The Gospels on the Pharisees VI

Parts I, II, III, IV, and V in this series covered the gospel evidence regarding the Pharisess in nineteen parallel pericopes between the three synoptic gospels primarily, with one pericope included from the Gospel of John. Now I’d like to look at how the gospel evidence regarding the Pharisees has been, intentionally or unintentionally, misunderstood throughout the ages.

First, it is important to understand that the Gospel of Matthew was and is by far the most popular gospel of the four. It received pride of place in Patristic citation from the second century onward. In later established lectionary pericopes as well, much more of Matthew was read during more of the year than was the case with the other gospels. Therefore, even aside from concerns of compositional theory, the Gospel of Matthew appears to have been effectively The Gospel, with the others contributing secondarily. So, even though our focus in the previous contributions to this series was on Matthew as the earliest gospel according to the Griesbach Hypothesis of the compositional history of the synoptic gospels, that perspective of “Matthew first” is upheld in the de facto status of Matthew as the preferred gospel throughout Church history.

Secondly, it is likewise important to understand the disruption of Judean society caused by the Great Revolt of 66-74 and the subsequent severance of proper comprehension of the picture of the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew. After the Great Revolt, the old societal structures and institutions were all overturned: the chief-priestly families and other aristocracy were obliterated by the rebels, and those surviving the subsequent Roman onslaught were faced with a society which had no need of them after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The surviving Pharisees and others worked at constructing a new societal structure, under more direct oversight from both the Romans and the rabbis. The societal context depicted in the gospels was no longer existent, and relatively quickly faded from memory, with readers culturally further distant losing the original understanding of the context even more quickly, as they had perhaps never had a good grasp on it at all in the first place. The depiction in Matthew of a dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, one rooted in different bases for halakhic argumentation but still a generally workable relationship, and the function of the rhetoric in the gospel as part of that argumentation, was all lost. Indeed, as we have seen from the earlier parts of this series, the argumentation was already unimporant to both Luke and Mark in their presentations to gentile audiences. This lack of both interest and comprehension led to statements in Matthew being taken not as part of a rhetorical strategy in argument, but as bald fact, particularly Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23. But Matthew 23 simply cannot be taken in isolation as a freestanding critique of all scribes and Pharisees in every particular (that is, of the Pharisaic program of halakhic rulings and the personal failings noted of individual unnamed scribes and Pharisees) as it has been and, in some quarters, still is. It is only correctly understood when viewed in the context of the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees depicted throughout the earlier chapters of Matthew, and particularly only in the view of Jesus’ different focus in admitting the Word of the Lord found amidst the prophetic texts in determining his halakhic rulings. It is only from within Jesus’ own halakhic program that the critique of the Pharisaic halakhic program is properly comprehended. Thus the foundation for the charges of hypocrisy lie within those debates, the subtext of which is determining the will of God in ordinary life. Jesus’ emphasis is on fostering a moral interiority rooted in God’s mercy toward and love for man in addition to maintaining ritual purity; this is the source of the charge for hypocrisy among the Pharisees: their halakhic program is found by Jesus to be only inconsistently guided by the example of the same Divine mercy and love for man, and thus the Pharisees only hypocritically claim to consistently reveal the will of God to man. With the loss of understanding this context, Christian commentators very early on thereby considered the Pharisees to have been one and all personally hypocritical and gulty of the personal failings described in Matthew 23. Thence, whether knowing or not that the Pharisees were the source of Rabbinic Judaism, this charge of empty hypocrisy was transferred to all Judaism. And that mistaken perspective was (surprisingly, to a thoughtful and sympathetic reader) maintained throughout the ages until only the last generation.

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