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Jesus the Pharisee : A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus – Harvey Falk

February 6, 2014

JTPChristians still need reminding that Jesus was a Jew but there are many books that do this now (E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, less helpful Hyam Macoby). However, this book, by a rabbi, was first written back in 1985 when there was little else that covered this area, so it was groundbreaking for its time.

The main idea is that Jesus’s criticism of the Pharisees mirrored an internal dispute between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel was in favour of mission to the gentiles, as was the early church (though seemingly not Jesus – and why did he criticise proseltysers?)

Some Christians criticise the ‘negative’ tone of Hillel’s version of the golden rule, not realising that he was paraphrasing the noahide law, which is itself framed in negative terms.

On corban: in the Talmud (Arakhin 28A) and more explicitly in the Tosefta, is that one should under no circumstances dedicate all his belongings to the Temple; but if he does so, it is a valid vow and the Temple has possession …. In the parallel passages in the Gospel of Mark (7:12), Je­sus adds “And you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother.” This is difficult to understand, as all the vower had to do was to appear before a rabbi or three laymen, express his regret, and he could be absolved of his vow. How­ever, since we have identified Bet Shammai as the target of Je­sus’ earlier criticism, we know that the Shammaites held that one could never be released from a vow made to the Temple (Nazir 9A). Thus, this son’s vow could never be annulled.

I am not sure about: “No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14), was surely addressed to Gentiles, to whom his mes­sage of salvation through the Noahide Laws was intended—and not to his fellow Jews. This was clearly his intent, since the chapter begins with his declaration, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”

To say that the New Testament isn’t guilty of the holocaust is countered by: A. Hitler, did not neglect to stress this point (Mein Kampf, Hough­ton Mifflin, pp. 422-423): “Of course, the latter (Jesus) made no secret of his disposition toward the Jewish people, and when necessary he even took to the whip in order to drive out of the Lord’s Temple this adversary of all humanity. . . .”

For Falks, this anti-semitism is mistaken since Jesus wasn’t criticizing all Jews, just the disciples of Shammai: Jesus……describes these Pharisees as “straining out gnats, and swallowing camels,” a clear reference to Bet Sham­mai, who were “sharper” (ibid.). (Anti-semites often speak of Jews as being shrewd and practicing casuistry. Is this their source?) Jesus further states concerning these Pharisees that “they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders,” again a clear reference to Bet Shammai, who almost always adopted a more stringent opinion than Bet Hillel.

I would have liked to see more parallels between the sayings of Jesus and those of other contemporary Pharisees but we do get: We might first refer to Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees (John 8:44): “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” This is echoed elsewhere, as, for example (Revelation 2:9, 3:9), “the synagogue of Satan.” This has led to much anti-semitism, as well as Church decrees against Jews. No one seems to have noticed that the first cen­tury C.E. Sage Dosa ben Harkinas, criticizing his brother Jon­athan for having ruled in accordance with Bet Shammai in an important case concerning levirate marriage, calls him “the first-born of Satan” (Yevamot 16A). In other words, the rab­bis of the first century C.E. were accustomed to refer to the Pharisees of Bet Shammai as descendants of, or followers of, the devil.’ A second example would be Jesus’ statement (Matthew 5:38) “You have heard the commandment ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth . . ” which has led the Church to criticize Jews as vengeful, cruel people. The Jewish community has protested for centuries that we interpret this passage as call­ing for monetary compensation, but to no avail; the Church insists it has a tradition whereby the Pharisees of Jesus’ time interpreted “an eye for an eye” literally. Here again, I have found no one pointing out that R. Eliezer is the only sage on record (Bava Kamma 84A) as ruling that “an eye for an eye” is to be interpreted literally, and R. Eliezer was known never to deviate from the teachings of Bet Shammai (Shabbat 130B and Niddah 7B).”

For more paralel sayings see –  scroll to about 3/4 down.

I was surprised to read this and it challenges my assertion that Jesus simply got some things wron, in this case a name: Jesus then accuses these Pharisees of murdering Zechar­iah ben Berechia (“whom you murdered . . .”) in the Temple. Julius Wellhausen and other scholars have connected this accusation with Josephus’ account of the murder of a righteous 1 man named Zechariah ben Berechia on the Temple grow by the Zealots (Wars 4:335).

