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.
So, we are presented with a tripartite error: 1.) the loss of contextual comprehension of Jesus’ critique of the scribes and Pharisees, which leads to: 2.) all scribes and Pharisees being thought guilty of hypocrisy and various other failings, which leads to: 3.) all Jews, the successors of particularly the Pharisees, being thought guilty of hypocrisy and various other failings. This error was fostered and perpetuated not only in pre-critical scholarly and popular religious writings, but in cultural works in general, and most damagingly, in supposedly critical works of scholarship throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. I present a very few selections of interesting examples below, but refer the reader again to the book that was the impetus for this series, Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, editors, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Baylor University Press, 2007), and particularly to the following appropo excellent chapters: Chapter 14, “The German Theological Tradition” (pp 353-373) by Susannah Heschel, and Chapter 15, “The Anglo-American Theological Tradition to 1970” (pp 375-394) by Jacob Neusner.
Following are three paragraphs detailing some patristic evidence on our subject. By and large, in a search through the too numerous volumes of the old Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, there is little evidence therein for a direct correlation between the Pharisees and their noted failings and the Jews of any contemporary author’s experience. Nearly all references to Pharisees are quotations or allusions to gospel readings.
St Irenaeus of Lyons (floruit circa 180) seems to have had at least a tenuous grasp on the perspective I outline above as the correct context for viewing Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees (Against Heresies 15.12.1):
For the tradition of the elders themselves, which they pretended to observe from the law, was contrary to the law given by Moses. Wherefore also Esaias [1.22] declares: “Thy dealers mix the wine with water,” showing that the elders were in the habit of mingling a watered tradition with the simple command of God; that is, they set up a spurious law, and one contrary to the true law; as also the Lord made plain, when He said to them, “Why do ye transgress the commandment of God, for the sake of your tradition?” [Mt 15.3]. For not only by actual transgression did they set the law of God at nought, mingling the wine with water; but they also set up their own law in opposition to it, which is termed, even to the present day, the pharisaical. In this law they suppress certain things, add others, and interpret others, again, as they think proper, which their teachers use, each one in particular; and desiring to uphold these traditions, they were unwilling to be subject to the law of God, which prepares them for the coming of Christ. But they did even blame the Lord for healing on the Sabbath-days, which, as I have already observed, the law did not prohibit. For they did themselves, in one sense, perform acts of healing upon the Sabbath-day, when they circumcised a man [on that day]; but they did not blame themselves for transgressing the command of God through tradition and the aforesaid pharisaical law, and for not keeping the commandment of the law, which is the love of God.
Note the “even to the present day” by which we can see here that St Irenaeus considers the Jews of his day to be heirs to the practices of interpretation he is describing as those of the Pharisees. And while he does reflect upon “the love of God” as a necessary part of the Law in contradistinction to the interpretations of the Pharisees/Jews, the direct connection of Jesus’ emphasis on such in his argumentation against/with the Pharisees is already apparently lost, and this rhetorical mention appears well on its way to the truism it would later be.
St Jerome writes in 404 to St Augustine (in Letter 75 of the latter’s collection of letters):
In our own day there exists a sect among the Jews throughout all the synagogues of the East, which is called the sect of the Minei, and is even now condemned by the Pharisees. The adherents to this sect are known commonly as Nazarenes; they believe in Christ the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary; and they say that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again, is the same as the one in whom we believe. But while they desire to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither the one nor the other.
Not only does St Jerome equate the Jews with the Pharisees here, but mentions that of a Judaizing Christian sect called the Nazarenes or Minei. Might this not be the minim of the Eighteen Benedictions?
