This page comprises a compilation of my posts “The Gospels on the Pharisees” (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; see the original posts for discussions) on the subject of the depiction of the Pharisees in the Synoptic Gospels and the implications of the Griesbach Two Gospel Hypothesis bearing on this depiction. The series was sparked, as mentioned below, by two of the chapters in the volume edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees.
I recently read and posted briefly on In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton (Baylor Univ Press, 2007). It’s a pithy book, a thoroughly thought-provoking one that deserves revisiting in more depth. In a short series of posts I intend to revisit precisely those issues which, in my reading, struck my contemplation like a bell, leaving it ringing ever since.
The first interest is something I mentioned in a post, Notes on Pharisees, investigating how following the Griesbach Hypothesis minority approach to the Synoptic Problem (mentioned in passing, as we’ll see below, by both Martin Pickup in his chapter “Matthew’s and Mark’s Pharisees” and by Amy-Jill Levine in her chapter “Luke’s Pharisees”) would lead to perhaps slightly different conclusions regarding attitudes discernible through differences between the Evangelists’ mention of the Pharisees and others. Pickup and Levine both, of course, utilized the majority approach to the Synoptic Problem in their investigations, what is most often referred to as the Two-Source Hypothesis.
For those readers unfamiliar with what is commonly called the Synoptic Problem, in a nutshell it refers to the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are quite similar in wording and order of pericopes, and the relationship in the origins of each one to the other. The Griesbach Hypothesis, also called the Two Gospel Hypothesis, posits that Matthew was written first, then Luke was written using Matthew, and then Mark written last using both Matthew and Luke. (This is the explanation to which I myself hold.) The Two-Source Hypothesis is more complicated. It posits that Mark was written first, and that there was a further written body of shared tradition available to both Matthew and Luke (labeled Q, from the German Quelle, source), that also available to Matthew and Luke were a set of traditions peculiar to themselves (referred to as M and L respectively when it is proposed that these sources were written documents and not just oral tradition), but that Matthew and Luke did not use one another’s Gospels. An excellent site which describes all the variations suggested as solutions to the Synoptic Problem is that of Stephen Carlson, who provides a system of didactically very helpful graphics showing the relationships between the Gospels in the various hypotheses, The Synoptic Problem Website.
So, the issue here in exegesis of any text represented in one of the Synoptic Gospels must be intimately related to the hypothesis preferred by the exegete to explain the relationships between the Gospels. In this way, a saying that is present in one Gospel in one form, and in another Gospel in a slightly different form, will be explained differently according to the relationship suggested by the preferred solution to the Synoptic Problem. When we posit Mark as the beginning, and then evaluate Matthew and Luke according to how they have “changed” what Mark said, one will suggest different alterations and motivations than what would be said in positing Matthew as the beginning, seeing how Luke adapted his writing, and how Mark made use of both in the end. So I thought it would be fun to apply this latter method, based on the Griesbach Two Gospel Hypothesis, and see how differently the data regarding the mention of Pharisees in the Synoptic Gospels will look. I’m thinking particularly that it might clear up a bit of what’s going on with the Pharisees in Luke, which Amy-Jill Levine showed was rather difficult to pin down in following the Two Source Hypothesis.
Following this alternate investigation of the data relating to the Pharisees, I then intend to take a look at how the Gospels have been and are still regularly misread regarding the Pharisees. With the information found in the chapters of In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, it is not only possible, but imperative to correct those misreadings. We find, in taking account of this new picture of the Pharisees, that they are still criticized in the Gospels, but not in general for what has been attributed to them in the past, for a kind of rigid, loveless, legalistic religious hypocrisy that is familiar to every religious tradition. Rather, their problem lay elsewhere, I would suggest in a kind of cynical pragmatism tied to the maintenance of their popularity with and power over the populace.
