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.

Continue reading “The Gospels on the Pharisees VI”

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.

George Herbert 1633


Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and the ears, they acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehand? For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see God except by the power of the Spirit? This is why their vision is not a sensation, since they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental activity. It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument.

On the other hand, the mind does not acquire it simply by elevating itself through negation. For, according to the teaching of the Fathers, every divine command and every sacred law has as its final limit purity of heart; every mode and aspect of prayer reaches its term in pure prayer; and every concept which strives from below towards the One Who transcends all and is separate from all comes to a halt once detached from all created beings. However, it is erroneous to say that over and above the accomplishment of the divine commands, there is nothing but purity of heart. There are other things, and many of them: There is the pledge of things promised in this life, and also the blessings of the life to come, which are rendered visible and accessible by this purity of heart. Thus, beyond prayer, there is the ineffable vision, and ecstasy in the vision, and the hidden mysteries. Similarly, beyond the stripping away of beings, or rather after the cessation [of our perceiving or thinking of them] accomplished not only in words, but in reality, there remains an unknowing which is beyond knowledge; though indeed a darkness, it is yet beyond radiance, and, as the great Denys says, it is in this dazzling darkness that the divine things are given to the saints.

Thus the perfect contemplation of God and divine things is not simply an abstraction; but beyong this abstraction, there is a participation of divine things, a gift and a possession rather than just a process of negation. But these possessions and gifts are ineffable: If one speaks of them, one must have recourse to images and analogies—not because that is the way in which these things are seen, but because one cannot adumbrate what one has seen in any other way. Those, therefore, who do not listen in a reverent spirit to what is said about these ineffable things, which are necessarily expressed through images, regard the knowledge that is beyond wisdom as foolishness; trampling under foot the intelligible pearls, they strive also to destroy as far as possible by their disputation those who have shown them to them.

St Gregory Palamas. The Triads I.iii.18

Doublemint Biblical Studies Carnivals

It took Tyler Williams a while, as he’d been quite busy, but Biblical Studies Carnival XXX is now up and available at his fine blog Codex. Following immediately on its heels is Biblical Studies Carnival XXXI, hosted by James Getz at Ketuvim.

Scanning through these carnival posts, readers will find that they, like myself, have quite a lot of interesting reading ahead of them, and some blog roll updating to do, no doubt.

Thank you very much, Tyler and James!

Scripture, Prayer, and Life

I wonder too at people who, when they see someone labouring at reading the Holy Scriptures, assiduously searching out the insights contained in them, always engaged in these and suchlike meditations on this subject of the hidden ministry, address him with some truly crass words that possess no perception or understanding, such as, “However much you read or toil away, your labour is useless.” Even more so in the case of people who speak along the following lines: “What is the point of your searching out, and what advantage do you get by making yourselves idle as you hunt for spiritual meanings and the such like? Active work is what is required. If we do what we know about, we do not need any immense labour over the Scriptures or things of that sort.”

Such people do not realize what they are saying, and they are unaware that this very thing—namely that a person’s intellect be filled with the thought of the divine economy and the continual recollection of that, which stems from the wondrous reflection sown in the intellect by the reading of Scripture and the search for hidden things—constitutes the complete performance and sum of our Lord’s commandments.

For someone to fulfil works which are performed just with the body is the way and norm of secular people. But he whose recollection is continually bound in with our Lord by means of the reading of Scripture, prayer, the search to this end involving the stirrings of the mind, consolation and hope of what lies hidden: who, by means of these, harnesses his intellect, preventing it from wandering among the passions; by means, too, of the delight that comes from converse with God—such a person has fixed in himself all the works of excellence; he has brought them to complete fulfilment, with nothing lacking. Whereas all those other people who labour at various stages in all kinds of excellent things, are below this person on the road of the commandments.

Let us rejoice, then, and give thanks to God that we have been held worthy, even for a small moment, to be able to escape from chatter and talk with the passions, and even though we may be occupied with them under the guise of struggle—for we are, albeit just for one moment, through converse with some excellent meditation, above struggles and meditating on the fight with, and images of, the passions. And this cannot be acquired without the continual reading of Scripture in stillness and the reflective search for things hidden, and prayer.

The reading of Scripture manifestly is the fountainhead that gives birth to prayer—and by these two things we are transported in the direction of the love of God whose sweetness is poured out continually in our hearts like honey or a honeycomb, and our souls exult at the taste which the hidden ministry of prayer and the reading of Scripture pour into our hearts.

St Isaac the Syrian. The Second Part, XXIX.1-5. Translation by Sebastian Brock (CSCO 555).

