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Were all the Pharisees "hypocrites"?

The Pharisees are often described in severe and disparaging terms in the Second Testament. The evangelist Mark labeled the Pharisees hypocrites (Mk. 7:6), applying to them a verse from Isaiah, pointing to the double standards of those who pretend to adhere to piety but whose hearts are far from God. In Matthew, they are condemned in no uncertain terms: "You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil?" (Mt. 12:34a), (1) and "[W]oe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Mt. 23:13). This strong denunciation is reiterated seven times in this tirade against the Pharisees. (2)

The evangelist Luke, however, is ambivalent with respect to the Pharisees. In his Gospel, (3) he restates some of the curses found in the Gospel of Matthew, but in Acts, which is usually attributed to him (or to a certain Theophilus), we witness a completely different attitude. Luke describes a certain Pharisee with great reverence and admiration. His name is Gamaliel, and he is "a teacher of the law, respected by all the people." He is the providential man who intervened on behalf of the apostles Peter and John--and possibly others--when they were put on trial by the council. In a most remarkable way, Gamaliel succeeded in swaying the members of the council to dismiss the case against the apostles. The author of Acts gives us a vivid description of the proceedings and even quotes the theological argument invoked by Gamaliel in his defense of the apostles:

When they heard this, they [the council members] were enraged and wanted to kill them [the apostles.] But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, "Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago, Theudas rose up claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God!"

They were convinced by him. (Acts 5:33-39)

This text is most intriguing and begs the question: Who was this Pharisee "teacher of the law, respected by all the people"? Do we know anything about him from other sources outside of Acts? Indeed, we learn a great deal about him from the main compilation of Pharisaic teachings, the Mishnah, which had been in the making for 200 years until it was edited by Yehudah ha-Nasi (Judah the Prince) some time before the end of the second century. The Mishnah and later the Gemarah inform us that the sage Gamaliel served as the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin from 20 to circa 50 C.E. He was the grandson of the sage Hillel and the most eminent tannaitic teacher of his generation. (4) The Mishnah tells us that he was given the title "Rabban" (our "rabbi" in Aramaic), a title of endearment and reverence that had not been used previously. The title "rabbi" was not yet used in Judea, as it was introduced only near the end of the first century. (5)

One of the maxims of Rabban Gamaliel is included in the first chapter of the tractate Abot of the Mishnah: "Rabban Gamliel says: Set up a master [rav] for yourself, avoid doubt. Don't tithe by too much guesswork." (6) The last Mishnah of the tractate Yevamot informs us that Rabban Gamaliel had introduced several important changes in Jewish law. In the case of the Agunah, that is, a woman whose husband has disappeared or who refuses to grant her a bill of divorce, he had decreed that the testimony of a single witness to the death (of the husband) would be sufficient to allow the widow to remarry, whereas the Torah stipulates that two witnesses are required in such a situation:

"I have a tradition from Rabban Gamaliel the Elder that: 'They permit a wife to remarry on the testimony of a single witness [to her husband's death].'... And in the same discourse, Rabban Gamaliel recalled that men were slain at Tel Arza, and Rabban Gamaliel the Elder permitted their wives to remarry on the evidence of a single witness." (7)

We also find that the theological principle that Gamaliel invokes in his defense of the apostles is almost identical to the one mentioned in the Mishnah Abot:
 Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end yield
 results, and any which is not for the sake of Heaven will in the
 end not yield results. What is a dispute for the sake of heaven?
 This is the sort of dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And what is
 one which is not for the sake of Heaven? It is the dispute of
 Korach and all his party. (8)


The author of this aphorism is thus advising his disciples that they should rely on divine providence rather than human intervention, when dealing with matters of religious controversy. This Mishnah of the tractate Abot does not mention the name of the sage who authored this principle, but a number of scholars have suggested that it may well have been Rabban Gamaliel himself. A similar statement is found in another Mishnah of the tractate Abot that refers this time not only to a controversy but also to an assembly (k'nessiah) whose teachings may differ from the accepted norms. "Rabbi Yohanan Hassandelar says, 'Any gathering which is for the sake of Heaven is going to endure. Any which is not for the sake of Heaven is not going to endure'." (9) The Rabbi was a disciple of Rabbi Akivah (c. 50-135 C.E.) and is mentioned in the tractate H'agigah of the Jerusalem Talmud. He must have taught between 120 and 140 C.E., at a time when a number of non-Pharisaic religious groups, including the early Christian community, were in the process of establishing their communities in Judea.

