In Fairness to the Pharisees

The following transcript is an excerpt of an interview where archaeologist and Bible scholar Marc Turnage responds to the issue of the Pharisees and their negative image among Christians.

Matt Lynch: So one of the examples (going back to your book for the moment)… one of the chapters that I really appreciate in your book was on the Pharisees. And this is one of those cases where a people group can kind of take on a life of its own in the church. And if any of our listeners have sat in church for long you know that the Pharisees are the bad guys in many a sermon and often to detrimental effect for Jewish-Christian relations. So what is your challenge to Christians next time they want to portray Pharisees as a bunch of legalistic jerks trying to trap anyone who breaks just one law?

Marc Turnage: I think the problems with such a characterization like the demons that went into the pig are Legion.

And I think that this is an issue where we as readers of the New Testament have to be come sensitive not only to the Jewish culture and cultural world of the first century but it’s a place where we have to realize that of the three main streams of Judaism and Jewish piety we know from the first century, Jesus mostly closely aligns theologically and spiritually with that of the Pharisees. Just a couple of examples of that: the phrase that appears on the lips of Jesus more than any other in the gospels is “kingdom of heaven” and this is a phrase we only know coming out of the world of the Pharisees, the Jewish sages of Israel. Terms like repentance, the telling of story parables, all of these are things that are unique to the spiritual world of the sages of Israel and the Pharisees.

And so if we are going to really try and understand Jesus and his message and his method of teaching (his hermeneutic), to understand how he engaged even his contemporaries, we have to frame it really within the world of the Jewish sages of Israel and that requires us to also recognize a few very important details I think. While the gospel writers do not have a problem with depicting Jesus and the Pharisees in points of tension, I think it is very instructive to realise that in all four gospels when it comes time to hand Jesus over to Pilate, none of the gospels ever mention that the Pharisees were part of the group that’s handing Jesus over to Pontius Pilate. Moreover, when you look at the testimony of the Book of Acts the Pharisees are specifically mentioned in four instances. In two of those instances, they are actually members of the Jesus community and then in two other instances they are coming to the defence of the followers of Jesus and this actually bears up very nicely with what we find in Josephus when he speaks about the death of James the brother of Jesus who was executed by one of the chief priests, the grandson of Annas who we hear about in the gospels. And Annas’s grandson like his grandfather was a Sadducee and upon the illegal execution of James it’s the Pharisees that actually went to the Roman governor of Syria, which oversaw the land of Israel as well, and they protested and its the same kind of thing we find in the Book of Acts.

And so I think that we have to develop not only a reading of he New Testament that takes seriously kind of the cultural world and spiritual world but also the historical realities that we find not only in the New Testament but in contemporary first century literature like Josephus, that address the “who were the Pharisees?” and “what were they like?” and so forth.

Matt Lynch: Paul even self identifies as a Pharisee not only in the past tense but as you know a present identifier.

Marc Turnage: Exactly!

For the full interview from the podcast episode go here. It lasts from 13.07-18.03.

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