O Pharisaic Me

21 01 2008

The Oxford American Dictionary provides two definitions for “Jew”:

1. “A member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham”;
2. A derogatory meaning, as is found in the expression, “to Jew someone down”. This second definition is prefaced by the label, “Offensive”.

Interestingly, the Oxford American Dictionary also features two definitions for “Pharisee”:

1. “A member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity”;
2. “A self-righteous person; a hypocrite”.

The interesting thing is that, in this instance, the derogatory meaning is not advertised as being offensive in the slightest.

There are very few sources from which we may learn about the sect of the Pharisees. The New Testament, although being composed of multiple texts, may here be treated as one in its unambiguous condemnation of these individuals. A full presentation of the evidence, while interesting, is overly repetitive. Throughout all four gospels (and particularly in Matthew) we hear such expressions as “serpents, … brood of vipers” (Matt 23:33), “blind guides” (Matt 23:24) and “hypocrites” (Matt 23:13, 23:23; Luke 11:39, 42). We see the Pharisees accused of overburdening their fellow man (Matt 23:4), holding only the visible displays of piety (Matt 23:5-7), abusing the poor and the bereaved (Mark 12:38-40) and even murdering the prophets (Matt 23:29-31). It is no surprise that, with such an impeccable resume to recommend them, the Pharisees have become a byword of contempt amongst Christians who read the Gospels everywhere. But there is another major source as well, and one that has been known for just as long. Despite enjoying less popularity than the reputed sayings of Jesus, the sayings of Josephus are of interest to us here for, while he speaks little of the Pharisees, his portrayal of them is interestingly complex.

… there was a certain sect of men that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favoured by God… These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings. A cunning sect they were, and soon elevated to a pitch of open fighting and mischief.
Antiq. 17.2.42

Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them, they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years; nor are they so bold as to contradict them in anything which they have introduced; and, when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of men can act virtuously or viciously… insomuch that the cities gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.
Antiq. 18.1.12-13, 15
W. Whiston (trans.), The Works of Josephus (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers: 1987)

Josephus’ account is fascinating for while, in one place, he presents an image of self-righteous pietists, he portrays the Pharisees in the following chapter as genuinely devout, genuinely favoured by the local population and – most interesting of all! – as being consistent with their deeds and their discourse. Nobody would deny the tendentiousness of this man who clearly only ever sought to please the side that was winning, but people often disregard the tendentiousness of the gospels as well. Geza Vermes, for example, is inclined to relegate much of the brutal harshness of Matthew to the hand of a later editor¹, but one does not need to subscribe authorship to a member of a persecuted church in order to think of reasons behind such venom. From its earliest inception, the community of messianic Jews was ostracised by those elements that ascribed supremacy to the Law and to their “traditions of the fathers”. Once “Christianity” came to embrace a sizeable non-Jewish element, this antipathy could only get stronger. If we can expect to see a harsh critique of Christianity within the Talmud (as we do, despite the necessity of it being veiled in various ways) then we should also not be surprised to see the same thing from the other perspective. And where Jews needed to hide their sentiments behind seemingly innocuous turns of phrase, the powerful Christians could afford to be as explicit as they wished.

Even so, there is a world of difference between acknowledging the biases of former years and in attempting to perpetuate them today. I was reminded of this issue some time ago, while reading a book on – of all things – Zen Buddhism. The author is a Mr Albert Low and he is very proud (and justifiably so, I am sure) of being a disciple of Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of the insightful The Three Pillars of Zen. Low’s book, entitled The Iron Cow of Zen is but a shadow of the literature of his teacher, but an impressive shadow nonetheless. An idiosyncratic exploration of various koans and Zen doctrines, I found it very entertaining. Imagine my surprise when I came across the following sentiment:

It is true that teachers abound who prey on the gullibility of a starving population. There have always been those who, when asked for bread, gave stones. Every religion has its scribes and pharisees who shut the kingdom of heaven against others because they are afraid to go in themselves.
– A. Low, The Iron Cow of Zen (Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1985), 20

