The customary comparison between the humble Publican and the proud Pharisee often blocks the true meaning of these two images in our minds. However, to understand the Gospel correctly, one must picture them clearly. The Pharisees were truly righteous men. If on our lips the name “Pharisee” sounds as condemnation, in the days of Christ and during the first decades of Christianity this was not so. On the contrary, the Apostle Paul triumphantly confesses before the Jews, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). And then, to Christians, to his spiritual children, he writes, “I am of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). And besides the holy Apostle Paul, many Pharisees became Christians: Joseph, Nicodemus, Gamaliel. Pharisees (in ancient Hebrew “perusim,” in Aramaic, “ferisim,” which means “other”—the separated, the different) were zealots of the law of God. They “rested upon the law”; in other words, thought on it constantly, loved it, strove to keep it exactly, preached and interpreted it. And the reason for the Lord’s accusation against the Pharisees is found in that the Lord warns them that their entire labor, their truly virtuous endeavors, are made worthless in the eyes of God, are turned into nothing and they obtain condemnation from the Lord and not blessings, despite their superiority and the righteous deeds they performed, because of their proud self-exaltation, and above all, their judgment of their neighbors, of which the Pharisee of the parable gives a clear example, saying, “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not as other men” (Lk. 18:11).
Note especially St John’s recourse to St Paul’s “boasting” about his former adherence to Pharisaism, which is quite apropos: St Paul is, after all, one of the only two ancients who claim to have been Pharisees (the other is Josephus), a designation he is unlikely to have claimed in one of his “boasting” passages had it truly been a term of opprobrium, as it became in later Christian discourse.
As I noted above, engaging in the task of historical reconstruction is both necessary and unavoidable, and we would all do well to acquire such bibliographical resources as would set our investigation on firmer footing. On the subject of the Pharisees and other Jewish sects in the First Century, one would be hard pressed to find a better and more comprehensive study than the late Anthony J. Saldarini’s Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (1988; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). Quite fortunately you, my gentle snowflakes, as I searched my library for books touching on this important subject, I discovered that I have not one, but two copies of this important work. I have therefore decided to bestow the additional copy upon one of you in the first (and probably the only) ever Week of the Publican and the Pharisee Giveaway at The Voice of Stefan! Following Nick Norelli’s sage advice, I only ask you to sign up for the giveaway in the comment section of this post, and perhaps to advertise the giveaway on your own blog, should you have one. [UPDATE: If you choose to announce the giveaway on your own blog, I will enter you name twice into the contest.] I will draw a winner next Friday, February 13 (N. S.), 2009, and send out the undoubtedly coveted prize to the winner’s regular US address shortly thereafter. (With profuse apologies to readers outside the US, I am presently unable to ship internationally.) Best wishes to any and all who choose to participate!