Complex Pharisees: Literature and History

TissotOne of the first sermons I can remember hearing as a young Christian, possibly even as an unbeliever, was an exposition of Luke 18:9-14, where Luke recounts a stinging parable aimed at the Pharisees. In that sermon, our preacher took a sledgehammer to legalism, the attempt to justify ourselves before God through works-based righteousness. He then pleaded with us to confidently take hold of Christ’s imputed righteousness by faith. Now, do not mishear me: Jesus clearly strikes at justification through works, and concludes the parable by telling us that the tax collector went away justified, apart from works. But we must avoid the lure of reductionism. For this parable is also told to the righteous who had become condescending (18:9), who may or may not have held a warped view of their works’ value in the economy of salvation. Furthermore, even legalism is more complex than we often tend to allow for. Basically, we must be weary if works-righteousness and a reductionistic legalism are the only applications tied to Gospel episodes involving the Pharisees.

In my previous post in this series, In Defence of the Pharisees, I argued against an oversimplified view of the Pharisees that Jesus met in the Gospels. I suggested one of the reasons for this view is that we have inherited an interpretation of the Gospels from the Reformers, who drew too strong a line between the gross legalism of the medieval Catholic Church and the Jewish sect of the Pharisees. The two points I made in response were: (1) Israel’s religious observance was not irreconcilable with God’s grace and (2) the Pharisees’ fastidious piety became a source of pride when it should have daily reminded them of their need for God’s grace. I then concluded with an appeal, to all those who handle the Gospels, for careful exegetical and historical attention. Under the next two headings I will address both of those areas by considering the literary nature of the Gospels and their historical milieu.


Book of KellsIn his essay on the Jewish leaders, in Jesus Among His Friends and Enemies, Anthony Le Donne discusses a few key considerations for reading the Gospels and draws our attention to narrativization. That is, we must bear in mind that the Gospels come to us in the form of stories, revised history; “When telling stories, narrators produce accounts that fall into typical patterns. These patterns obscure certain details, focus on others, embellish/invent themes and motifs, and dramatically restructure time lines.” In my opinion – though others would disagree – this does not mean that the Gospels are less than reliable historical accounts. But narrativization, “the process of creating a story,” means that the Evangelists’ material was shaped. Therefore, as Le Donne states, “The process of storytelling reduces and dulls our picture of the Jewish leaders.” Despite the many pitfalls of literary criticism, Le Donne’s point encourages a more careful reading of the Jesus event as story and understanding the characters within the plot (I attempted to do this with John’s Gospel, here). In my previous post I appealed for a more careful exegesis of the Gospel texts; part of doing that is to read them as narratives and the Pharisees as antagonists, whose simplicity and opposition helps us interpret Jesus’ life, teaching, and mission. When we turn the Pharisees into singularly flat characters we lose out on the richness of the Gospels.

Historical complexity

Secondly, N. T. Wright, in his outstanding The New Testament and the People of God, highlights the Herculean task of presenting and understanding the Pharisees with historical precision. Wright notes that the Pharisees spanned over 300 years: they originally arose as a political pressure group during the Maccabean revolt; later they became an entrenched de facto political group under the Hasmoneans; and through the Herodian dynasty they retained an intense and zealous ardour for Israel’s freedom from pagan practices and rule. Some have therefore argued that over those three centuries the Pharisees’ interests shifted from the political to the pious. Wright shows that up until the utter ruin of Jerusalem in 135CE many Pharisees were undoubtedly engaged in civil unrest and revolt. The Pharisees are historically complex, zealous for Israel’s liberation from foreign rule and the maintenance of stringent religious purity. As we interpret the Gospels we must remember this duality. The political ambitions of the Pharisees do much for our understanding of certain episodes in the Gospels, episodes that make little sense if the Pharisees were purely troubled by Jesus’ liberal love and message of free forgiveness.

It is my hope to write another post (or few) in this series that will offer my own observations in reading the Gospels. But if you are interested, which you must be if the made it through this spectacularly dull post, then why not commence your own study on the Pharisees in the Gospels, always considering their literary and historical context.

