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Can’t Sleep, the Pharisees Will Eat Me

February 17, 2014
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The Pharisees are some of the most reliable Christian antagonists.  They are scattered across the New Testament both as direct antagonists in the gospels and as impetus for all sorts of “Judaizing” that Paul confronts in his letters.  Everyone knows the Pharisees (with a few important exceptions like Nicodemus) are bad guys.  Even the good ones are not very good – Nicodemus seems like a bit of a wimp and the Pharisees who recognize Jesus’ status after his resurrection do have the resurrection in the rear-view mirror before they put everything together.  Given all of this I think it’s time to defend the Pharisees.

Why?  The main answer is that the Pharisees have something to teach us.  Right now the way the Pharisees function for most Christians is merely as scapegoats.  Normally they are “works righteousness” scapegoats (although this is probably not all that historically accurate) who serve to remind us that bad people believe in works instead of faith.  Because we don’t do that we aren’t like the Pharisees.  Done!  Check one off the list, problem avoided.

Here’s where this all goes wrong: the Pharisees actually make perfect sense.  A while ago I was leading the discussions for a Bible Study and we were working our way chronologically through the Bible.  After making the study read a bit of Maccabees to keep them abreast of what was going on in Israel (and in the religious sentiments of Israel) between the end of Malachi and the beginning of the gospels, I gave them a quiz.  They had to answer each question based solely on Old Testament material.  At the end I revealed the trick: the quiz was actually a way to determine what major religious movement you would have belonged to in the first century.  I had a Bible Study full of Pharisees.  The only exception was a die-hard Zealot1 but she was hardly an exception since most of the Pharisees leaned her way!

That’s the problem.  The Pharisees aren’t making some huge, glaring, 50-foot-tall-neon-sign-warning-against-it mistake.  Perhaps they are doing that in caricature but the actual Pharisees were making a common-sense inference from the information available.  Israel was in rough shape.  Israel had gotten there by breaking the Sinai covenant.  Careful and studious obedience to that covenant might be a way for Israel to signal to God that they were truly repentant.  Of course, in the common caricature this makes the Pharisees “works-righteous”, hoping that by careful Torah-obedience (and more – obedience to a system that explained how to do Torah down to the last particular) they could earn salvation.  However, in reality what we know about the Pharisees makes this distinction extremely fine hair-splitting.  What makes a modern Protestant (Luther’s condemnation of “works” ringing in his or her ears) justified by faith when that same person also carefully obeys Christ’s commands?  How can this be separated from the Pharisees?  The answer, of course, is to make up some inner dialogue for the Pharisees of which we have no actual evidence, a dialogue in which the Pharisees believe that if they stack up enough works then they get salvation as an earned reward.  This can then be pitted against an internal Christian dialogue of gratitude.  However, the inner dialogue of the Pharisee is made up.  The actual evidence we have makes it extremely hard to make the call.  Did the Pharisees believe they could earn salvation2?  Did they believe that they could work hard to show God they were serious and that He would bless them with salvation?  Did they believe that if they obeyed Torah carefully and scrupulously out of gratitude that out of all the nations in the world God had chosen them to receive His covenant He might eventually bless them further with salvation?  Telling these apart even in modern people sitting across the table from us would be hard.  Doing so at such a great remove is much harder3.

