07 April 2010

recovering pharisees 5: galilean influence

Opinions regarding the Pharisees abound, and trying to get at them has traditionally been difficult. Yet, in the past few years a good amount of light has been shed on this highly influential group, and many previous ideas have been abandoned. What has become clear to the historian is that the Pharisees are anything but clearly understood figures; they are a complex group, which means things aren't as quickly black-and-white as so many would prefer. Indeed, understanding them properly not only takes a good amount of work, but it also challenges our readings of the gospel narrative.

Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

In his recent book, Craig Keener briefly explores Jesus' relationship with the Pharisees and their conflicts. In the process he also provides good information on the identity of the Pharisees as well, a few of which are worth mention here - especially for those who've not spent much time getting to know this first century Jewish sect.

One of the opening 'concessions' which Keener provides is that the Pharisees were probably rare in Galilee (cf. 224). This statement comes from source information found in Josephus, who focuses on the Pharisaic activity in Jerusalem. Of course, his omission can't be taken as completely exclusive, but the point which we gain from this is that the center of debate and activity during this time period was in Jerusalem. It fits with the overall historical picture that Galilee was an out-of-the-way region without prominence. But, the question still remains (Keener does not address it, as his focus is on the adult conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees) on how much influence the Pharisaic movement would have held into various regions.

Scholars have observed for some time that the Pharisaic influence was strong, though I would begin to question just how much in light of our increasing knowledge of other emerging Jewish traditions within the Second Temple period. Nevertheless, we are on safe ground to assume that most people would have self-identified with either the Pharisaic or Enochic traditions in this period, even though very few individuals had the time or opportunity to officially participate in any sect.

My point is this, although we might concede with Keener that there was a lacking physical presence of the Pharisees in Galilee (and that the conflicts are most likely those coming from Jerusalem to investigate this charismatic teacher and healer), we must not discount the spiritual influence which this group would have held over this region (as well as other regions). I agree with Keener that Jesus was not likely a Pharisee (185), but I do think that it is probable that he had Pharisaic influence given to him during his life in Galilee, a trickle-down from the 'official' work of the Pharisaic debate in Jerusalem.

I think that we observe similar phenomena in our own culture when theological positions find their ways into generations and locations which are quite disconnected from their source. How many times do I find snippets of dispensationalism on lay-interpretations of Revelation by people who would otherwise never hold to such a theological position? Most likely it is due to great-grandpa's Bible, which was an original Scofield taken at face value and never questioned from that point forward. Right or wrong, it wasn't passed down as responsible theology but as heritage . . . and it moved outward as time passed. Similarly, influence from the 'official' Pharisaic sect probably held influence on Galilee.

Another 'caveat' worth mentioning from Keener is appropriate here: ". . . the Pharisees did not go around trying to kill or even arrest people who differed from their interpretation of the law - at least not in this period" (224). It is always important to remember that all of the debates that we have in the Second Temple period (including Jesus' own conflicts with Jewish groups) were internal debates within Judaism. That should color our view in an important way, so that we understand the strong bond of implied unity which the Jewish people possessed.

Here we find the seeds of Jesus' exclusion from this community and the call for his death, but that discussion will be reserved for another time.

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