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Be fair to the Pharisees: Alice Camille rescues this misunderstood group from their biblical bad rap.

SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE PHARISEES. AND ON any given day, chances are I qualify for membership in the order of Pharisees myself. So maybe you will appreciate it when I argue for a moratorium on Pharisee bashing. Until we are sure we understand who they are and what they represent, we ought not to demonize this group of religious practitioners so comprehensively.

Of course it's easy to take potshots at them. Over the centuries their name has become synonymous with phoniness. John the Baptist called them a brood of vipers, and Jesus referred to them as serpents, blind guides, hypocrites, and whitewashed tombs--none of which are exactly complimentary. So why shouldn't we jump in and denounce the Pharisees, too?

It doesn't help their cause to hear the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is absorbed by his own righteousness, while the tax collector is keenly aware of his failures. The Pharisee's prayer as we overhear it is a joke on himself--he praises his own goodness instead of the Lord's! Caricatures are only effective if they refer to some behavior that is readily observable, so we have to assume that a spectrum of Pharisaism reached this self-congratulatory extreme.

In order to appreciate the parable, we have to remember that such stories were designed to shock and derail the hearers to an unexpected conclusion. To first-century listeners, then, the Pharisee was normally the good guy, and the tax collector the bad guy.

To experience the impact of the story, we may have to change the players to suit the moral sensibility of our times: "A Knight of Columbus and a pro-choice politician went up to the Communion rail on Sunday ..." Suddenly the outcome of the story packs a jolt that would unsettle many Catholics. We realize that the original parable is effective not because the Pharisee was despicable but because he's the very fellow the typical audience is rooting for.

The reason we have such a negative picture of Pharisees Today is partly an accident of history. Most of us are familiar with this group only from the New Testament, written from the Christian perspective between 65-100 A.D. That was a particularly nasty time in Jewish-Christian relations. Jesus was a Jew, as were his earliest disciples, so it took a generation or two before anyone thought of the Christian story as anything other than the latest chapter of the Jewish story.

Once the lines of demarcation were drawn between followers of Moses and Jesus in the latter part of the first century, you had to choose one side or the other. The Pharisees were the only Jewish leaders left after 70 A.D. to draw those lines. The writers of the New Testament had a particular bone to pick with the teachers who expelled them, so it's the dark side of Pharisaism that makes it into scripture.

SO WHO WERE THE PHARISEES, AND WHAT IS THEIR LEGACY? Their origin was in an earlier group known as the Hasideans, "the pure ones," first mentioned in the time of the Maccabees. Around 150 B.C. a loyal Jew named Judas Maccabeus and his followers were fighting for the right to practice their religion against the prevailing winds of the Greco-Roman world. Frightened or ambitious citizens of Israel were capitulating all around them, but the Maccabees refused to give in to the ways of the encroaching empire.

The Hasideans, for their part, were not soldiers. They sided with the Maccabean army in spirit but would not break God's law and profane the Sabbath even to defend themselves, so they took their families away from the occupied cities to practice their faith in the desert. This made the Hasideans particularly vulnerable to their enemies on Saturdays. They suffered great losses as a result.

But they were not wiped out entirely. Instead the Hasideans gave life to three other movements: the Hasidim, an ultra-orthodox group that remains vital within Judaism today; the Essenes, a group that stayed in the desert and adopted a life of rigorous scripture study--from which John the Baptist likely emerged; and the Pharisees.

With this sort of lineage, we see a different Pharisee than the one in the gospels, someone willing to face martyrdom rather than forsake the faith of Abraham and Moses. In the following century, many Pharisees were put to the sword for their beliefs. Whatever else you may want to say about them, the Pharisees were hardly phonies.

Nor were they numerous. The population of first-century Israel was about a half million. (There were more Jews outside of Israel than in it, as there are today.) Of that half million, 6,000 were Pharisees, and 4,000 were Essenes. The other major players in the gospels, the Sadducees, numbered only several hundred. Sadducees were the only ones in Israel willing to do business with the empire, which gave them an inordinate amount of influence on society. Apart from the Zealots and the bandits, though, the rest of the population counted themselves out of politics altogether.

