Sundays with Silva: On the Conflict Between Jesus and the Pharisees

“Legalism, theologically understood, can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Whether or not the Pharisees explicitly taught a merit system [….], we must recognize that Jesus is never represented in the Gospels as criticizing them for believing that they could atone for their own sins. He does indeed condemn them for their legalismbut a legalism that finds expression in a somewhat different form, namely, through the relaxation of God’s standards.

“This point can be illustrated most clearly by referring to a well-known legal ruling, the prozbul, attributed to Hillel the Elder, who apparently lived during the reign of Herod the Great. This ruling in effect did away with the command that debts were to be cancelled every seven years (Dt 15:1-3). That command was accompanied by a solem warning: ‘Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for cancelling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin” (v 9). During Hillel’s time, however, the wealthy were in fact refusing to lend money, fearing they would lose it in the sabbatical year. Since the poor were the ones suffering, Hillel (if we may trust the rabbinic attribution) used the legal fiction that debts cease to be private when transferred to a court, and he ordained that in such cases the debts may be collected. For humanitarian reasons, therefore, Hillel devised a way of ‘breaking’ the Torah; the explanation, of course, would have been that such ‘innovations and amendments . . . fulfilled the basic reason of the commandment, whereas its literal observance nullified its original intent.’ [E. E. Urbach, The Sages, 1:373. -ed.]

“This enactmentand other examples could be usedshow[s] that we miss the point when we view the Pharisees as being concerned with the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. While that may well have been the case in some instances, it does not address the basic motivation for the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. [….] In a very important sense, the Pharisees made the Torah easier to obey. As a result of the prozbul, wealthy Jews no longer needed to be concerned about the solemn warning of Deuteronomy 15:9. The divine standard had been relaxed. The Torah had been accomodated to meet the weaknesses of the people. [….]

“It turns out, then, that Jesus, who like the Old Testament prophets demanded perfection (Mt 5:48), would have been critical of the Pharisees, not because they obeyed the Torah too strictly, but because they interpreted it too loosely. This is clearly and precisely the point of Mark 7:1-13, generally recognized as a key passage for understanding the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The controversy described in this passage centers on the law that ceremonial washing was required before eating. In fact, this is not an Old Testament law; it is not part of the Written Torah. But it was part of the Oral Torah, that is, the traditions of the elders. Scholars are generally agreed that the concept of the Twofold Law was the most distinctive feature of Pharisaic and later Judaism. The Oral Law was viewed as on a par with the Written Lawindeed, in some respects, as more important, for a ruling that is part of the Oral Law may in effect set aside the Written Law, as in the case of the prozbul.

“Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Mark 7 is that they ‘have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the tradition of men’ (v 8). And, after describing a particularly insidious example, He concludes: ‘Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down’ (v 13). This undermining of God’s Word, moreover, resulted in a muted consciousness of sin, for normally there were ways of interpreting the divine commands that mitigated their force. This frame of mind is almost surely the background for Matthew 5, whre Jesus is said to demand of His disciples a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees (v 20). Then, to preclude any interpretive moves that might render the law innocuous, He goes on to intensify specific Scriptural commands. Just in case anyone might have missed the point, He concludes: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (v 48), the equivalent of Leviticus 11:45, ‘ . . . therefore be holy, because I am holy.’

“The Pharisees were often in danger of thinking that they had adequately fulfilled their duty before God (cf. Lk 18:9-12:21), and therefore no great sense of dependence on God’s grace was likely to arise. In contrast, Jesus emphasized that the truse servants of God are those who are ever conscious of their unworthiness (Lk 17:7-10) and who have learned to pray, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Lk 18:13).”

(Moisés Silva, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woobridge [eds.], Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon [1986; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], pages 119-121.)

8 responses to “Sundays with Silva: On the Conflict Between Jesus and the Pharisees

  1. (At this rate, one might convince others of a particular claim for infallibility.)

    Some more autokeraphonia: my review series on Jacob Neusner’s Theology of the Oral Torah. (The last entry, here, includes links to all the posts.)