St Augustine himself (Enchiridion, ch 76) shows that he understood the input of the above-described law of love in Jesus halakhic rulings:
But the Pharisees, while they gave as alms the tithe of all their fruits, even the most insignificant, passed over judgment and the love of God, and so did not commence their alms-giving at home, and extend their pity to themselves in the first instance. And it is in reference to this order of love that it is said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” [Lk 10.27]. When, then, our Lord had rebuked them because they made themselves clean on the outside, but within were full of ravening and wickedness, He advised them, in the exercise of that charity which each man owes to himself in the first instance, to make clean the inward parts. “But rather,” He says, “give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you” [Lk 11.42]. Then, to show what it was that He advised, and what they took no pains to do, and to show that He did not overlook or forget their almsgiving, “But woe unto you, Pharisees!” [Lk 11.42]. He says; as if He meant to say: I indeed advise you to give alms which shall make all things clean unto you; “but woe unto you! for ye tithe mint, and rue, and all manner of herbs;” as if He meant to say: I know these alms of yours, and ye need not think that I am now admonishing you in respect of such things; “and pass over judgment and the love of God,” an alms by which ye might have been made clean from all inward impurity, so that even the bodies which ye are now washing would have been clean to you. For this is the import of all things, both inward and outward things, as we read in another place: “Cleanse first that which is within, that the outside may be clean also” [Mt 23.26] But lest He might appear to despise the alms which they were giving out of the fruits of the earth, He says: “These ought ye to have done,” referring to judgment and the love of God, “and not to leave the other undone,” referring to the giving of the tithes.
St Augustine notes here not only the added dimension of moral interiority based in God’s love for man and His command to love one’s fellow man, but also the maintenance of the original commandment of tithing. I don’t think that St Augustine would have maintained an across-the-board retention of all the commandments (regarding food, washing, etc), but it is intriguing that the exact intention of Jesus’ argumentation in context is found here in St Augustine, nearly 400 years later. As an aside, I think this shows that close reading and attention to context is beneficial in all Scriptural study, whether one works in translation or with the original languages. As is well known, St Augustine’s Greek was not very good at all, and he knew the Scriptures, the Old Testament (with “apocrypha”) and the New Testament, only in the Old Latin translation. And yet he was still able to tease out not only a pastorally sensitive reading of this discussion of Jesus on tithing, but to actually also bring to the front Jesus’ original intent in bringing the subject up. All this was accomplished through close, attentive reading, and no doubt aided by the acuity of intellect that St Augustine was justly famous for. Augustine likewise, throughout his works, seems not to have equated the critiqued failings of the Pharisees with the Jews of his day, which is exceptional enough to be of note.
St Gregory Nazianzenus has a very interesting usage of “Pharisees” in his Oration 37:
But what of the Pharisees? To them this word seems harsh. Yes, for they are also displeased at other noble words—both the older Pharisees, and the Pharisees of the present day. For it is not only race, but disposition also that makes a Pharisee. Thus also I reckon as an Assyrian or an Egyptian him who is ranged among these by his character.
As the oration proceeds, it’s clear that St Gregory is using “Pharisees” as a synonymous with “hypocrites”, and clearly not restricting it to ancient or contemporary Jews, as he explicitly notes above. It’s this usage, completely divorced from any connotation of a connection with ancient or contemporary Judaism, that becomes more common with passing time and becomes the primary usage throughout the middle ages and into the modern period, and indeed is still in usage in the forms Pharisee, pharisaical, and the like, which usage the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A person of the spirit or character commonly attributed to the Pharisees in the New Testament; a legalist or formalist; a self-righteous person, a hypocrite;” likewise we are provided with a delightful example of usage from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: “He was, and is yet, most likely, the wearisomest, self-righteous pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself, and fling the curses on his neighbours.”
Now I’d like to look at some examples from the modern period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular. In describing Julius Wellhausen’s response in his Die Pharisäer und die Sadducäer to Abraham Geiger’s work on the Pharisees in his Urschrift und Übersetzung der Bibel, we are treated to the following, as Susannah Heschel details in her above-mentioned chapter in In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (p. 365):
The emphasis is placed by Wellhausen on defining the nature of Pharisaic religion, and in so doing, he is defining the nature of Judaism: “the Pharisees are the Jews in superlative, the true Israel. The goal of the people and that of the Pharisees are the same” [Pharisäer, 17-18]. Thus, when Wellhausen speaks of the Pharisees, he is also commenting on Judaism: “the Pharisees killed nature through the commandments. There were 613 written commandments and 1000 other laws, and they leave no room for conscience. One forgot God and the way to him in the Torah” [Pharisäer, 19]. What characterizes the Pharisees is their “religious materialism” [Pharisäer, 19]. Ultimately, in Wellhausen’s 1894 Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte, the Pharisees come to be termed idolaters of the law [p. 297]. The difference between the Pharisees and the common people lies only in the former’s zealousness and acerbity [Pharisäer, 19].