The authors of these two maxims of the tractate Abot, are thus affirming their conviction that divine Providence will eventually vindicate the true believers and let the others vanish from existence. Their statements imply that any condemnation or persecution should be unnecessary, because the outcome of the controversy resides not with human beings but with divine Providence. We might thus assume that the Gamaliel in Acts must have been the sage known as Rabban Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, who had been elected the nasi of the Sanhedrin according to the Talmud. The theological principle he is said to have invoked during the trial is indeed recognized as a norm of Pharisaic doctrine.

Anecdotally, it is interesting to note that Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) suggested that Gamaliel and his son--and Nicodemus--had secretly converted to Christianity in a ceremony of baptism conducted by the apostles Peter and John. (10) Another church tradition informs us that the body of Gamaliel would have been found miraculously in the same tomb of St. Steven with St. Nicodemus and Gamaliel's son Abibas, sometime in the fifth century.

A number of exegetes point out a problem of chronology with respect to Theudas's rebellion, which is mentioned in the argument of Gamaliel. According to Flavius Josephus, this event would have taken place under the rule of procurator Fadus (44--46 C.E.), which was later than the trial. According to Luke, however, the event would have occurred before the rebellion of Judas the Galilean and the census of the year 6 C.E. Some exegetes have suggested that the word "then" may have been used in the sense of "another example." Whatever the case may have been, it serves more as an illustration than as a historical note.

The Pharisee Gamaliel is also mentioned a second time in the book of Acts in connection with the arrest of Paul and his trial by the members of the council. In his plea for clemency, Paul refers to the fact that he has been a student of Gamaliel:

"Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you." When they heard him addressing them in Hebrew, they became even more quiet. Then he said:

"I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today." (Acts 22: I-3)

This statement of allegiance to the Pharisees, his acknowledgment of the fact that he had studied at the feet of Rabban Gamaliel, and his confession that he believed in the resurrection of the dead must have impressed the Pharisaic members of the council. As the author of Acts tells us:

Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees' group stood up and contended, "We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" When the dissension [most likely between Sadducees and Pharisees] became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. (Acts 23:9-10)

As a result, the Pharisees are now ready to dismiss the case against Paul and let him go free, but a tumult develops in the midst of the assembly because the other members of the council (probably the High Priest and his Sadducee supporters) strongly oppose this decision, forcing the Roman soldiers to intervene to save the apostle Paul. In the trial of the apostles and that of Paul, we find that this council was divided according to politicoreligious lines: the High Priest and the Sadducees demanding an exemplary punishment against the apostles, and the Pharisees willing to dismiss the case altogether. We are not told whether Gamaliel was present in this second council, but the text clearly states that the Pharisees were ready to dismiss the case against Paul, just as Gamaliel had advocated in the earlier trial of the apostles.

We must acknowledge that the make-up of this council was quite different from the one that is described in the Mishnah Sanhedrin of the Talmud Babli. Such a council would have comprised seventy-one members, probably all Pharisees, and would have been headed by a nasi, not the High Priest. Talmudic sources inform us that Rabban Gamaliel occupied that post between ca. 20 and ca. 50 C.E. In the absence of any specific reference from external sources, such as the writings of Flavius Josephus, Philo, or another historian of the period, we may assume that the Talmudic account must refer to the Sanhedrin's constitution at a later period, probably after the destruction of Jerusalem, (11) at a time when the Sadducees had lost nearly all their power and were in the process of disappearing from the scene of history.

The author of Acts is thus giving ample testimony to the fact that the Pharisees were not all hypocrites and white sepulchres but were actually decent and responsible judges who acted with fairness and truth toward the apostles. This fact is mentioned twice in great detail. If this is correct, how are we to account for the derogatory description of the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke? We are baffled by this transformation. What made the villains of the Gospel become righteous people in Acts?