I think it’s safe to say that taking the Griesbach Hypothesis as a starting point doesn’t overturn any of the results presented by Pickup and Levine in their discussions. In some cases, though, it may shed some more light on proto-halakhic disputation current in the first century, and how writers for Gentile audiences, not understanding the importance of the details, would summarize these for their audiences more interested in and familiar with the gnomic sayings of a Philosopher than the halakhic disputations of a Rabbi. Yet the latter is certainly to be expected the earlier we go, and is found in Matthew in spades. Likewise the depiction of the Pharisees in Matthew is a nuanced one, sometimes depicting hostility on one or the other side, but one that also recognizes them as what might be called the “directing partner” in a relationship with the actual rulers and officials in charge of the national ethnic law, or Jewish religious law, halakhah as we might say today.
These notes are personal reflections, taken off the top of my head, directions for further thought and investigation, making no claim to anything more than being notes posted on a blog. I trust others will find some things in them of interest, however. We shall see. The best benefit is to be had in actually reading In Quest of the Historical Pharisees. References to Pickup or Levine with a page number in the notes below refer to the page numbers in that volume. So let us proceed.
1.) Matthew 5.1-7.29: First Discourse/Sermon on the Mount (Pickup 99-102)
In Mt 5.17-48 Jesus “juxtaposes his own teaching about the Torah with that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Pickup 99). Six examples are given by Jesus in which the instruction/practice of the scribes and Pharisees are deemed insufficient, which “result in an inadequate level of righteousness (v. 20)” (Pickup 101). A suggestion to explain the breaking up of this discourse into the scatterd and incomplete fragments as found in Luke and Mark is the likely need for too many parenthetical explanations (as in Mk 7.3 and 11 especially) for so much of the discourse for their audiences. Excerpting from it the more gnomic and Gentile-friendly bits, avoiding the actual disputations of nascent halakhah in Matthew, explains the results. As the discourse stands, particularly Mt 5.17-48, where the patterns of halakhic disputation are plainly recognizable, it is much easier to understand this to have been the original context of the scattered parallels in Luke and Mark (namely the Beatitudes in Mt 5.3-12 and Lk 6.20-23; Mt 5.13 = Mk 9.49, Lk 14.34-35; Mt 5.15 = Mk 4.21, Lk 8.16; Mt 5.17-18 = Lk 16.16-17; Mt 5.23-24 = Mk 11.25; Mt 5.25-26 = Lk 12.57-59; Mt 5.30 = Mk 9.43; Mt 5.32 = Lk 16.18; Mt 5.38-42 = Lk 6.29-30; Mt 5.43-48 = Lk 6.27-28, 32-36). Clearly these pithy Dominical sayings are stripped from a context in Matthew to which they are manifestly better fitted, where they are linked together by topic and vocabulary, and where they are organized as proto-halakhic disputations of a format recognizable in later Rabbinic writings.
2.) Matthew 9.1-8 / Luke 5.17-26 / Mark 2.1-2: Healing the Paralytic
Mt and Mk both indicate that “some of the scribes” found Jesus’ words blasphemous, while Lk notes it was “the scribes and the Pharisees” in keeping with Luke’s setting of the scene: “One day . . . Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem)…” (Lk 5.17). Mt doesn’t mention a crowd initially, though one is implied by the scribes of 9.3; the crowd is only mentioned at the end of the pericope in Mt 9.8. Mk has “many were gathered together” (2.2) indicating a mixed crowd rather than one of exclusively scribes/law-teachers and Pharisees, as Lk may be read to imply. The delightful detail of letting the man on the pallet down through the roof (Mk 2.4, Lk 5.19) is some added color, though it appears to make their feat of lowering the man the indicator of their faith, rather than the mere fact of their having brought him. An explanation of the “blasphemy” is found in Lk 5.21 and Mk 2.7, which explanation was unnecessary in Mt, and presumably originally, as well: “Who can forgive sins but God?” The emphasis in Lk appears to be on Jesus’ extra-local fame and ability to draw interested parties, including particularly those responsible for religious education. Taking Mt as the earliest and Lk as next, we see emphasizing the crowd moved up front in Lk and an emphasis on that component of the crowd which had come from afar, law-teachers (later “scribes”) and Pharisees, which gives a certain great philosopher-like impression of Jesus. Likewise the “fear” of the crowd in Mt 9.8 is entirely striking but appropriate, the crowd having just witnessed what appeared to be a delegation of Divine power to a man. This is softened to amazement in Lk and Mk, with the delegation removed. Indeed, the point of the pericope in Mt is that of the delegation, but in Lk and Mr the healing is emphasized, and the important point of delegated forgiveness is not as strongly (if at all) pointed to. Lk in fact sets it up as a healing story at 5.17.
