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Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)
There is a lot in this week’s reading. Let’s jump right in.
First, the text names the “Pharisees and some teachers of the law.” It is possible that Jesus himself had training in the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Yet those who were in power in Mark’s gospel were the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. I’ve written at length on the distinctions between these two schools of thought and Torah interpretation in The Golden Rule, Woes against the Pharisees, Woes against the Exegetes of the Law, and Renouncing One’s Rights, so I won’t repeat all of that information here. It’s enough to say that this week’s passage could have been attributed to Hillel the Pharisee as much as we attribute it to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The language and emphasis is very Hillelian.
I share this because throughout history Christians have used the label of Pharisee as a disparaging or derogatory title very carelessly and in very antisemitic ways. Some Christians continue to do so today. We can do better. I want to offer an alternative to these common, anti-Jewish interpretations, and shed some light on why the gospel of Mark speaks so disparagingly of “Pharisees,” I believe, particularly those of the school of Shammai.
We’ll discuss this option next.