Before we try to answer this question, we must mention the fact that there is at least one statement in Luke that indicates that, far from seeking to harm Jesus, some Pharisees tried to protect him. They approach him, on one occasion, to warn him that Herod Antipas wants to put him to death, and they advise him to go into hiding at once in order to avoid being arrested. The text is quite explicit: "At that very hour, some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you'" (Lk. 13:31).

We know that Herod Antipas, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, had hoped to succeed his father as King of the Jews, but the Roman Emperor Augustus decided otherwise. Herod Antipas was appointed tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, after the death of his father in 4 B.C.E. When it was brought to his attention that a visionary was aspiring to become "King of the Jews," he must have regarded this individual as a potential rival and placed him immediately on the list of the persons to be eliminated. It is thus all the more remarkable that a group of Pharisees should have come to Jesus to inform him about the imminent danger he was facing. We do not know whether these Pharisees were sent by Gamaliel, but they must have acted in consonance with the ethical and religious teachings they received from their spiritual leader.

To this warning, Jesus was prompted to say, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work'"(Lk. 13:32). This reflection is usually understood as meaning: Herod Antipas ("that fox") cannot stop me from pursuing my profession ("practicing healing"), and I shall continue to do so in the days to come--not taking the expression "the third day" literally.

The timing of this occurrence may add significance to the encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus. Indeed, it may have taken place in the year 28 or 29 C.E., during Herod Antipas's visit to Jerusalem on the occasion of the festival of Passover. Since Jesus was regarded as a Galilean, the tetrarch of Galilee may have felt he had authority over him. Since Jesus was regarded by some as the King of the Jews--and suspected by the authorities to be the leader of a potential insurrection and a threat to his own tetrarchy--Herod Antipas must have been prompted to ask the Roman procurator to put him to death after a brief meeting with the High Priest and some of his followers. Many exegetes, however, have dismissed the importance of the statement found in this verse that contradicts what Luke says in his Gospel earlier about the hostile attitude of the Pharisees toward Jesus and his followers.

In a recent study of the books of Luke and Acts, Richard Pervo attempted to minimize the importance of the texts of Acts by assuming that they were but a parody of the real facts that occurred. Pervo wrote about this passage in Acts:
 Although this lengthy account has made no particular contribution
 to history--nothing would be lost had it been omitted--Luke has
 written a thrilling and entertaining episode that shows the
 Sanhedrin to be no less inept than it is unethical. If the group
 trusted Gamaliel's plea to let God decide, they would have said "Go
 ahead and try your luck. God will decide." Luke portrays the
 apostles as fearless philosophers whom neither a tyrannical court
 nor the effects of the whip can quell.


Pervo has thus attempted to belittle the role of Gamaliel and the Pharisees in the trial of the apostles by suggesting that the entire passage is a satiric account of a fictive nature. This exercise in paradoxical exegesis is sometimes used by authors who wish to reinterpret a given text to make it say what would reenforce their own beliefs.

In another recent study, J. Patrick Mullen acknowledged the fact that the Pharisees are not mentioned at all in the account of the trial and death of Jesus. Would this mean that they were not involved in his condemnation? Mullen wrote: "[We seem to witness a] peculiar disjunction in the New Testament portrayal of the Pharisees in which they emerge throughout Jesus' life and ministry, questioning and disputing, disapproving and even plotting, but disappear from the narrative before his trial, condemnation, suffering, and death, seemingly having played no significant part in it." (13) Further, he noted that this fact might refleet "their [the Pharisees'] limited influence in the political arena at this political point in history." (14)

However, this lack of any reference to the Pharisees in the account of the death of Jesus may simply mean that they were not involved at all in the trial and condemnation of Jesus. Indeed, Mullen stated that
 the depiction of constant antagonism [to the Pharisees] in the
 gospels reflects more the relationship existing between Christians
 and Pharisees in 70 C.E. and beyond than it does the events in the
 life of Jesus. (15)