3.) Mt 9.9-13 / Lk 5.27-32 / Mk 2.14-17: The Calling of Matthew/Levi
In Mt only Pharisees ask the question, while in both Lk (“Pharisees and their scribes”) and Mk (the odd “scribes of the Pharisees”), scribes are involved. Seeing that in both Mk and Lk the scribes are somehow attached to the Pharisees, whether in being themselves Pharisees or so controlled by them that they are effectively Pharisees, we find corroboration of the image presented throughout the Gospels — the Pharisees were the “directing partners” of the scribes.
4.) Mt 9.14-17 / Lk 5.33-39 / Mk 2.18-22: On Fasting
Mt has the question asked by “the disciples of John” (9.14) Lk has a generic “they” (5.33), likely pointing back to the same “Pharisees and their scribes” in the previous pericope, but followed by their awkward reference to themselves in the third person! Mk likewise has unspecified “people” asking (2.18), though awkwardly introducing the pericope with the mention of the disciples of John and the Pharisees to be currently fasting (based on Mt’s present tense in 9.14?). However, if the Pharisees’ disciples (and presumably also the Pharisees themselves) were fasting, why were they at this banquet? Lk has the question become “fast and offer prayers.” Again, Mt has the better antecedent, with disciples of John simply asking “Why do we and the Pharisees fast…?” (9.14). As in #2 above, we see a softening of Mt’s original for the sake of diaspora Jews and Gentiles: fasting is not, as for Mt, equated with mourning (Mt 9.15), but in Lk becomes associated with prayer and thus is presented as a religious function of some sort (Lk 5.34). Lk also shows some expansion in the patch of new cloth being torn from a new garment (Lk 5.36), and in v. 39, the statement on old wine’s superiority, which rather defeats the purpose of the pericope, or at least distracts from its point on appropriate timing for fasting.
5.) Mt 12.1-8 / Lk 6.1-5 / Mk 2.23-28: Plucking Grain on a Sabbath
Both Lk and Mk importantly fail to note what excused the disciples’ “harvest” — “his disciples were hungry” (Mt 12.1). Only in Mt is there a coherent presentation of the disputation. The Hosea 6.6 quotation is not extraneous, but integral, explaining both the principle at play in the David incident first, and secondly the disciples’ situation. Secondly, the “priests in the temple” section (vv 5-6) is tied to the “priests” in v. 4, followed by a link with the word “temple” in vv 5 and 6. So we have the entire pericope bound together in a classic word chain: hungry-hungry, priests-priests, temple-temple, sabbath-sabbath, which sabbath likewise links back to verse 1. In both Lk and Mk, the gnomic “Son of man is lord of the sabbath” is rendered cryptic without the disputation from which it came, although Mk does include a rather generic summary of its intended point (2.27). The full context lies only in Mt. The Pharisees are depicted as objecting in all three Gospels. Pickup puts it well on this pericope:
The first argument makes the point that the Sabbath restriction cannot be understood to mean that every kind of work is prohibited on that day, for it was obvious that God did not intend the suspension of the priestly sacrificial duties on the Sabbath. The quotation (again) of Hosea 6:6 complements the prior argument, for if sacrifice is not forbidden on the Sabbath, and yet mercy (ελεος) is more important to God than sacrifice, then deeds of mercy on the Sabbath could not be forbidden. This type of qal v’homer argumentation fully comports with the thrust of Jesus’ halakhic argumentation in Mark. (Pickup 91)
I would say, of course, that Mark’s summary doesn’t do justice to the original argument as presented in Matthew, which itself comports fully with a proto-rabbinic environment of halakhic disputation, just what is expected in first century Galilee and Judea.
6.) Matthew 12.9-14 / Luke 6.6-11 / Mark 3.1-6
Pickup on Mt 12.9-14:
Jesus’ words presume a knowledge of Pharisaic practice—specifically, that they would have granted an exception to the Sabbath restriction in the case of a trapped animal. Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of inconsistency in their application of the Torah. More than that, he sees is as an inconsistency that fails to give proper place to the humanitarian requirements of the Law” (p. 91).
