Thursday, April 1, 2010

In defense of Pharisees

In a post a couple weeks ago on A Hermeneutics of the Golden Rule, I said:
"If we want to approach the Pharisees historically, as real people, we have to acknowledge that they would not have regarded themselves as hypocrites. "Loving" history will seek to recover a view of the Pharisees that made sense to them.'"
Here I want to respond in a little more detail to the widespread Christian assumption that the Pharisees of Jesus' day--if not most Jews--were hypocrites. I suspect many readers of the New Testament regard as typical the self-righteous Pharisee of Luke 18:9-14. And if Jesus selected a Pharisee to show-case the misguided posturing of those who "trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (Luke 18:9), and Paul accused his fellow Jews of "seeking to establish their own righteousness" (Rom 9:30), it is easy enough to view the Pharisee as the typical first century Jew, who--it turns out--goes home condemned by God.

This misreading of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector rests on a misunderstanding of the "righteous" as those whose behaviour is free from sin. If we want to situate the parable in a more realistic first-century context, we would do better to view it as an address by a Pharisee to fellow Pharisees, reminding them of truths on which they all agree. This goes too far, of course, since Jesus was not a Pharisee. Nevertheless, first-century Pharisees, like most first-century Jews, would have agreed with Jesus that it is those who confess their sins and acknowledge their unworthiness before a holy God who are "justified." In other words, in first century Judaism those who were "righteous" did not regard themselves as sinless. Consider the following examples from the Psalms of Solomon, a pseudonymous Jewish work dated to the first century BCE, and sometimes associated with the Pharisees:
3: 5 The righteous stumbles and proves the Lord right; He falls and watches for what God will do about him; 6 he looks to where his salvation comes from. The confidence of the righteous (comes) from God their savior; sin after sin does not visit the house of the righteous. 7 The righteous constantly searches his house, to remove his unintentional sins. 8 He atones for (sins of) ignorance by fasting and humbling his soul, and the Lord will cleanse every devout person and his house.

9:7 You bless the righteous, and do not accuse them for what they sinned. And your goodness is upon those that sin, when they repent.
The same viewpoint is expressed in the Hodayot (1QH) from the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose hymns are sometimes attributed to the "Teacher of Righteousness":
“I know that Thou hast marked the spirit of the just, and therefore I have chosen to keep my hands clean in accordance with [Thy] will: the soul of Thy servant [has loathed] every work of iniquity. And I know that man is not righteous except through thee...” (1QH; Vermes 257-8 [I'll add column and line references later]).

“[Thou art a merciful God] and rich in [favours], pardoning those who repent of their sin and visiting the iniquity of the wicked. [Thou delightest in] the free-will offering [of the righteous] but iniquity Thou hatest always” (1QH; Vermes 255).
No doubt there were hypocritical, self-righteous Pharisees in the first century just as there are hypocritical self-righteous Christians today. Jesus criticized them. Then, as now, the criticism hit home.  But the New Testament offers enough counter-evidence to demonstrate that not all Pharisees were hypocrites in the popular sense of someone who pretends to be something they are not. Paul, for example, gives no indication that his commitment to the "strictest sect of our religion" was a sham (see Phil 3:5); according to Acts 23:6-9 and 26:5 he remained a Pharisee even after becoming a follower of Jesus. Other obviously sincere Pharisees include Nicodemus (John 3) and Gamaliel (Acts 5:34).

I don't know how to generalize from individuals to entire groups, but evidence from several different sources points to the reputation of the Pharisees as a group for righteous living. The explanation that makes the best sense of the evidence is the charitable one: Most Pharisees regarded sincere piety as a positive good, and tried to live according to their ideals. In all fairness, trying to live according to one's ideals was what the Law required. Jesus required the same thing (see Matt 5:48).

I suspect the central issue in Jesus' polemic against the Pharisees was not their sincerity, but their rejection of his own claims about himself (see Luke 7:28-35; 12:54-56). According to the Gospels, being a "hypocrite" can mean sincerely placing one’s priorities in the wrong place, not being insincere.

The irony is that leaving the Pharisees as one-sided stick figures enables us as Jesus' contemporary followers to distance ourselves from the Pharisees and so avoid listening to the practical significance of Jesus' teaching.

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