 ... Jesus' real conflict lay not with the Pharisees at all, but
 with the Temple leadership in Jerusalem, who had the unenviable
 task of maintaining order in the Temple, the flashpoint of all
 Jewish aspirations for political and religious self-governance.
 (16)


Mullen advanced another argument to support his thesis that the Pharisees were not involved in the trial and death of Jesus: "Luke's additions [to the foundation text of Mark] are made up of some negative portrayals, but also include some, such as Luke 7:36-50, that could be interpreted as either neutral or even positive in their perspective on individual Pharisees. Matthew's embellishments, on the other hand, are unrelentingly hostile." (17)

Another reason that might explain this change of attitude on the part of Luke may be due to the fact that the authors of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew often confused Sadducees and Pharisees with one another or joined them together in one group, whereas they are better differentiated in the writings of Luke. For instance, Mark does not identify Simon as a Pharisee (Mk. 14:3-9), but Luke does (Lk. 7:36-50). This confusion may have led the church Fathers to assume that the representatives of all Jews participated in the trial and condemnation of Jesus. In fact, only a very small group of supporters of the High Priest, himself appointed by the Roman procurator, and Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, whose allegiance to Judaism was questionable, must have held a meeting on the eve of Passover, against all the rules of Pharisaic teachings, to condemn Jesus and hand him over to Pontius Pilate, so that he might proceed with the death penalty.

We have thus seen that, though Luke's Gospel includes some harsh and merciless criticism of the Pharisees, it also contains a few passages that seem to be inspired by a certain respect for the Pharisees; as Mullen remarked, "Also missing [in the gospel of Luke] is any observable element of the typical anti-Pharisaic polemic that runs so consistently through so many passages." (18)

The absence of any mention of a Pharisaic involvement in the death of Jesus and the account of the magnanimous intervention of Gamaliel during the apostles' trial may well indicate that not all the Pharisees were evil and "hypocrites" and that some of their most respected representatives were actually righteous individuals as we find in Acts and at least in one verse of Luke (13:31). This last passage actually points a finger at one of the main culprits for the death of Jesus, that is, Herod Antipas. We must, therefore, be grateful to the evangelist Luke, who is the only author of the Second Testament who lets us know that there were good Pharisees, too, and especially their leader, Gamaliel.

Since the advent of Vatican II, Catholic theologians and Bible scholars have been reexamining certain critical texts of the Second Testament that have often been misinterpreted in the past, and many of them have come to new conclusions as to their real meaning. Eugene J. Fisher has stated that the condemnation of the Pharisees should be taken in the context of the religious polemic that obtained at the end of the first century, at the time the Gospels were written, not at the time of Jesus: "Reading the Gospel of Matthew, for example, we often gain the impression that Jesus is condemning all Pharisees as hypocrites. It is a surprise to learn, then, that the Talmud, the book written by the Pharisees, condemns hypocrisy no less harshly than Jesus does." (19)

One might argue that self-criticism is not identical to outright condemnation. The evangelists may have been unconsciously influenced by the conflict that opposed the early Christians to the Pharisees after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. At the time, the Sadducees had all but disappeared, and the greater majority of the Jews who had survived were following the Pharisees.

Philip A. Cunningham is even more explicit: "For some reason Luke issues blanket accusations against 'the Jews' (Acts 10:39) for the execution of Jesus, even though historically (and ethically) this is untenable." (20) In other words, the expression "the Jews" in many passages of the Second Testament does not necessarily mean all the Jews everywhere and for all times; it means essentially those who were present at a given event. This misunderstanding has often been the cause of much hostility and persecution.

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) stated another common misunderstanding in connection with the most sensitive statement in Matthew's account of the crucifixion. He suggested that what was regarded by the church Fathers and many theologians as a curse for eternity may actually have been a blessing:
 When in Matthew's account the "whole people" say: "His blood be on
 us and on our children" (27:25), the Christian will remember that
 Jesus' blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel
 (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it
 brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is
 poured out for many, for all.... the same applies to Matthew's
 reference to blood ... These words are not a curse, but rather
 redemption, salvation. (21)


It is most reassuring to see how the theologians of the various Christian churches have been pursuing their research in the last few decades and, since Vatican II, including in the Roman Catholic Church. The results of their thorough investigation, in light of newly discovered documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, will surely help dispel some erroneous interpretations and bring about a better understanding between Christians and Jews.

