The Pharisees in the Gospels – an Excerpt from Covenant Nation

Boyarin presents us with an analysis of the hand-washing incident described in the seventh chapter of the book of Mark (TJG; pgs. 106-127). Boyarin concludes that, contrary to popular Christian opinion, this incident does not teach that Jesus abolished the dietary laws altogether. Rather, Jesus was opposed to the specific rabbinical enactment of hand-washing, which stands apart from the general dietary laws.

I find myself in agreement with Boyarin on this point. Reading the book of Mark with an understanding of Jewish law one recognizes that there is a distinction between the purity laws, which Jesus was contesting, and the general dietary laws, which Jesus does not mention. Boyarin however does not stop there. Boyarin goes on to argue that Jesus stood against all Pharisaic innovations and additions to the Law. This position is not supported by the Christian Scriptures, the only source we have for Jesus and his teachings.

Boyarin has ignored a significant piece of evidence in this discussion. The Talmud records that there was an inner-Pharisaic conflict concerning the hand-washing enactment, and that this conflict was still unresolved in the generation of Jesus (Shabbat 14b). In other words by taking a stance against the hand-washing enactment, Jesus is not standing outside of the Pharisaic community. Instead he was taking part in an inter-Pharisaic debate.

This is corroborated by Jesus’ teaching as recorded by Matthew: “the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” (23:2,3). Although Jesus goes on to malign the Pharisees for hypocritical behavior, but he does not take issue with their authority or their interpretation of the Law. In fact some of the laws he mentions and upholds in his subsequent diatribe (such as the tithing of spices) are of rabbinic origin.

Jesus is described as observing the Passover Seder according to rabbinic tradition (Luke 22:18-20). When Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath law, an accusation that only makes sense according to the Pharisaic understanding of the Law, he never exonerates himself by arguing against the Pharisaic definition of the Law. Jesus’ defense always assumes that the Pharisaic definition of the Law is correct, it is only the application of the Law in those particular instances (i.e. for the purpose of healing) that Jesus takes issue with.

Many of Jesus’ followers considered themselves Pharisees long after Jesus had died (Acts 15:5). These people were prominent figures in the community of Jesus followers and their opinion was taken seriously. A comparison between the debate described in Acts 15 and Paul’s dispute with Peter recorded in Galatians 2:14 shows that Peter, the prime disciple of Jesus, was of the “Pharisee party”. Paul accuses Peter of “compelling the Gentiles to live as do the Jews”. This was the opinion of the Pharisaic segment of the early Christian community as recorded in Acts 15 and Paul attributes this outlook to Peter. A straightforward reading gives us to understand that Peter himself belonged to this group.

If, as Boyarin claims, Jesus took a clear stance against the Pharisee approach to the Law, why would his followers accept this very approach that he discredited? It is clear that Jesus did not reject the Pharisee approach to the Law as a whole it was only some details of the Pharisaic application, details that were being disputed within the Pharisee community itself that Jesus was rejecting.

In the book of Mark (7:8-13) we do indeed find Jesus striking out at the general concept of the traditions. He rebukes the “Pharisees and all the Jews” (Mark 7:3) for using the traditions to make the Law of God null and void. However, the example that Jesus uses to demonstrate how the Jews were using the traditions to nullify the Law of God, is perplexing. Mark’s Jesus accuses the Jews of using the law of taking vows as a method of avoiding honoring their parents. The technical aspects of this accusation are confusing enough (the laws of taking vows are Biblical in nature (Numbers 30:3) and not a part of the traditions as Mark’s Jesus seems to believe). But what is really difficult to understand is that in all of the rabbinic writings, there is not one statement that can be taken as an encouragement to avoid honoring one’s parents. The consistent position of Pharisaic Judaism, according to every historical record, places the honor of parents on the highest pedestal. In sharp contrast, the Gospels leave us with several statements that seem to go against the spirit of the Fifth Commandment (Matthew 10:37; 12:48; 19:29; Mark 3:33; Luke 14:26). The targets of Jesus’ invective left us a literature that is far more extensive than the 4 books of the Gospels, yet nothing equivalent is to be found in their writings.

This would lead us to one of two conclusion; either the group that Jesus was castigating was a fringe sect that never left their mark on mainstream Judaism, or we can conclude that the redactors of the Gospels put this anti-Pharisaic tirade into their book long after Jesus died and were not familiar with the ways of the Jews. Either way, Boyarin’s conclusion that Jesus was anti-Pharisaic cannot be substantiated from this enigmatic passage, especially in light of the totality of the available evidence.

It is interesting to note, that Boyarin does not hesitate to slice up the Hebrew Bible and attribute various sentences in the same narrative to different authors who subscribed to conflicting theologies (TJG, pg. 43). He does this without any explicit evidence for the existence of the conflict that he assumes as the root of this editing procedure in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Yet he takes the Christian Scriptures at face value despite the fact that the same Christian Bible admits that there was deep discord in the early Church between Paul and a faction of “super-apostles” who opposed him. Had Boyarin taken the same irreverent attitude towards the Gospels as he does towards the Jewish Bible, he would have realized that the most probable explanation for the pro and anti-Pharisaic tendencies in the Gospels reflects the tendencies of two conflicting communities in the early Church. The Christian Bible itself acknowledges this rift in the early Church, there is no reason to assume that this controversy left no mark on the editing process of the books produced by these conflicting communities.

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4 Responses to The Pharisees in the Gospels – an Excerpt from Covenant Nation

  1. Dina says:

    Wow, I see I really misunderstood the passage. Thanks for the clarity! This is a fascinating look into the time period.

  2. Lori Kubinski Johnson says:

    Why would Boyarin do this? Certainly he is no incompetent scholar. Might he have a particular anti-Jewish agenda? Considering his most influential BDS politics, I don’t think one has to look far for an answer.

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