October 9, 2021 - Pharisees

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Today we want to talk about the Pharisees. We hear so many people trash the Pharisees. We hear them all lumped together as evil hypocrites with a hard-line ultra-picky morality. From my study of the actual evidence, however, I think the Pharisees have gotten a bum rap. The Pharisees were nowhere near as bad as people make them out to be.

In fact, it might surprise you to learn that the Pharisees were actually the liberals of Jesus’ day. They were trashed for being too permissive, both by the Sadducees, and by the folks who did the Dead Sea Scrolls, who sneered at what “smooth” talkers they said the Pharisees were. The Pharisees took pride in their halakoth (meaning “code of conduct”); the folks at Qumran jokingly called their teachings haloqoth (meaning “smooth things”).

As even Jesus complained, the Pharisees made too many loopholes in their rules. Yet the reason they made so many loopholes was to make it easier for the average Jew to obey. The Pharisees took laws that were intended only for the priests, and tried to dumb them down so that everyone could obey them. But when you move the bar, you make it easier to be a hypocrite.

If the Pharisees were such sourpusses, why did the common people always side with the Pharisees whenever there was a dispute with the Sadducees about how to interpret the Torah? Why were the Pharisees the heroes of the common people? It’s funny how when the Romans bulldozed Jerusalem, the only group who was flexible enough to survive was the Pharisees; they were the branch from whom all of modern Judaism descends.

Out of all the Jewish parties in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the closest to Jesus. More Pharisees become followers of Jesus than from any other group. The Sadducees and the folks who did the Dead Sea Scrolls rejected Jesus so completely that they didn’t even think he was worthy to be mentioned. The Pharisees took Jesus seriously. That’s why Jesus and the Pharisees get so loud in criticizing each other. We tend to yell the loudest at those with whom we have the most in common. We often applaud atheists who inch their way toward faith, while we get mad at people who belong to us when we think they’re selling out on what we believe.

You say, The Bible gave us this picture of the Pharisees. What the Bible says is true, but what it says is only a partial picture; it focuses only on the bad apples. The Pharisees themselves have given us 800 pages of their own teachings collected in a book called the Mishnah (put together around 200 AD), a book that was later expanded to become what we call the Talmud. Here we find the actual teachings of the rabbis during NT times.

Let’s take a look at some of the rules collected by the Pharisees, and see what we can learn about everyday life in the time of Jesus.

The Pharisees were famous for being picky about tithing. They tithed only food or produce, either grown or purchased with money. Jesus says “You tithe mint and dill and cumin.” The Pharisees had a whole list of which fruits, vegetables, and herbs had to be tithed, and which ones were wild. You could get around the tithe law if you bought and ate figs less than 10 at a time, or if you had a chance meal at the market, as long as you could eat it before you got home. If you could not be sure whether someone’s produce had been tithed or not, you did it yourself. One rabbi said, “Tithe not overmuch by guesswork.”

Another issue the Pharisees are famous for is their pickiness about the Sabbath. They catalogued 40 kinds of work that were forbidden. You could not pick even a lamb’s mouthful of grain from a field (that was “harvesting”). You could not cook or make the bed – your roast had to be finished before nightfall on Friday. You could not light or put out a lamp or a fire. You could use the light of a lamp lit by a Gentile, but not if he lit that lamp for you. You could not sew 2 stitches, write 2 letters of a word, tie or untie a knot (unless you could do it with 1 hand). You could not wash anything with water – you had to wipe with a rag, and if you fell into water, you could not squeeze your clothes dry. It was debated whether you could shake the crumbs off the tablecloth.

You could not pick up a rock big enough to throw at a bird. You could not pick up a hammer or tool of any kind except eating implements. You could not handle the smallest amount of leather, rope, clay, paint, lime, ink, or any item that could be used in crafts or any product consumed in work. You could not pick up nails, needles, potsherds, or enough wood to cook the smallest egg. If guests came who needed space, you could clear away up to 5 baskets full of grain or straw to make room for them.

You could travel only 3000 feet from home on the Sabbath. To stretch that a little bit, the rabbis said you could place insulated boxes of hot food for yourself around town as symbols of “home” (“Sabbath boxes”). If fire broke out on the Sabbath, you could save enough food to hold you until the next day. If a building collapsed with a person inside it, they could clear away rubble until the person was either rescued or found to be dead. You could not take medicine unless life was in danger. They could deliver babies and give urgent medical treatment, and they taught, “Wherever life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath.”