Wellhausen was repeating older Christian traditions and did not attempt to provide source evidence to justify them. He did, however, defend as a legitimate historical source, Jesus’ notorious accusations that the Pharisees are “hypocrites” in Matthew 23 [on which, see above]. Its very exaggeration, he writes, signifies that the passage is a “candid” expression and therefore most probably more authentic than the “smarmy picture” of the Pharisees as first-century “preachers”; moreover, it is confirmed by the prophets’ criticisms and by Paul’s fight against the law [Pharisäer, 128]. The New Testament epistles are also good sources for defining Pharisaim, he writes, because Paul was the “great pathologist of Judaism” [Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, 423]. What Wellhausen concludes is that the Pharisees can claim the merit of having crushed the Hasmonean state and having saved Judaism—a dubious honor, given Wellhausen’s judgment of Judaism.
I frankly don’t know which is more revolting: that a professing Christian would turn the words of the Bible around so evilly, or that one who did so was honored as a great scholar and remains considered such to this day.
Moving along into the Anglosphere, in 1913 R. H. Charles published his magisterial Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, still a classic reference work, primarily of value for the incisive commetative notes provided by Charles and the other translators, though the translations are still valuable, as well, even though in many cases they’ve been superseded by better texts and translations. In the Introduction to Volume Two, which includes the Pseudepigrapha, Charles wrote (vol 2, p xi):
This ethical element [found in apocalyptic writings] is present also in Talmudic literature, but somehow it lacks the fire and inspiration that distinguish it in the Pseudepigrapha. It is more nearly related to the average morality and practical wisdom of the Proverbs of the Old Testament. The chief work on Ethics in the Talmud, which is reproduced in the Jewish Book of Common Prayer, i.e. The Sayings of the Fathers, has been translated and added to this volume, in order that the student might have before him the best that Later Judaism produced in the domain of Ethics. It will be obvious even to the most cursory reader that a great gulf divides the Ethics of the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs, and even those of 2 Enoch, from these excellent but very uninspiring sayings of Jewish sages belonging to the legalistic wing of Judaism. It is quite true that many a fine saying is found in the other tractates of the Talmud and other Rabbinic writings, but the harvest that rewards the diligent reaper is slight in comparison of the toil, and the number of really fine sayings that were uttered before A.D. 100 is far from great.
[Note 1, same page] For a very favourable account of this side of Rabbinic Judaism see Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, 1909. The chapter on the ‘Joy of the Law’ (pp. 148-69) is well worth study. It shows that in all ages in Judaism the joy that the Psalmists felt in the service of God was experienced likewise by many a Jew in the fulfilment of the innumerable later requirements of the Law—requirements which to the non-Jew could only prove an intolerable and unspiritual burden, and which were felt even by many spiritually-minded Jews to be a yoke that neither they nor their fathers had been able to bear (Acts xv.10). But this type of mind which reaches its fullest satisfaction in unquestioning submission to an external commandment is, of course, to be found in all religions. It is not progressive or prophetic in character, but it helps to preserve some of the best elements in the past. See also Oesterley and Box, The Religion and the Worship of the Synagogue, chap. vii.
It was my initial shock in reading the above passage by Charles which impressed the memory of it so well upon me. I still find its condescension breath-taking; yet, for its time, this is a relatively positive statement on some aspects of Judaism, however grudgingly phrased. Compared to other Continental writings of that generation, it is relatively tame. Yet in truth it is not. The “legalistic” meme is present, and as one would note in a full reading of Charles’ introduction, the line between legalistic Pharisaism and “Later Judaism” (an almost precise Anglicisation from the German Spätjudentum, a term with its own nefarious history) is not drawn at all; the former is simply an earlier term for the latter. Explaining Jewish joy in the Torah as an aberrant mentality is truly repulsive. And yet, this mentality persists.