The Gospels on the Pharisees V

(continued from here)

15.) Mt 22.15-22 / Lk 20.20-26 / Mk 12.13-17
Taxes to Caesar. Mt presents, at this point, the Pharisees now planning to “entangle [Jesus] in his talk” (22.15), sending some of their own disciples and some Herodians to do so. Lk has the instigators as scribes and chief priests, following from the previous pericope in Lk. Mk retains the Pharisees and Herodians of Mt. It’s interesting that the Herodians appear in Mt only here, involved in a question with overtly political ramifications, while they are utterly absent throughout the rest of Mt. In Mk they appear here, and also in 3.6, curiously, at the end of the incident of Jesus’ healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (see my note 6, above). However, in this case, the outcome in all three parallels is relatively positive: wonder/amazement on the part of hearers at Jesus’ skillful answer, even despite his explicitly calling them hypocrites in Mt, and with this evaluation of them imputed to him by the narrator in Lk and Mk.

16.) Mt 22.34-40 / Lk 10.25-28 / Mk 12.28-34
The Great Commandment. The shortest account is that of Mt, a simple question and answer without commentary on the part of Jesus or his interlocutor. Lk’s account poses a different question (“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 10.25), and the entire pericope is displaced relative to its position in Mt and Mk. Indeed, the pericope in Lk appears to be a different incident, as the initial question differs, and it is then followed by another question from Jesus, and the scribe then answers with the OT quotations, to which answer Jesus gives an approving response. Mk appears to conflate Mt and Lk, particularly so as to keep the approval of Jesus at the end, though in a different formulation (cf Lk 10.28 and Mk 12.34). Mt and Mk both begin with the scribe’s question (a lawyer from among the Pharisees in Mt, one of the scribes in Mk) which is then answered by Jesus. Mt ends the pericope there, while Mk includes a recapitulating affirmation from the scribe, whose positive response is then in turn affirmed by Jesus. An interesting change in perspective is discernible between Mt and Mk. In Mt, Jesus proclaims “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (22.40). However, this becomes in Mk part of the scribe’s affirmation “[This pair of laws] is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12.33). There is a whiff of supersession of the sacrificial system in Mk that is entirely absent from Mt, likely to be attributed to the later, more Gentile context of the audience of Mk.

17.) Mt 22.41-46 / Lk 20.41-44 / Mk 12.35-37
The Question about the Son of David. Here we find some interesting narrative tricks in process amongst the three parallel pericopes. First comes Mt, a pericope immediately following upon the “Great Commandment” pericope described above. The audience is still the Pharisees. In Lk, however, with the displacement of the “Great Commandment” pericope, at the end of the dispute with the Sadducees over the resurrection (not covered in these notes: see Mt 22.23-33; Lk 20.27-40; Mk 12.18-27), Lk inserts a response from the scribes (20.40), following with the “Son of David” pericope in verse 41: “But he said to them…,” thus addressing this pericope to the scribes. Mk, on the other hand, inserted a clean break between the “Great Commandment” pericope and the “Son of David” pericope with 12.34b: “And after that no one dared to ask him any question.” A similar statement occurs at Lk 20.40, and at Mt 22.46. It appears that Lk placed his statement at 20.40 because that is the end of the last pericope in his set in which Jesus is asked a question, as the case is in Mk. Both appear to have found the placement of Mt’s similar statement awkward, as it follows the end of a pericope in which Jesus asks the question. Interesting, too, are the different audiences. In Mt, it is still the Pharisees around whom he asks, and they then answer, followed by Jesus making an objection through a Scriptural citation, an interesting and classically rabbinic practice. This is altered, however, in Lk, who has Jesus ask the scribes, “How can they say…?” (20.41), and Mk follows this format in having Jesus question the crowd “How can the scribes say…?” (12.35). In both, he continues with the same Scriptural citation as an objection, but the argumentation is no longer preserved, the questions having become merely rhetorical. Again, Mt appears more authentic and earlier than Lk and Mk.

18.) Mt 23.1-39 / Lk 20.45-47, etc / Mk 12.37b-40
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” This entire chapter of Mt 23 is devoted to a fascinating list of apparent halakhic rulings of the Pharisees (and those scribes following their lead) with which Jesus vehemently disagrees. As Pickup notes (p. 102), in Mt Jesus addresses the “crowds and his disciples” in that order, which Lk turns into “in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples” (20.45), following with a drastically shortened account of Mt’s pericope, which Lucan abbreviation is then followed by Mk. The halakhic disagreements are displaced by Lk into Lk 11.37-54, where they likewise are presented in a different order, in the narrative setting of dinner at a Pharisee’s house, with the remnants of some halakhic argumentation on handwashing (see my note 9, above). It appeas that Lk wanted to keep the particularly halakhic distraction to a minimum, so he relegated only the more interesting rhetoric in Jesus’ argumentation into the earlier context of Lk 11, keeping the nearly unrecognizable remnants of Mt’s detailed halakhic objections and argumentation in one place. The fragment of this discourse left in place in Lk 20.45-47 and Mk 12.37b-40 is likewise simply a warning about the scribes, not the scribes and Pharisees as in Mt, apparently wishing to focus on the scribes as the official teachers of the law, rather than those responsible for the content of that instruction, which would have been the Pharisees. In addition, Mt 23.37-39, the climactic conclusion of this chapter in Mt, is completely displaced to another context in Lk (13.34-35), again demonstrating a fondness for the arrangement of Jesus’ sayings into discrete gnomic utterances more in keeping with Gentile conceptions of proper rhetoric for a philosopher, rather than the halakhic argumentation of a Judean teacher of the law. But this passage in Mt is tied to its immediately preceding context by the words “prophet” and “blood”, in addition to being the climactic point of this chapter, a hair’s breadth away from explicitly prophesying Jesus’ soon forthcoming death. Such is completely out of place in Lk.