For the Illumined Mind

augustineThere is a special breed of Christian, well at least in my opinion, who were brought to life from a state that appeared quite alive to begin with; those people who were actively searching for truth but were unable to grasp it by their own pursuit.

Of course we understand that they were not truly living since all things apart from Christ are spiritually dead, but a special type of person I still feel. The kind of person Paul preached to in Athens, who groped around in the darkness for the Truth who was not far off (Acts 17:27). People like Augustine who reflect: “I enjoyed the books, while not knowing Him from whom came whatever was true or certain in them. For I had my back to the light and my face to the things upon which the light falls: so that my eyes, by which I looked upon the things in the light, were not themselves illumined.”

There is a world of information and knowledge, where truth can be discovered, with many thinkers, readers and writers operating in it; intelligent people who have studied broader and deeper than I ever think I will. But there is one supreme truth that many of these intellectuals will continue to fumble in the darkness for, one that many simple minded men have taken hold of: Christ Jesus! “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18).

But by the mercies of God, “he saves us, not because of the works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:5-6).

This special Christian, who once pursued knowledge by the pattern of the world, is now set free by the mercy of God to think and reason and calculate in truth. I love to watch this person, who so loves to think, suddenly understand the information he has curiously stored up all his life. Their minds reboot and now direct them on a path of living out the will of God. David Peterson in Possessed by God writes,

“It is a fundamental principle of Christian spirituality that God does his sanctifying work through our minds. In so doing he works with our conscious cooperation and permission.”

A great reversal has taken place, the Romans 1:21 man now becomes a Romans 12:2 man and the instruction is to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is.”

But caution, there is still the warning to not be conformed to the world, because the wisdom and influence of the world is very appealing. It draws out our old compulsive nature and deceives us once again into thinking that it is true wisdom. But it is folly because worldly thinking has not been thought through to completion. The godless man looks at life as it is now, as if this is all there is and ever will be. There is no vision of a perfected world; no decision made in light of the eternal. Whether consideration has been given for an entire lifetime or for one-hundred lifetimes, it is still too short-sighted to be fully good, perfect or true. How difficult it is to keep our minds set on things above, allowing the prospect of eternity to shape our perspective. This short life is so distracting and enticing; to pursue comfort, worldly knowledge and acclaim. As explained so well from the pulpit recently, the only gain in death is if to live is Christ (Philippians 1:21). Any other life pursuit will end in loss and prove you to be the greatest fool.

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!” To paraphrase Ephesians 4:18-23: Your mind is no longer futile, ignorant of the eternal or darkened in its understanding. You have heard about Jesus, you were taught in Jesus, as the truth is in Jesus. Therefore, put off your old self, be renewed in your mind and put on the new self.

foreverIt is no wonder that it is the Spirit who works this out in us. He is from the eternal, sets our minds on the eternal and makes us into a new self, preparing us for the eternal. We are being made into forever beings, in the image of our creator, and the preparation begins in our minds (Colossians 3:10). It is amazing that God would go through so much effort to acquire for himself someone like you for forever!

Reader, fabulous and most brilliant mind, be renewed so that your discernment will be clear to see that the most reasonable offering to God is yourself.

Hunger will Pass

Grain FieldHave you ever read the Bible and thought, “why is this even here?” Me too… and that is especially true when I read Numbers 7. But, I have just found a way of reading at least some of it in a new light. In the NIV for Numbers 7:87 we simply read,

The total number of animals for the burnt offering came to
twelve young bulls,
twelve rams and
twelve male lambs a year old,
together with their grain offering …

Numbers 7 is (I think) the most repetitive chapter in the Bible; the offerings brought by each tribe are enumerated (for all the twelve tribes). By the time we reach verse 87, we are in the summary section that recounts (in laborious detail for the thirteenth time) what each tribe had brought. But recently I read this verse in a Rabbinic interpretive translation (the Targums), which says:

The total number of bulls for the burnt offerings came to twelve;
a bull for each leader of the father’s house;
twelve rams, because the twelve chiefs of Ishmael will perish;
twelve one-year old lambs, because the twelve chiefs of Esau will perish;
and their grain offerings, because hunger will pass from the world;

The Rabbis have added these interpretive elements to the end of each line. They’re all interesting but take a look at the end of the last line – yes, pause and re-read it. Question: Why should we offer grain offerings? Answer: because hunger will pass from the world.

because hunger will pass from the world!

