The Pharisees According to Jesus

Last year I wrote a three part series on the Pharisees, prompted by my frustration at how the Pharisees are often portrayed in teaching and writing. My appeal throughout the series was towards a more discerning exegesis, considering literary criticism and historical context when studying the Gospels. In this post I will offer a few observations about the Pharisees found in the Gospels, challenging the view that reduces their theology to works based righteousness. Since Jesus made no secret of his disapproval, and sometimes even disdain, towards this Jewish sect, I have fleshed out four points, headed by a few of his woes delivered against the Pharisees.

Commandments“You neglect justice and the love of God”

One of the repeated ironies found in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ assertion of unflagging obedience to the law coupled with their failure to practice its two fundamental fiats: loving Yahweh and your neighbour (Deuteronomy 6:5, 19:8; see Mark Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus’ many Sabbath miracles expose this failing, as the Pharisees insisted no man of or prophet from God would commit the travesty of restoring life when he should have been resting. The heart of the Old Testament law was devotion to God, as well as commitment to the wellbeing of others but it appears the Pharisees had lost sight of that. God’s laws were given to make his people more loving towards others as they appreciated his grace towards them.

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders”

In a similar vein to the previous point, Jesus accused the Pharisees of supplanting the authority of Scripture, and God’s laws, by the establishment of traditions, which in turn had become litmus tests for orthodoxy and devotion. But Jesus firmly opposed laws imposed by people, even the esteemed “elders,” quoting Isaiah, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Though the Pharisees probably invented these rules to keep them from becoming ceremonially unclean and sinning against God, it seems that by the 1st century those rules had become enshrined traditions, considered to possess the same authority as God’s inspired words. The same legalism, able to take many forms, has plagued the church throughout every generation.

Shut door“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces”

Jesus kept very unsavoury company, according to the Pharisees; and for one who claimed such deep intimacy with God, even identifying himself as God, his fraternisation with sinners implied that God reaches out to the unrighteous. This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Luke 15, where the Pharisees grumble, “This man receives and dines with sinners.” Jesus then uses three very familiar parables confirming their suspicions about God, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who does not need to repent.” The parables of Luke 15 climax in the brilliantly subtle identification of the Pharisees with the elder brother, who served his father and never disobeyed but refused to celebrate the return of the younger brother, the sinners and tax collectors.

“They love the place of honour”

Reading through John’s Gospel one notices the author has arranged his narrative around Jesus’ signs. Following the resurrection of Lazarus, the sign paired with, and only second to, Jesus’ resurrection in John 20, the Pharisees find themselves in a bind. They cannot deny Jesus’ “many signs” but fear that if he is recognised and followed by the Jewish people then the political privileges they enjoyed from the Romans would be under threat (John 11:47-48). The reader of John’s Gospel cannot help but to be incredulous at this hinge in John’s storyboard, for the Pharisees choose their comforts over the Christ. As I concluded a previous post on John’s Gospel, “In gaining Pilate’s concession [to execute Jesus, the Pharisees] pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor.” The Pharisees exalted themselves and were guilty of an over realised importance. But more damning than this self-preservation was that it blinded them to see God’s messiah, before their very eyes.

Doodle: Pharisees versus Prophets

Giotto - Scene 26Being passionate about literature I often attempt to pull threads of thought through multiple works. I realise that occasionally the result of this is that my writing resembles little more than poorly sewn patchworks of ideas. Working on my current series treating the Pharisees – (1) In defence of the Pharisees, and (2) literary and historical considerations for reading the Gospels – two passages from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead came to mind. In this post I hope to unpack them in reference to my series and a few other related passages.

In Gilead, John Ames ruminates on the difference between a Pharisee and a prophet: “The prophets love the people they chastise.” And the implication of his reflection is that Pharisees do not. As I have studied each instance of the Pharisees in the four Gospels, one of Jesus’ recurring rebukes levelled against the Pharisees was their gross inability to love the people they taught. Sure, as Jesus noted, they were extraordinarily righteous, able to demonstrate unparalleled obedience to the law. However, and quite ironically, despite their fastidious obedience to God’s laws they failed to fulfil the second part of the greatest commandment: loving their neighbours as themselves.

