Monday, June 29, 2015

The Pharisees by Amy-Jill Levine

He even said to some of those believing in themselves that they are righteous and despising the rest this parable:

“Two people went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing, by/to himself, these (things) prayed, ‘O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of the people, greedy unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast two times of the Sabbath [i.e. each week]; I give a tenth of whatever I acquire’
“But the tax collector, at a distance standing, did not wish to raise his eyes to the heaven, but he beat his breast, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

“To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted”
                                                     Luke 18, 9-14

.  .  . Like the quest of the historical Jesus, there is also a quest of the historical Pharisees, for ironically the only self-identified Pharisee from whom we have written records is Paul of Tarsus. Thus, in order to understand the Pharisees we need to look at literature written by outsiders to their group, including Josephus, The Dead Sea scrolls, the later rabbis, Paul himself, and some of the early followers of Jesus with whom they were in competition for reception by the broader Jewish community in the land of Israel.

Since members of this group are most familiar to modern readers because of their New Testament portraits – the term “Pharisee” is still seen as synonymous with “hypocrite,” a connection made by the New Testament (see especially Matt. 23) – we start here. And we start, given our parable, with Luke’s portrait.

Unlike the invariably positive tax collectors in the Gospel tradition, Luke’s depiction of Pharisees is more ambivalent, albeit ultimately negative. Pharisees do have their good points. Some invite Jesus to dine with them (7.36; 11.37), and they do ask questions that need not be perceived as hostile (17.20). Their warning to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (13.31), can be seen as benevolent, although it could also be read as an attempt to prevent Jesus from entering Jerusalem and so to abort his mission. Finally, the Pharisees drop out of Luke’s Passion narrative so at least they are not directly responsible for Jesus’s death.

Pharisees are also pictured in Acts in a generally positive light. The Pharisee Gamaliel speaks on behalf of Peter and John after they were arrested by the Sanhedrin (5.34-39); Paul acknowledges his Pharisaic connections (26,5; cf. Phil. 3.5).At the Jerusalem Council, held to debate the requirements for gentiles in the church, Pharisees appear as members of the Jesus movement, albeit on the wrong side of the debate (15.5*1).

However, the majority of Luke’s references to Pharisees are not complimentary. Unlike the tax collectors, Pharisees reject John’s baptism and so God’s purposes (7.30). Jesus condemns them for greed and elitism (11.38-44; 16.15), and Luke adds the generic insult that they were lovers of money (16.14). Primarily they serve as negative foils who complain about Jesus’s dining with those tax collectors and their sinning friends (5.30; 7.39; 15.2); fuss over his claiming the ability to forgive sins 95.17-26); complain about his disciples’ picking grain on the Sabbath (6.1-5); condemn Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath (6.6-11); seek to silence his disciples praise of him (19.39); and attempt to trap him rhetorically (11.53-54; 14.1-6. *2)

For the majority of Jesus’s Jewish audience, however, the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. Josephus, a priest who found the Pharisees’ voluntary organization in competition with his own inherited priestly status, mentions their interpretations of the Torah designed to make the ancient teachings relevant to the society of their day: “On account of which doctrines, they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.”

The New Testament’s comments on the “traditions of the elders” may have some connection to these Pharisaic up-datings. For example, Mark 7.3 states that the “Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” Jesus rejects some of these teachings; instead, on what appears to be more an ad hoc than systematic basis, he develops his own interpretation of the Torah. We can see his own version in his comments on Sabbath healing (Matt.12.10-12) or in his extension of the commandments regarding murder and adultery to love of enemy and forbidding lust (5.27-28; 43-44 *3).

Pharisaic interpretations of Torah distinguish the Pharisees not only from Jesus, but also from the Sadducees, a point the New Testament also notes. Josephus explains:

The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are written in the word, but are not to observe what are derived from the traditions of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace favorable to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.

In Paul’s view, his being a Pharisee was a marker of distinction (Phil. 3.5 *4).

Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, members of the Pharisaic movement, along with scribes and others, came to compose what has come to be known as rabbinic literature. The rabbinic texts, more or less contemporaneous with ante – and post- Nicene fathers, include the Mishnah, a compendium of Jewish law written down around 200 CE; the Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, and the Yerushalmi of Jerusalem Talmud (commentaries on the Mishnah, finally redacted after the fifth century); and the equally late midrashic collections (running commentaries on biblical books, such as Genesis Rabbah and Ruth Rabbah).

There are connections between the first-century Pharisees and the later rabbis. For example, both groups are concerned with Sabbath observance, dietary regulations, ritual purity, and promoting correct understanding and following Torah. Thus the Pharisees could be seen as ‘proto-rabbis.” However, there are also distinctions, just as there are in every party that lasts for several centuries and faces new circumstances including, in the case of the rabbis, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the disastrous Second Revolt against Rome in 1323-35 and the growing presence of the rabbinic community in Babylon (present-day Iraq).

Nor can we go directly from the rabbinic literature to the earlier time of Jesus. Rabbinic literature is generally prescriptive – it details the way rabbis would like to see Jewish life lived – rather than descriptive – it is not a direct window into actual practices. Moreover, rabbinic literature is often a series of disagreements among rabbis rather than a definitive code; the rabbis debate everything, from circumstances under which divorce can be granted to the determination of what constitutes work on the Sabbath. Consequently, as we’ve seen throughout these studies of the parables, it is highly problematic to take a rabbinical statement, unsupported by any other text of the first century, and understand it to be representative of the practices at the time of Jesus.