Several differences are apparent in this set of parallel pericopes. First, in Mt it is Pharisees who ask Jesus the question on the legality of healing on the Sabbath, and Jesus answers with a question, using a classic qal va-homer (a fortiori) analogy to establish that saving an animal is permitted, thus so is healing a man. In Lk and Mk, however, Jesus asks a slightly different question, skips the halakhic analogy, and heals the man in a confrontational manner. Both Lk and Mk also present the Pharisees (and scribes in Lk) as already antagonistic, just looking for an excuse to accuse Jesus. On the other hand, in Mt there is no such narrative setup, and their (the Pharisees of 12.3) animosity comes only after he has healed the man, once he is perceived to have committed an offense. So again we see, in Lk’s and Mk’s reuse of the material, Mt’s halakhic argumentation stripped out and the pericope transformed into one focusing on how a good act can paradoxically offend some pre-antagonistic viewers (did they need any excuse?), not too surprisingly. The communication between Jesus and the Pharisees, him addressing them with their own manner of argumentation, according to their own form, is important to understand. His use of such forms of halakhic argumentation indicates that it was not restricted to the Pharisees, precursors to the Rabbis, alone, but was also, as we also know from some allusive examples at Qumran, a form of argumentation that was in general circulation among first century Judeans. Eliminating the level of understanding and rapport changes the depiction of the relationship from that of two parties speaking the same language in the same cultural and intellectual context (as the original situation patently was) to that of haughty superiority on one side and craven antagonism on the other. Matthew therefore presents a picture more in line with reality than either Luke or Mark.
7.) Matthew 12.24 / Mark 3.22
In this case we find Mt depicting the speakers as Pharisees, while Mk has “scribes…from Jerusalem” speaking. Pickup (pp 94-95) notes that the scribes are more often depicted in discussion with Jesus in Mk, while in Mt, the Pharisees predominate. Pickup says (p. 95), “Clearly, the author of Matthew believed that while not every Pharisee was a scribe, certain scribes in Mark’s gospel were in fact Pharisees and these Pharisaic scribes in Mark’s gospel were in fact Pharisees and these Pharisees tended to be the ones who objected to Jesus as a teacher of the Law.” Yet there is another way to view the evidence. With the Griesbach Hypothesis, we have Lk between Mt and Mk, and the evidence viewed in this order shows that Lk introduced the scribes into many of the pericopes, where they were either retained or not by Mk, with no apparent pattern. Lk perhaps differentiated the Pharisees in Mt simply for the reason of increasing the impression of organized opposition to Jesus from Judean leadership. The scribes, however, do not get off easy in Mt. Note the repeated refrain in Mt 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
8.) Matthew 12.38 (par 16.1-2a, 4) / Lk 11.16, 29-32 / Mk 8.11-12
Here in Mt, scribes and Pharisees seek a sign (at Mt 16.1 is is “the Pharisees and Sadducees”), while Lk has “some” and “others” in a crowd asking (11.14-16), and Mk has simply “the Pharisees” (8.11) arriving and promptly arguing. Note the change: a respectful request in Mt 12.38 (“Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you”) is harmonized with Mt 16.1 (“And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven”) in first Lk and then Mk. In both, again, Jesus’ initial rapport with the Pharisees and scribes is obscured by this practice of Lk, sustained by Mk, in presenting the Pharisees and Judean leadership as irrationally hostile to Jesus from the beginning. Mt presents a picture of deteriorating relations, which is much more believable, likely, and thereby almost certainly earlier.
