Updated 18th January, 2013. 8:40 pm.
I recently confessed that I have too often written with the assumption that my points are surely so well-known that there is no need to explain them. This post attempts to make amends for one such recent gaffe. I explain why I claimed Hoffmann is out of touch with most scholarship with his views of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day.
In my latest post addressing Hoffmann’s argument for an historical Jesus, I dismissed his claim that Paul came from a tradition that knew only a vengeful God incapable of forgiveness. I assumed most readers would know that such a view of the Judaism of the early and mid first century is widely understood to be a misinformed caricature of reality. One commenter pulled me up on that point.
So here I quote views of scholars on the nature of Judaism, and the Pharisees in particular, in the time of Jesus and Paul. First, here are Hoffmann’s words:
[Paul] finessed his disagreements into a cult that turned the vindictive God of his own tradition into a being capable of forgiveness.
I brushed this aside with the following comment:
I am astonished that Hoffmann would write such an unsupportable caricature as if it were fact. His view is surely out of touch with most scholarship that has addressed this question.
So I pulled out books from my shelves that I could quickly identify as having something to say about this question. I avoided any titles that might be associated with scholars of mythicist leanings or left-right-out-radicals, however. I tried to stick to well-known or highly respected names in the field and especially to include relative “conservatives” in the mix.
So here are the sorts of things I have been reading over the years and that have led me to conclude that certainly a good number of scholars no longer accept Hoffmann’s characterization of Judaism or Pharisaism today. Note the number of times they denounce as a modern myth any notion that God was harsh or that Jews did not know divine forgiveness.
Hyam Maccoby: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986)
In recent years, many Christian scholars have come to realize that this Gospel picture of the Pharisees [i.e. severely and cruelly legalistic, hypocritical and self-righteous] is propaganda, not fact. Our main source of authentic information about the Pharisees is their own voluminous literature, including prayers, hymns, books of wisdom, law books, sermons, commentaries on the Bible, mystical treatises, books of history and many other genres. Far from being arid ritualists, they were one of the most creative groups in history.
Moreover, the Pharisees, far from being rigid and inflexible in applying religious laws, were noted (as the first-century historian Josephus points out, and as is amply confirmed in the Pharisee law books) for the lenience of their legal rulings, and for the humanity and flexibility with which they sought to adapt the law of the Bible to changing conditions and improved moral conceptions. . . . (p. 19)
E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism 1985
On page 202 Sanders addresses the popular view that Jesus was hated and killed by the Pharisees because of his teaching and good works. The Pharisees (that tradition from which Paul came) did not believe in a God of grace and forgiveness.
The position is basically this: We (the Christians, or the true Christians) believe in grace and forgiveness. Those religious qualities characterize Christianity, and thus could not have been present in the religion from which Christianity came. Otherwise, why the split? But the Jews, or at least their leaders, the Pharisees, did not believe in repentance and forgiveness. They not only would not extend forgiveness to their own errant sheep, they would kill anyone who proposed to do so.
The position is so incredible that I wish it were necessary only to state it in order to demonstrate its ridiculousness. But thousands believe it. . . .
Sanders then stresses
one of the things about Judaism which everyone should know: there was a universal view that forgiveness is always available to those who return to the way of the Lord.
Later on page 279 he explains
Pharisaism and Judaism were not as such legalistic.
Sanders had another book published in 1993, The Historical Figure of Jesus, in which he writes:
Because of their devotion and precision, the Pharisees were respected and liked by most other Jews. . . . During Jesus’ lifetime, [the Pharisees] must be regarded as . . . deservedly popular and respected. (pp. 45-46)
Sanders goes on to show that the disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels were really for most part quite trivial. He reminds us of a second century BCE “letter of Aristeas” in which the character of the Jews is portrayed:
The author of the Letter of Aristeas wrote that Jews honour God ‘not with gifts or sacrifices, but with purity of heart and devout disposition.’ . . . The sentence means ‘not only with sacrifices, but even more with purity of heart’. (p. 219)
What Paul really struck at was the foundational Jewish belief in the inalienable election of Israel as a family, a nation . . . . Paul’s so-called ‘critique of the law’ is really a critique of the idea that the people of the one true god can be, in principle, confined to one nation. (p. 381 of Jesus and the Victory of God)
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, agrees with Sanders insofar as
He [Sanders] rejects, rightly, any idea that what Jesus found amiss with Pharisaic teaching was ‘pettifogging legalism’. (p. 382)
Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 1973
In the identification of the greatest commandment — love of God and one’s fellow-men — Jesus is represented as sharing the outlook and winning the approval of the Pharisees. (p. 35)
There is little doubt that the Pharisees disliked his nonconformity and would have preferred him to have abstained from healing on the Sabbath where life was not in danger. (p. 36)
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Vol. 1) (1991)
It is probably not just a coincidence that, while the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus in frequent conflict with scribes, Pharisees, and local “rulers of synagogues,” at least he speaks to these groups on a regular basis. The lines of communication are open, even if they are often red hot. Moreover, in a few instances the rulers, scribes, or Pharisees appear in a neutral or positive light . . . (p. 346)
Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 1996
Jesus shared the basic religious convictions of the Pharisees . . . He did not share the Pharisee’s strategy of demarcation from all that was alien, based on ritual commandments. Against their defensive notions he put forward the notion of an “offensive” purity (Berger, Jesus). Purity, not impurity, was infectious. Therefore he could approach sick people who were unclean . . .
