Table Life

Book Reflection: The Pharisees

My first book reflection for 2022 is the new collection of essays entitled The Pharisees edited by scholars Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Lavine. This book is a much needed addition to any pastor or professor who desires to have a more accurate understanding of Pharisees in their historical and religious context.

Originally collected as the presentations from a 2019 conference on pharisees, the essays in the book were edited for print and others were later invited to contribute supplementary articles. The book is outlined in three large groupings: 1) what can be known about the historic pharisees in and around the first century, 2) how pharisees have been co-opted in mostly negative ways through history fueling anti-Semitic propaganda and fears, 3) how to preach, teach, and generally discuss pharisees going forward in light of 1 and 2.

I particularly found section one the most helpful in reading and interpreting the New Testament. Most of what we know for certain about pharisees comes from dissenting opinions. The New Testament, certain Dead Sea Scroll documents, and Josephus generally cite pharisees in the negative. More telling Pharisees often appear in a text as foils for the authors to validate their stance on specific issues important to them, generally in very partisan sort of ways. Beyond that most of the accusations leveled at pharisees in the New Testament, DSS texts, and Josephus are common accusations used against any religious opponents in the first century regardless of sectarian loyalty within the larger Jewish experience.

This type of reading would be similar to only reviewing news articles, personal blogs, or social media from Red Sox fans that mention Yankees. Based on that evidence you would believe Yankees to be a franchised marked only by the theft of Babe Ruth and other Sox greats while abusing Red Sox pitchers with homeruns into the short porch of right field in Yankee stadium, and Yankee players being generally less quality persons than Sox players. All identifiers that might make one unfamiliar with the larger history and basics of baseball believe the Bronx Bombers are deserving the popular Fenway epitaph “Yankees suck!” This of course is not the full story and a slanted version of the story at best. (Also just to be clear, Go Red Sox!)

Pharisees get a bad rap this way. Many of the practices and beliefs held by pharisees were held in common with the rest of Judaism. Their uniqueness lay in how many of their practices were the more lenient interpretations of texts and traditions. The debates they had with Sadducees, Essenes, Jesus, and early Christians are primarily halakic in nature. Meaning they center around how much weight to give traditional customs of interpretation verse more literal interpretations of Torah and practices. This approach left them open to opposition from multiple sides.

Case in point, Pharisees often found themselves offering more lenient interpretations to make room for common persons to live pious pure lives in contexts outside of Jerusalem and the Temple area that brought them into conflict with the Sadducees and Qumran communities. The gospels tend to place them at odds with Jesus over minute details of the law, rather than focusing on the heart of the laws ie justice, mercy, and faithfulness. So they were too lenient for the Temple and desert community while also being too focused on microdetails for Gospel authors. There is not room here to elaborate on each example but there are multiple articles in The Pharisees to validate this perspective.

Most importantly The Pharisees reminds readers and interpreters of scripture to not throw pharisees under the theological, historical, or ethnic bus. They were not quite the rigid legalistic narrowminded powermongers who opposed Jesus that has come to stereotype them. They had genuine concerns about the interpretation of scripture and the lived practical elements of the Jewish tradition. Did they over emphasize traditional purity and at the cost of underplaying Torah? Perhaps at times. It is sometimes difficult to identify the difference between a face value textual application from the glorifying of long practiced interpretation of a text. However, placing them in context with their conversations and experiences prevents interpreters from so easily dismissing them or associating their habits of discipleship with only negative connotations.

I highly recommend everyone read The Pharisees. If nothing else buy the volume and put it on your shelf. Every time you read a passage that includes pharisees in the New Testament at least pull it down and review what it has to offer before you misinterpret the text or the beliefs and practices of the Pharisees.

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