When fasting (which was done on Yom Kippur and in times of emergency), the rabbis taught that a person could not eat as much as a large date, drink over a mouthful of water, wash or anoint themselves, put on sandals, or have marital relations. (Jesus says, “Anoint your head and wash your face.”) Children did not have to fast until age 11 or 12.

Israelites were to repeat the Greatest Commandment 3 times a day. There was a much longer prayer called the 18 Benedictions that was to be repeated once a day. (Notice how short the Lord’s Prayer is by comparison.) Only newlyweds on wedding night and families who were burying their dead were excused from these prayers. The rabbis determined how much food was necessary to say a blessing over; some said as little as an olive, others said it had to be as much as an egg. If you forgot, you could say grace any time until the food was digested, and you could say the daily prayers anytime until daybreak the next morning.

The Pharisees had some clever rules about the use of vows and oaths. An oath was binding (in their opinion) if they used either the name of God, or one of his titles (like “the Almighty” or “the Holy One”). But to swear “by my head” or “by Jerusalem” or “by heaven and earth”, these oaths were exempt and could be broken. (Jesus disagreed.) They also taught that an oath was not binding if you did not have precise knowledge of what you were swearing by. So they claimed it’s not enough to swear by the Temple, but by the gold in the Temple. Jesus says, “Go figure! Which is greater, the gold, or the Temple that makes it sacred?”

The Pharisees had other clever ways to escape from vows or oaths. If a person vowed to abstain from meat, he/she was permitted broth. If they vowed to abstain from milk, they were permitted whey. If they vowed to abstain from clothing, they could have sackcloth, curtains, or sheets. They did not enforce vows of exaggeration, like, “I swear, there’s as many people on this road as came up out of Egypt!”, or “I swear, I saw a snake as big as that pole!” They did not enforce vows of constraint, like if you vowed to go somewhere and a flood stopped you (or the 40 men who vowed to kill Paul). You could even swear falsely to murderers, robbers, or tax collectors to protect your property by saying, “What I’ve got is a gift pledged to God.”

Concerning sex, marriage, and divorce, you think the Pharisees were prudes? No way! The rabbis said, “No man may abstain from the law ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ unless he already has children.” Unlike Jesus, the Pharisees did NOT approve of celibacy. In fact, they had it catalogued how often the duty of marriage ought to be performed: every day for those who are unoccupied, twice a week for laborers, once a week for donkey drivers, once a month for camel drivers, and once every 6 months for sailors. If a couple wished to abstain for purposes of prayer (like in 1 Corinthians 7), they were to do so for only 1 or 2 weeks, or up to 30 days if he was a rabbi on study leave, and while he was away, he had to support her with so much food, a bed, and so much cash per week while he was gone. If a woman would not consent to her husband, he could lower her dowry by so much money per week, and if he would not consent to her, he had to increase it by the same amount per week.

Every bride was given a dowry of at least 100 shekels (the price of an ox). The money had to be returned to her if the couple divorced (sort of divorce insurance). The woman had to get it back, even if the man had to sell his clothes to pay it back. But a few offenses were so shameful that a woman could lose her divorce insurance: if he suspected her of adultery (but not till the women who spin their yarn by moonlight gossip about her), if she goes about on the street with her hair unbound or speaks with any man, if she curses his parents in his presence, or scolds loud enough for the neighbors to hear.

2 rabbis named Hillel and Shammai had differing views on divorce. Rabbi Shammai taught that sexual immorality was the only grounds for divorce (like Jesus taught). But Rabbi Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife even for spoiling his supper. Rabbi Aqiba said he could do it “even if he found another fairer than she”. A woman could write her own bill of divorce, if her husband would sign it. Divorce was always done by a man to a woman, but there were a few cases where men could be forced to put away their wives. A man must divorce his wife on request for an unsightly case of boils, for being a coppersmith, a dung-collector, or a tanner (all smelly professions), or if he vows to deny her sex indefinitely or unreasonably. A man could not divorce his wife if either party became mentally ill (in both cases, to protect the wife).

In the areas of business and civil law, there were laws on business partnerships, contracts, definitions of when a legal sale is made and cannot be retracted, how much is included when an olive press or a house is sold (if you sell a donkey, have you sold its gear?). The rabbis had strict regulations against commodity futures trading. “No one may make a bargain for manure unless it is already on the pile.” One rabbi said a woman should not even loan a loaf of bread without determining its value in money, lest wheat should rise in price before she gets it back. They also had laws to settle disputes over ownership, damages, and liability.

