The Pharisees Take the Bishops to School

Maybe for some reason it’s “pick on Sullivan” day.  At the end of a superb take-down of the bishops’ hypocrisy on social and economic issues, Andrew notes,

They have become the Pharisees.  And we need Jesus.

Foul!  15 yards, unsportsmanlike ignorance of religious history!

The real Pharisees were not the crimped, hyper-legalistic pedants that the New Testament describes.  They were, instead, a Jewish sect of the period that believed in the “Oral Torah” in addition to the Written Torah that Christians call the Pentateuch.  This Oral Torah was written down 200 years later as a document called the Mishnah.  The Mishnah, in turn, served as the basis for the Talmud, the pre-eminent and profound text of Rabbinic Judaism.  In other words, the Pharisees formed the basis of the last 2,000 years of Jewish spirituality and theology.  Without them, no Talmud, no Maimonides, no Spinoza (even if Spinoza rejected the tradition: it developed his mind and gave him his philosophical context), no Jewish civilization.

And ironically, it is the very Rabbinic-Pharisaic tradition that subverts the bishops’ position now.  The rabbis figured out ways to change previous doctrine in an intellectually honest way that maintained integrity with the tradition.  When it became clear that Biblical mandates to forgive all debts made the development of a market economy extremely difficult, the Pharisee Hillel (Jesus’ contemporary) issued a ruling that allowed many of those debts to be recovered.  When the rabbis saw that literal application of Exodus’ “an eye for an eye” would yield nothing but increasing bloodiness, they interpreted the tradition to have it be compensated for with damages.  The rabbis also worried that the Bible was obsessed with capital punishment, and thus greatly restricted executions, by promoting evidentiary exclusions.  A court that executes one person in 20 years, ruled Rabbi Akiva, is a “bloody court.”  The rabbis could figure out how to do this because they recognized Divine law changes according to circumstances.  There is a wonderful Talmudic Aggadah (homily) where God puts Moses in a time machine and plops him into Rabbi Akiva’s classroom: Moses has no idea what is going on and has no idea what everyone is talking about, but finally gets it when Akiva argues for a legal provision on the grounds that “it was given to Moses at Sinai.”  Things change.

Thus, it is not that we are stuck with Pharisees.  If the bishops were Pharisees, we would all be much better off.


  1. marcel says

    I’ve never been much of a fan of the Sadducees: can we pin that label on the bishops? Seems institutionally more accurate, at the least.

  2. says

    That’s too bad, really. Were there any hyper-legalistic crazies whose names we could use? (Maccabbees probably wouldn’t do it.)

  3. Betsy says

    How about if we just don’t have religious courts trying people, or religious “leaders” making up laws for people, at all?

    • Dennis says

      Possible, but unlikely.

      The caricature we have of the Pharisees from the New Testament is colored by the strong desire of the authors to separate themselves from Judaism. I admit, because those stories were the ones I was raised with I use “Pharisee” in exactly the sense Sullivan means: hyper-legalistic folks concerned with the letter of law and complete disregard for its intention.

      Facts change circumstances. Unfortunately, theology rarely (if ever) acknowledges that meta-fact.

      • rachelrachel says

        Not to separate themselves from Judaism, but to separate their sect of Judaism from a competing sect.

  4. Ralph Hitchens says

    I think Thomas Aquinas is basically correct, as is Dennis. The Pharisees certainly invented Rabbinic Judaism, which evolved at one extreme to the extreme Orthodox sects who are legalist/reductionist and causing are so troublesome in Israel today. I suspect that in Jesus’ time the Pharisee community was sufficiently large to think of itself as much more than a sect, and therefore might have (like the Sadducees) been suspicious and contemptuous of a small sect led by a charismatic figure. And, of course, the Gospels were written at a time when the Christian community needed to demonstrate to the Roman establishment that they had little in common with those nasty revolutionaries in Israel.