That’s an awesome justification – imagine living in an evironment in which you work your land, growing all the crops you possibly can and, when harvest comes, knowing that this is what you will be surviving on until the next harvest. Before you start gathering it all up though, you take a bunch of it and offer it to God. Why? Because hunger will pass from the world. That is, because the harvest you are gathering in right now is from him and by giving an offering you are acknowledging that if you needed more, God would have given you more and, as his child, one day he will; one day hunger will pass from the world.


Doodle: Euthyphro and the Freedom of God

J. I. Packer“Does omnipotence mean that God can do literally anything? No, that is not the meaning. There are many things God cannot do. He cannot do what is self-contradictory or nonsensical, like squaring a circle. Nor (and this is vital) can he act out of character. God has a perfect moral character, and it is not in him to deny it. He cannot be capricious, unloving, random, unjust, or inconsistent. Just as he cannot pardon sin without atonement, because that would not be right, so he cannot fail to be “faithful and just” in forgiving sins that are confessed in faith, and in keeping all the other promises he has made, for failure here would not be right either. Moral instability, vacillation, and unreliability are marks of weakness, not strength: but God’s omnipotence is supreme strength, making it impossible that he should lapse into imperfections of this sort.”

The above paragraph was penned by J. I. Packer (Affirming the Essentials), discussing what we mean by the adjective “almighty,” in the Apostles’ Creed. For most of my Christian life I have enthusiastically ingested every work I can get my hands on by Packer, always finding them agreeable and appetising. Therefore writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable. Admittedly, the uneasiness caused by Packer’s paragraph is mild, not mortally threatening; however – I feel – an important distinction needs to be made for the sake of theological health. “What is it?” I’m sure you are impatiently wondering. My issue is Packer’s use of the word: “Cannot.” While I am in agreement with Packer I would want to say this: There is nothing that God cannot do, but there are many things he will not do.

Silanion Musei CapitoliniSome readers will be familiar with the Euthyphro dilemma, found in Plato, which poses the question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Plato was asking if goodness is something that exists externally to the gods or whether whatever the gods declare to be good simply is. Packer skirts the dilemma by stating that God’s character is the measure of and motif behind all of his actions. But I cannot help feeling that we should avoid saying, ‘God cannot,’ and favour, ‘God will not.’ It might seem pedantic but – with Plato in mind – we should insist that God does not subscribe to any standard outside himself. Claiming that there are things God cannot do implies something less than omnipotence, divine freedom, and sovereignty. God is just, good, and loving; his actions express his character. But God is trustworthy because in his freedom he acts in accord with his character. Listen to A. W. Pink, in The Attributes of God: “So far from God being under any law of “right,” he is a law unto himself, so that whatsoever he does is right.”

Before closing I want to pick up on two doctrines that illustrate the distinction I have touched on. Firstly, creation was not necessary. When teaching Genesis 1-2 you are bound to hear the thought that God created humans because he was lonely. Wrong. Hear A. W. Pink again: “During a past eternity, God was alone: self-contained, self-sufficient, self-satisfied; in need of nothing. Had a universe, had angels, had human beings been necessary to him in any way, they also had been called into existence from all eternity…God was under no constraint, no obligation, no necessity to create. That he chose to was purely a sovereign act on his part, caused by nothing outside of himself.” Secondly, God did not need act to redeem creation and rescue his creatures. Perhaps you have encountered this line of reasoning before: ‘Had God not acted to save sinful people he would not be loving.’ But that: (a) imposes an action from our expectation on God, implying he is not free, and (b) denies that the triune love shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is perfect or complete without salvific action on God’s part. Commenting on God’s impassibility in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, D. A. Carson writes that God’s love is perfectly harmonious with his wisdom and will, clearly expressing his being, but we must assert that “If God loves, it is because he chooses to love.”