“The Christian Bible tells us (John 11:49­51; 18:14) that the High Priest Caiaphas, who had convened the Sanhedrin to try Jesus, said to them, “It is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be de­stroyed.” This phrase is found virtually verbatim in one rab­binic source (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 94:9) in conjunction with a Halakhic ruling which was discussed some two hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion. We shall seek to dem­onstrate that this later case bears a direct relationship to Caia­phas’ remark and the resultant crucifixion. The Halakha under discussion there states (Tosefta. Terumot 7:23) that if a group of traveling Jews are suddenly confronted by Gentiles who demand that they hand over a Jew to them to be killed, or else they will all be murdered, they must all agree to die and not hand over one of their number_ However, if the Gentiles identify a specific Jew to be handed over, he should be given to them. It is then related (Jerusalem Talmud, Terumot, end ch. 8, and 94:9) that a certain Ulla bar Koshev­the rabbinic community—was once se Romans, and he sought protection a century C.E. Sage R. Joshua ben Levi Romans soon appeared in the town, large number of Jews if Ulla was nc The Jerusalem Talmud records that Ulla, convinced him to surrender, al the Romans. But the Midrash is more explicit and quotes Joshua as uttering basically the same words spoken  two  hundred years earlier by Caiaphas, “It is better that you should die than that the community ” should be punished because of you,” and R. Joshua then handed him over to the Romans.”

JTP origRe- handwashing: The passage in Luke is therefore telling us that Jesus upheld Bet Hillel’s ruling concerning the outside of the cup, and wished to wash later, before the bread. the Talmud further makes clear that Bet Shammai consid­’pred those following Bet Hillel’s ruling as eating with unclean hands (as the unclean cup could defile the hands), and this explains the accusation against the disciples.’

This website sees the whole book as a conspiracy by the Vatican and reckons that the author never existed!

His daughter wrote that Rabbi Falk died owing to injuries sustained from a car accident in May 2006.

There’s been a lot of comments on Amazon recently suggesting that:

The only problem from a Christian perspective is that Rabbi Falk ignores Jesus’ miracles, atoning crucifixion and resurrection from the dead.

the other major problem is that in trying to portray Jesus as a Hillelite Pharisee, Rabbi Falk implies that modern rabbinical Judaism, which is modeled on Hillel, should share in the credit for evangelizing to the pagan world. But I cannot accept this. Until this very day, Judaism refuses to interact with the non-Jewish world and instead huddles in spiritual cloisters shielding itself from the outside world.

Why should Judaism claim credit for the sacrificial evangelistic efforts of millions of Christians over the last 2000 years?

Another thing of great concern for many Christians is the Jewish community’s enthusiasm about rabbi Akiva, considered by many the founder of rabbinical Judaism post-70AD.

Akiva, besides being a great Talmudic scholar, was a leading agitator for rebellion against Rome.

The Talmud describes Akiva’s many trips to Rome to intercede for the Jewish remnant in Palestine. He received many favors and concessions from the Roman government.

However, years later, after Akiva anointed the false messiah Shimon Bar Kosiba and incited him to wage a ruinous war against Rome, Akiva became a marked man, designated as an enemy of Rome, a traitor, and a terrorist. This is the reason Rome arrested him and had him flayed alive.

I recall the Yom Kippur liturgy that commemorates the Ten Jewish Martyrs killed by Rome, Akiva perhaps the most prominent among them. Never are Orthodox Jews told the real reason for Akiva’s brutal execution and the subsequent Roman ban of most Jewish religious practices. Rather they are told that Rome hated Jews for no good reason, classic anti-Semitism, which of course is a preposterous lie!

Finally, Christians are concerned about the apparent role of Jewish rabbis, in favor with Rome, to castigate Christianity as a pagan un-Jewish faith. This led directly to the mass martyrdom of many early Christians after Rome withdrew from them the privilege enjoyed by Jews of not having to engage in Emperor worship.


