The desire not to be found indistinguishable from the pagans who were moving in led the Pharisees into a program of hedge-building–not so much a hedge around the Torah as we were taught in Sunday School, but more a hedge around themselves and their families. In some ways this distinction amounts to the same thing, but not in all cases. They needed to remain holy–not ethically perfect, or necessarily doing some number or value of good works to outweigh their bad ones–but separate from those who were not trusting in God and showing it by remaining faithful.
(Wright doesn’t go into this, as far as I can remember, but, according to Jesus’ own testimony, the Pharisees attributed their willingness to stay distinct from others to God’s grace and not to themselves (see the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collecter in Luke’s Gospel).
Of course, if one was going to remain distinct and separate from pagans–pagans who occupied your land and ruled over you–you were also going to need to stay distinct and separate from the compromised Israelites–who didn’t remain properly distinct and separate from pagans. Which meant that you would also need to remain distinct and separate from those who did not remain distinct and separated from the pagans…. ad infinitum. Pharisaism, driven by a desire to remain faithful, could only result in an ever expanding schism and condemnation within the people of God. (Is there a warning here for well-meaning Protestant apologetic ministries?)
By the way, I should mention how important it is to try to at least initially view Jesus enemies in the Gospels as “good guys.” Christians assume they are being faithful when they present the Pharisees as the opposite of all that is Christian and virtuous. But this ends up, running the risk of allowing us to harbor sin and unbelief. If we don’t think the Pharisees, caught in the middle of a culture war, trying to raise their children straight in a crooked world, have no common temptations to us, then we miss the challenge that Jesus brought them. Hating the Pharisees does not make one a lover of God.
Somone has called these posts a retrospective, but it is all from memory and too confused to deserve such a worthy name, in my opinion. Still I hope these are of some help to you in seeing the value of Wright’s apologetic work.
The next entry will be about Jesus & the Victory of God. By way of transition, let me point out a book by a Jesus-Seminar scholar, Marcus Borg. Here is what I wrote (partly) in my Amazon book review of Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus:
Borg has written a beautiful and challenging book that helps us imagine Jesus as a real historical figure. I would disagree with some of the details of Borg’s analysis and reject out of hand some of his “pre-theoretical commitments” (to borrow a term from the Dutch Reformed philosophers), but I found the basic thesis extremely helpful.
Borg insists on placing Jesus in the historical and socio-political milieu of first-century Palestine. Specifically, Jesus was in a “conflict” over the “politics” of “holiness” embraced by the majority of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not simply “religious leaders” as we think of them today. Their concern for “holiness” was not simply limited to individual piety. Rather, “holiness” fit in a scheme designed to protect their culture from the pagan dominance of that day and faithfully await vindication from God. Jesus, however, taught that their strategy could only doom them to destruction, a destruction that would not be a faithful martyrdom but rather the actual wrath of God delivered through the Romans.
What was wrong with the Pharisaical program? It interpreted the call to be holy and separate as a call to make visible the distinction between faithful Jews and their Gentile neighbors along with those Jews who, in some way, compromised with them. What this meant was that many Pharisees taught practices that put up increasing barriers between themselves and the Gentiles (My own example: the refusal to come into Pilate’s house to try Jesus as recorded in John’s Gospel. You will look in vain in the OT for a law that says going into a pagan’s house will make one ceremonially unclean). Furthermore, since these practices were onerous, especially to the poor, the holiness concern meant deepening divisions among the Jews, as those who didn’t practice the right sort of separation from the Gentiles found themselves treated like Gentiles by others. Zealotry without and division within were the fruit that Jesus saw coming from the pharisaical agenda.
Thus, Jesus’ “dinner club” (to coin my own term to summarize his ministry) was a highly subversive and radical practice. He took the code, “Be holy for I am holy,” and reinterpreted it to mean, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36). He insisted that everything the Pharisees were doing to promote righteousness was actually wicked in God’s sight. Note: The issue is not that the Pharisees were trying to be good and were not quite good enough to please God. Rather, what the Pharisees sincerely believed to be good was actually evil.
I don’t plan to say all the negative things I could say about Borg’s book in this review, but instead focus on its positive content. The reason I feel free to do this is that the present edition has an introduction by Borg’s friend N. T. Wright that really covers all the bases quite well.
I will only add two things. The first is simply my conviction that Borg’s textual criticism is based on a flimsy foundation. The discrepancies between gospel accounts can be adequately explained by the fact that many of the teachings were given repeatedly with local variations and the fact that different witnesses are summarizing in Greek what were certainly much longer statements in Aramaic. Alleging an “original” teaching that the gospels have distorted is simply groundless. I am sure that there are some areas in which we will always wonder what happened during the entire event (i.e. what we would see if we were there with a camcorder). But we have no rational grounds for dismissing the reports we have as inaccurate or in taking sides with one Gospel writer against another. Borg himself is rather good at critiquing Enlightenment rationalism as it affects the study of the Gospels. I’m sorry he seems to have adopted it so uncritically in his stance to the text of the canonical Scriptures.
Secondly, the idea of analyzing the Pharisees as if they were simply good people is going to raise hackles in some circles, and understandably so. However, I would respectfully suggest that Evangelicals would be well served to try to benefit from such analysis. After all, if the Pharisees were obviously evil, then siding with Jesus against them is rather easy. We are really only reinforcing our own superiority. But if the Pharisees were more like us that we wish to imagine, then by acknowledging this fact, we may “again for the first time” find ourselves truly confronted by Jesus, not as a safe friend, but as one who comes to us in Judgment but in whom alone we might find salvation. (An example from another book: John 6 records the Jews trying to force Jesus to be their king because he fed them miraculous bread. I had never blinked when I read Jesus rebuking them for caring more about their stomachs than God. Then I read Horseley’s and Hanson’s Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus and realized that, in all likelihood, these people knew what it was like to literally starve due, in part, to burdensome taxation. No wonder they wanted Jesus to save them and their children. Wouldn’t you? Of course, Jesus did what was right, but now I realize that it was not easy to follow him and I had, by assuming I knew what lay behind the text, invented an easy road.)
Constraints of space forbid me from listing some of the exegetical gems to be found here. If any Evangelical wants to delve into the debate on “the historical Jesus” and read from “the other side,” he could not do better than Borg. There will be much to dissent from but you will not have wasted your time. Using discernment, you will understand Jesus better than before.