According to the tradition, Jesus’ personal relation to Pharisees was . . . ambivalent. As well as vigorous polemic against the Pharisees . . . we find — especially in Luke — references to a friendly relationship . . . Pharisees repeatedly invite him to meals . . . . However, Luke regards Christianity generally as a continuation of Pharisaic belief: the Lukan Paul appeals to the fact that he is a Pharisee even when he is a Christian . . . (pp. 229-230)
Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, 2000
Jesus applied in a radical way a principle articulated by [the Pharisee] Hillel regarding immersion . . . (p. 89)
Christian theology and scholarship have persistently overlooked Jesus’ distinctive approach to the entire issue of purity [a principle interest of the Pharisees]. They have denied that Jesus was concerned with purity and rejected any consideration that his actions stemmed from his insights into what was clean or unclean. Their views are uninformed and misleading. . . . Purity was Jesus’ fundamental commitment, the lens through which he viewed the world. (p. 90)
Although the Gospels portray the Pharisees as the stock villains in the drama of Jesus’ life, they were decent (if somewhat pompous men, with a considered understanding of religion, grounded within the authority of the Torah and reasoned debate in the community. (p. 118)
Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 2010
Another point is the relative leniency of the Pharisees in judgement (Ant. XIII, 294), in contrast with the severity of the Sadducees (Ant. XX, 199) (p. 318)
Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus 2007
Christian readers usually presume Pharisaic evil, and the Gospel is complicit in setting up this conclusion. . . . But it is Luke, not Jesus, who provides the context for the parable. By Luke’s time, the Pharisees had come to represent for the church the Jews who refused to follow Jesus; their portrait is primarily composed of polemic, not objectivity. Yet even in Luke’s Gospel, hints of a more benevolent Pharisaic view do seem to peek through. Not only do Pharisees continue to host Jesus at dinner parties and so keep the doors of communication open to the intimate setting of a shared meal; they also advise Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” . . . . (pp. 39-40)
Church homilies and sermons, daily and weekly Bible study, and even respected academic monographs depict, both explicitly and implicitly, a Judaism that is monolithic, mired in legal minutiae, without spiritual depth, and otherwise everything that (they hope) Christianity is not. Pastors, priests, and religious educators, Christians well aware that the New Testament has been interpreted in an anti-Jewish manner, wind up perpetuating anti-Jewish teaching nonetheless.
This caricature of Judaism meets several needs. On the most crass level, it allows Jesus to stand out, if not be unique within, his social context. . . . (p. 119)
Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, 1999
On discussing the Gospel’s portrayal of Pharisees following Jesus and his disciples into the cornfields to see if he would pluck corn on the sabbath, Fredriksen comments:
This is polemical caricature, not realistic portraiture. (p. 167)
On the same page Fredriksen further comments on the regular controversies Jesus had with Pharisees:
Argument here implies mutual involvement, common concern, shared values, religious passion. If one party or the other had thought the issues unimportant, there would have been no fight.
James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (2006)
[The Pharisees’] interpretation of the Jewish Law was more liberal and accommodating to change [than that of the Sadducees]. Although there was a more rigidly conservative wing of the Pharisees led by the 1st-century Rabbi Shammai, his rival Rabbi Hillel seemed to have the greater influence. It is common to think of Jesus as the bitter enemy of all Pharisees when in fact many of his views on Jewish Law reflect the more accommodating positions of Rabbi Hillel. Hillel and Jesus both emphasized “love of neighbour” as primary and quoted the “Golden Rule” as a thumbnail summary of the Torah and Prophets. (p. 119)
Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (1977)
As Haim Cohen has recently written:
They [the Pharisees] studied the word of the Torah and indulged in continuous contemplation of the right, in an insistent search for the ethical life. They possessed a wide reputation for piety, tolerance, wisdom. This reputation clothed the Pharisees with enormous power, used with remarkable restraint. They were loath to impose punishment for crime, and when compelled by evidence to do so, inclined towards leniency. They treated one another wiht great affection, and were generally mild and temperate to opponents. . . . .
Such were the principal leaders of Judaism in Jesus’ time. (p. 112)
Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978)
Almost all gospel references to Pharisees can be shown to derive from the 70s, 80s and 90s, the last years in which the gospels were being edited. The evidence for this is . . . full and many-sided . . . . From that evidence it appears that some Pharisees may have had some differences with Jesus, but the serious conflict between Christians and Pharisees grew up in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death . . . (p. 29)
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2003, 3rd ed)
Yet just as Epicurus was not an “Epicurean,” so the Pharisees were not “Pharisaical.” . . . . Much of Jesus’ ethical teaching finds parallels in rabbinic literature. Most often cited is the negative form of the “Golden Rule” attributed to Hillel. The effort to reduce the law to as few principles as possible (Matt. 23:36) was a rabbinic concern. . . . Hillel [said]: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary: go and learn” (b. Shabbath 30b). (p. 517)
Finally, we have James H. Charlesworth, in The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide (2008) writing a section titled,
Ten Modern Misconceptions about Judaism during Jesus’ Time
1) Unconscious of sin and no need for forgiveness.