Hagia SophiaDrawing this post to a close I realise that my critique is both pedantic and imprecise. My hope, which is always the result of exploring God’s attributes, is that reflecting on God’s power and perfections you might praise him for his attitude towards us, the creation. God’s action towards us is not dictated by anything outside of himself. In both creation and redemption God decided to act, therefore we should rejoice that we are not products of necessity, nor are we pardoned by compulsion—it is all of grace.

In Defence of the Pharisees

Mihaly MunkacsyRegardless of which Christian tradition you belong to, I would wager that when a Pharisee is encountered in the Bible reading your expectation is overwhelmingly negative. After all, literary critics would label them flat characters, for in the Gospel narratives they are fairly consistent and predictable. But I do not think I am alone in growing weary of pre-packaged and predictable explanations of 1st century Pharisaism, which is an unhelpful and inaccurate generalisation. Though beguiling legalism threatened Israel’s faith throughout the nation’s history, “There was certainly a more humane and spiritual tendency within [the Pharisees]. It produced men of lofty character and genuine piety who did lasting service to religion” (C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today). So in this post I want to challenge the oversimplified view of the Pharisees and how they understood the relationship between their works and justification.

Apart from the lazy reproduction of what we have heard from the pulpit or read in popular-level Christian literature, I think one of the reasons for our misapprehension of the Pharisees is owed to the Reformation. In the introduction to The Justice of God, James Dunn critiques the Protestant understanding of justification by faith. And while I disagree with Dunn on a host of issues, I think he makes an excellent point worth reflecting on: the Reformers’ imagined that 1st century Judaism was identical to the Catholic medievalism of the 16th century; in other words, they were guilty of eisegesis, reading the stifling legalism of the established church they knew into the Gospels. Today, in our interpretation of the Gospels, I wonder if we make the same mistake.

Rembrandt But how should we view, interpret, and teach about the Pharisees in the Gospels? Firstly, in Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson argues that Philippians 3:6-9 should encourage more nuance than lawful obedience leading to self-righteousness: “Paul does not mean he had attained sinless perfection. Far from it: the law provided the remedies for sin, prescribing certain sacrifices, teaching earnest young Jews to look to the God who was addressed each ‘day of atonement’ by the high priest who sprinkled the blood of animals in the Most Holy Place, to atone both for his sins and for the sins of the people. Paul followed the entire pattern of religious life carefully.” Though misunderstandings of the law undoubtedly crept in, central to the old covenant was God’s forgiveness appropriated through faith. Since Yahweh prescribed obedience to his law, works were not irreconcilable with grace. Thus the Pharisees’ emphasis on religious duty cannot be oversimplified to works righteousness.

Secondly, developing the above point, Calvin (Institutes, 3.11.3) writes, “When Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves, he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid.” The difference between this and our view inherited from the Reformation is subtle, but significant. Calvin argues in 3.11.2 that justification by faith was not a novelty of the New Testament, but clear throughout the Old Testament. Right standing with God has always been an imputed status and not an attribute, a gift rather than achieved merit. As Calvin says, Jesus’ searching criticisms of the Pharisees were not merely an indictment on law keeping and dutiful faith. His issue with the Pharisees was the pride that accompanied their supposed righteousness, which the sacrificial system should have emphasised none of them possessed. The Pharisees’ exaggerated self-righteousness was not the means by which they thought they were justified before God but rather it became their identity, providing them with self-image and worth, in place of God’s gracious acceptance.

HoffmanI have briefly touched on major ideas in this post, which presently fuel massive theological debates, so in closing let me restate my purpose in writing and summarise my points. Biblical studies and hermeneutics has always been a richly diverse gathering of disciplines, therefore we should be weary of reductionistic handling of the biblical texts, both in private study and from the pulpit. To think of the Pharisees we meet in the Gospels as advocates of an entirely self-righteous and solely works-based religion is a historical – and, in many places, an exegetical – fallacy. We must work hard to understand the historical and textual nuances when Jesus encounters Pharisees. And we must stop smoothing over those details in order to preach works versus grace. These things should not be so.