Chronologically a little earlier, but still germane and in the area of English scholarship is the interesting case of a popular Bible Dictionary. From 1860-1865, Sir William Smith produced a magisterial four-volume Dictionary of the Bible, complete with the finest scholarship of the day, something like our own Anchor Bible Dictionary. It is still impressive for its balance, though tastes have changed and it is now perceived as a decidedly conservative work. (One may search for and download all four volumes from Google Books.) In around 1885, Francis and Mary Peloubet undertook the production of an abridged edition of Smith’s dictionary intended for the use of Sunday School teachers in America, published as the single-volume Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, which is actually still in print. From the 1979 reprint by Thomas Nelson Publishers, section 2 of the article on Pharisees:
While it was the aim of Jesus to call men to the law of God itself as the supreme guide of life, the Pharisees, upon the pretence of maintaining it intact, multiplied minute precepts and distinctions to such an extent that the whole life of the Israelite was hemmed in and burdened on every side by instructions so numerous and trifling that the law was almost if not wholly lost sight of. These “traditions,” as they were called, had long been gradually accumulating. Of the trifling character of these regulations innumerable instances are to be found in the Mishna. Such were their washings before they could eat bread, and the special minuteness with which the forms of this washing were prescribed; their bathing when they returned from the market; their washing of cups, pots, brazen vessels, etc.; their fastings twice in the week, Luke 18:12; such were their tithings, Matt. 23:23; and such, finally, were those minute and vexatious extensions of the law of the Sabbath, which must have converted God’s gracious ordinance of the Sabbath’s rest into a burden and a pain. Matt. 12:1-13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17.
It need hardly be said that this article on the Pharisees no longer resembles Smith’s original, which was a lengthy treatise discussing all that was said in various sources on the origins and character of the Pharisees, with a special focus, to be sure, on the New Testament as it contains more mention of the Pharisees than any other sources. But it is not like the above “abridgement.” Note the completely unconscious association of the Mishnah, the basis of Judaism’s halakhah, not with the Rabbis, but with the Pharisees. Thus the Rabbis, too, are Pharisees, in this reckoning, concerned only with “trifling” and “vexatious” “traditions.” Continuing with sections 3 and 4, it only gets worse, complete with more proof-texting:
3. It was a leading aim of the Redeemer to teach men that true piety consisted not in forms, but in substance, not in outward observances, but in an inward spirit. The whole system of Pharisaic piety led to exactly opposite conclusions. The lowliness of piety was, according to the teachings of Jesus, an inseparable concomitant of its reality, but the Pharisees sought mainly to attract the attention and to excite the admiration of men. Matt. 6:2, 16; 23:5, 6; Luke 14:7. Indeed the whole spirit of their religion was summed up, not in confession of sin and in humility, but in a proud self-righteousness at variance with any true conception of man’s relation to either God or his fellow creatures.
4. With all their pretences to piety they were in reality avaricious, sensual and dissolute. Matt. 23:25; John 8:7. They looked with contempt upon every nation but their own. Luke 10:29. Finally, instead of endeavoring to fulfill the great end of the dispensation whose truths they professed to teach, and thus bringing men to the Hope of Israel, they devoted their energies to making converts to their own narrow views, who with all the zeal of proselytes were more exclusive and more bitterly opposed to the truth than they were themselves. Matt. 22:15.
Such is apparently the general opinion in America of Jews in about 1885, not so subtly disguised as a critique of the Pharisees. As I mentioned, this particular edition of Smith’s Bible Dictionary was designed for the use of Sunday School classes. This opinion will have been spread to generations of impressionable minds. And it still is, for the reprint of this edition is still in print, and still rather popular in conservative circles.