We may be on safer historical ground by looking at rabbinic storytelling. Whereas laws must be adapted and should be debated for the health of a society, stories can remain stable over generations. Rabbinic parables may well reflect earlier views, especially since they tend to be connected to a biblical passage; the laws themselves are more likely to be adapted.

With regard to their sphere of influence, Pharisees were substantially village – rather than Temple-based. The Temple was the center of priestly power. Josephs recounts how the Pharisees sought to influence Temple practices: that is the meaning of  “and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction” in the earlier quote. We might compare attempts by lay Catholics to determine the celebration of the Mass. Thus the Pharisees were not on home turf, but they were in a place whose operation and leadership would have been of great concern to them.

Although some scholars suggest that the Pharisee of our parable was a “retainer” in the Temple system and that “through the network of synagogues, the Pharisee and his faction participated in efforts to enforce collection of tithes, the ancient sources do not support the claims. Tithes were collected by regional Temple representatives, not Pharisees. Second, Pharisees do not run synagogues; synagogue rulers do. Nor, by the way, do later rabbis run synagogues; rabbinic literature locates them primarily in the schoolhouse or academy.

Equally incorrect, albeit probably as popular, is the insistence that Pharisees “believed that God’s blessing, most notably ridding the land of Romans, was contingent upon their achieving a significant obedience among themselves and among the population as a whole,” that they were “very nationalistic and fueled an intense hatred of Gentiles”, or that they insisted that a “minute obedience to their detailed laws” was necessary in order to “stay saved.” Again, we do not have direct information on what the Pharisees believed. The New Testament portraits give no indication that the Pharisees were ultranationlists or that they fueled an intense hatred of gentiles.  Those who claim that Paul, the (former) Pharisee, was a political firebrand take their case from Galatians 1.14, where Paul says, “I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” However, to be zealous for his tradition does not make him a political “zealot” seeking liberation from Roman domination.

It is easy to compare them to whatever population is seen to be judgmental, parochial, bigoted, stuck-n-the mud, or otherwise unable to see the “newness” of the “good news”, as the pastor so understands it. The problem is that the “good news” should not be based on bad history; nor should the reaction of the congregation be, “Thank God, I’m not like those Pharisees (baa baa baa).”

Were Jesus to have told this parable to a group of Jews, they would have begun with the impression that the Pharisee was pious and righteous and the tax collector sinful and self-interested. It turns out, the parable would have confirmed these views. And yet it still provokes.

[.  .  .  .]

At the end of the parable, we are left without full resolution, which is what a good parable should do. Is the Pharisee praising God or praising himself? Is the tax collector trusting in the divine or not? Will he keep his day job and continue to sin, or will he make restitution for his sins and find another line of work? With whom are the readers to identify, the Pharisee who does so much more than expected, and perhaps is a bit self-satisfied in the process, or the tax collector   who, as far as we know, has done nothing for the benefit of the community (he is a Roman tax collector), but who at least seems sincere in his request?

We cannot fully identify either with the Pharisee, who will continue to behave in a righteous manner far beyond what most people will do, or the currently repentant tax collector, who may continue to do the wrong thing. Once we judge one better than the other, we are trapped by the parable. And if we dismiss them both, we are also trapped, for most of us are neither as supererogatory as the Pharisee nor as sinful as the tax collectors (who must need ‘farm’ the taxes he collects for his own benefit).

But we do see again through the parable ideas that we already, somehow, knew but did not want to acknowledge. We see that divine grace cannot be limited, for to limit this grace would be to limit the divine. This unlimited grace is something many of us find problematic. We are quote happy when we are saved; we are less happy when this salvation is extended to people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as, “He’s a sinner.”

The type of generosity shown by a God who makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike, the type of generosity that allows the tax collector to tap into the collective repentance of the Temple system and the good deeds of the Pharisee, is what we want for ourselves, but what we don’t want others to have. And we know, deep down, that our sense of ‘justice” here is limited.

To give an up-to-date reading of how, and so the genius of Jesus’s teaching, we need a modern example. Here’s what the parable sounds like in a twenty-first century context.

The story of the tax collector’s ability to tap into the merit of the Pharisee and the encompassing, communal grace of the Temple system is the ancient version of the middle-school group project. This assignment, perhaps now more familiar through reality television, puts together, in classical terms, the smart one, the one who is good at art, the one who is able to provide provisions (e.g. coffee, donuts, Scotch), and the one who both literally and figuratively brings nothing to the table. Three do their fair share, and more, since they cover the fourth’s work as well. The project receives an excellent grade. The fourth, who may show up at the meetings, benefits from the work of others. In middle school, where I was the “smart one”, I found this system unfair. I was justified I got the “A”), but alongside me, indeed because of me, so was the slacker.

My sense of justice then was too narrow, my sense of generosity too constrained, my sense of self-import too great. But that fourth person believed in the system; that fourth person, whom we dismissed as lazy, as stupid, or as unable to contribute, may well have done what he could. He may have felt himself unworthy; indeed, we three others may have signaled to him that we were disappointed he was assigned to our group. He trusted in us, he trusted in the system. Had we been more generous with him rather than resentful, we would have learned more as well.

And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended upon us, even though we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g. test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins will be assessed.

 We are all our brother’s, and sister’s, keeper, and living in a community is another form of group work. We all have something to contribute, even if what we give is the opportunity for someone else to provide us a benefit. If we take more seriously this necessary interrelationship, we might be more inclined to consider others, because our actions, whether for ill or for good, will impact them.  And if our good deeds aid someone else, rather than begrudge them, why not celebrate all who are justified?

1 comment:

  1. I would suggest correcting the typos for the dates of the second jewish revolt.