Review of Mireille Hadas-Lebel, Les Pharisiens

Review of Mireille Hadas-Lebel, Les Pharisiens January 25, 2024

I am delighted to have the opportunity to offer a brief review of Mireille Hadas-Lebel’s book Les Pharisiens: Dans les Evangiles et dans l’Histoire. It accomplishes a great many important things in a manner that will be of interest to scholars and yet is presented in a way that should reach a much wider audience. Having a scholar who has previously published on other aspects of Jewish history in the same period tackle this topic is a definite gain.

In the book there are a number of positive features that stand out. Hadas-Lebel highlights and explores the Pharisees’ political involvement more clearly than in most other treatments, including under the Hasmoneans, but also in their close connection with the demand for freedom from Roman rule in response to the census. The author understandably begins with Josephus and also seeks to correlate with other sources. The focus on pre-70 rabbinic tradition with the aim of avoiding anachronism (p.51) is, at least in principle, a praiseworthy procedure and it is initially implemented in an impressive manner. The effort is made to note the continuities, the disjunctures, and the simple differences between Josephus’ information about the Pharisees (both as a group and in his mentions of individuals) and Rabbinic texts from a later time. There are occasional exceptions to this overall admirably critical approach. For instance, even though it seems clear that the Talmud preserves a distant memory of the same citron-pelting incident recorded by Josephus (p.66), it must still be considered that the Talmudic characterization of the incident in terms of Sadducean failure to accurately carry out ritual might be a later reinterpretation. Even when it comes to the dominance of Pharisaic over Sadducean ways of performing rituals in the temple, Hadas-Lebel seems to me too quick to assume that the alternate view of what should be done that is attributed by the Talmud to the Sadducees, accurately reflects views held in the first century. This is certainly possible, but cannot be assumed. It is of course the case that this book was not engaging in extremely detailed critical analysis of the tradition history of each pericope brought in as evidence, but without such arguments here or reference to where they are provided elsewhere, a critical reader will likely be dissatisfied and unpersuaded. This point should not however be overemphasized. There is certainly evidence of continuity between matters in Josephus’ time and in the Talmud, and Hadas-Lebel provides examples thereof. (See for instance the illuminating discussion of laws on p.78). My point is that there are also discontinuities, and thus we must treat each case on its own merits, neither presuming that the Talmud reflects first century belief and practice, nor that it does not.

Reading a book in another language than one’s native tongue, including its quotations from the Bible, always challenges and provokes in ways that an author may not even notice. For instance, there is a long history of rendering the repeated phrase in Matthew 23 a particular way. When the book has it without punctuation, it highlights to readers familiar with it another way that it was a decision, and not a necessary one, to render it as “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” as is typical in English, rather than “woe however to you hypocritical scribes and Pharisees” (denoting a subset of these groups). Hadas-Lebel is following the rendering in the Louis Segond translation at this point and so may not even be aware that English speakers would be familiar with a more problematic different punctuation.

There are plenty of points that are not central to the book that I either particularly appreciated or found problematic. In the former category, the usefulness of a variety of ancient sources to historians is captured in a nutshell on p.93: “It often happens that texts devoid of any historical pretension nonetheless constitute historical sources through all the information that they provide almost in spite of themselves on the framework in which they are located.” In the sentence that immediately follows, Hadas-Lebel adds that “The Gospels are not a history of Jesus.” Yet this seems insufficiently reflected in the treatment of some specific details such as the assumption of the historicity of Luke’s depiction of the young Jesus (pp.85-86). Legends and fabricated symbolic stories about individuals’ childhood are a standard feature of Greco-Roman biographies (lives, bioi). Likewise the description of Matthew as “the most Jewish of all the Evangelists ” (p.84) reflect widely held popular views but ones that scholarship presumably ought to problematize as at best an oversimplification. Also, although a somewhat tangential matter, we still encounter generalizations about Hebrew and Greek conceptualities and languages in popular thought that it is important for scholars to avoid, and indeed challenge. The notion (p.60) that a language may be inherently better or worse equipped to “express abstract notions” is problematic, and certainly at the very least debatable. The consensus of linguists appears to be that any culture and language may move in that direction and use language accordingly. Some traditions may not have developed vocabulary to express something succinctly (the famous example is Pirahã’s lack of numbers) but that does not mean that they could not develop the necessary concepts and vocabulary if need or desire arose.

