Tuesday, 7 August 2007

You Pharisee!

Perhaps one of the things that we're clearest on when reading the gospels is this: the Pharisees are the 'bad guys'. Yet quite why Jesus is so critical of the Pharisees is, I think, sometimes misunderstood by many.

It's often assumed that whenever we read of Jesus criticising the Pharisees that he is criticising the religion and spirituality of all who held to the Old Testament Law. People understand Jesus to be criticising the desire to want to keep the Old Testament Law. This is an error. In fact, the sect of Pharisees was not established until after the return from exile. The Pharisees themselves claimed theological descendency from Ezra. However, history shows that the Pharisees probably did not become part of mainstream Judaism until after 400BC.

Jacob Neusner, a Jewish writer, explains that what set the Pharisees apart from other Jewish believers of the time was their approach to the Old Testament Law. He suggests that the Pharisees interpreted Exodus 19:3-6 literally – i.e. that God wanted all members of the people of Israel to act as literal priests. This meant that the Pharisees believed that all Jewish men should observe all of the rules and rituals concerning purification that were originally given to the Temple priesthood alone. In addition, a massive number of traditions, which the Pharisees rooted in the unrecorded oral teachings of Moses, held an authority alongside the written Law.

In some cases the traditions of the Pharisees led them to extend what the law required. The Law, for example, requires priests to bathe themselves before entering the Temple to make sacrifices. But the Pharisees demanded washings before all meals. Other laws – for instance, those governing the Sabbath alluded to in the gospels – also had extra-Biblical rulings added by the Pharisees.

With this background, we can see that much of Jesus' teaching - where he has often been understood to be criticising Law keeping - is actually criticising the traditions of the Pharisees.

A clear example of this is shown in Mark 7:1-13. In this passage, the Pharisees (and, according to Mark 7:3, 'all', which seems to mean all observant Jews) were attempting to ensure that they were in what they considered to be a state of ritual purity when they ate their everyday meals, in order that their food would remain ritually pure. However, the shock here is that nothing is said in the Law about ritually washing hands before eating everyday meals; this set of rules must have been added by the Pharisees. Similarly, there's nothing about purifying cooking and eating utensils in the Law, apart from those used in Temple worship (see Leviticus 11:32-35; 15:12; Numbers 19:15), even though the Pharisees demanded this. And so the question asked by the Pharisees of Jesus and his disciples in this passage is not why they are breaking the OT Law, but why why Jesus and his disciples did not abide by the Pharisees' written regulations.

Jesus is not anti-Law in this episode. In fact, both Mark’s narrative and Jesus’ teaching uphold the source of the Law as coming from God. Jesus’ criticism is not of the desire of ordinary Jews to seek to keep the Law. Instead, Jesus criticises the placement of man-made burdensome traditions above those of God (including the Pharisees teaching regarding ‘corban’, which does not appear in the Law) and legalistic self-righteousness (which in itself was never designed to be a feature of the old covenant) above actually wanting to keep the covenant, shown in obedience to the Law. Thus the Pharisees ‘nullify the word of God’ by the traditions that they have passed down, which take precedence over why the Law was originally given.

This context is vital when we consider Jesus' teaching on food laws, that appears later in the chapter (in verses 17-19). At a first glance, it appears that Jesus repeals the laws of clean and unclean meats from Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. But as we have seen, the subject of the discussion is not food in general. It does not regard which meats are clean or unclean. The Greek word used in verse 19 is ‘food’. Apparently an entirely different Greek word, kreas, is used in the NT where meat is specifically intended (see Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 13:8 etc.). So this passage concerns the general subject of food rather than meat.

Verses 1-2 and verse 5 helps us understand the context: the subject debated concerns eating ‘with unwashed hands’, and the traditions of the oral law. Food laws are not in question here. The topic is ritual purity based on religious traditions of the oral law. The disciples were being criticized for not following the proper procedure of ceremonial hand-washing prescribed by these revered religious traditions, not for the foods they were eating.

Jesus explains that ceremonial washing is not necessary for spiritual purity or spiritual health. In fact, whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods (verses 18-19). Dirt not removed through elaborate hand-washing will be purged out by the human digestive system in a manner that has no bearing on the heart and mind of a person. Since spiritual purification must involve the heart, the traditional ceremonial washings of the Pharisees are ineffective and unnecessary in preventing spiritual defilement.

Jesus' over-riding point in this chapter is, I think, this: the Pharisaic traditions have presented the will of God from being done. Their religious traditions and misunderstanding of Scripture is preventing people from making the right response to the covenant: a humble obedience to God's Law. And so Jesus rejects the Pharisaic traditions and vehemently rejects them.

Which leaves us, I think, with an interesting question that I've been mulling over: What traditions do we have today amongst God's people that prevent the will of God from being done? What do you think?

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