The Gospels on the Pharisees I

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 my earlier post, 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 the series of posts describing 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.

In any case, stay tuned for the coming installments. I have to write them first!


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