The problem with making the Pharisees strawmen to knock down (in order to indirectly attack pre-Reformation Catholicism if you’re wondering about the origins of all of this) is that we miss what the Pharisees really have to teach us.  The Pharisees really teach us something about how easy it is to get it wrong.  How you can study and debate and still lose sight of the beating heart of God in the text.  How, as John’s gospel show clearly, one can be so sure of one’s reconstruction of how God is going to act that when someone starts walking around doing works that can only be from God you can’t see anything except their disagreement with your rules.  The fact that we use the word “rules” here doesn’t make this legalism.  The rules are the rules for an intellectual system.  If you came to me to explain to me about a new device you were going to build that assumed that gravity stopped existing for an object painted the right shade of green then I’d reject your idea.  I’d do so on the basis of rules – the rules of physics as I understand them.  When the Pharisees rejected Jesus on the basis of rules, they rejected Jesus on the basis of actual legal rules but also ideological rules that had already established the extreme importance of the other rules.  Oddly, many of the people in my life who like to write the Pharisees off as mere legalists the most frequently are also people who like to point out how Jesus fulfilled every detail of the Law.  Somehow they have reached part of the Pharisees’ conclusion, that the Law is extremely important, but dismissed the Pharisees for reaching the same conclusion4.  If it really was important for Jesus to get the Law right then it was important for him to get it right – you can’t waffle and insist that it was important to get right except when the Pharisees catch Jesus doing something that seems out of line with the Law and have an issue with it.

Indeed, one of the most mocked aspects of the Pharisees, their extremely detailed rules, might be one of the best proofs that we should be careful about mocking them.  If one actually believed that one could earn salvation by stacking up good works one might adopt a rather economical cost-benefit analysis to works.  Walk too far on the Sabbath?  Well, that’s ten demerits but if you do so to meet your obligation to attend a festival at the Temple then the benefit is greater than the cost and you should do it anyway.  Instead, we see a scrupulousness that suggests not that the Pharisees were hoping that a large enough pile of works could earn salvation but that by treating the Law as extremely holy, refusing to break even the most trivial part of it, they could begin to enter into a correct relationship with God.

All of this points to the real problem the Pharisees have: they have studied carefully and worked out a very reasonable system that makes sense out of the evidence they have.  They have thought carefully about Israel’s covenant obligations, debated extensively about how one lives them out in a first-century world that is ruled by non-Israelites, and decided on a cautiously strict set of safeguards because, after all, the Law is holy, written by the hand of God.  They have engaged in a large-scale effort to win others to their side and to pressure those who are far outside what they consider to be acceptable behavior to change.  At some point one of those people begins to do great miracles and expound an alternative view of God’s plans.  He’s not the first to claim to do miracles or to have alternate interpretations of Torah but when the Pharisees condemn him they miss the boat.  They see God’s salvation, check their doctrinal statements and political positions5 and declare God’s anointed to be a lawbreaker under God’s wrath.

That’s the horrifying thing about the Pharisees: they do something that would be easy for any of us to do.  The most studious of us risk falling into this trap quite easily but so do those of us with just a few simple markers of who is in and who is out.  In some sense the fault of the Pharisees is mere laxness.  They worked out how everything was supposed to go and then stopped working it out and just started following the plan they’d laid out.  Somewhere in there they missed a chance to revisit some assumptions and realize they’d gone wrong.  It’s the sort of thing we do all the time.  That’s the real lesson the Pharisees.  It’s not that they did something clearly wrong and stand across a canyon from us for us to throw rocks of disdain at, it’s that they made the sort of mistake we make every day, a mistake of overconfidence in our ability to figure things out (perhaps the sort of mistake our world even trains us to favor), and ended up as the classic antagonists of Christianity.


[1]Perhaps an anachronism.  I used the term to encompass any of the various movements that advocated the violent overthrow of Rome and the wholesale slaughter of Torah-breakers to show God how serious Israel was about Him and His commands.

[2] Salvation, mind you, meaning something like “the deliverance of corporate Israel by the Messiah” without a great deal of reference to individual post-death status.

[3] And requires a great deal more evidence than the New Testament.  The writings of Josephus, Philo, Qumran, and the rabbis all shed various sorts of indirect light on the Pharisees but even then we lack some sort of official extended treatise from the Pharisees about the mechanics of salvation.

[4] There’s also this extremely weird thing going on where Jesus apparently only has to get the Law right once and then it disappears much as how if I manage not to murder someone today the law against murder ceases to exist tomorrow.

[5] Which aren’t always clearly separable in first-century Judea.

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