Coming closer to our own time, here is an excerpt from a conservative single-volume Bible commentary from the Reformed tradition, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Charles Pfeiffer and Everett Harrison, editors (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), page 970, on Matthew 23, written by Homer Kent (at that time Professor of New Testament and Greek, Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana), emphasis his:
1-12.Warning against the Pharisees. This portion is directed particularly to the disciples, although in the presence of the multitude. 2. Sit on Moses’ seat That is, they occupy Moses’ position among you as expounders of the Law. 3, 4. Wherefore whatsoever they say to you do. In so far as their teaching presented what Moses gave, the people were obligated to observe. Do not ye after their works. Their works included their strained interpretations and perversions of the Law, which enabled them to flout the spiritual import of the OT. Their multitudinous additions to the Law, here designated as heavy burdens, grievous to be borne, were part of their works. They themselves will not move them. Though rabbinic casuistry could doubtless find loopholes for evading what was unpleasant, this statement probably means that they never lifted a finger to remove any of the burdens (move is in contrasting parallel to lay on).
In this single-volume Bible commentary which is still apparently somewhat popular, we again see the elision of the distinction between the Pharisees and the Rabbis (“…rabbinic casuistry…”), and therefore contemporary Judaism. These critiques of the Pharisees are, whether unconsciously or consciously, critiques of Judaism.
Is there any hope to overturn this equation of Pharisees = hypocrites = Jews? Certainly there is. In only one commentary example from recent decades, the Word Biblical Commentary volume 33b, Matthew 14-28 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), by Donald Hagner (Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California; now Professor Emeritus), we find the following in the introduction to the commentary matter on Matthew chapter 23 (pp 654-655):
When Jesus refers to the Pharisees positively in 23:2–3a, he indicates that in principle Pharisaism’s quest for righteousness is worthy and admirable. We can, therefore, with the best recent scholarship affirm Pharisaism as something to be held in high esteem (see Farbstein). The problem Jesus focuses on is not Pharisaism but those Pharisees whose practice contradicted their professed quest for righteousness. The Pharisees themselves were sensitive to the danger of hypocrisy. A well-known passage (b. Soṭa 22b) denounces six types of hypocritical Pharisees, focusing on some of the same elements of hypocrisy denounced by Jesus (cf. too y. Ber. 9:5). Presumably many Pharisees would have agreed with Jesus’ criticism of hypocrisy, and therefore his criticism is not to be construed as falling upon all Pharisees. How tragic, therefore, that in common parlance “Pharisee” is often regarded as synonymous with “hypocrite.” Two further points need to be made. First, the language of the woes, so harsh to modern ears, reflects the conventions of ancient polemic (see esp. Johnson). Thus the severe language is not as exceptional as it may seem to us. Second, the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees is to be understood as in some respects an intramural one (see McKnight). Certainly for Matthew the issue concerns who is the more reliable interpreter of Torah: the Pharisees or Jesus? Beneath that question, however, lies the matter of Christology. Jesus is sovereign in the matter of the interpretation of righteousness because of who he is. It is this matter that underlies the growing hostility between the synagogue and church that has undoubtedly left its impact upon the material presented here.
Finally, in light of what has been said above, it is unthinkable that chap. 23 be used to portray the Pharisees or Judaism negatively. This passage has a very specific historical context (see Glasson), and therefore it is totally improper to attempt to apply it to Jews or Judaism today. Even in its historical setting, as we have seen, the bitter rhetoric of chap. 23 must yield to an adequate and fair understanding of Pharisaic Judaism. Thus this chapter provides no basis whatsoever for anti-Semitic attitudes or actions (see Michel). And the same must be said of all the “anti-Judaistic” passages in the Gospel (see further Introduction, in Hagner, Matthew 1–13, lxxi–lxxiii).
Note especially the explicit rejection of an equation of the critiques of Pharisees in Matthew 23 with “Jews or Judaism today.” The Word Biblical Commentary is one of the best around these days, critical, moderate, accessible (being one of the few commentary series available in a fully searchable electronic version), and contemporary (the first volumes appearing in 1982 with several revised and several still to appear). Added to such input the “New Perspective on Paul” as exemplified by the writings of James Dunn and others, and there is a veritable revolution going on in New Testament studies, repudiating the old “hypocritical Pharisees” to “legalistic Jews” equation, thankfully.
I highly recommend In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds. Baylor University Press, 2007) as a help to furthering the elimination of such scurrilous remnants of a dark and ignorant past scholarship. Thank you for reading this series. I hope that it, too, has been helpful.