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.

There is now, however, a growing tide of work, both Christian and Jewish, which criticises Neusner’s presuppositions and methodology. In a recent book, A Religion of Pots and Pans? (1988), Neusner singled out three scholars as his chief targets: E.E. Urbach, E. P. Sanders and myself. Sanders’s new book is partly devoted to a critique of Neusner, and is a Significant salvo in a continuing battle that may decide the future course of rabbinic studies.

Sanders’s book may be regarded as a series of learned appendices to Jesus and Judaism (including a detailed reconsideration of Jesus’s alleged clashes with the Pharisees), and as such it is highly valuable. It is the sustained and reasoned polemic against Neusner, however, that gives the book unity and piquancy. Neusner’s work has gained great authority because of its sheer volume and difficulty. It seems to offer such depth of nuance and self-qualification that efforts to generalise about it are rare. Yet, as Sanders shows, the nuancing is mainly an illusion, and Neusner has presented throughout his work a simple thesis to which he returns after all qualifications, even at the cost of frequent and sometimes blatant self-contradiction. This thesis is that the Pharisees were interested in ritual purity to the exclusion of all else in Judaism, and that their aim, as a sect, was to transfer the ritual purity laws of the Temple and the priesthood to everyday life. If this thesis is correct, then the Gospel characterisation of the Pharisees as ritualists, unconcerned with ‘the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith’ (Matthew 23.23), is correct, as are the scholars, such as Schürer and Billerbeek, who sought to support this characterisation from Jewish sources. Neusner would deprecate only their anti-semitic tone and then failure to understand the religious value of ritualism, as demonstrated by recent sociological and Structuralist theory.

Neusner claimed to have provided a new scientific basis for the equation of Pharisees with ritual purity devotees (haberim). This was his statistical method of studying the Mishnah. He counted passages that could be attributed to a first-century Pharisee origin and analysed them, claiming them to be mainly concerned with ritual purity. Sanders criticises this procedure by arguing that a. the count is wrong, b. it would not prove anything even if it were right. Neusner included in his count many topics (such as gifts to the poor) that can only be construed as concerned with ritual purity by far-fetched special pleading; and many that concern Temple purity and therefore have nothing to do with the alleged transfer of purity from the Temple to the outside world. This is well-argued, but Sanders’s second point, which has also been urged in various ways by Neusner’s other critics, including myself, is even more important. A book may take up much space in arguing a particular point, not because it is centrally important, but simply because it is a matter of argument and disagreement. Centrally important matters may not receive much attention because everyone is agreed about them.

The Mishnah preserves the sayings of the first-century Pharisees among later material. Neusner argues that ritual purity, transferred from the Temple to everyday life, is still the central preoccupation of the authors of the Mishnah, who lived in the post-Temple period and were trying to cope with the trauma of its disappearance. Here again statistics of pericopes figure in the argument. Neusner says that the authors of the Mishnah were not much interested in the Messiah, or in the Covenant, or in repentance, or even in the Bible, because the spend far more space discussing ritual matters. But it is the presuppositions of the Mishnah that show what its authors valued most.

We should also take the genre of the Mishnah into account. If the subject matter of a book is limited, we cannot draw any conclusions about the central preoccupations of the author of society that produced it. The Mishnah is a law book, and therefore has little to say about theology (though it does include some significant theological asides). To learn more about the theology of its authors, we must look to the Bible, on which they based their lives, and to the aggadic (non-legal) rabbinic literature. We could not come to conclusions about the chief spiritual concerns of modern British society by confining our analysis to a road traffic manual, or by counting the number of clauses it contains. So pre-Neusner scholars thought, and took the rest of the rabbinic literature, especially the Midrashim, into account when studying the Mishnah. Neusner, however, announced that this was unscientific. The Mishnah must be studied on its own: anything outside it was irrelevant to it. Other literature might quote the same authorities as those quoted in the Mishnah, but such sayings were of later redaction and might well be pseudepigraphic. Neusner’s celebrated scepticism about attributions is probably his most valuable contribution to rabbinic studies. He has certainly made scholars more careful about accepting the sayings attributed to the various named rabbis as authentic. He has introduced methods of validating or invalidating attributions which are at least a useful first step in the matter, though they are far too severe and exclusive to give anything like a probable picture of the whole map of attribution.

The use of Occam’s razor to isolate the Mishnah has had some curious results. Neusner, convinced that the Mishnah contains the whole universe of its authors, is constrained to distil a philosophy and theology out of its legal statements and discussions without allowing it any Biblical or aggadic background. Thus Neusner spins a weird theology based on ritual purity out of the Mishnah, a theology for which there is no evidence elsewhere. Sanders’s critique of this process is essential reading. He points out that Neusner has failed to answer the objection (repeatedly put to him by Sanders and myself) that the Mishnah presupposes the Jewish liturgy, which it quotes and discusses and which is a text which must be regarded as relevant to the explication of the Mishnah. There is no hint of Neusner’s ‘Mishnah-theology’ in the liturgy, which the rabbis actually prayed. The over-severe use of Occam’s razor could hardly be better exemplified than in Neusner’s work. He starts off with the empiricist principle, ‘what we cannot show, we cannot know,’ and finishes, because of the sheer paucity of material left in his sieve, by reading the most unlikely meanings into the Mishnah’s legal arguments, which he actually declares to be a code for theological secrets.

