One of the really wonderful things about reading N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God is the gentleness with which Wright subverts unexamined, overly simplistic accounts of “the way things were in New Testament times.”
And it’s funny how one’s personal circumstances – one’s story, if you wish – can color one’s working assumptions about such things.
Matthew 23 – and perhaps his whole gospel account – notwithstanding, Wright has thoroughly rehabilitated the Pharisees in qb’s mind. (Not utterly: thoroughly. qb’s under no illusions that the Pharisees were clean and pure as the wind-driven snow.) One of the reasons, no doubt, is that Wright’s reading of Second-Temple Judaism resonates strangely with the story qb has been living over the past couple of years here in Amarillo’s independent-Christian-Church community!
After a steady stream of imperial powers brought Palestine’s subjugation to its nadir under the Syrian scoundrel Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Jews were ripe for a revolution. A revolution, that is, to reestablish the promised Kingdom that had been taken into captive exile, first by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Alexandrian Greeks, then the Ptolemies of Egypt, and now the Seleucids.
Did someone say “revolution?” Yes, and the Maccabees were quick to take the lead with a violent rejection of the Seleucid dynasty. Then, of course, the revolutionary Maccabees became the Hasmonean dynasty, the exiles morphing into the establishment and blurring the line between religious and political authority by blending the roles of High Priest and King. Then came Rome under the general Pompey in 63 C. E., with the destruction of Herod’s Temple to follow not long afterward.
In all of these four centuries of political intrigue, devout Jews looked with suspicion upon just about everyone who came to power over Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee. (If I understand the history right, Samaria had long been conceded to the foreign pagans that Assyria sent to Palestine to fill the void that exiled Israel left behind.) Whether the powers that be came from within (Hasmoneans) or without (Caesar, Herod), devout Jews found them all corrupt and illegitimate, to say nothing of the eternal threat those rulers posed to the Jews who gave in and assimilated with whoever was in power at the time. Someone, it was thought, had to rise up and take a stand for Torah, for the land flowing with milk and honey, for the Temple…in short, the seminal Jewish symbols of God’s election and provenance.
Out of that bubbling stew of religious and political fervor, mixed in various ratios by different groups, emerged a variety of groups whose self-imposed mission was to preserve the essential elements of Judaism in the face of these pagan rulers and their programs. Essenes withdrew and formed their own communities in a sort of internal exile. Pharisees, by contrast, stayed in public view within the day-to-day life of Palestine, urging a public form of Judaic orthodoxy and orthopraxy that would serve as a continual reminder to the pagans that the Jews were not going to roll over and relinquish their status before God. The Sicarii and the Zealots chose a more overt and violent path, using the dagger’s blade as their chosen tool of resistance.
How ought one to respond to the emergence of an illegitimate and seemingly dangerous regime? The Pharisees debated it long and hard, developing what Wright calls a trail of “case law.” This is how we Jews can retain our distinctiveness even without a Temple and a Promised Land of our own. We’ll carry the Torah with us and be diligent to embody it in every way that we can. And no Roman will be able to co-opt us, the remnant of God’s chosen people.
But how far can I walk on a Sabbath day and still remain a Jew in good standing? Well, the Pharisees worked it out for their fellow Jews. And lo, the “Sabbath day’s journey was born,” something just short of a kilometer or so.
OK, what happens if my ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath? Can I get him out of there, or do I have to let him starve to death, leaving me without a way to till my crops? And if the pit is a cistern or well, do I wait a day and risk contaminating the well water for everyone in the community? The Pharisees and the rabbis worked it out. Practical theology, courtesy of the Pharisees. No law can possibly anticipate every contingency, so the Pharisees engaged one another and the rabbis in a mostly good-faith effort to reason their way through, to cross these ethical bridges as their fellow Jews came to them. After all, the Torah was all they had left; if they lost touch with Torah, they lost touch with their Creator-God, YHWH.
It may have gone to pathological seed, as Matthew’s Jesus makes clear, but like many other revolutionary movements, Pharisaism began on noble terms: what is my relationship to an illegitimate and/or hostile regime, and how do I preserve my holiness before God if that regime threatens to drive me in the other direction? Should I leave and start my own community, should I stay and work for reform from within, or should I do my part to eliminate the threat?