Managing Technology

TechnologyIn Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis grumbled about how modern transport has annihilated space, “one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation than his grandfather got from travelling ten.” The point of this series of blog posts has not been to denounce technology, pine after a bygone era, or deny the many benefits of the digital age. Rather I have hoped to convince readers that we are often blind to what technology takes from us. If you are like me, then Lewis’ reflection is striking, since you never considered how modern transport might deprive travellers the joy of a journey. It is a silly example, but it reiterates how we have been trained to receive new technology with open hands and tightly shut eyes. In this final post I want to suggest a few ways we might better manage technology.

I will start with a point made in an older post on technology. Etymologically the word technology means ‘skill’ or ‘craft’, but – as I suggested in that post – humanity has a tendency to bow down to what it has made; “technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.” We cannot imagine life without our devices, we become despondent when we lose connectivity, and we check into on our digital worlds and profiles obsessively. So must ask to what extent we are in control? Does technology serve you, or is it slowly enslaving you? Let me state that technology is a wonderful gift, endowed by our Creator to further equip us for the task of subduing the created world. We should therefore receive technology gratefully and put it to work, assisting and serving us in most areas of life, but we must guard against being controlled by it. Each of us needs to carefully consider the status technology has earned in our own lives, for while its functions will vary, the human propensity to worship the created world rather than the Creator is always present.

I will now briefly comment on the remaining points raised in my posts, having dealt with freedom above:

Attention: adapting something Donald Whitney wrote, I think that if we spent money as readily as we do our attention people would call us reckless. Surely there are times when uninterrupted focus is necessary. Multi-tasking – which Michael Horton says is often just a euphemism for distraction – is not always the most productive or beneficial use of our time. I know these suggestions are unthinkable, but you can turn your devices onto ‘do not disturb’ and block your internet connection in order to give undivided attention and time where it is required, be that people or tasks.

TechnologyThoughtfulness and introspection: please forgive my use of this abused, potentially misattributed, dictum from Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. Regardless of who said it, the sentiment is an urgently true one today. We need to move away from consuming information to contemplating knowledge. We need to recognise that the first hit on a Google search is not necessarily the most accurate or formative article on a subject. We need to put effort into reading and reflecting on – even studying – ideas and concepts. We could all use more quiet time and solitude, away from the invasive presence of our devices and demanding digital platforms.

Memory: I have heard it said that our brains have many similarities to muscles; that is, when exercised they are healthy, but left unused they atrophy. The outsourcing of our memories and immediately accessible information means that while we have answers quickly we rarely have our own answers, nor do we see any need to furnish our minds. The result of this is weakening of our ability to retain information and ideas. I am not talking about what Mega Memory can offer you, as useful as being able to recall the order of two packs of playing cards might be, but rather a mind that is sharpened and in shape. The ways to achieve this are endless: learning a language; slowing down to consider a point in an article, book, or film; trying to remember a piece of information before Googling it; learning quotes and sayings off by heart; and so on.

TechnologyValues: this was the final point made in More Ways Technology Takes and, for lack of a better heading, I argued that today we are inundated with information and easy entertainment that warps our values and thrives off of undiscerning consumerism. This is well illustrated in an exchange between Hermoine Granger and Rita Skeeter, in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Hermoine is entreating Rita to write the truth about Harry and the return of You-Know-Who, but Rita tells her that the Daily Prophet cannot run stories that will unsettle the comfortable wizarding world. Then Hermoine scathingly asks, “So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” And Rita retorts, “The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl.” We need to be deliberate about the data and dramas we greedily ingest. Work hard in discerning what you read and view, its purpose and bias. Remember that just because something is being broadcast or receiving masses of media attention that does not necessarily mean it is significant. Lastly, it is undeniable that we are subtly shaped, even if only slightly, by what we consume.

Let me leave you with three concluding points for reflection: firstly, technology is a wonderful tool, given by God, but let us be wary of the human inclination to worship the creation; secondly, though technology is almost always morally neutral, our use of it is often not; thirdly, managing our technology means more than benefiting from its many positives, we must be alert to its many drawbacks.