Easter Without Hindsight: the Pharisees; No one likes a smart-arse and everyone hates one who’s right
Many Jews disliked the Sadducees. Many (especially the Pharisees) were horrified by what they saw as their acquiescence in Roman tyranny, their adoption of Hellenic and Roman culture and the apparent corruption within the Temple. Having understood that Jewish opinion was divided about many important things, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jeshua had a significant following among Jewish people. It was Pharisees who came to warn Jeshua when Herod Antipas decided he wanted him dead (Luke 13:31-35).
If the Sadducees claimed ‘Biblical’ authority for their priestly privileges, dating back to King Solomon and Tzadok, the Pharisees believed that they had similar authority for their interpretation of Jewish laws, especially their views on faithful Jewish lifestyles, i.e. how to practice torah day to day.
So when the Pharisees tested Jeshua they were looking to see if his interpretation of the Law of Moses matched their own. They were horrified, for instance, that Jeshua healed people on the Sabbath (e.g. John 9) as their interpretation of Mosaic Law generated strict rules about what one could and couldn’t do on such days.
The Pharisees and Jeshua probably agreed on much of the importance of the law and cared passionately about the right things being done properly. Many have seen Jeshua and the Pharisees as being quite close and the heated arguments between them were probably based in their different approaches to these common passions. It’s the sort of passion that leads to the joke about finding a rabbi school by following the sound of the shouting.
For example, John also reports an earlier incident (John 8:1-11) in which the Pharisees brought Jeshua a woman guilty of adultery. The law, they believed, demanded she be stoned so Jeshua was asked if he agreed with that. It was Jeshua’s endorsement of the law that they sought and, sure enough, Jeshua agrees that they are right. That is indeed what the written law demanded for her crime and presumably that of her co-adulterer.
The issue for the Pharisees was Jeshua’s views, not the administration of justice. Jeshua’s views, though, start from a more practical view of life. He didn’t argue that their reading of the law was wrong. His issue was how to live properly in an imperfect world, so he invites any Pharisee “without sin” by the legal standards they were demanding of the woman, to throw the first stone at her.
The Pharisees probably drifted away grumbling. Jeshua had made them measure their own lives by their own standards and, clearly, each realised they weren’t righteous enough to condemn anyone else, even an adulterer. Perhaps they were also genuinely unsure of the proper role mercy has alongside justice. Or maybe they were just grumpy that they had been made to look foolish. After all, no one likes a smart-arse and everybody hates one who is right.