Scribing the Pharisees

Hyam Maccoby

  • Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies by E.P. Sanders
    SCM, 404 pp, £35.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 334 02455 2
  • Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee by Alan Segal
    Yale, 368 pp, £22.50, June 1990, ISBN 0 300 04527 1

One of the preoccupations of New Testament studies since the 19th century has been to reconsider the bitter attacks on the Pharisees found in the Gospels, in the light the Jewish rabbinic writings. The portrayal of the Pharisees as hypocrites and persecutors, and of their religion as obsessionally ritualistic and legalistic, has played a great part in Christian anti-semitism throughout the ages. Shakespeare, for example, never having met a practising Jew in his life, gave Shylock the characteristics of the Gospel Pharisees, from the remark ‘How like a fawning publican he looks!’ (Luke 18.10) to the elaboration of the allegedly Pharisaic insistence on the letter of the law.

The earlier efforts of Christian scholars were directed to using the rabbinic writings to confirm the truth of the Gospel portrayal. Emil Schürer, Ferdinand Weber, Paul Billerbeck and (later) Rudolf Bultmann and Joachim Jeremias used selective quotation from the rahbinic writings to show that the Pharisees were petty legalists and ritualists. Those who combated this type of argument by more comprehensive and representative quotation were at first mainly Jewish scholars (Claude Montefiore, Solomon Schechter, Adolf Büchler and others), but they were joined by Christian scholars who were also concerned to build up a more objective picture of the Pharisees from Jewish sources. These were, notably, Travers Herford, George Foot Moore and James Parkes.

The latest in this line of pro-Phaisee Christian scholars is E.P. Sanders, whose brilliant book Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) contained an indictment of the one sidedness and partisanship of the school of anti-Pharisee scholarship and a vindication of Pharisee religion from the charge of being ‘arid and sterile’. Sanders’s work was marked by his thorough and sympathetic use of the rabbinic writings and by his reasoned refusal to adopt the line (popular since the case against the Pharisees from Jewish sources was seen to be collapsing) that rabbinic writings redacted in the third century are too late to be used as evidence for the period of the first-century Pharisees.

The battle about the Pharisees is not just a matter of research into an ancient religious group: it affects our standpoint towards questions about the origin of Christianity. If the Pharisees were not as bad as they are painted, why did they oppose Jesus and help to bring him to his death? Did they perhaps not oppose him at all? Is it possible (in view of multiple parallels to Jesus’s teaching in rabbinic literature) that Jesus was himself a Phari see, as several scholars, including myself, have argued? If so, why are the Gospels so anti-Pharisee? Modern research, once it took Jewish sources seriously, began to open up an alarming gap between Jesus and Christianity – a gap that recent Christian scholarship has developed several strategies to try to close.

In Jesus and Judaism (1985) Sanders deepened his case for the essential similarity be tween Jesus’s teaching and Pharisaism: ‘I am one of a growing number of scholars who doubt that there were any substantial points of opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees.’ The alleged scenes of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about both purity laws and the Sabbath were ‘artificial’ – they have no ground in actual Pharisee teachings – and stem from a period later than that of Jesus. In his first books, Sanders opposed the views of Christian anti-Pharisee scholars. Recently, however, Jacob Neusner, an American Jewish scholar, has pictured the Pharisees as indeed primarily ritualists, basing himself on what appears to be an exhaustive study of the Jewish sources. His work has of course been seized on with pleasure and relief by those Christians who find the pro-Pharisee picture difficult to live with. But Neusner’s work has also been accepted by some Jewish scholars, keen to escape from an ‘apologetic’ stance, and to demonstrate their credentials as fully objective exponents of ‘Jewish Studies’ in the universities.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in