Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Only Good Pharisee.....?

It was an acquaintance who drew my attention to something I'd forgotten about lately. An assumption that the Pharisees were all bad. He didn't make that assumption, I hasten to add. No. He was remarking that Francis Spufford's otherwise good-fun book, Unapologetic, makes that mistake. Although to be fair to Francis Spufford, he's really trying to annoy/appeal to atheists, I think. Or inspire a new approach to (un) apologetics.  Pharisees aren't really his main target.

And it's a funny thing, with all the wild ideas about John the Baptist being an Essene and Jesus being a Buddhist alien and all the rest of it - but the plain, obvious fact that Jesus was likely a Pharisee only really gets picked up by the really annoyingly serious and therefore quite boring scholars.

I mean - you notice the difference in the Gospels, in the arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, and with the Saducees. With the Saducees, it's all about resurrection versus eternal annihilation after death. And worth noting, for all the claims that people believe in God because of they're scared of death, that you couldn't lay the claim against the Saducees. Oh no; the satirists of their day, were the Saducees, with their " One Bride for Seven Brothers" conundrum. And they emphatically didn't have an afterlife in their scheme.

But when Jesus talks to the Pharisees, there's so much more grounds for debate. Their assumptions are all there - that righteousness is a thing to achieve one way or another, that giving to the poor is good, that there will be a Resurrection where the quick and slightly more sluggish (because they've just got up - wow, is that the time?) will be judged. Jesus is, fundamentally, one of their own.

And were the Pharisees, by and large, so bad? They loved and wanted to serve God. They read and loved the Scripture. They wanted to do their best - and their arguments with Our Lord weren't about justification by faith vs works. Jesus hardly seems to have been an Antinomian (somebody who rejects the Law.  Somebody who loathes diminutive supernatural miners is an Anti-Gnomian). It was about the right interpretation of that Law.

And if they loved the Law, they were living up to Psalm 119. And they'd certainly have read it. More than most modern western Christians, probably.  So were they so bad?

So I'm not saying Jesus didn't argue with "The Pharisees". But I reckon that he didn't argue with all of them. And if the early Church chose, in the Gospels, to remember that he did argue with many - and made sure we knew about it - maybe they were picking this out to make the points to themselves.

"This is where we came from. This is another search for righteousness, deeply like ours. We might hanker after it - it's simple, black-and-white, pre-canned. And, frankly, it's safer. But it's not what we, with our conviction of a risen God, can go back to.

And our lives are messy, in our new world. We've got to work out which rules to keep, and which to ditch or modidy. But we've got to run with it.  We're not going back."


  1. Having read the book 'a year of living Biblically', I secretly started to admire the Pharisees. Here seemed to be a determined attempt to live out every part of life in submission to God, every waking moment, everything you eat, wear, say, and do. Wholehearted discipleship.

  2. Don't forget some Pharisees follow Jesus, others eat with him. The "friend come higher" story takes on a whole new meaning if Jesus the Pharisee was the honored guest among other Pharisees.- he would thus have been making fun of himself after taking the place of honor. No doubt there would have been laughter all around. And so much of what Jesus says is in the tradition of Rabbi Hillel, as are the Pharisees.

  3. I recommend Rabbi Harvey Falk's book Jesus the Pharisee for a development of this theme.

    Also makes a good deal of sense out of John 1:24-30.


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl