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Tuesday, June 26, 2007 

Pharisaical Ponderings



I have several times indicated that in my opinion E.P. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism is the best work on the historical Jesus to date (here, here, here, and here). However, my excessive lauding of Sander's work on the historical Jesus has likely given the mistaken impression that I accepted pretty much everything Sanders put forth in Jesus and Judaism (hereafter JJ). This is not so. At the time when I initially read (and then eventually re-read) JJ there were two things that I disagreed with concerning Sanders' reconstruction of the historical Jesus. First, was Sanders' assertion that what most offended Jesus' contemporaries was his claim that sinners need not repent of their sins nor seek forgiveness of their sins in order to have a share in the (soon) coming kingdom and then, second, I had a problem with Sanders' claim that the Pharisees did not play a dominent role in Jewish Palestine and likely were small in number being chiefly located in Judea.

I am still not persuaded on Sanders' position concerning Jesus' message to sinners, but I am slowly coming around to accepting the second proposition concerning the Pharisees (principally via the now classic work by Anthony Saldarini entitled Pharisees, Saducees, and Scribes in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach). But I have not engaged enough with the requisite material in order to flesh out any thing at the moment here as to why I think I now agree with Sanders. However, what this one issue has alerted me to is the amount of historical questions there are surrounding the Pharisees. Here are, in no particular order, some of these major historical issues surrounding the Second-Temple Jewish group known as the Pharisees:

1.) Were the Pharisees, as some have asserted, major players in Palestinian society or were they a relatively marginal group no more influential than any of the other Jewish groups during the Second Temple period?

2.) What (if any) historical truth can be ascertained from the gospels concerning the Pharisees? In other words, how much of the gospels' portrayl of the Pharisees is mere caricature born out of polemic and how much has a historical basis? More importantly, how did the historical Jesus view the Pharisees? Was he in fundamental agreement with Pharisaical points of view or in fundamental disagreement with them or something in between?

3.) What was the Pharisaical view of the so called 'am a ha'aretz (people of the land). Did they view them as transgressors or simply as the common people who they believed did not necessarily have to adopt the strict purity regulations that governered their own lives?

4.) Can one or should one draw a direct historical link between the Pharisees and the post-70 Rabbinic sages? How much of Rabbinic traditions concerning the Pharisees reflect actual pre-70 Palestinian Jewish times?

My goal before this year is over is to investigate these issues and to discover where I stand concerning the Pharisees. Here is some of the relevant literature that I hope to read this year in regards to the historical Pharisees:

1.) Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees: A Sociological Background of their Faith (2 Vols), 1939.

2.) Jacob Neusner, The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70 C.E. (3 Vols), 1982.

3.) Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees in Palestinian Society, 1986.

4.) E.P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Misnah: Five Studies, 1990.

5.) Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton (eds), In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, 2007.




Hopefully, in future posts I will be able to tackle some of these issues but for the time being I must get to reading.

1) It seems to be that they were more influencial than Essenes (who left society), but less influencial than the Saducees, since they had the power of running the Temple and pleas to Rome.

2) It seems that a good amount of interpretation is polemic. Reading Brad Young's Parables in Jewish and Christian Interpretation suggests that the historical Jesus and the Pharisees had very much in common. Of course this is on the whole, and with any group there are those who are worthy of criticism.

3) Again from Young's book, he suggests that the Pharisees were very interested in showing love and calling for repentance for the people. He doesn't give any hint that the Pharisees expected the people to live like them - but that they're lives were a glory to God.

4) Young's whole predication is a resounding yes. He works under this assumption without providing evidence for it. He often cites Flusser as a predecessor - perhaps he has the evidence.

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