Giotto - Scene 28In his earthy and encouraging work, The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine notes the Pharisees’ penchant for loveless obedience. He writes, “These Bible teachers justified ingratitude and bitterness in the name of standing for righteousness. They gracelessly pounded people with religious virtues.” But the thread I want to pick up from Ewine is what he says next, “The harshest things Jesus ever said (like the prophets who foreshadowed Jesus) were to the ministry leaders of his day (Matthew 23:1-36).” Towards the end of that cutting catena, in Matthew 23, Jesus labels the Pharisees diametric opposites of the prophets. For their fathers killed the prophets (23:31-32), and in time they themselves would silence the prophets too (23:34). Jesus then utters his distressed lament for Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the people of God, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (23:37).

In a book I return to often, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd ties some of our loose ends together, “Jesus [stood] in direct succession to the prophets of ancient Israel…The prophets took their stand on the conviction that God was at hand in human affairs, and they therefore interpreted the events of their time with insight derived from their converse with the Eternal…Similarly, we should understand Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as an interpretation of the contemporary situation in terms of his knowledge of God. It was a significant situation on any showing. Within Judaism a crisis loomed which was bound to resolve itself one way or the other before long…This was ‘zero hour’, the hour of decision.”

Giotto - Scene 34As John Ames approaches then end of his memoir he writes, “The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, prédicateur, which means prophet. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” Jesus was never mistaken for a Pharisee, while the Galilean public did liken him to the prophets of old (Mark 6:15). Ominous dark clouds hung over Jerusalem in the 1st century, and Jesus entered history to disclose the purposes of God, to dissect the mounting troubles of God’s people. Thus we see him as a prophet for at least two reasons. Firstly, his heart broke for those he preached to, seen in his anguished laments for Jerusalem. Secondly, in Jesus’ own words, “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).

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 wary 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.

Narrativization

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.

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.

Holy Week: What Lies Ahead

‘The hardest action to take is the course previously unexplored.’ That is a line from William Horwood’s Duncton Quest, an epic tale about heroic perseverance amidst tragedy and hopeless circumstances. There is much truth in Horwood’s words: the unknown is daunting. But was that the reason for the trepidation with which Jesus went about his task? Was Jesus unaware of what would be demanded of him? There is a wonderful theological word in Christology: nescience, meaning that – as a man – Jesus knew only as much as God the Father revealed to him. Should we conclude then that Jesus was in the dark regarding his messianic task? In this short post I want to explore that question, a fitting reflection for Holy Week.

Jesus ChristIf you have not formally studied theology then are forgiven for being unfamiliar with Albert Schweitzer’s contributions, especially in the search for the historic Jesus. To my shame I have not read Schweitzer and must resign myself to the perils of drawing on secondary sources to represent him, though the point I will be touching on is widely reproduced. One such place is in the writing of N. T. Wright, who borrows Schweitzer’s analogy in Simply Jesus (p183): Jesus is said to desperately throw himself onto the wheel of history after his actions had failed to bring about the kingdom of God. According to Schweitzer, Jesus expected the kingdom to arrive in the immediate future during his itinerant ministry but he was painfully mistaken. David Seccombe summarises Schweitzer’s position like this: after nothing monumental had taken place during his ministry, Jesus was forced to rethink his position and die in order to bring about the denouement. Seccombe continues, “For two years Jesus he had believed that God would intervene to reveal him as the glorious Son of Man and establish his kingdom. Now he realizes…God does not break into human history” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p558). Jesus, previously left in the lurch, at the last, recklessly abandons his life in vain hope; and the cry of dereliction, that tortured utterance of despair, is Jesus’ moment of inglorious truth.

Most of you would read this post will disagree with Schweitzer on a few points, the most glaring being that Jesus was in fact God breaking into human history, as the Son of God incarnate. Other points of departure might be over the timing of God’s kingdom, which in Jesus’ parables is both inaugurated and incremental; the remarkable signs Jesus performed in his ministry indicative of restoration and redemption; and whether the cry of dereliction reveals Jesus’ abandoning his mission or fulfilling it. But I want to challenge Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ knowledge, which is where we started.

Holy WeekSchweitzer would have us believe that Jesus was largely unaware of God’s purposes, seen in him having unfulfilled expectations during his ministry and most clearly demonstrated in the cross being no more than a last throw of the dice. This ‘recalculation theory’, as it has been called, does not square with what we read in the wider Gospel accounts. For starters, if my post on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4 is right, which I think it is, Jesus was tempted from the outset of his ministry to avoid the messianic rejection, suffering and death. But if that sounds too assumptive, C. H. Dodd (in The Founder of Christianity, p62-64) highlights Jesus’ uniquely personal and intimate relationship with the Father and how that energised him for what in glimpses appears as an unbearable mission; “Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden…It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable”. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), early on in his ministry we are told that he set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:53), and at his baptism he fails to renounce John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus knew full well what his task entailed; indeed it is his self-sacrifice that gives fullest meaning and significance to the incarnation. We do not follow a man who did what he thought best, acting boldly despite inadequate information. We worship the Son who did his Father’s will even though the knowledge terrified him.

