upper room daily devotions

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A plea to liberal Christians: Utilize better biblical exegesis. Stop decrying "Pharisees"

Oh, friends. I really don't want to write this post. It is difficult to challenge those with whom one mostly agrees, but I've come to a point at which silence has become untenable.

"Liberal Christians" (whatever that means), in your attempts to "correct" the theology of those you deem "conservative," please use better biblical exegesis. Have a better historical understanding of the scriptures you quote. For the love of God, don't be lazy when referring to scripture to uphold a theological point.

In the wake of the verdict against Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist clergy convicted in a church trial for conducting a same-sex union, liberal commentators have rightfully taken to social media, blogs, and other forums to express disappointment and anger. I, of course, share their pain for this decision and for the church's continued stance relative to LGBTQI people. However, I feel compelled to challenge my friends and colleagues on their lazy exegesis. So, here I go...

In particular, please refrain from comparing an unjust church and its practices to "Pharisees," which today is known as rabbinic Judaism, or, just Judaism. Even worse is the way the word "Pharisaism" is used in a sneering way as though it sounds like a disease for which a round of antibiotics might be in order. Yes, "Pharisaism" appears in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Its first definition is "the doctrines or practices of Pharisees." The second, and problematic definition reads, " pharisaical character, spirit, or attitude :  hypocrisy." In the New Testament, Pharisees serve a prominent role, but that role is not what Christianity has made it out to be. Pharisees were biblical experts, interpreters of law. They were not the bogeymen of the Bible. Pharisees were one sect of Judaism. In fact, Jesus shares much of their theology; this is what makes them a relevant partner in arguing texts, law, and Jewish life. Moreover, within Judaism, the use of argument does not signify enemy status. Rather, arguing is part of the spiritual practice of arriving at new understanding.  Jesus speaks about resurrection, like Pharisees. He is well versed in Torah, like Pharisees. He wears tzittzit, worships in synagogues, and adheres to Jewish law (more on that in a moment), like Pharisees.

One of the main missteps that Christians take in putting Jesus over and against Pharisees is that they contrast purity with compassion. Pharisees champion purity; Jesus champions compassion. This practice has to stop. In the book "The Historical Jesus in Context," Amy-Jill Levine writes:

...complicating the discussion is a popular view that Jesus sought to replace the Jewish purity system -- seen as creating class-based distinctions, filtering funds to the Temple (itself seen as a corrupt institution), marginalizing women (who would be in states of impurity because of menstruation and parturition), and concentrating piety and so [sic] power in the hands of the Pharisees -- with a system of compassion. This false distinction (the opposite of purity is impurity, and of compassion, the lack of compassion) is based on a variety of factors: the equally false distinction sometimes drawn between Law and Grace, the reductive equation of ritual impurity with sin, a presumption that first-century Jews followed the Mosaic Torah fully, literally, and uniformly, ignorance of purity's import to Gentiles, the false assumption that men were not concerned with or subject to ritual impurity, the equating of purity and class (the high priest can become ritually impure; a peasant widow can be in a state of purity), basic misunderstandings of the ancient sources...and, occasionally, Christian apologetic (31-32).

In doing this, Christians miss a deeper understanding of Jesus and his historical and theological contexts. Levine goes on to say:

Both the Jesus of the Gospels and the Rabbis of Mishnah and Talmud...alleviate any hardship created by following the more literal sense [of law]. Exemplifying this process in the Gospels are the "Antitheses" of Matthew that follow the formulaic structure, "You have heard that it was said...But I tell you..." While the interpretation of Matthew 5:44, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," is novel...the means by which the Gospel derives this interpretation are not:...the word "neighbor" can be stretched to include "enemy" because the terms in Hebrew share the same consonants; only the pronunciation differs.

That is, Jesus uses word play to show that the difference between neighbor and enemy is one of emphasis. Or, to be clear, there is no actual distinction.

I am not going to go as far as some scholars and posit that Jesus was a Pharisee. If one reviews social constructs of many movements, one will find that Jesus shares traits with many without fully subscribing to any (Levine, 12). However, the biblical reference to Jesus as Rabbi is the first reference to any man as a rabbi. Uttered by Mary, the first one to encounter the risen Christ, Jesus becomes the first person in literature referred to as "Rabbouni," or "teacher," "rabbi." Interesting for someone who is "obviously" opposed to rabbis, teachers, i.e., Pharisees.

The other argument that repeats itself when liberal Christians talk about Jesus and social change is that Jesus "broke the law" and so we can to. Frequently, they point to Jesus "breaking Sabbath law." In order to make this claim, Christians might refer to Mark 2:23-28 or Mark 3:1-3. In the Mark 2 story, Jesus' disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. Questioned by Pharisees (why were they out in the field with Jesus and his disciples???), Jesus refers to a story about David who entered the house of God to get consecrated food for his hungry men. In the next story in Mark 3, which immediately follows the story in the field, Jesus, in a synagogue on Sabbath, heals a man with a withered hand. This time Jesus is the one who challenges the Pharisees by asking them which is more lawful, to do good or to do evil. There is a story in Luke where Jesus heals the "bent over woman" (Luke 13:10-17). Again, challenged by "the leader of the synagogue," Jesus replies that all people work on the Sabbath in taking care of their animals. Isn't, he asks, this woman worth as much? In all three of these "Sabbath law breaking" stories, Jesus is broadening people's ability to participate in Sabbath. With food, with healing. In none of them can those who challenge Jesus bring any kind of charge or apply any kind of punishment. This reveals that first century Judaism, even first century Pharisaic Judaism in particular, was fluid and open to interpretation. Indeed, the process of debate and argument rests at the heart of Pharisaic Judaism; it is used to wrangle an idea forward. Debate often ends with disparate opinions; this remains is true today. Moreover, in the story from Luke, even though the synagogue leader (never identified as a Pharisee) challenges Jesus, the assembly "rejoiced at the wonderful things he had done" (Luke 13:17).