No Baconian or Kabbalist could surpass Neusner’s efforts at decodifying the Mishnah, which he is unable, because of his methodology, to accept at its face value as a legal text that relies for its theology on other texts outside it. So an extremist doctrine of empiricism turns into its opposite – into a quasi-mystical search for esoteric content.

Sanders’s investigation of the theme of ritual purity in Judaism is important. No topic has been more misunderstood or misrepresented by biased authors, whose mistakes have been repealed endlessly in the secondary literature. Sanders, basing himself on the original sources, firmly quashes the usual errors. Ritual impurity was not regarded as a sin, but as part of everyday living, often even a praiseworthy part of it (for example, when incurred through attending a funeral). It had to be washed away in the ritual pool only when one intended to enter holy areas or to eat holy foodstuffs.

Consequently, there was no bar to social intercourse between washed and unwashed Jews, or between Jews and non-Jews. Certain Jews (the haberim) did adopt, as a voluntary, supererogatory practice, a regime of ritual purity that was more rigorous than the norm, but it was not as rigorous as that practised by the priesthood. (As Sanders puts it, it was merely a ‘gesture’ towards a priestly code of conduct.) The haberim are not synonymous with the Pharisees. The ordinary people (’amei haaretz) were not regarded as sinners, and were fully trusted to make themselves pure at the times when purity was required (when visiting the Temple, for example). These conclusions relegate a great part of the exegesis usually offered for the alleged conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees to the dustbin. They also refute Neusner’s basic thesis, which gives ritual purity central and controlling importance in Pharisaic and Mishnaic Judaism.

Sanders gives a lengthy description of the ritual purity system. Unfortunately, this contains a good many errors of detail, which will have to be corrected before this chapter can serve as a guide to students. The most pervasive error is Sanders’s interpretation of the expression ‘creeping things’ – the dead bodies of which were a source of ritual impurity by contact – as ‘insects’. In fact, ‘creeping things’ were certain kinds of rodents and lizards (Lev. 11.29). Insects carried no ritual impurity, whether alive or dead, though most of them were forbidden as food (Lev. 11.20,41, and rabbinic comments). Sanders commits some blunders outside the area of ritual purity too. The priests were not distinguished from other Jews by having square beards: this is a misunderstanding of Lev. 21.5, which is a prohibition against shaving certain areas of the face with a razor, not about the shape of beards; he fails to notice that Lev. 19.27 says the same thing about the laity. There was no prescription about the shape of beards, if worn, whether of the priests or of the laity. Such minor errors, however, do not detract from the excellence of Sanders’s general approach, which uses the rabbinic sources in a comprehensive and unbiased way, and reduces the theme of ritual purity to correct proportions, thus enabling the study of rabbinic literature, and of its relevance to New Testament studies, to proceed on sensible lines.

Alan Segal’s book, Paul the Convert, is also concerned with the Pharisees, but in a very different way. He wishes to show continuity between the religious views of Paul and those of Pharisaism, and so concentrates on evidence of mystical practices and theosophy among the Pharisees. Since he is prepared to regard Paul’s mysticism itself as evidence of Pharisaic mysticism, however, there is at limes a certain circularity in his argument. The most questionable aspect of his argument is his at tempt to show that there was nothing unJewish, or unPharisaic, about Paul’s elevation of Jesus to divine status. He gives great weight, for example, to pseudepigraphic or Philonic passages which allegedly describe Moses as having achieved divine status. In view of the overwhelming preponderance of contrary material, however, stressing Moses’s erring humanity and the sin for which he was punished, a few hyperbolic expressions of praise count for little.

Even more to the point is the way in which Paul elevated Jesus to deity. Jesus’s violent death on the Cross is essential to his view of him as a divine sacrifice, atoning for the sins of mankind. It is extraordinary how those engaged in the fashionable exercise of finding Jewish root for Paul’s theology ignore the topic of the Crucifixion. Segal is no exception. Though he refers occasionally, in passing, to Paul’s view of baptism as a reliving, by the Christian initiate, of the death of Christ on the Cross, he gives this no importance in his analysis, and certainly does not even attempt to find a Jewish or Pharisaic analogy for it. Where, among the Jewish messenger-figures, personifications or transfigurations, cited by this school of thought, is there one who suffered a violent death for mankind? Where, for that matter, is there even one who was taken seriously enough to receive prayers or shrines? It seems strange that mental acrobatics are used to find analogies with Judaism, when obvious analogies are to hand in Hellenistic mystery-religion, where the concept of a god-man sacrifice procuring salvation and immortality for initiates is commonplace.

A valuable aspect of Segal’s book is his opposition to the even more ecumenical school (of Gager, Gaston and Stendahl) which denies that Paul ever left Pharisaism. They argue that Paul regarded the Christ sacrifice as bringing salvation only to Gentiles, not to Jews, who did not need it, having their own valid Covenant. Segal shows convincingly that this view cannot be reconciled with Paul’s own pronouncements about the necessity of Christ’s salvation for Jews as well as for Gentiles. He also notes the important opportunities available to Gentiles to become converts or allies (‘God-fearers’) to Judaism: possibilities discounted by the Gager-Gaston-Steudahl school as inconvenient to their theory, which requires Paul to plug a salvalional gap left by Judaism. An ecumenical aim of narrowing the distance between Christianity and Judaism can distort the facts just as much as old-style polemicism.