I made this list awhile back and hoped to return to it. Over a year later here I am. Here are 7 ways that the Pharisees seemed to interpret the Bible.
1. Make the text about something other than Jesus. In John 5:39 Jesus accused the Pharisees of searching the Scriptures to find eternal life but failing to see Jesus in them. Reading the Old Testament (or the New) to find something other than Jesus is to misread their intention.
2. Force the text to fit into your pre-made theological mold. In Mark 2:18-28 Jesus faces the hot button issues of his contemporary Judaism; namely, fasting and the Sabbath. They had a pre-conceived idea of who the Messiah was going to be. They expected him to fit their mold. By using an illustration of new wine and old wineskins Jesus teaches them that He doesn’t fit into a pre-made mold. He must speak for Himself. The same is true of the inspired Scriptures.
3. Do not bother to consider whether your implications and applications have an organic relationship with the text. In Matthew 7 the Pharisees are bent out of shape because the disciples were eating with “defiled” hands. This Mark tells us was because they were following the tradition of the elders. They are trying to convict Jesus of breaking the Mosaic Law but he isn’t. He’s breaking their implications and applications of the Mosaic Law. Application which obviously did not have an organic relationship with the text. Our implications and application of the Scripture ought to have an organic relationship to the meaning of the text.
4. Exalt the literal (wooden) over the literary (story). You see this one whenever the Pharisees laugh at Jesus saying he is going to tear down the temple. And when Nicodemus scoffs at a man entering into the womb a second time. Both of these were Old Testament themes that should have been picked up if they were reading it like a story. But instead they continued to read things in a literal and wooden fashion. Not that we don’t take the Scriptures literally. Nor should we engage in some sort of wild allegorical interpretation. But the overall story ought to drive our literal reading.
5. By all means bypass the heart. This is perhaps the most common critique of the Pharisees. In Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 center on the heart. It is clear that when the Pharisees read the Scriptures they were looking for an outward way of living and did not address the heart. Jesus helps us to see that what really matters is the heart. And our hearts are far more wicked than the religious might outwardly display. To get to the heart will show our desperate need for Christ in every sphere of life.
6. Get caught up in speculation, making the Bible about answering your questions. The fact that the Pharisees had lengthy books arguing about things so tedious that it’d make those how-many-angels-dancing-on-a-pin guys chuckle a bit. We see this even in the gospel accounts when they frequently come up to Jesus asking questions about speculation.
7. Read yourself wrongly into the text. Example: Rather than seeing yourself like Cain, interpret the text as if you are Abel. You can see this evidenced in the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is the winner. When he reads himself into a text he’s the hero. They are the guys that wouldn’t have shed the blood of the prophets (Mt. 23) yet they are partially responsible for slaying the son of God.
Now, that’s how the Pharisees did it. Do you see yourself in their interpretive methods? I know I can see myself there. Let us search the Scriptures with the hopes that they’ll point us to Christ and stir up our hearts to worship. Above all may we be more concerned with being mastered by the Word Himself instead of our own mastery of the word of God.