The Yeast of the Pharisees and Herod

“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (Mk. 8.15 NIV)

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Mt. 16.6 NIV)

Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Mt.16.12 NIV)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. (Lk. 12.1b NIV)

Recently, in a discussion with another Christian, he insisted that leaven is sometimes portrayed positively in the bible. I was talking to him and explaining how the nominal church is a spiritual mixture according to the “mystery of the Kingdom” parables in Mt. 13. He seemed to think that the leavened dough can express a positive influence that the church exerts upon society. I didn’t try to disabuse him of his beliefs at the time but thought about it later concluding that nowhere in the bible is the metaphor of leaven ever commended.


The Herodians probably belonged to the Sadducee Party since Herod appointed the High Priest of the Jews during the 1st century BCE and thus would have people loyal to him from this group. The Sadducees were the politicos of the Jewish nation, aristocratic and generally very wealthy. They were the collectors of taxes and controlled the concessions in the temple which sold the animals deemed “acceptable” for sacrifice. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection or an afterlife. They believed in free will and that rewards of fidelity to God were evident in tangible personal wealth. As far as authoritative textual adherence, they didn’t accept the Writings or Prophets but only the Torah as interpreted by the Jewish Scribes (Teachers of the Law). Jesus used their ‘basis of authority’ when He selectively used the Torah to defend the resurrection of the dead (see Mt. 22.23-33, Mk. 12. 18-27). Also, the Essenes (producers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) were probably a splinter group who broke off from the Sadducees and opposed them bitterly.


The Pharisees, on the other hand, were usually theologically opposed to the Sadducees, who, with them, made up the Sanhedrin, the Second Temple ruling council. They were punctilious observers of rules which were sometimes only traditions they had devised. They practiced strict separatism from whatever they deemed unholy or defiling. Jesus, in His first phase of ministry, was admired and accepted by them due to the compatibility of their general biblical viewpoints. The Pharisees held to a sort of religious democracy of all Jewish men and made much of the Synagogue as an institution. The Pharisees and Sadducees differed in theological views as seen by Acts 23.8: The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things. (NIV)

Scribes (Teachers of the Law)

The Teachers of the Law or Scribes (grammateis) were probably closely connected with the priests and Levites since they were the ones charged with keeping the texts of scripture (Dt. 17.18). These were a very literate and highly trained group of textual copyists and experts, probably cloistered somewhere in the 2nd Temple precincts or another secure building where scrolls could be safely stored. Also, Jesus used this same term in a positive manner describing New Covenant scholars: He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law [grammateus] who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Mt. 13.52 NIV).

The Diverse Groups Formed a Loose Confederation

Though these groups held varying religious viewpoints, it did not prevent them in joining together against mutual adversaries, especially Jesus who castigated their hypocrisy. Since the Herodians were aligned with the Sadducees, there exists no real contradiction between Matthew’s and Mark’s account (see featured scriptures above).

Though Jesus castigates them, this doesn’t mean that all members of these groups were opposed to Him. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, according to all the Gospels, buried the crucified Jesus. Another member of this council, Nicodemus, also probably became a Jesus follower. Later, in the Early Church era, many of the priests probably saw, in Jesus, the ultimate fulfillment of the sacrifices and High Priesthood: The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly. A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6.7 WEB). Also, the Apostle Paul claimed he was still a Pharisee after many years of Christian missionary work (Acts 23.6).

Metaphorical Yeast: Teaching or Hypocrisy?

These groups’ teaching probably made them self-righteous and thus caused them to be hypocritical. Neither did they practice what they preached (see below). The Jewish Synagogue featured a centrally located bench (Moses’ Seat) where the teacher sat during the service. It seems, for the most part, that the Scribes and Pharisees generally controlled the synagogue: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Mt. 23.2-3 NIV). Also, Jesus, during the initial stages of His ministry, taught the people in His local synagogue: He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him (Lk. 4.16-17a NIV).

Another aspect that revealed their hypocrisy was wanting to receive human praise: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others” (Mt. 23.5-7 NIV).

Everyone knows that yeast (probably a type of sourdough starter in the bible) causes bread to rise and thus gives a clue what the figure implies. Some commentators see the reference as a teaching that spreads, while others view it as a personal type of pride in the hypocrite. I tend to think of the figure referring to the hypocrite as being puffed up without denying that hypocrisy could rub off on others who followed their example. Generally though, in Jesus’ usage, it probably describes the legalistic performance pride of the groups He addresses.

These Jews’ linage as Sons of Abraham (who they were) or their keeping of regulations (what they did) puffed them up and caused them to look down on others. Maybe they thought that God was like a vending machine in which to deposit their tokens to receive the desired results. However, in their hearts it seems, they really had no desire to actually know Him. They manufactured a self-righteousness that made them proud.

Two Primary Components of Moses’ Law

In them, the Mosaic Law didn’t have its effect of exposing their sin and lostness: Now we know that whatever things the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God. Because by the works of the law, no flesh will be justified in his sight. For through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3.19-20 WEB). Paul realized this truth retrospectively after his conversion to Christ: For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead (Rom. 7.7b-8 NIV). Also, the fact that scripture promises a new covenant (Jer. 31. 31-34) shows that the Mosaic Law was never designed to produce righteousness but instead expose human sin: For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people (Heb. 8.7-8a NIV).

The Law of Moses contained two components: 1.The law of commandments, 2. The sacrificial system. The commandment was holy, righteous and good (Rom.7.12), but when humans tried to perform it, they invariably failed. While the Burnt Offering in the sacrificial system indicated total devotion to God by Jesus, the sacrifices for sin and guilt were a provision which pictured Christ’s fulfilling the eternal blood covenant. The First Covenant worshipper, after realizing his guilt made evident by falling short of the commandment, could go to the priest and present a sacrifice and be forgiven. This system revealed Jesus’ ultimate death for human sin and thus was prophetic. These 2nd Temple religious leaders who sought their own righteousness through law-keeping were bound to fail since they were really hypocritical and unrighteous. Only Jesus kept the Law perfectly; thus, with its covenantal function fulfilled, The New Covenant through the Spirit is able to give a relationship with God: The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God (Heb. 7. 18-19 NIV).

An O.T. Example with Similar Features

The O.T. has a corollary of this “yeast.” Dt. 29. 18-19 is a hypothetical situation of a person or group having a poisonous root (bitter in KJV): Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison. When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry (NIV). The word “poisonous”/”bitter” reflects the idea that most poisons indicate their toxicity by bitterness, which is probably why the term was sometimes misunderstood, rendering various translations. This hypothetical “root” refers to living a double life (a plant’s root is not seen). This unseen root pictures hypocrisy since they are only pretending loyalty. Notice how they “invoke a blessing on themselves,” betraying the thought that they are more clever than the others. This is akin to metaphorical yeast which puffs up the one who has it.