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Pharisees: Revisiting an Old Problem

Pharisees: Revisiting an Old Problem February 4, 2013

It’s time to revisit the Pharisees, in part because their story needs to be told so we don’t forget and in part because some like to use the “Pharisee” in ways that concern me. It is a standard procedure to say “Pharisee” and mean “legalist, bigot, hypocrite, or picayune meddler into other people’s religious business.” Look at any dictionary. But this is in and of itself a caricature and stereotype, for no one (I hope) would think that all Pharisees have always been religious bigots. Such language spells danger down the road in ways that might surprise us. Even more, we have tended to download anger or extreme disagreement with others onto this term “Pharisee.” So, when I call someone a Pharisee I do not mean anything nice or even charitable. Which, in and of itself is dangerous because no group (well, there are exceptions) is always wrong and always bad.

Martin Luther — and this was all charted out in 1977 in EP Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism — tended to equate the Roman Catholic establishment with the Pharisees of the Gospels. Everyone should read this book, regardless of all the scuttlebutt about his ideas ever since. The invective of Luther against the Roman Catholics in the 16th Century then was downloaded onto the Pharisees of the New Testament.

Here’s the problem: the impact of our use of Pharisee is that we have learned to call all Jews and anyone we think is too conservative a “Pharisee.” This can get very close and often actually is anti-Semitism.

Now another point: this kind of rhetoric is what is called “labeling.” To label someone is to put them in a category, or a box, or a corner, and then slap a sticker on their head so we know what to think and how to think about such a person. Labeling is inherently unChristian, and it is what Jesus fought against constantly — and this means we have to see what Jesus meant by “Pharisee” and what he didn’t mean by “Pharisee.”

So, I am asking for the many who are still using “Pharisee” in the old-fashioned “religious bigot” sense to be much more careful. I won’t give names, but I’m seeing it on blogs and in books in a way that 15 years ago would have not been the case.

A brief look at what Josephus, a 1st Century AD Jewish chronicler, has to say about the Pharisees. Josephus takes two pictures of the Pharisees, one in Bellum Judaicum (=BJ) book 2 (162-4) and one in Jewish Antiquities (=Ant), book 18 (12-15). I’ll limit my comments here, and the goal is for us (1) to have a more accurate view of the Pharisees so we can (2) speak more intelligently and respectfully of this ancient, revered, and respectable form of Judaism.

“Jewish philosophy,” he says, “takes three forms… the first school are called Pharisees, of the second Sadducees, of the third Essenes” (BJ 2.119).

1. They are considered the “most accurate interpreters of the laws” (BJ 2.162).
2. They are the leading sect of the Jews (BJ 2.162) and “extremely influential among the townsfolk” (Ant 18.15).
3. They attribute everything to Fate and to God (BJ 2.163; Ant 18.13).

4. Proper behavior is most human responsibility but partly Fate (BJ 2.163).
5. Every soul is imperishable but the soul of the good alone passes into another body while the soul of the wicked suffer eternal punishment, and that there will be rewards or punishments in the afterlife on the basis of behavior (BJ 2.163; Ant 18.14).
6. They live simply (Ant 18.12)
7. They live according to the commandments that their doctrines teach (Ant 18.12). [No doubt a reference to their concern with teaching and unfolding what the Bible says.]
8. They are respectful of elders (Ant 18.12).
9. Their influence is great enough that prayers and rites of worship are according to their teachings (Ant 18.15).

Now, let’s put this together. According to Josephus, the Pharisees are the most influential sect of the Jews and their first characteristic is that they are devoted to the Torah (Law), to its interpretation, and to living life as closely as possible according to the Torah. They believe in a cooperation between Fate (his Greek-sounding category for God’s sovereignty) and human will, but clearly lay emphasis on human will.

A few more ideas from Josephus:

At various points in history they had more power than at others, but that they wanted to be in charge. (Neusner said they moved from “politics to piety.”) Neusner’s theory is less persuasive today, and most adhere to a more moderate position: the Pharisees had power at times, but wanted it most of the time, but never significantly withdrew from society to form table fellowship groups. Which means their “influence” is probably overrated by Josephus: sometimes, yes; othertimes, not so much.

When it comes to Torah obedience, the Pharisees were “democratizers” in the sense that they tried to make the Torah practicable for all (by interpreting and applying it). The Sadducees focused more the priestly obligations to the Torah. The Essenes were more rigorous and sectarian in their interpretation and practice of the Torah. Which means, in pretty stereotypical and simplistic terms, the Pharisees were the “liberals,” the Sadducees the “conservatives,” and the Essenes the “radicals.”

The Pharisees passed on their teachings from generation to generation through an oral tradition. (Everyone did this; there was no other way; they didn’t codify and write these traditions down until the 3-4th Century AD, in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, and then a century or two later, in the Talmuds.) See Ant 13.297.

They followed the food laws and purity laws in the Torah, but it is unlikely they were as strict as the priests in the Temple. They washed their hands ceremoniously before they ate. They weren’t that far from the Zealots in essential beliefs and practices. (Many have suggested that the Zealots are an extreme form of Pharisaism.) They conflicted with the Sadducees sometimes over Temple regulations. It is likely that they formed associations with one another; that they ate with another and followed their customs when they did; that they frowned upon eating with those who flaunted the normal eating customs of the Jews.

Now to Jesus, and some highlights of what Jesus says about the Pharisees.

Gospel evidence, tilted as it is toward their conflict with Jesus, and that “tilt” means we tend to lean with the tilt so we see all Pharisees as they are presented in the Gospels, which as I say, has some clear (negative, labeling) tilt.

