Stereotyping Pharisees, A Christian Instinct in Need of Lament
The church has stereotyped the Pharisees. Consequently, the church routinely uses its stereotype to read the Gospels and in so reading them the church misreads the Gospels. In a recent post I used the term “lenient” for the Pharisees. For some scholars that is a term we need to be using more if we want to understand them well. Frankly, to say in our churches that the Pharisees are lenient will raise more than an eyebrow.
Now listen to this one: when I read this new book by Joseph Sievers and Amy Jill Levine, The Pharisees I begin to locate 1st Century Pharisees in the church world today. So, allow me some more stereotyping to give a good swirl to the waters. They were progressives in that they believed the law could be updated and adjusted. They were liberals in that they were willing to adjust observance to new conditions. They were conservatives in their profound respect for their accumulating traditions. They were “nomists” (“legalists” creates bad stereotypes) in that they wanted others to practice their decisions on how best to observe the law. They were moderates in their in-betweenness of leniency and openness. They were populists in that plenty of evidence shows they were popular among the masses. Thus, yes, like Catholics and Orthodox in adding traditions to the Bible; like evangelicals in their commitment to the Bible and its interpretation. They were not “the Bible alone and only the Bible” types, but they did go to the Bible for their support.
The stereotype that they were legalists, picayune, meticulous tells a fraction of their story. The bigger story is that they wanted to help people observe the law in ways that made sense and were practicable. If there wasn’t more confusion in using the term “progressive” for them I would. Yes, they were 1st Century Jewish progressives when it came to law observance. Now, please, progressives, don’t see this as a criticism of you. Instead, see it as a criticism of the stereotype of “Pharisee.” OK, go!
Yair Furstenberg’s article in this book is so far my favorite. I liked every article so far but there’s some very original thinking in Furstenberg’s article. His method is to work through the Gospels and the rabbis with a look at Qumran and Josephus to discern where the Pharisees stood in comparison with Jesus and the temple leaders, the Sadducees. His big conclusion is: in between them.
Consider the “tradition of the elders” passage in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. The Pharisees challenged the sufficiency of Torah in favor of a tradition as a way of making observance do-able for more people. Jesus rejected their nonscriptural authority of tradition. Put in our terms, he was to the Right, and they were to the Left. He examines the rabbinic “Boethusians” for a similar criticism of the Pharisees (details can be found in his chapter). Philo was closer to the Pharisees on this one, and Furstenberg thinks Philo’s indebted here to Plato’s value of ancestral traditions. So too the Damascus Document criticizes the Pharisees for shifting the requirements of observance.
Pharisees accepted human weakness, too, when it came to law observance. On divorce, the Pharisees were liberal. Like Qumran, Jesus was tighter on permissions for divorce (he thinks the exception clause, as many do, is redaction). It was hardness of heart, Jesus said, that God gave the exception clause in Deut 24. Jesus, he says, does not so much reject that Pharisee leniency but he explains it as a sinful human condition. 4QMMT at Qumran went after the Pharisees for their appeal to human weakness.
Pharisees undermined purity and holiness. The Pharisees cleaned the outside of a cup, thinking the whole was then clean; the Sadducees thought the whole cup had to be cleaned. Jesus saw the Pharisees as “hypocrites” for this, and the term “hypocrite” simply can’t be reduced to contradiction of thought and practice but is closer to false teacher. He’s criticizing their leniency and commitment to the tradition instead of what the law teaches. The Pharisees, Furstenberg contends, sacrificed the sacredness of the temple on the altar of their lenient rulings. I think his point is that human agency and human consecration made something holy.
What do you think? How does this shift your perception of the Pharisees?