The analogy of the Sadducees’ stance as akin to that of sola scriptura (p.52) is one that I cannot criticize as I have used it myself in an effort to help students understand. Pondering the topic further as I was reading Hadas-Lebel’s book, I nonetheless found myself forced to ask myself how useful a misleading slogan of Protestantism really is in describing a movement (the Sadducees) that, as far as we know, never used it. Where I think the phrase is useful is precisely in the context and for the aims with which Hadas-Lebel uses it: because it makes those who use Pharisee and Sadducee as negative epithets consider that they may have things in common with them.

On the whole Hadas-Lebel offers a presentation of the Pharisees that recognizes their diversity, their positive contributions in their era, and the resemblance of Jesus of Nazareth to them. In seeking to adjudicate between an array of literature with polemical features, it is perhaps inevitable that the Pharisees, what became Christianity, and other groups will all at times be cast in a negative light because the only lens through which we can view them is one provided by their opponents. That Hadas-Lebel for the most part manages to avoid this is remarkable. The book’s overall success in this regard nonetheless makes the very few exceptions stand out all the more. The remark on p.100, “Such severity for such a trifle,” veers into the disparagement of Judaism that the author otherwise seeks to combat. Keeping the Sabbath is not a trifle within that context and those who recognize that rest and wellness go hand in hand will likely be the first to admit that compromising time that is designated for family or recuperation with work is indeed a slippery slope. Even if one agrees with Jesus rather than his critics on the specific points of plucking grain or healing, the underlying question is not a trifling one. I suspect, in view of other parts of the book, that Hadas-Lebel may have written this to reflect not her own view but what other readers say, writing it with more than a hint of irony. If so, I will just point out that this does not come across as clearly as it might have. In the same vein, the discussion of fasting misses that Jesus’ teaching about fasting was “when you fast, do not make a show of it.” Unless his response to critics of the failure of his disciples to fast is recognized as a misperception, we will misunderstand his response to them (pp.103-104). Jesus does not, in my reading, in any way criticize the tithing of mint and cumin (p.107) but mocks the ability of some to achieve such precision in the realm of tithing while at the same time neglecting much bigger things. Even so, Hadas-Lebel ensures that the reader grasps that Jesus, although not a Pharisee, was more similar in his stances to them than to other groups in his era. The rediscovery of Jesus as Jewish that has been an important part of recent scholarship should point to him as one who was akin to the Pharisees (p.170).

In conclusion, if there are some relatively minor details or ways of putting things that I have criticized, it is only because the book is on the whole so fantastic in its critical rigor and its aim of combatting Christian antisemitism with regard to the Pharisees that these seeming exceptions stood out. None of what I have written here should detract from the fact that the book provides most of us, even scholars, with angles on the Pharisees that we need to hear if we are to understand ancient Judaism and/or Christian origins correctly. Readers will come away having understood a group that, if they know the Pharisees only through the Gospels and sermons about them, they will perceive them as stock villains with no seriousness or depth to them. In reality, as the evidence makes abundantly clear, this was a distinguished and influential movement in Judaism in that era, one that was politically engaged and a vibrant positive force, if not for that reason one that was above criticism. To the extent that the later rabbinic tradition reflects the legacy of the Pharisees, there have been few traditions that have managed to so effectively balance the creation of a common identity while also leaving room for vigorous debate and disagreement. To the extent that Jesus disagreed with them more frequently than others on the pages of early Christian literature, that is because he had more in common with them than others, making his points of disagreement with them all the more contentious. Even in these moments, as Hadas-Lebel shows the reader so well, the diversity of this vibrant movement was such that Jesus would have had allies within it, and had he wished to he could in all likelihood have engaged in the same arguments within the movement as he did from outside. I hope that the volume will reach a wide audience in the Francophone world and beyond, and have an impact not only on our historical appreciation but on interreligious understanding and appreciation in our time.


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