The quote is a direct reference to Matthew 23:13 and, so far as I am concerned, thoroughly inappropriate. Is it really necessary for us to treat the Pharisees as though the criticisms of the early Christians summed up the entirety of their being? Is this not a little… childish and misguided? I wrote to Mr Low and the following is the text of my (unfortunately, though predictably, verbose) letter:

Mr Low,

Let me begin by apologising: being ignorant of Zen Buddhism, I am unsure as to what your official title is and hope that I am not committing an impropriety by using the above term. What you do certainly interests me considerably and I am beginning to satisfy my curiosity, if only in a small measure. My initial attraction to Zen Buddhism (and, indeed, Buddhism in general) arose out of a brief experience that I had with a few koans. Inspired to learn more, I have since purchased a few books on the topic and am currently reading your “The Iron Cow of Zen”, which I am enjoying immensely.

I’m sure that you’re a busy man and I don’t mean to present you with a laboursome email, so I’ll get to the point. Many of the ideas that I have seen, so far, presented in your book have struck a chord with me that smacks of recognition. You mention a variety of parallels, if only linguistic at times, with Christianity, popular culture, psychoanalysis and Ancient Near-Eastern mythology. Indeed, even the most cursory glance at the relevant shelf of a book store will confirm that such parallels do exist – a sign, perhaps, that we are all more similar than we had thought. Very little that I have found mentions parallels with Judaism: a curious fact considering both the aphoristic nature of the two Talmuds (featuring parables strikingly similar to koans in their terse ambiguity), and the almost self-effacing consciousness presented by the kabbalistic doctrine.

I am not at all a religious person, although I have received a very strict and disciplined religious upbringing. My interests in Judaism (to which, as you have undoubtedly ascertained, I belong) are purely academic in nature. Nonetheless, I must take offence at a statement that you make within the first chapter of your book. You state that “every religion has its scribes and pharisees who shut the kingdom of heaven against others because they are too afraid to go in themselves” (p.20). The antipathy felt by Jesus (or, at least, by the authors of the New Testament) towards the pharisees, and that felt by the pharisees towards the early Christian movement, served a particular purpose for those involved. Having been raised by the continuers of the rabbinic tradition, I am aware that the pharisees had reasons for their actions as well.

The New Testament (and, in my opinion, the Gospels in particular) is an incredibly beautiful work that deserves to be taken very seriously. Nonetheless, we must remember that the movements spoken of within it are real movements of real people – not empty functions of literature. For that reason, one must always be careful not to imitate and, hence, perpetuate the biases of previous generations. I am certain that you were writing from the perspective of ignorance and meant no offence. I’d also like you to know that, however shocked I was to see such a comment made, it has not altered at all my appreciation of the rest of the book. I am sure that you would benefit from a stronger awareness of rabbinic culture, as an appreciation of its similarities to the ideas that you express (if only from the wisdom perspective) might be very useful.

All the best, and I hope that (despite its length) this email is appreciated,

Mr Low responded, although his response is not worth relaying. Aside from evidently being too busy to use a spell-checker, the Buddhist teacher in question had little to say other than reiterate that every religion has its hypocrites. He’s right.

¹ G. Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 69-74.




4 responses

24 01 2008

If I were talking to a Catholic, I might ask him to imagine how he’d feel if I got all my information about Catholicism from Protestant literature during the Reformation. I wonder if a similar analogy could be made for Buddhists. But I don’t know what sorts of opponents Buddhists have had, from within or from without.

1 02 2008
John Hobbins

Sometimes it’s best to accept a label others consider pejorative and wear it proudly. In my own case, I enjoy sitting in on conversation in which very enlightened people make snide remarks about fundamentalists or the orthodox, and say at some point, preferably after having proved that I am just as clever as they are, that I am one.

Simon, I’m tagging you. See my latest post.

3 04 2008
Chris Weimer

Hey Simon,

Concerning the Pharisees in Josephus, have you read Steve Mason’s article in The Quest for the Historical Pharisees? I highly recommend it.


11 04 2008
Simon Holloway

Thanks, Chris: I will check it out.

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