Did Jesus Bully the Pharisees?

It’s Complicated

Moral teacher, guru, revolutionary, Jewish zealot, magician/sorcerer, political activist, “demon” (John 10:20) and spiritual healer are just a few of the bizarre and eclectic heretical Jesus’ that have been presented as reinterpretations of the biblical Christ. Most of these descriptions are not new, but have been levied against Christ since he turned water into wine. The mysterious, miraculous nature of the Incarnation, as simultaneous man and God, has confounded even history’s most devoutly religious men like the Pharisees. During the time of Christ, the Pharisees were among the first men to reject Christ’s divinity and offer alternate views of Christ’s ontology.

After Christ healed the demon possessed, blind, and mute man the Pharisees refused to believe that Christ had received his power from God the Father and said,

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons that this man casts out demons.” (Matthew 12:24 ESV)

The Pharisees like so many others throughout the centuries could not believe in Christ’s divinity. Thankfully, our faith may rest easy in the biblical Christ thanks to the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter and many others who all affirm the deity and sacrificial work of Christ.

Later when the teachings of the church became more codified, the doctrines of the Apostles were solidified into the heresy fighting Nicene and Apostles Creeds, which affirmed the divinity of Christ, as the son of God, and the work of Christ, as the sacrificial savior of the world. However, while scripture and creeds may protect the divinity and work of Christ, do they protect him from the charge of bully? Christ may be the only begotten son of God, but he may not have been above bullying in his tactics to spread the gospel.

Christ the Boxing Champ

Whenever Christ came into contact with the Pharisees his demeanor changed from Jesus Christ the friend of sinners, to Jesus Christ the heavy weight boxing champ. Christ in the ring with the Pharisees always left them babbling, bruised, and bewildered. A couple of classic bullying characteristics come to mind with Christs interactions with the Pharisees.

Name Calling:

Jesus was not above name calling, labeling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,”(Matthew 23:33) “hypocrites, blind guides,” (Matthew 23:13.16) and “unmarked graves,” (Luke 11:44). Based on these names Christ appeared to have a low tolerance for the Pharisee’s duplicity.

Public Humiliation:

Jesus was known to publicly condemn and shame the Pharisees while he was addressing large audiences. “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’” (Matthew 23:1-4)

Intolerant of Differences:

It’s true that Christ and the Pharisees never saw eye to eye, but at times it appeared that Christ never even listened to the Pharisees point of view. The Pharisees may have been hypocritical and vindictive, but many of them were earnestly trying to follow God’s law. Christ constantly came into conflict with Pharisees over their differences, and “condemned them for raising their traditions to the level of Scripture.”[i]

The Masters of None:

The Pharisee’s were the master theologians of their day, the academic and religious elite of Palestine, stalwart loyalists to Israel, political opponents of Rome, and defenders of the sacrificial system handed down by Moses. They were, as Paul identified himself, “the Hebrews of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). Yet, as we know from scripture these men are among Jesus’ worst enemies. They were the men out to ensnare, trick, and imprison Christ (Matthew 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-12, 10:2-9, Mark 12:13-17).


The most interesting fact about the Pharisees in relation to Christ, was that they “cultivated a strong hope in the coming of the Messiah, the Son of David, who would deliver them from foreign oppression.”[ii] Yet, when presented with Christ as the coming Messiah, they not only reject him, but plan to hand him over to the Romans to be put to death. The dramatic irony of the Pharisees was that their own self-righteousness led to their spiritual blindness. Their goal was to follow the Law of Moses in order to be ready for the coming Messiah, but their zealous legalism led them to reject the one who offered them true righteousness and forgiveness of sins.

In the eyes of Christ, the piety of the Pharisees could not make up for their self-righteous narcissism. The spiritual blindness of the Pharisees prevented them from seeing Christ’s divinity. However, even more condemning for the Pharisees in Christ’s eyes was their status as religious teachers and leaders in Israel.

A Fight Against Heresy

Seen in this light, Christ’s conduct with the Pharisees can be better understood as a fight against heresy. In fact, the Pharisee’s denial of the deity of Christ and their attempt at self-righteousness before the law can be traced backed to one of the oldest Christological heresies called Ebionism. Ebionism elevated human nature as capable of perfection.[iii]

The Ebionist claimed that Christ was not born God, but achieved a level of righteousness and goodness that allowed him to become the adopted son of God. The Pharisees, along a similar vein, believed that they could achieve righteousness before the law. Based on the depiction of the Pharisees in the New Testament, and Christ’s own words against them, it is clear that the Pharisees did not come close to achieving righteousness.

The heresy of the Pharisees was that they denied the divinity of Christ and therefor rejected Christ’s righteousness.

Christ may have called the Pharisees names, publicly called them out on false teaching, and completely ignored their point of view, but Christ was no bully. He was God incarnate, the Word made flesh, and the good Shepherd who protects his sheep from the wolves of heresy.

[i] Strauss, Mark L. Four portraits, one Jesus: an introduction to Jesus and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print. 133
[ii]  Strauss, Mark L. Four portraits, one Jesus: an introduction to Jesus and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print. 133
[iii] Allison, Christopher FitzSimons. The cruelty of heresy: an affirmation of Christian orthodoxy. Harrisburg, Pa: Morehouse Publishing, 2007. Print. Pg. 39

By Daniel Christiansen: I am a recent graduate from Grove City College, where I majored in Biblical and Religious Studies. I am pursuing my life calling to work full time in ministry. I love to write, whether the topic is on theology or creative writing, because when we write about life we discover something about our humanity and our identity as the Imago Dei. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin to get to know me better!

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