Charlesworth points to the evidence to the contrary. He traces the history of this belief from early Christian history and anti-semitism back to the fourth century CE. He concludes:
All faithful Jews knew they had sinned. They knew only God could forgive, and they asked God for forgiveness. . . . Thus, Jesus and other Jews knew that confession of sin and forgiveness were deeply rooted in ancient Israel. (p. 52)
2) Legalistic laws.
It is misleading to think or claim that such legalism defined Judaism during Jesus’ time. As many scholars have recognized for decades, the Torah was not a legalistic document. Jews perceived it to embody God’s will. Torah evoked joy and celebration. (p. 53)
3) Election superiority.
Far too many historians fall into the all fallacy when they write or speak about Early Judaism; that is, either they use the word all when talking about Jews, who had astoundingly diverse views before 70 C.E., or they imply that, for example, Jews (meaning all Jews) considered themselves superior and the ‘elect of God.’
Documenting that claim is easy, but many different views are found in early Jewish texts. . . . (p. 53)
4) Polluted Temple.
Some Christian theologians assume or conclude that the Temple was polluted during the time of Jesus. . . . [But] Jesus revered the Temple, celebrated Temple liturgy, admired many of the priests, but was offended by some excesses in the cult and some of the injustices and abuses of some influential priests. (p. 54)
5) Corrupt liturgy.
This myth holds that in the time of Jesus liturgy and prayer were mechanical and meaningless. But Charlesworth discusses the literary (including Qumran) evidence that demonstrates otherwise:
Clearly, Jewish prayers during the time of Jesus are among the great masterpieces in the world’s storehouse of liturgy; they were unfettered, and the heart of the created could commune with the heart of the Creator. (p. 55)
6) Resurrection denied.
Far too many people think that only Christians believe in the concept of resurrection. . . . There is now no doubt that the concept of a general resurrection was developed by Jews long before Jesus. . . The Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection is founded on Jewish concepts and beliefs. (p. 56)
7) Kingdom of God: A Christian creation.
It has . . . become clear that the concept of God as King and God’s Kingdom or Rule is found in many Jewish texts that date from the time of Jesus and centuries earlier. (p. 56)
8) No concept of salvation.
Some scholars have assumed that the concept of salvation and a “Savior” appears for the first time in early Christian belief. In fact, these concepts were present prior to Jesus’ time. Asclepius, the Greek and Roman god of healing, for example, was hailed as “the Savior” not only in inscriptions but also in Orphic Hymn 67. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, sometime perhaps in the second century B.C.E., claimed the serpent mentioned in Numbers 21:4-9 was a “symbol of salvation” (16:6), but God was “the Savior of all” (16:7). (p. 57)
9) A distant God.
The Jewish apocalypses and apocalyptic literature can give the impression that Jews imagined God had abandoned earth and that truth and meaning were hidden far off in heaven. Charlesworth points out, however, that this same literature also depicts holy men (Enoch, Levi, Abraham) going into the heavens or future to obtain this divine wisdom and to return to share it with their fellows on earth.
So did Jesus really change the emphasis in apocalyptic thought when he taught his disciples to pray, “They kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? (p. 57)
10) A deteriorated religion.
Many famous Western thinkers have spoken of Judaism in Jesus’ day as a corrupt religion. Many today still believe
that Christianity “superseded” (gone beyond, improved, and replaced) Judaism.
Paul, Charlesworth points out, fought against this supersessionist myth when he wrote, “I ask, therefore, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Rom. 11:1).
An interesting exercise
When surveying all these books together across a common theme I was hit with the obvious ideological biases of their respective arguments. Jewish authors are at pains to argue that their religion was never bad, and a rabbi author insists rabbis have always been high and nobly minded. Christian scholars are straining for political correctness against the damaging prejudices of the past as if their scholarly projects must be defended ideologically. But this is where scholarship is at the moment. Ideology versus ingrained prejudice and habits of thought. Facts, evidence are in there somewhere.
And above all when it comes to the question of historical method, it is quite laughable to see some authors using certain gospel texts as firm evidence for the character, even the existence of Jesus, while other scholars dismiss those same tests as nothing more than mythical propaganda. I’ll return to this point to illustrate some fundamentals next time I address historical methods among historical Jesus scholars.
Finally, I wonder if this post will put to rest those regular accusations that I supposedly only read mythicist books and am ignorant of mainstream scholarship. 😉
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- I’m interviewed on Harmonic Atheist - 2021-07-07 01:52:20 GMT+0000
- a little break - 2021-07-01 10:35:02 GMT+0000
- The Incarnation of The Name – Continuing Nanine Charbonnel’s Sublime Paper Figure Jesus Christ - 2021-06-22 02:14:39 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!