Regarding the very difficult Mt 23.2-3, Pickup says (p. 106):

Is is possible to understand Jesus to be saying that the people should follow the scribes and Pharisees’ teaching of the Scriptures, but just not their behavior or the halakha of their oral traditions? I believe that it is, since this is exactly what we have seen throughout our analysis of Matthew’s gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ objection to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees was not that their teaching of Scripture per se was wrong, but that their application of it failed to adequately fulfill the principles of the Law. Their level of righteousness (i.e., righteous behavior) was what was inadequate (5:20), not what the people heard from them regarding what Scripture said. Jesus objected to the actions of the scribes and Pharisees. Angry epithets, lustful looks at women, bills of divorcement, vows made in vain, acts of personal vengeance, and unloving behavior all failed to measure up to the moral principles of Scripture that the scribes and Pharisees themselves taught. Thus, Matthew’s Jesus says in the present discourse, “…Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (v. 3).

That is really the only sensible reading in context. Likewise, such a proclamation and such a diatribe would have sealed anyone’s fate: telling the people at large, through popularity with whom the Pharisees gained all their influence in wider affairs, to ignore the Pharisees’ halakhic program would’ve been perceived as a direct attack on their foundational support among the people, mentioned by all sources. And while the Pharisees are not depicted as involved in the arrest, trial, sentencing and execution of Jesus, this may be taken as their response to such confrontational speeches on the part of Jesus: they neither came to his defense nor did they attempt to ameliorate the sentence.

It also seems to me that this chapter Mt 23 would have been most shocking in its indictment of Pharisaic rulings for another reason. The objections are coming not through argumentation, as in Mt 15, but by fiat, from a man who speaks and acts with authority—heavenly authority some believed, but not all. This, I think, would have frightened not a few hearers, and rightly so. It is exactly this confrontation between the prophetic and the professional that is depicted, in various clarities, throughout the gospels.

19.) Mt 26.6-13 / Lk 7.36-50 / Mk 14.3-9 / Jn 12.1-8
In a rather rare case, this particular pericope, The Anointing by the Woman, is present in all four gospels in parallel forms, though there are differences. Mt and Mk are nearly identical, with John close to them, while Lk’s version is so different and so displaced (the other three gospels all place this even late in Jesus’ life, explicitly six days before the crucifixion in Jn, while Lk places it years earlier) as to perhaps indicate a separate incident. In any case, it is only in Lk’s version that there is mention of a Pharisee, Jesus’ host, named Simon. Interestingly, both Mt and Mk also have the host as Simon, but call him a leper (Mt 6.6; Mk 14.3) and place the event in Bethany. Jn places it in Bethany as well, (2.1-2) but in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, who is the woman who anoints Jesus. The Pharisees Simon in Lk appears to be concerned with the ritual purity status of the woman who is touching Jesus (7.39). Though it is not explicitly stated, and Lk is not as careful with such details as is Mt, the concern of Simon appears to be transmission of uncleanness from the sinful woman to Jesus (perhaps exacerbated through the presence of the liquid medium of her tears and the ointment?). As mention of Pharisees and this theme of uncleanness is lacking in the other parallels, which thereby do appear to reflect a different situation being depicted, there is no further elaboration on the presence of the Pharisees in the parallels.

This concludes the set of parallel pericopes in which Pharisees are mentioned in at least one of the gospels. This was an intersting little project. After a bit more research, I’ll be presenting some information related to the above on how different passages in the gospels have been misread regarding the Pharisees. One thing, I think, is clear from the above: the Gospel according to Matthew preserves a more accurate record of first century proto-halakhic dispute than do either Luke or Mark, both of which show a clear tendency towards altering passages for the benefit of their Gentile audiences. The way that pericopes found in Matthew were edited, being shortened or rearranged or scattered in Luke and Mark, leads to the inescapable conclusion that Matthew was the earliest Gospel and Luke and Mark used it as a source. For an author like Matthew (for lack of any better name) with such sensitivity to the traditions of first century Judean halakhic dispute, there is no way that he would treat Mark and Luke (for it would require knowledge of both) as a kind of halakhic treasury (which they certainly aren’t) to pull random bits of phrases and arguments together and construct whole perfect examples of halakhic argumentation out of them, placing them in the mouth of Jesus. Rather it is more sensible to see the original whole arguments abbreviated by Luke and Mark as later alterations for later, different audiences with later, different interests.