    Through the book, we learn of the development of the Oral Torah through a project of systematizing Scripture. In a sense, the Oral Torah is to Written Torah what a systematic theology is to Scripture. The logic underlying the Scriptural law codes (and other texts) are isolated and systematically applied to other situations. This results in new combinations of possibilities, but rooted in Scripture (=Mosaic/Prophetic=Divine). Thus the Oral Torah itself is also Divine, because the Divine’s logic is apparent in it. See how that works?

    Now, from that point, the extension/systematization of Scriptural logic to halakhah, there is no longer any other revelatory input permissible. The rabbis are explicit on this point. Prophets, angels, even God Himself could not contradict the Oral Torah. Their input would be null because they are outside the system, which is Scriptural first and last, in that it originates in Scripture and refers back to Scripture for support. It is a completely closed system. There is no room for prophetic, living revelation to intrude.

    And that is something that comes up in the interface between the Rabbinic and Christian traditions: the latter is innately, vividly based in living revelation (in the person of Jesus Christ in His Body, the Church), while the former is innately, vividly based in Oral Torah (=systematized Scripture). This is the same wall that Neusner runs up against in his A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: Jesus is a revelation of God that is external to the Rabbinic system. He is, to that system which does not follow the prophetic model but a scriptural one, a non sequitur, a cipher. There was only one possible result in the conflict between the two: rejection of Jesus as an authority, even if He were God Himself.

    Interesting, eh?


  2. Very interesting.

    Fascinating also how you have separated between the tradition of the Pharisees (a systematized and calcified interpretation of Scripture) and the tradition of the Church (living revelation as the Body of Christ). Very nice. Puts the lie to Protestant equation of Church tradition with Pharisaic tradition.



  3. This seems to be a reasonable assessment of us Pharisees. One thing I would note, however, is that Jesus was in the habit of coming to our houses to eat, drink and have a conversation – and some of us accepted Him as our savior. But what of the Sadducees – the bloody minded religious modernists? The only dialog we have between Jesus and the Sadducees is Matthew 23:29 – “Y’all just plain dumb.”


  4. Kevin> Well, I wasn't joking when I said that the purpose of "Sundays with Silva" is to spread the knowledge of his infallibility throughout the land. ;-)

    And sorry to rain on your autokeraphonic parade, but if you were a bit more observant, you would have noted that I have already linked to your series on Neusner's book, upon the first instance of the words "Oral Torah" in Silva's text!

    Thank you, of course, for your fascinating and totally relevant comments. I've been thinking about the subject of your last paragraph for a weeks now, and as always, you have shed some further light of the subject.

    V.> Super Kevin is the awesomest, ever.

    Looney> It comes as no surprise that you would find Silva's distillation of the subject entirely fair and reasonable. This is because, as is well known, Moisés Silva is infallible.

    As for the Sadducees, it might please you to learn that this is my favorite term of abuse against my opponents, precisely because then I am free to apply Mt 23:29 to them. ;-)


  5. Well, how about that! I didn’t even notice that link, you tricky fellow, dull as I am. (And I really am: I have a quite affecting chest cold.)

    I’ll add some more to the stew. If we’re to take the sayings of our Lord Jesus as representative of the culture in which they originated, it is absolutely clear that among the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew is the original. Discourse according to later rabbinic norms occurs unbroken only in Matthew. In every case in Mark and Luke, the forms (which MUST be strictly adhered to so as to be coherent in themselves as dialectic) are broken where in Matthew they are complete. In no case does Mark or Luke present a complete case that Matthew does not, and in both cases, concerns of non-Jewish readers appear which are entirely lacking in Matthew. Matthew, therefore, is earlier.


  6. Where might a new Silva-devotee go to get some of his texts?

    This week’s This American Life featured a very good story about a boy growing up in a very halachic/talmudic observant household, with an abusive, alcoholic father and an enabling mother. It was provocative.


  7. Kevin> Indeed! I noted much the same regarding the coherence of the "rabbinic" discourses of Jesus in Matthew several years ago, when I sat down to work through the Synopsis Quattuour Evangeliorum. This was the last nail in the coffin of Markan priority for me.

    Zac> Such a newly-enlightened soul could, first of all, turn to my first post on Silva, at the bottom of which I have provided links to a number of his articles available online. From there, they could go on to his books Has the Church Misread the Bible? and God, Language,and Scripture, which are among the more accessible of his works.

    I will look up the story you mention, which sounds quite interesting!


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