore them all day long. This practice was so common among them, that we will give below a description.
The “tephillin” were worn on the left arm, towards the heart, and also on the forehead. To give a rough description of them, they consisted of capsules that contained four different pieces of parchment inside with a passage of Scripture in each. The four Scriptures were: Exodus 13: 1 – 10; 13: 11-16; Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; and 11: 13-21. The capsules were fastened on by black leather straps, which were wound around the arm seven times and wound three times around the hand. If they chose the forehead, they had specific instructions on how they must be attached and worn.
One who wore these all the time would surely be recognized as a Pharisee, for they were extremely valuable in their eyes. They were reverenced just as highly as the Holy Scriptures themselves. It was said that Moses had received the law of their observance from God on Mount Sinai; that the “tephillin” were more sacred than the golden plate on the forehead of the high-priest, since its inscription embodied only once the sacred name of Jehovah while the writing inside the “tephillin” contained the name of Jehovah no less than 23 times; that the command of wearing them equaled all other commands put together, with many other similar extravagances. The Rabbis went way too far in these beliefs, because they believed that God Himself wore phylacteries. They had taken many of the Scriptures and turned them around to suit their purposes. In fact, they had sensationalized many of these things to monstrous proportions. They took just bits and pieces of the Scriptures to make up their own teachings.
This was a time when real truth was masked by their made-up system. If a person tried to confront them and objected to their teachings, they would try to make them look foolish by saying that the person was trying to exalt himself above the teaching of the Scriptures. This brings us straight to the charge of Jesus against the Pharisees in Mark 7: 13. He told them that they had made “the Word of God of none effect” through all their traditions and teachings.
Writings in the Mishnah confirm the beliefs of the Rabbis. It was written that “It is more punishable to act against the words of the Scribes than against those of Scripture. If a man were to say, ‘There is no such things as “tephillin,” in order thereby to act contrary to the words of Scriptures, he is not to be treated as a rebel. But if he should say, ‘There are five divisions in the prayer-fillets instead of four in those for the forehead, in order to add to the words of the Scribes, he is guilty.”
The meaning of the Greek term “phylacteries” is now generally admitted as being equivalent to amulets or charms. The Rabbis said that they wanted nothing to do with any heathen views, but they treated these little boxes as almost like idols with their own powers. The Talmud also talks about many of their heathen superstitions, such as where to find, how to detect, and by what means to get rid of evil spirits, or how to conjure up demons.
Because of the state of civilization at this time, there was much tolerance and prevalence of superstition and magical works. They seemed to teach one thing about the Divine God, but by their actions there was a terrible contrast in what they taught in New Testament times compared with what God had told Moses to do.
There are many instances of magic that could be attached to these “amulets”, but the following is just one example. It is said that when a certain Rabbi left the audience of a king, he had turned his back upon the monarch. If anybody else had done that, the kind would have had him killed, but he held off because he saw that the straps of his “tephillin” shone like bands of fire about him. It is expressly stated in the Jewish Targum that the “tephillin” prevented all hostile demons from doing injury to any Israelite.
What has been said above will help you to understand the powerful influence of the Pharisees at the time of Christ. Patriotism and religion were equally combined to give them their great influence. The Pharisee element was the great factor that made Palestine a land separate and distinct from the other heathen nations around them. Their origin as a party stretched back to the great national struggle which had freed the soil of Palestine from Syrian domination.
The Pharisees had deserted those Maccabees to whom they had formerly supported, and threatened persecution and death when the descendants of the Maccabees declined into worldliness and Grecian ways. They wanted to combine the royal crown of David with the high-priest’s mitre. No matter how much they feared Herod or his family, though, they at least would not compromise their principles on this matter.
They truly felt that if they had made a “hedge” around the law that it was only for the good and safety of Israel. They wanted them to be separated from everything that was impure, as well as the Gentiles. They themselves were bound by vows and obligations that were extremely strict. They had a certain way that they dealt with the world outside of their fraternity, their occupations, their practices, their bearing, their very dress and appearance set them far apart from all the other people. These very things would gain for them the distinction of uppermost rooms at feasts, the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets. But the greatest honor they sought was to be called Rabbi by other men. This made them so proud of their achievements.
In some degree, though, they did represent an earnestness and religious zeal for their land. Their name was not chosen by themselves, but just became a byword and then a party title. They had even become above being just a scribe, or lawyer, or teacher of the law. They had become a fraternity which consisted of various degrees, where novices were regularly taken in and trained in their ways. They were also bound by special vows and obligations.
Their fraternity was so hereditary that Paul spoke of himself as “a Pharisee of the Pharisees”. There principles became dominant and they gave distinctiveness to the teaching and practices of the synagogue. The most tremendous influence that they exerted, though, might have been overlooked because of their relative small numbers. At the time of Herod, their fraternity had only 6,000 members. Yet this relatively small number of people exerted great influence among the thousands of Israelites and their terrible evil gave a final direction to the nation. The influence of their movement must have reached down to the very heart of Jewish religious life.