1. Pharisees, with others, opposed John and Jesus for their kingdom ministry (Matt 3:7).
2. Pharisees had a “righteousness” that Jesus said was inadequate (Matt 5:20).
3. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for eating with the wrong sorts (Matt 9:11).
4. Pharisees had a different fasting routine (Matt 9:14).
5. Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcising demons in allegiance with Satan (Matt 9:34).
6. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their sabbath practices (Matt 12:2).
7. Pharisees wanted Jesus to attest to his vocation with a sign (Matt 12:38).
8. Pharisees opposed Jesus and his followers for their lack of handwashing before meals (Matt 15:1-20).
9. Pharisees taught things Jesus thought were contrary to God’s will (Matt 16:6, 12).
10. Pharisees tested Jesus’ “theology”/”practice” on divorce (Matt 19:3).
11. Pharisees wanted Jesus put away (Matt 22:15) and Jesus knew it (Matt 21:33-45).

12. Pharisees were accused of hypocrisy by Jesus (Matt 23).
13. Pharisees are nearly absent in the trial scenes of Jesus. [They did not have the power to put him to death.]

Here are some global observations:

1. Pharisees were focused on the whole Bible (Torah), its interpretation and practice. This is why Paul says in Phil 3:5: “as to the law, a Pharisee.” To say one was a Pharisee was to make a claim on a certain kind of interpretation of the Torah.
2. Pharisees opposed different interpretations and practices of the Torah, and this led them into conflict with John, with Jesus, with Jesus’ followers, and with others who differed from them (like the Sadducees).
3. Pharisees were specific and careful in their interpretive practices, and they apparently passed on their interpretations to one another (and anyone who cared to listen and know) by word of mouth and argumentation.
4. Pharisees thought they were right in their interpretations.

So, here is a thumbnail definition of the Pharisees: “a Torah movement (group) deeply devoted to knowing, interpreting, and applying the whole Torah to the life of Israel in order to restore the fortunes of Israel.”

(Now this last part, “in order to…”, I have added because I’m sure they had some sort of purpose in wanting everyone to live according to the Torah. This is not my view; it is standard, even if not held by all scholars.)

Jesus and the Pharisees got into it with one another at a deep, deep level because (1) both were committed to the revelation of God in the Torah, but (2) they differed radically on how to interpret that Torah. Let this be clear, though: they did not differ that it was the Word of God, they did not differ on the importance of Abraham, Moses, David or the Prophets. They differed, and you will know this if you know about The Jesus Creed, because Jesus thought the Torah should be interpreted in light of Deut 6:4-9 and Leviticus 19:18 (Love God, Love others). It is simplistic to talk like this, but it is essentially on target to say that Jesus thought the Torah was about loving God and loving others, and the Pharisees saw the Torah more as a comprehensive listing of God’s will.

(Let me back down a bit: the Pharisees did dispute about what was the most important commandment and the like, but when it comes down to it — and you can see this in Josephus, in the Gospels, and in the Mishnah/rabbinic traditions — they saw the Torah as a comprehensive treasure trove of God’s will, while Jesus thought that treasure trove was to be approached through the Jesus Creed itself.)

So, what they of the charge of hypocrisy?

Five observations, leading to a summary definition of what Matthew (Jesus) meant by “hypocrisy.”

Hypocrisy is…

1. Inconsistency between what one teaches and what one does (23:3-4)
2. Desire for prestige and power and congratulation (23:5-12)
3. Abuse of teaching authority through both false teachings and false practices (23:13, 15, 16-22, 23-24, 25-26, 27-28).
4. Overconcern with minutiae and lack of focus on the major issues (23:23-24, 25-26, 27-28): that is, moral myopia.
5. Inconsistency between appearance and practice (23:27-28).

Put together, Jesus accuses the Pharisees for “hypocrisy” because they had abused their teaching authority by teaching false things, not living according to what they taught, and for the desire for power. In addition, their teaching was a focus on minor issues to the neglect of major issues.

To be “hypocrite” is to be a false teacher who leads both self and others astray from the will of God. The term should not be limited to “contradiction between appearance and reality.”

Should we call anyone “Pharisee”? Be careful, that’s my rule. Think historically, my second rule. If some insist on finding contemporary counterparts to the 1st Century Pharisees, here are more suggestions:

First, use it only for those who are committed to the Torah as a comprehensive explanation for the will of God. (In this sense, it is pretty hard to use for any Christian.)

Second, use it only for those who through the abuse of their teaching authority are leading people astray. (In this sense, it is fit most for heretics.)

Third, never use it as a synonym for “Jews,” “Judaism,” or any other generic Jewish group. It refers only to one group of Jews, and that group eventually morphed into the rabbis but that morphing involved major shifts and moves.

In 1907, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is.” There you have a quintessentially view of a Pharisee, someone who both believes in the Torah and who believes its meaning is determined by its interpretive tradition. On the other hand, a Sadducee would simply say, to use Chief Hughes’ terms, “We are under a Constitution.” We don’t need an interpretive tradition for we need only to seek out the original intent.Pharisees were judicial activists; Sadducees were judicial conservationists. Now stick this in your pipe for a puff: Jesus was more critical of the liberals than the conservatives! And I’m willing to bet money that most think Jesus was opposing the conservatives when he took a swat at the Pharisees. Or did Jesus think they weren’t liberal enough or for those who didn’t get their liberalism right? Precisely.

Consequently, the Pharisees built up a body of interpretive tradition, which today is called the Mishnah and the Tosefta, with an even larger body of anecdotal reflection in the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. At the time of Jesus this interpretive tradition was merely oral tradition, but it carried the day. So, this permits us to see the Pharisees as those who both believed in the Torah but who knew it needed interpretation, applications, and it needed to do so along careful lines of thought and procedure.


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