What we learn about stories relative to Sabbath is that Jesus was in synagogue on Sabbath "as was his custom." He read scripture. He wore tzitzit. And, he performed acts that would open people to a more full and expansive experience of Sabbath. He was, indeed, challenged, but those challenges do not imply that Jesus per se "broke the Sabbath law." Rather, they point to differences of opinion regarding law, important differences that helped the early Christian community better identify how it would relate to Jewish law and better understand Jesus' role as an entry point into Sabbath, an entry into God's gift of law and grace.

So, in the same way that I implore you to stop comparing unjust church actions with "Pharisaism," I implore you to stop molding Jesus into something you want him to be. Stop saying that he "broke the law." Unless, of course, you want to talk about Roman law...

Where did the Christian conflation of hypocrisy and the Pharisees originate? Anti-Jewishness quickly arose within the Christian movement. As Jews expelled Christians from their synagogues, a family fight escalated. By the Protestant Reformation, acrimony was strong between Jews and Christians (the Crusades did not help!). In his invective against the Roman Catholic Church, its abuses and excesses, Martin Luther compared the church to Pharisees, and the practice stuck.

Good biblical exegesis can be used to further the efforts to widen the church doors, to move us as a people into work that rights wrongs, creates justice, and helps to usher in God's holy realm. Let's not be lazy. Let's not caricature certain groups in order to bolster the esteem of our own. Let's not create bogeymen and further divide one from another.

Jesus was a healer. Let's talk about that. He restored communities. Let's lift up those stories. He did indeed challenge religious leaders; we can say that. In fact, I think that using the stories that highlight debates between Jesus and other Jews regarding their own laws of identity can be instructive for us in our own debates about identity and communion. Jesus was a provocateur. It's fine for us to show that. He went to the heart of the place of power to speak a different word. He indeed claimed, or at least his community claimed for him, titles and authority that were supposed to lay elsewhere. All of these are ways which we can look to scripture for wisdom and guidance.

Good anthropology is important. So is good sociology. Good theology is imperative within a theological movement. So is good biblical exegesis. "Three out of four ain't bad" just won't work here. Christians insisting on change must embrace a rigorous exegetical practice if we are to be different from those with whom we disagree. We cannot castigate others for poor biblical literacy and then utilize poor exegesis in the composition of our own positions.


Lee Karl Palo said...

Well said! I often get frustrated with sloppy logic as well. To call someone a "pharisee" today really amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem, and as you say above, it isn't accurate. It also strikes me as anti-Semitic. Besides, when you learn how ultraconservative the Essenes were, the Pharisees look pretty liberal!
My "favorite" example of sloppy logic has got to be: "Jesus said nothing about..." That is an argument from silence and proves absolutely nothing whatsoever. Can't we do better than that?

Morgan Guyton said...

Hmmm... When I read what you wrote, it seems like it would nuance how we speak about scripture to the point of not being able to say much of anything. The Pharisees in Matthew are a foil to Jesus and a critical counter-witness. If you're not allowed to say their name because you're being PC or you've gone historical-critical and said Matthew was just being a sectarian polemicist, Jesus really got along with the Pharisees just fine, then you've taken out an important part of the gospel's witness.

One of Jesus' most important statements I think is when he quotes Hosea 6:6: "I desire mercy not sacrifice." That fault-line is essential to articulating two different approaches to holiness. When your holiness is about mercy, then you're pursuing freedom from sin for the sake of having no obstacle to the reign of mercy in your heart. When your holiness is about sacrifice, it's about showing God how austere you're willing to live to honor Him.

Jesus' statement "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" is revolutionary because it means that holiness is not a set of arbitrary expectations that have nothing to do with human flourishing which we must follow for the sake of "honoring God." It doesn't matter if it was historically a common practice for rabbis to stop their worship gatherings and heal cripples in the middle of a sermon. We have to be able to use the Jesus/Pharisee dichotomy at least as it's used canonically in Matthew regardless of the historical reality behind the text, or we lose a critical part of the gospel.

JoonKi Jang said...

Isn't another important point that Jesus was the Son of God and when He spoke, He spoke Words God gave Him? (John 14:10, John 17:8)

Jesus had authority from God to correct people's understanding. Jesus did not come to break the law but to fulfill it, right?

Isn't this different than people (who I don't think claim to have authority from God) claiming the freedom to break the law?

JoonKi Jang said...

John 14:10
John 17:8
Matthew 5:17

I think these are Scriptures that people like to ignore when they make arguments about Jesus "breaking the law".

Do people that want to correct things now (claim to) have authority from God to do so?

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