Jesus’ course was, returning to Horwood’s phrase, previously unexplored and incredibly hard. But we must retain that this was only because Jesus had never known anything other than happy and unbroken fellowship with his Father. The depth of Jesus’ work is not seen in Schweitzer’s vision of a desperate Jesus throwing all caution to the wind, unsure whether it would bring about any real change; it is seen in the deliberate Jesus, sure that that through his death the world would be forever changed.

Authenticity in Strange Places

Upper Room DiscourseI recently moved office and in the process uncovered my copy A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In this imaginative biography, replete with dogmatic scepticism, Wilson plies the tired view that without Paul’s theology, or more specifically his Christology, Jesus was little more than a ‘moderately pale Galilean.’ That is just one incarnation of historical incredulity towards the four Gospel accounts. Popularly it is presented, most often ignorantly, like this: “The Gospels are documents written much later than when Jesus lived and are undoubtedly loaded with the faith of the church, later traditions, and developed doctrine.” In this post I hope to challenge that myth by turning to the Gospel accounts themselves, something most sceptics fail to do. As the title suggests, my arguments will come from peculiar features in the Gospels that indicate authenticity.

The Gospel of Luke’s underdeveloped Christology
In his brilliant but concise work, Jesus and the Logic of History, Paul Barnett shows that the Gospel writers had a different focus to the letter-writers. Anyone who has read both the Gospel accounts and the epistles will notice how the Gospels reflect an ethos of ‘Jesus back there’ whereas the epistles address issues specific to life in the early church, as a believer. Barnett speaks of the noticeable contrast between proclamation and tradition. Jesus’ teachings clearly relate to the circumstances of people in Galilee and Judea in the 30s. They are unconcerned with the issues that the epistles address. The Jesus that we meet in the Gospels is not recast in order to settle the many apparent issues that developed in the life of the apostolic church; he is surely Jesus in his own historical setting, ‘then and there’. Picking up on a point made by C. F. D. Moule, Barnett suggests that this is perhaps most pronounced when we look at Luke’s two volumes. It is hard to ignore the difference between pre-Easter Jesus (in Luke) and the resurrected Lord (in Acts). Barnett, following Moule, argues that in his Gospel account Luke refused to inject Jesus with the high Christology of Acts, because the former is a historical work dealing with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sketchy details surrounding the Upper Room Discourse
Our small groups have worked slowly through John’s Gospel this year and almost came to a standstill in John 14-16. The conversation is often terse, at other times convoluted, and is evenly enigmatic. Interestingly, D. A. Carson, in his invaluable work Jesus and his Friends, believes that the vague and ambiguous discourse is one of the strongest arguments for the authenticity of John. While Carson thinks the theological freight in these three chapters is direct and clear, he writes, “In referring to historical events placed ahead of the Discourse, they are amazingly sketchy. Someone who was out to manufacture a Farewell Discourse after the events would in all likelihood have succumbed to the temptation to be far more precise than Jesus in the days of his flesh often chose to be.”

Women witnessing to Jesus’ resurrection
In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright remarks that the presence of women as principle witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is arresting and strange. For women were simply not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world, whether we like it or not. They are, significantly, dropped from Paul’s account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, because they were “apologetically embarrassing.” Yet, in each of the Gospel accounts, they are front and centre; Wright goes as far as calling them “the first apostles.” This is quite a convincing argument for an extant oral tradition of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection before Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Wright finds these features compel any serious reader or historian to take the four Gospel accounts seriously, as early accounts and not later inventions.

The Single Story Behind Numerous Sources
Four EvangelistsIn a work I frequently find myself returning to, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd notes that even though the authors of the Synoptic Gospels drew on different traditions a single narrative thread can be traced through them. Dodd argues that this proves a story about Jesus from the earliest days of the church existed, when memories of his ministry were fresh. The Evangelists are committed to that story, with its strange details yet without embellishment, “The tone is one of sober, unemotional realism, allowing the events to make their own impression by their inherent weight.” Consider Luke’s stated purpose for writing, unless he set out to grossly mislead his readers and at the same time open himself up to serious criticism, he was offering an account of what had recently taken place. And despite his varied sources, one of which was undoubtedly the Gospel of Mark, the same credible story of a historical man called Jesus is told.