1. Rabbi Falk provides a fabulous insight into the background of the acerbic controversy between Paul of Tarsus and the “Judaizers” he denounces in Galatians and in other letters. Falk suggests that this argument mirrors an earlier argument between Hillel and Shammai about whether Noahides [ie, righteous Gentiles] have a portion in the World to Come. Hillel took the liberal view that they do; while Shammai took the strict view that only by fully converting to halachic Judaism do Noahides inherit the World to Come. Falk conjectures that Paul, as a former student of Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel, held to the liberal view; while his Judaizing antagonists held to the view of Shammai, whose teachings were in ascendancy at that time in Jewish history.

2. Falk explains that the Talmud holds, based on Malachi 2:16, that Noahides are never permitted to divorce and that Jesus appears to hold this same view.

3. Falk suggests that all of Jesus’ hostile denunciations of Pharisees (eg, Matthew 23) refer to the Shammaites, who had supplanted the Hillelites shortly after Jesus appeared in the Temple as a youth. Falk suggests that Jesus’ warm feelings to the Hillelites never diminished.

4. Falk explains that the Hillelites were replaced in the Sanhedrin by the Shammaites, in a kind of coup detat. The Shammaites had extreme antipathy to Gentiles and were the spiritual inspiration behind the zealots waging a guerilla war against Rome.

5. After this coup detat, the Hillelites joined the Essenes, both of whom believed Jews had a special mission to wean the Gentiles off of paganism and to the Noahide Covenant.

6. Post-70 AD Judaism renounced the teachings of Shammai and enshrined Hillel as the main halachic authority.

7. Falk presents contemporary rabbinical views that greatly expand the Seven basic Noahide laws to more than 30, including love of God, study of his word, etc.

8. Some rabbis say that a Gentile may believe in a co-ruling deity, called Shittuf in Hebrew. Falk conjectures that Jesus Himself allowed this to save a Jewish life, as he claims that the only two examples where Jesus claims Divinity are in healing a blind man and in raising Lazarus from the dead. In Halacha a blind person is considered “dead”. This provides an opening for Jews to accept Trinitarian claims.


1. Despite all these wonderful attributes, there are some negatives in this book. The first and most obvious is that Rabbi Falk ignores the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. He also ignores the crucifixion and resurrection. He doesn’t denigrate or dispute these, just ignores them.

2. He also ignores Jesus’ claim that He was sent to the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel, as well as Paul’s words that the Gospel is for the Jew first and then the Greek. Falk might claim that Jesus and Paul’s intent was to persuade Jews to view Gentiles with mercy and to endeavor to teach them the Noahide Laws; however this doesn’t easily accord with the Gospel stories.

3. Falk seems to want to relabel Christianity as Noahidism, which entails many problems. Please see my blog article linked below for example: Noahide – No Hide and Nowhere to Hide

4. Falk would like Christians and Jews to have mutual respect. While this is a very admirable goal, it is hard to understand why Christians should respect Jews, who seemingly have abandoned their ancient call to serve as priests to the world to an alien faith (Christianity) for which they mostly have contempt. Why should Christians respect Jews, who remain largely cloistered behind their walls of traditional Halacha, while Christians do the difficult work of evangelizing the world? See this blog article for example:


5. Rabbi Falk claims that 1 Corinthians 7:17-20 proves that Paul intended that Jews never abandon halacha and rabbinical traditions. This is a very daring claim that would turn much Christian theology on its ear:

1 Corinthians 7:17-20 New International Version (NIV)

Concerning Change of Status

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

Finally, my personal speculation about why Rabbi Falk took this project to heart, knowing it would earn him much enmity from his Orthodox Jewish colleagues, is that his Hebrew name likely is Hillel and he is a direct descendant of the famous Orthodox Jewish scholar and commentator known as the Penei Yehoshua – The Face of Joshua. So perhaps Rabbi Falk felt these names alluded to his special task to change the legacy of Jesus (Joshua) of Nazareth by establishing the close relationship and deep respect between Him and the famous Hillel?!


“Jesus of Nazareth consistently upheld the views of the rabbis of the School of Hillel, and that all his criticism was directed at the School of Shammai and their followers.”

“there seems no question that the Hasid from Nazareth would have objected strenuously to Christian missionary activity among Jews”

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From → Biblical, Inter Faith

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