The rabbis specified how much profit they thought was too high. Most of them thought 18% over market price to be gouging or defrauding, but for a refund, you only had enough time to show your purchase to a merchant or kinsperson. One rabbi said overcharging up to 33% was OK, if the buyer gets all day to ask for a refund. 4% refuse was allowed in grain, 10% spoilage was allowed in figs and jars of wine, and wine was to be guaranteed good until Pentecost.

The rabbis had zoning codes. No tanneries were allowed except downwind on the east side of town. You could sell a synagogue for any use except as a tannery or a public restroom.

In court, if a man struck you in the face with the back of his hand, you could sue him for 200 shekels – Jesus said to turn the other cheek. You could also sue for 200 shekels if he pulls out your hair, spits on you, pulls off your cloak, or unbinds a woman’s hair in the street.

Living in a pagan world, the rabbis also had to deal with how to avoid tolerating or supporting idolatry. A Pharisee could not sell a Gentile anything that could be used for pagan worship. If he sold an animal that could be used in sacrifice, he had to cripple it first. A Pharisee could do no business with anyone who was on their way to a pagan festival, but they could do business with those who were returning. They could do no business in towns with public idols, or in shops that were decorated with idols, although Rabbi Gamaliel used to bathe at Venus’ Bathhouse. He argued that people do stuff in the bathhouse that they would never do in a temple. So “what is treated as a god is forbidden, but what is not treated as a god is permitted.”

Aqiba says, “Flesh that is entering to be offered to an idol is permitted, but what comes forth is forbidden”, but conversely, “It is forbidden to have business with them that are going on an idolatrous pilgrimage, but with them that are returning it is permitted” (M. Abodah Zarah 2:3). So they could buy and eat flesh that was on its way to an idol’s temple, but they could not eat meat that comes out of the temple. If you could not be sure whether meat had been offered to an idol or not, you did not eat it (this was the issue for Christians at Corinth and at Rome). The Pharisees also never trusted a jar of wine alone with a Gentile, for fear that he might offer some of it to his heathen god. If in doubt, you went without wine, also. Jews warned their fellow Jews not to tear down pagan shrines, lest they be forced to rebuild them.

The rabbis also give us 90 pages of picky laws on what is clean and unclean. Any utensil that was not made of completely flat surfaces, anything with pockets or holes in it, is susceptible to uncleanness, because these could collect dirt or germs. If a bowl was unclean, it could be made clean by simply breaking it in 2. Sometimes they taught an object could defile you just by its shadow. The clothing of a non-Pharisee could defile you just by touching it. They believed the houses of Gentiles and non-Pharisees were full of uncleanness.

If you found a dead lizard or roach in your first jarful of water from the well, all the water was unclean. You had to strain a gnat out of your soup, for fear that it might die and defile the entire bowl. (Jesus says, “You guys strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”) If a person dies in a house, certain other items in the house become unclean. A piece of human bone or corpse as big as a barleycorn was enough to defile you, or even walking over an unmarked grave. (Graves were whitewashed 6 weeks before Passover, so that pilgrims would not step on them – that’s what Jesus meant when he spoke of whitewashed tombs.)

If you became unclean, you had to totally immerse yourself in at least 130 gallons of water. The ocean was OK, but you couldn’t use a warm, salty, or muddy river. A pool was OK, if not too stagnant. Before meals, the rabbis required you to wash your hands with 1½ eggsful of water, all the way down to the wrist. One rabbi was kicked out as a heretic because he questioned the washing of the hands (like Jesus did).

The Pharisees had 2 laws: the written Law of Moses, and their oral tradition. What angered Jesus is that they made their tradition more important than God’s word itself.

How do you live with so many laws to keep, with so much to do to make sure you are worthy? Rabbi Yohanan ben-Zakkai took God’s law so seriously that he wept when he was about to die because he could not be sure whether he was ready to meet God. As a former Pharisee, Paul writes to the Philippians that (humanly speaking) his track record of obeying God’s law was blameless. But now, all that Paul once valued as a Pharisee, he counts as “dung” because of Christ. Now, he says he traded that all in. He no longer has “a righteousness of my own, based on law, but the kind that comes through faith in Christ.” Paul now has a blessed assurance of salvation that he never could find as a Pharisee.

What about the folks who did the Dead Sea Scrolls? Do they give us lost information on how Christianity was practiced in the 1st century AD? The short answer is No. The folks at Qumran opposed every other brand of Judaism in their day, including followers of Jesus, and yet their writings contain some intriguing similarities to Jesus and John the Baptist. We’ll take a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls next time on Biblical Words and World!

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