22 October 2008

recovering pharisees 3: unengaged visible holiness

Amy-Jill Levine, "Luke's Pharisees" in Jacob Neusner and Bruce D. Chilton, eds., In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 113-130.

Probably the most significant contribution which emerges from Levine's essay on the Pharisees in Luke-Acts is that she challenges many preconceptions which the reader brings to the text.  Sometimes her argument is more convincing than others but, on a whole, she does a solid job of this.  Whether or not she is able to reconstruct an accurate understanding of the sect is difficult to say - some will clearly think she has while others doubt her presentation.

From a literary (and theological) standpoint, Levine believes that Luke includes the Pharisees in his gospel in order to enhance Jesus' role in the narrative (115).  There is a sense in which I can accept this as true, but it doesn't account for the whole of their function (and she might not have even gone that route, given a more developed conversation on this point).  But the Pharisees are representative for Luke (and the other gospel narratives) of the primary ideology during Second Temple Judaism - a strong voice from within the common narrative of God's people in exile.  In this sense, she would be correct; but not if we see this enhancement as simple straw-manning for the sake of setting up Jesus.

Of special issue in the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus shares table fellowship with the Pharisees - which means that there must have been some level of acceptance into the Pharisaic community (cf. 120).  This is an interesting point, as it muddies the waters of separation which evangelicals have typically placed between Jesus and the Pharisees.  But the narrative suggests otherwise, that these were individuals who were concerned with the holiness of Israel but who too often did not follow through on their commitment to this end.

What is at stake, therefore, is Torah interpretation (cf. 122f.).  The focus lies on the approach to understanding Torah which has been taken by Jesus and the Pharisees - how do we take the Hebrew Scriptures and apply them to daily life?  This is connected (in Levine's article) to the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the primary issue becomes the willingness to seek out sinners: Jesus is willing to do so, the Pharisees are not (cf. 126).  We do see, however, a constant Pharisaic presence within the nation of Israel: they do not simply remove themselves from the ritual impurity of the population.  Rather, they maintain their visible presence in Israel even though they are not reaching out to the impurity around them.

If we are to maintain the thesis of this multi-part study which claims that the Pharisees are the closest equivalent to modern evangelicals, then we must consider whether or not our interpretation of Scripture is flawed.  I believe we find our clearest point of connection here within the visible presence of evangelical Christians, even when there is very little outreach happening.  To what end were the Pharisees interpreting?  It may be too difficult to make an historical conclusion on this.  But modern evangelicals are interpreting for their own sense of salvation and security, benefit and blessing.  This is how we have become Pharisaic in our contemporary culture.

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