To understand the role of the Pharisees in that society, it's necessary to contrast them with the Sadducees. Pharisee means "separate one," and the name was probably first applied to the group with sarcasm by the Sadducees. We often identify the Sadducees with the priesthood, but not all priests were Sadducees. They are also usually lumped in with the elite ruling class, though only a small portion of civic leaders were among their number. But connections with the Temple, power, and wealth made the Sadducees disproportionately formidable. Apart from their small circle, they were universally despised.

By contrast, the Pharisees were popular with the average citizen. Lacking powerful connections, their influence was due to the moral authority of their lifestyle, which was impressive. As a lay movement, they encouraged others to relocate the center of holy living from the one-and-only Temple to the home, the marketplace, and the neighborhood synagogue.

BUT THE PHARISEES WERE ACTUALLY THE LIBERALS OF their day, championing both the written law of Moses and the oral law of tradition. In that sense, the Pharisees sound almost Catholic in their understanding of religious authority. While the Sadducees pretended to observe the written law exclusively, the Pharisees were open to new ideas, flexible in their teaching, and willing to learn from the wise of every generation.

That's why, wherever Jesus went, the Pharisees were sure to go. They followed him, as they had followed John before him--and every other teacher who appeared on the circuit. If the Pharisees had a flaw, it was that they processed everything through the prism of legal debate. That works with laws, but when you enter into the privileged arena of divine justice and compassion, all of a sudden the wails recede and the ground shifts and the old rules don't apply. They don't even make sense. This made it hard for the Pharisees to talk to Jesus. They supplied a question, and Jesus made chop suey out of it and their process.

When it came to the issues of the day, however, the Pharisees and Jesus were largely aligned. The Pharisees believed in the free will of human beings to determine their fate, not predestination at the hands of an arbitrary deity. They professed the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels and spirits. They looked forward to future rewards and punishments in the world to come. Many anticipated a messiah who would restore the peace. This sort of theology was hogwash to the Sadducees. But the Pharisees believed and taught it and were delighted when Jesus did, too.

Pharisees were intrigued by Jesus. In Luke's gospel, Jesus dines with them as often as he does with social outcasts. He merited invitations from both sides for the same reason: They hungered for his words. In the end, it wasn't his teachings but the trappings that confounded the Pharisees. The disciples of Jesus pulled heads of grain from the fields on the Sabbath, while the Hasideans had given their lives rather than lift a sword on that day. The disciples didn't wash their hands in the ritual ways that Pharisees scrupulously observed.

Didn't they know that Jewish identity had once been perilously threatened and still was in these times of occupation and force-fed culture? Pharisees were separatists. They had come into existence to promote the Jewish law because of the protection it afforded their heritage. To their mind, ritual and custom and keeping the Sabbath was not legalism but a way to say no to the forces of Rome and yes to the God who had led the nation throughout history to this day.

People of strong beliefs are often troublesome to those who don't share them. And it is not uncommon for human beings to fasten onto and enshrine the least relevant end of a practice. Surely there were Pharisees who got it all wrong and were insufferable.

But the Pharisees were more than the sum of their faults. The great gift of their movement was in claiming lay authority, which frankly saved the future of Judaism. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D, the priesthood and the Sadducees were put out of business. The Dead Sea headquarters of the Essenes was crushed not long after and their movement vanished. The synagogue survived with its lay leaders officiating at prayer, teaching, studying, and keeping the faith alive for the next generation and the next. The Temple sacrifices were gone, but "the sacrifice of praise" at the hands of the laity was alive and well.

Today's rabbis are the heirs of the Pharisees. And in a unique way, so are we Christians. St. Paul, the architect of the gentile church and its theology, was one of those 6,000 Pharisees who kept a religious world in motion while the empire pressed and shuddered all around it. Obviously God thought a Pharisee was just what the church needed.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of God's Word Is Alive (Twenty Third Publications, 1998).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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