(1) Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible ((New York: Div. of Christian Education, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1989).

(2) Mt. 23:13 ff.

(3) Lk. 11:42-44.

(4) "When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Torah came to an end" states the Mishnah, tractate Sotah 9:15.

(5) The Gospel of John (which was probably edited around 110-120 C.E.) uses it as a title for Jesus in the original Greek text. The other Gospels are not familiar with that title.

(6) Abot 1:16, in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 674.

(7) Yebamot 16:7, in ibid., pp. 377-378.

(8) Abot 5:17, II, in ibid., p. 688.

(9) Abot 4:11, D, in ibid., p. 683. it is interesting to note that the term "k'nesiah" is today used to designate the church.

(10) Clement, Recognitiones, I, 65, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950ff.).

(11) A period during which the Sadducee movement may have completely disintegrated.

(12) Richard I. Pervo, Acts, A Commentary, Hermeneia---A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 140.

(13) J. Patrick Mullen, Dining with Pharisees, Interfaces, A Michael Glazier Book (Collegeville, MN: Liturgial Press, 2004), p. 49.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid., here Mullen refers to Anthony J. Saldarini, "Pharisees," in Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 5, pp. 295-296.

(16) Mullen, Dining with Pharisees, p. 49.

(17) lbid., p. 52.

(18) 1bid., p. 80.

(19) Eugene J. Fisher, Faith without Prejudice: Rebuilding Christian Attitudes toward Judaism, rev. and exp. ed., Shared Ground among Jews and Christians: A Series of Explorations 4, The American Interfaith Institute (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1993 [orig., 1977]), p. 44.

(20) Philip A. Cunningham, "The Synoptic Gospel and Their Presentation of Judaism," in Mary C. Boys, et al., Within Context: Essays on Jews and Judaism in the New Testament (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 60.

(21) Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, Part 2: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, tr. Philip J. Whitmore (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011 [orig.: Jesus von Nazareth: Zweiter Teil--Vom Einzug in Jerusalem his zur Auferstehung (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011)]), p. 187; emphases in original.

Leo Michel Abrami (Jewish) was born in Paris and was hidden in Normandy as a child during World War II. He attended the Seminaire Israelite de France in Paris, received a B.S. from the University of Geneva, where he also attended the Charles Baudoin Institut de Psychoanalyse et Psychotherapie. He received his M.A.H.L. from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was ordained in 1963. He graduated from the Institute of Logotherapy in Berkeley, CA, in 1985. He has been director of the Arizona Institute of Logotherapy in Sun City West since 1999 and director of the Jewish Fellowship in Phoenix, AZ, since 2001. He has been an instructor at the Bureau of Jewish Education in Phoenix since 2001 and of Grand Lifelong Learning (Sun City Grand, AZ) since 2011. He served as president of the Berkeley (CA) Area Interfaith Council in 1974--75 and chaired the San Francisco chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. He has made presentations at international logotherapy conferences worldwide. He served congregations in Geneva, Guatemala, Curacao, South Africa, California, and Arizona between 1953 and 2004, with a period in private practice in 1977-87. During 1973-77, he joined the Rev. George Grose, chaplain of Whittier College, and Dr. Muh'sen El Bialy of the Islamic Foundation of Southern California to present interreligious dialogue programs at over 120 universities and seminaries, supported by Ford and Lilly Foundation grants. His articles have appeared in popular and scholarly publications in the U.S., South Africa, and France, along with contributions to collected volumes. His books include The Eleventh Commandment: A Jewish Childhood in Nazi-Occupied France (Albion-Andalus Books, 2012), A l'Ombre de l'Etoile (L'Harmattan, 2010), and Une Demarche Therapeutique, la Logotherapie (Editions Tequi, 2006).
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Date:Jun 22, 2012
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