The Gospels on the Pharisees II

As I mentioned a few days ago in the first post in this series, I’m looking at the Gospel parallels dealing with Pharisees noted in the Martin Pickup (“Matthew and Mark’s Pharisees”) and Amy-Jill Levine (“Luke’s Pharisees”) articles in the volume In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, approaching them with the Griesbach Hypothesis in mind, which takes Matthew as the earliest written Gospel, then Luke which used Matthew, then Mark, which used both. By the end of this first installment of my notes, 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.

[to be continued]


  1. On old wine’s superiority – I drank old wine this morning at Synagogue – the depth of the learning indicated by the cycle of Torah, Haftorah and many psalms seems a better depth than what I find in many congregations on Sunday. Nonetheless, I do not give up my door into the sheepfold!

    I have never given up on Griesbach – and I do like Matthean priority overall because of the discourse structure (5 Moses, 5 Psalms 5 books in Mt). But most of all, Mark is the most direct – pivoting on the revelation to Peter after the transfiguration – It was the first time I ever noted a literary structure in any book – so my bias has been set.

    Thanks for the series.

  2. Well, everyone knows that old wine is better to drink!

    The thing that clinched Griesbach for me were the “minor agreements.” So much of the evidence is equivocal, the pericopes appearing in the same order, and the differences between them being susceptible to any number of suggested causes, when all is said and done. But that matchup in order btw Mt and Lk really clinches it. The very first Gospel should have looked something like Matthew, something very similar to the intertestamental works, which it is. Mark is clearly later, directed toward Gentiles, as is Luke. If we’re going to posit that letters were flying around the Mediterranean concerning the minutiae of this new Way, and the core narrative wasn’t written down until many years later, then I think there’s a serious problem with what passes for an acceptable model. There was sufficient literacy and sufficient need to compose, relatively early, a narrative on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew fits that bill precisely. The only suggestive point for dating that doesn’t depend upon some model or other is in Mt 24.15, certainly a reference to Caligula’s attempt to place an image of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem, which the authorities stalled on implementing (or so Josephus says) until the (ahem) untimely demise of that nutjob. So, Matthew would’ve been written around 40, and that would make sense. Luke/Acts certainly should date to just after the last events described, so 62/63. Mark will have come even later, using both Mt and Lk, and then altering the pericopes not only to show Peter’s later disgust at his own and the disciple’s thickheadedness, but also adapting it to the predominantly Gentile audience for whom he wrote (in Rome?). Griesbach makes no sense without a corresponding earlier dating of both Matthew and Luke/Acts. Anyhow, more on all this later.

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