  5. NCG says

    The thing is, this – “The rabbis figured out ways to change previous doctrine in an intellectually honest way that maintained integrity with the tradition.” – is in the eye of the beholder.

    Being by temperament a moderate, gray-area see-er, I totally approve of the historical developments Jonathan describes. But what would a super Orthodox person say? My guess is, a good chunk of them probably reject it all as illegitimate.

    Only black-and-white thinkers are allowed to become bishops today. So, Sullivan should find a new name for them, but he’s completely right in substance. Incidentally, it was nice to be reminded of his existence. I’d forgotten all about him. He is on the very short list of Republican writers who are worth reading.

  6. Ralph says

    I was raised in the incredibly backward Southern Baptist Church. These folks are Bible reading fools so I got fully indoctrinated in the “pharisees bad” POV that is so prevalent in the New Testament.

    Then I got interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls and discovered Gary A. Rendsburg (via the Teaching Company) and a fellow from NYU whom came to UW to lecture on the scrolls around 2000 (can’t remember his name but a very amusing guy who thinks the Qumranians were Sadducees, not Essenes).

    Now I am in the process of learning a whole lot of Jewish history…..VERY different from what the notoriously brainwashed Southern Baptists preach. *sigh*

    • Dennis says

      If you ever want to have a real eye-opening experience, read an English translation of Isaiah not produced from a Christian theological perspective. I’d simply say, “read Isaiah in Hebrew“, but outside of some synagogues I don’t anyone literate enough in Hebrew to read it in the original.

  7. James Wimberley says

    Hillel died ca. 10 CE, 20 years before Jesus’ short ministry, so they weren’t really comtemporaries.
    There are two ways of reashing Hillel’s (Hellenizing?) creditor-friendly ruling. The Levitical Jubilee had a real snd important social purpose in constraining the evil of debt bondage. In the Jewish War, the Zealots destroyed the Temple records of debt. So possibly HIllel unwittingly stoked the fires that led to this suicidal rebellion.

    • NCG says

      This is a fascinating discussion. I don’t see why you couldn’t have a market economy that had debt forgiveness aspects — as we have bankruptcy courts today — but my guess is, debtors back then must have been taking advantage, so the Rabbi saw the need for an adjustment. But in our times, maybe we go too far the other way now. Anyhow, it’s funny how little we’ve changed.

      • Ebenezer Scrooge says

        There was debt forgiveness back then, apart from Jubilee. The Biblical law of slavery is remarkably like modern Chapter 13.

  8. Swift Loris says

    There’s a fascinating book by Hyam Maccoby called The Myth-Maker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. Among other startling notions, in it he theorizes that Paul was never a Pharisee, but rather a convert to Judaism who tried to make the grade as a Pharisee and failed; but that Jesus *was* a Pharisee. He says the confrontations with Jesus that are portrayed as hostile in the Gospels were either disputes with the Sadducees (misidentified for political purposes); or were not hostile at all, but rather representative of the standard intellectual jousting and debating that went on all the time among the Pharisees (he specifies which disputes were which).

    Maccoby’s theories are not, as I understand it, widely accepted by other biblical scholars. I’m certainly not in a position to judge, but if they aren’t valid it’s too bad, because they seem to have enormous explanatory value for a number of otherwise puzzling aspects of the Christian Scriptures.

  9. Peter T says

    Two hundred years is a long time. Maybe the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were legalistic pedants (they were in charge of the Temple, were they not?). And maybe they changed. Time did not move slower then. Are the Republicans of 2012 the same as the Republicans of 1960?

    • Swift Loris says

      No, the Sadducees were in charge of the Temple. They were the high priests responsible for the rituals and sacrifices. They came from the elite of society and cooperated with the Romans, fulfilling various administrative duties. The Pharisees were men of the people, more like parish priests except that they had serious doctrinal differences with the Sadducees, and they were not ordained but had authority by virtue of their scholarship.