Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pharisees, Sadducees, and Heresies…

From the dawn of time Man is incurably religious.  It is as if man were addicted to the concept of “God” and no matter how hard he tries he cannot shake it.  Reading of the history of the Jews there is never a finer example of this concept.  The religion of Judaism permeates everything that they are.  The majority of the world at the time that the Pharisees and Sadducees lived was stuck in a class system based around royalty, citizenship, slavery and freedmen.  It is interesting that in the midst of all that the Jews had developed a class system that at its center was God.  With the Scribes, Rabbis, remnants of the Hasidim, and the religious priestly aristocracy that loosely claimed a connection to Zadok the High Priest in David’s time.  It is also interesting that at this time the major political parties were inexorably linked to their faith.  There was no real separation of church and state in the mind of the first century Jew.  There were three primary political/religious parties of the day; they were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.  There were others, such as the scribes and the Zealots, but they were not necessarily a recognized part of the ruling class.

One of the largest political parties of the day was the Pharisees.  The Pharisees have their root in the Hasidim.  The Hasidim might have been the ‘descendants’ Ezra and Nehemiah, not biologically but rather spiritually.[1]  Wherever they get their roots they were highly religious and desired to protect the Law against all threats, this included but was not limited to the Seleucid incursion, Hellenistic invasion of thought, and Roman hedonistic lifestyle.  The Pharisees literally means “the separate ones” and in many ways this was how they viewed the world.  Their guiding principles can be found in the Aboth, a collection of sayings from at least sixty-five Rabbis, and can be boiled down to three sayings: Be Deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Law.[2]  It is interesting how these principles in many ways had been brought out more fully in the teachings of Jesus.  

The idea of building a fence around the law was taken to an extreme when the Pharisees added more laws to the Law in order to ‘protect’ the Law.  One can see the fruit of this in the some current conservative lines of thought on many subjects like, dancing, the drinking of alcohol, and being in debt.  The Pharisees would often set the ‘fence’ further out from the Law in order not to even come close to transgressing the Law.  In the book New Testament: Its background and Message the authors, Lea and Black, make a subjective statement about the Pharisees.  They say “Although many of the Pharisees deserved Jesus’ strong denunciations (see Matt. 23), many others were virtuous, as seen in the example of Nicodemus.”[3]  I do not think this is an accurate example.  If you look at the facts of the narrative, Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Jesus rebuked Nicodemus personally when he asked him “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10b-12 NASB)  As seen in that passage not only was Jesus calling into question Nicodemus’ knowledge but he is questioning his ability to accurately teach the Law and he was commenting on Nicodemus’ very belief in the person of Jesus.  

Later in Nicodemus’ life he still seems to still struggle with his belief in that he did not speak up at the trial of Jesus.  In the end he did step forward to claim the body of Christ and announce by his actions that he was a follower.  I have to say that Nicodemus may be similar to many of us but I would not use his example to base the “righteousness” of any of the other Pharisees.  I would say, rather, that he was the exception not the rule.  The Pharisees, as a body, did acknowledge a belief in the afterlife, angles, and a spiritual realm.

The Essenes were a splinter of the Hasidim as well.  They were Monastics that practiced extreme separation as a matter of course.  They all made vows of chastity and they order grew by converts alone.  Some have linked this group to the one in Qumran.  The Essenes were very closely aligned to the Pharisees in their core doctrine of protecting the Law.  They did not accept the temple worship and felt that the current High Priests were not valid.  Although they were not mentioned by name in the New Testament their mind set toward the temple was mirrored by many of the day including Jesus and His disciples.[4] 

The Sadducees where the ruling religious aristocracy, they had the backing of Rome and held to the ideals of Hellenistic thought more so then the other two groups.  They did not have a belief in the eternality of the soul and anything in the spirit realm.  There is no doubt why they feared Jesus’ teaching on the Temple, as their main seat of power was completely wrapped up in the Temple itself.  For all their political machinations and stumbling blocks they put in the way of the early church it is interesting to note that in 70 A.D. when the Temple was destroyed they ceased to exist because their whole reason to be ended.

[1] Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament Kindle edition(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 2667-94 (paragraph location)
[2] Ibid, 2611-14 (paragraph location)
[3] Thomas Lea and David Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2003), 58
[4] Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament Kindle edition(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 2387-2391 (paragraph location)

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