The role of the Pharisees.
November 19th, 2001
Received by H.
Hello, my dear brother. I am very sorry about the mishap you suffered. But as you see, all material problems find their solution. But I have not come to talk of computer viruses or worms, but to continue with Jesus’ story. We have talked in some detail about the history of the Sadducees. It is important to know a little of the historical background in order to be able to appreciate people’s environment and the way that they they thought.
I have already said a few times that Joseph joined the Pharisees, and so I deem it more than justified to also expand on this religious sect.
The Sadducees formed a small elite group, small but powerful. They controlled the Temple because from their ranks all the high priests were recruited and also the chief priests. Additionally, the Jewish aristocracy supported them. The Romans, on the other hand, took advantage of the opportunity to delegate certain tasks to a group of influential Jews, establishing in this way a buffer zone. I mean by that, that the Romans could always tell the discontented Jews: “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see that your own religious leaders agree with what we are doing? If you wish to complain, talk to them.” Therefore, the Sadducees performed a role which we know from history, when more or less independent states carried out the same buffer function between two powers, for example Poland between Russia and Germany, always running the risk of being devoured by either of their neighbors. They suffered the pressure from both sides, they enjoyed the bribes from both sides, in short, they lived by maintaining a fragile balance, taking advantage of the opportunity to get rich. However, they always felt the sword of Damocles hanging by a horse’s hair over their head.
So, considering this historical picture, where do the Pharisees fit in? From the messages received by Mr. Padgett and Dr. Samuels, one may get the impression that the Pharisees formed the great majority of the population, that they were the artisans, the merchants and tradesmen, etc. But this is not exactly true.
In fact, the Pharisees also constituted another elite group, a little more numerous than the Sadducee faction, but far from incorporating the majority of the Jewish people. But, yes, it is true that their influence extended over almost all of the people, and that they represented that social class which defined the norms of conduct, and which were recognized by the common people. Among the Pharisees there were several schools of thought, we could call them houses or sects, such as the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, which we have already mentioned, some more conservative, others more liberal.
From what I have said at the beginning of this message we can also conclude that the Sadducees were collaborators with the Roman overlords while the Pharisees didn’t participate in this collaboration, indeed they opposed them vehemently. As life goes, most of them were resigned, seeing Rome’s overwhelming military power. But deep in their hearts they harbored the hope that some day God’s Messiah would come in order to liberate His people and to establish the divine order on the face of the earth, that is to say, the Hebrew supremacy, governing over all other peoples.
But not all gave in. The Roman oppression certainly led to the formation of resistance groups, especially the zealot movement, fanatics who confused religion with politics, much as you still know it at the present time. It is necessary to say however that two thousand years ago, a separation of politics and religion didn’t exist, and therefore the existence of such groups is more comprehensible in the past than in modern times.
The Zealots, then, were a totally radical fringe group of the pharisaical movement. The methods they used resembled a lot of what terrorists do today: sabotage, murders, etc. And the murders were not restricted to the Romans, but also the common Jew trembled with fear in front of this threat, because nothing more was required than the mere suspicion that somebody had collaborated with the Romans in order to sign their death warrant. And of course there were also abuses in the form of murders under the pretext of patriotism, simply to get rid of some enemy, or of some competitor, and to become rich.
Jesus had many encounters with Pharisees. Some tried to understand him, they even saw him with favorable eyes. Some took him for a delirious dreamer, and with some Jesus had hard words to say, mainly with the followers of Shammai, for whom the oral law had already developed a life of its own without taking into account that laws only have the function of serving man, and that man doesn’t live for the law. They had transformed religion into a complicated series of formalisms, losing any spiritual vision. And in their desire to convince or to force people to follow their example, they also tried to take away this spirituality from them. So you may understand Jesus’ words that “the Pharisees are like dogs sleeping in the cattle manger. They neither eat nor let the cattle eat.”
Harsh words, considering that the School of Shammai was the most influential one in Jewish life.
Although Joseph, Jesus’ father, had joined the House of Hillel, the most liberal group among the Pharisees, and therefore less legalistic and less centred around the “golden rule,” a high percentage of Jesus’ arguments with his father were triggered by their different understanding of the laws and their reason for being.
In concluding this message I would like to add that there is the impression amongst many scholars of biblical history that there were no Pharisees in Galilee. But this, of course, is nonsense. The Pharisees were those who controlled the prayer houses, the synagogues, called “bet knesset” or houses of assembly, and of course there were synagogues in Galilee. And another not very well-known fact for many people is that the Pharisees undertook missionary activities abroad, that is to say, among scattered Jewish communities, such as in Rome, Alexandria or Antioch. They even had the result that many pagans, although they didn’t convert officially to Judaism as formal proselytes, lived according to the norms of this religion. Those people called themselves “godfearers.” They would have an extremely important role in the future of the spreading of Christianity. But this we will deal with in the context of Paul’s mission.
And so you may wonder, where did the political power of the Pharisees lie then? Well, in the first place, they “controlled” or directed the people through their enormous influence. And then, they also participated in the Sanhedrin, the supreme counsel of the Jews. It was composed of 71 members and presided by the “nasi” or prince, that is, the high priest. Besides the high priest, the chief priests, representatives of the aristocracy and Pharisee representatives participated. As you already know, in later years, Jesus’ father would occupy a position in that tribunal, in the same way as Nicodemus ben Gurian, Jesus’ friend.
And Jesus, was he a Pharisee? Well Jesus was not a Pharisee, neither a Sadducee, nor a Zealot, neither an Essene, nor a Baptist, nor did he belong to the Hassidim, no, transcending all sectarianism, he simply was — and still is — the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
God bless you,
Your brother in Christ,
© Copyright is asserted in this message by Geoff Cutler 2013