Losing Track of the Pharisees

The loss of biblical literacy in America has resulted in — among much else — a loss of many of the cultural lessons we have learned over the centuries. The Bible permeated Western civilization for a great many centuries and was a major contributor to the humanization of the culture. What we meant by the West until very recently was in fact a confluence of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian understandings of human nature and human society. Due in large part to the rapid rate of change in our day ( a sign of luxury!), we have tended to lose track of our yesterdays. As a result, in many ways we are wandering aimlessly, not remembering where we have been and therefore unable to assess where we are.

One specific loss is that we have no understanding any longer of that Jewish sect from two millennia ago, the Pharisees. They are remarkable and important to the West for two reasons.

One is that after the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the Pharisees, though always a small party within Judaism, became almost the foundation of the rabbinic Judaism which emerged from the tragedy. They were strong, educated, capable leaders who shaped the new Temple-less Judaism and thus are rightly to be considered heroic figures in Jewish history. The foundations they laid reflected a maturity which, so far as we know, they did not have in Jesus’ day. They rose to the occasion and served their fellow Jews wonderfully.

Second and more commonly known, the Pharisees tangled badly with Jesus and so became something of a foil in the Gospel stories of Jesus and his ministry. The spirit of anti-Semitism has often driven us to think the problem was that the Pharisees were simply bad people. That isn’t the case at all. The conflict — if you’ll pardon a bit of over-simplification — was caused by the fact that both the Pharisees and Jesus cared very deeply about personal righteousness but conceived of it very differently. Jesus saw personal righteousness as the fruit of forgiveness and grace while the Pharisees tended to think of it as precise adherence to religious law. Jesus would have thought a good law is one which expresses love, respect, integrity, which the Pharisees of his day thought of personal goodness as defined by law and established by obedience. That is, Jesus saw goodness in personal terms which the law must respect, while the Pharisees thought the law is what made a deed either good or bad.

As I write these words, my mind goes to the famous observation of Solzhenitsyn that western morality is marked by loopholes. Especially in our public dimensions, such as business and law, we tend to think that everything is okay if it is legal. This leads us to be searching always for loopholes in the law that allow us to get away with as much as possible. This is a Pharisaic legalism in our thinking: conceiving of personal righteousness as whatever falls within bounds, rather than as justice, as going the extra mile, sacrificing for others, and other related Christian principles.

Why is it important for us to learn about and from the Pharisees? Because we have a president who has much in common with the Pharisees of the New Testament. (Too bad he is not more like the later Pharisees.) His business career was built in large measure on manipulating and cheating, though he usually found ways to make it all seem legal. He has no moral dimension to his character at all. Were we still able to remember the mistake of the early Pharisees, we would all see right through Trump and would never have paid him the slightest attention. We would recognize the threat he poses to western culture. He is, in fact, a barbarian, devoid of the marks of a civilized person.

How sad for America . . . .

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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