9.) Mt 15.1-20 / Lk 11.37-54 / Mk 7.1-23
In Mt the issue is ritual handwashing prior to a meal, something that concerned some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, and is undoubtedly related to the later-attested Rabbinic practice (see Mishnah tractate Yadayim, passim). This would have been a basic issue that apparently would presumably prevent table fellowship between Jesus and his disciples on one side, and the Pharisees and scribes on the other. Jesus’ argument is fascinating. Adducing a presumably Pharisaic and scribal halakhic example regarding vows to the Temple (“Qorban”) and positing a situation in which it would actually break commandments in the Torah rather than preserve them, he follows with a quotation from Isaiah 29.13, a prophetic condemnation of similar behavior. This is then followed by a stunning pronouncement which appears to be related to the Isaiah quotation: what comes from the heart defiles. In Lk the argumentation is completely gone, and the pericope is combined with a Lucan version of the some of the woes of Mt 23. Mk, however, follows Mt more closely, though still not presenting the argumentation in full. Indeed, it appears that in his concern for parenthetical explanation of Jewish customs for his Gentile readers (vv 3-4, 11) and application to their situation (particularly in the parenthesis in v 19: “Thus he declared all foods clean” — patently not the issue in Mt), Mk has taken the pericope in a different direction altogether, one foreign to the argumentation in Mt.
10.) Mt 16.1-4 / Lke 11.16, 29; 12.54-56 / Mk 8.11-13
As noted above in #8, Lk and Mk have harmonized Mt 12.38-42 and Mt 16.1-4, which is most apparent in Mk 8.11 and Lk 11.16 noting that the questioning was in order “to test him,” which is lacking in the parallel in Mt 12.38. Also to be noted is the weather observation saying in Lk 12.54-56, which originates in an appropriate fuller context in Mt 16.1-4.
11.) Mt 16.5-12 / Lk 12.1 / Mk 8.14-21
Lk excerpts only the very beginning of the Matthean pericope on the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but identifies this leaven as the hypocrisy of the Pharisees alone, rather than the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees as in Mt. (The single excerpt is then followed by a Lucan version of Mt 10.26-33, interestingly implying persecution from the quarter of the Pharisees, though this would’ve been in actuality unlikely due to their position as influential intellectually, but lacking official power as a body themselves.) The version in Mk moves the focus, as elsewhere, to the miracles of the multiplication of loaves on two separate occasions, altogether neglecting to inform the reader what this leaven represents. An interesting change is that of “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” in Mt 16.6 to “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” in Mk 8.15. It is perhaps this unusual alteration in Mk that led to omitting the identification of the leaven. What role would the Pharisees and Herod have in common? Certainly not teaching. Mk probably should be taken, however, to understand the leaven as “hypocrisy” with Lk 12.1, contra Mt 6.12.
12.) Mt 19.3-12 / Lk 16.18 / Mk 10.2-12
In both Mt and Mk, it is the Pharisees asking Jesus about divorce, but there is a crucial difference in the two accounts. Mt has the question posed “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (19.3). Mk has it “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (10.2). Mt’s question will explain why Jesus’ ruling in 16.9 includes the proviso for adultery as the only legitimate reason for divorce. The unqualified question in Mk leads to an unqualified ban on divorce. Lk and Mk have no parallels to the concluding section of this pericope in Mt regarding not marrying as “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” vv 10-12. Such imagery could be construed as distasteful to a Gentile audience, if aversion to circumcision is any guide. Lk and Mk might then simply have avoided presenting this odd saying to their predominantly Gentile audiences.
13.) Mt 21.23-27 / Lk 20.1-8 / Mk 11.27-33
In Mt we find “the chief priests and the elders of the people” (21.23) questioning the source of Jesus’ authority, while in Lk it is “the chief priests and the scribes with the elders” (20.1) and in Mk it is “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (11.27). Again, Lk inserts scribes and Mk follows suit, connoting the group against Jesus to be composed of all the rulership of the nation as well as the instructors, while Mt leaves the latter out of this particular episode. Lk and Mt both foster the impression of widespread official opposition to Jesus from the beginning of his teaching, while Mt presents a picture over the course of the gospel of a deteriorating relationship between Jesus and the other parties: Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, et al.
14.) Mt 21.33-46 / Lk 20.9-19 / Mk 12.1-12
This is the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen. The three versions are substantially parallel, though Lk omits the removal of the kingdom in Mt 21.43, and Mk omits both that and the following verse regarding being broken on the stone (Mt 21.44; Lk 20.18). The parties who recognize themselves depicted unflatteringly in the parable are “the chief priests and the Pharisees” in Mt 21.45, and “the scribes and the chief priests” in Lk 20.19. In Mk it is simply “they” (12.12), referring back to “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” of 11.27.
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.
Above I 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.