Book Review: The Pharisees

Ever since my undergrad days, and very pertinently in my present job, I’ve been a bit of a magpie when it comes to theological/biblical studies interests. Nearly everything interests me. So I was very interested to get into this book – a big, chunky, scholarly look at The Pharisees. This particular volume, clocking in at just under 500 pages, is the fruit of a conference in Rome on the topic – and this particular topic interests me primarily as a way of thinking carefully about Jewish-Christian relations, secondarily to inform my editing and support of commentary/New Testament writers, and thirdly as a model of interdisciplinary engagement. It’s worth noting that this review is that of a non-specialist, the mythical ‘interested lay reader’, though I’m writing it particularly for pastors and preachers who may well be aware that they want to preach the New Testament faithfully, and also not anti-Semitically or a-historically. I’ve underlined the chapter titles which I think would be worth borrowing or possibly even buying a copy of this book for, from a preacher’s perspective.

The Pharisees is divided into three parts, so my review will track that. Following 23 pages of preliminary materials, Craig E. Morrison offers a prelude, ‘What’s in a Name?‘, which briefly but firmly examines etymology of ‘Pharisee’.  For the aforementioned preacher, this is well worth a read, opens up easy suggestions for further reading, and shows validity of this books exploration.

Part 1 – Historical Reconstruction

Vasile Babota opens this section with ‘In Search of the Origins of the Pharisees’. My sense was that Babota’s chapter is slightly derailed from utility by a focus on 1 Maccabees. Key takeaway is that the Pharisees didn’t leave us any texts – so we need to be cautious. Eric M. Meyers then considers ‘Purity Concerns and Common Judaism in Light of Archaeology‘. Meyers chapter on archaeology is illuminating. He shows that a plethora of different communities had a concern with purity, and public purity at that – and so the ‘USP’ of the Pharisees might be something else. Vered Noam’s chapter ‘Pharasaic Halakah as Emerging from 4QMMT’ shows how this particular Qumran text gives us a fascinating insight into how Pharasaic legislation was formed. Steve Mason’s ‘Josephus’s Pharisees‘ seemed to me to be really thorough and methodologically intriguing. It’s also notable what he says about the New Testament contra Josephus in terms of a fair treatment of the Pharisees. Paula Frederiksen’s ‘Paul, The Perfectly Righteous Pharisee‘ is excellent – not least in showing discontinuity with later/other NT writings especially the gospels. A really helpful angle on the Apostle. Henry Pattarumadathil contributes ‘Pharisees and Sadducees Together in Matthew’, showing that the Pharisees and Sadducees, as portrayed by Matthew, are united in being against Jesus – but not a lot else. An interesting vignette that demonstrates the value of this book for preaching on the Gospels.

Adele Yarboro Collins Polemic Against the Pharisees in Matthew 23′ offers a careful and provocatively fresh look at the woe sayings in Matthew, particularly with reference to Matt. 23. Ends on an interesting discipleship challenge. Hermut Lohr’s ‘Luke-Acts as a Source for the History of the Pharisees’ on Luke-Acts and their historical value for understanding the Pharisees seems solid and workmanlike. Of particular note is his observation of close contact between them and the fledgling Jesus movement. Harold W. Attridge’s ‘Pharisees in the Fourth Gospel and One Special Pharisee’ highlights in particular Nicodemus – demonstrating that ‘the Pharisees’ are not monolithic in Gospel presentation. Yair Furstenburg’s ‘The Shared Image of Pharasaic Law in the Gospels and Rabbinic Tradition‘ focuses  on what the Pharisees taught – their relative lenience, contrast with a priestly view, and the fact that apart from Paul none of their writings survive – is one of the must reads. It ties together a number of threads helpfully. Jens Schroter’s ‘How Close Were Jesus and the Pharisees?’ carefully examines how close Jesus and the Pharisees were – with a helpful observation (p. 238) that the key was in his self understanding. Gunter Sternberger’s ‘The Pharisees and the Rabbis’ focuses on continuity between the Pharisees and rabbis, and basically demonstrates that it can’t really be discerned. This is an important historical theme that pops up throughout this book.

Part 2 – Reception History

Matthias Skeb opens this part of the book with ”Pharisees’ and Early Christian Heresiology’. Skeb’s chapter examines the role and occurrence of the Pharisees in four early Christian texts – the heresy-engagements of Justin Martyr, Hegesippius, Hippolytus and Epiphanus. They offer no real interest in the topic, instead mainly using the Pharisees as vehicles for various theological/polemical purposes. In ‘A Statistical Approach to Pharisaios and Pharisaikos in the Greek Fathers’, Luca Angelelli offers a few data-packed pages showing the prevalence of words around the Pharisees in the Greek Fathers. A factual chapter that opens up room for further work. Shaye J. D. Cohen’s short chapter ‘The Forgotten Pharisees’ fills in a gap where the Pharisees seem to be forgotten or overlooked, by considering texts from the Avot. Abraham Skorka’s chapter, ‘The Perushim in the Understanding of the Medieval Jewish Sages’  shows the importance of purity and piety. Aninteresting tour through Medieval Jewish Sages, it was a fascinating excursion in an area I know nothing about.

Randall Zachmann’s chapter ‘The Pharisees in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin‘ is superb. In humble/thorough form, he opens up Luther and Calvin on the Pharisees. Calvin emerges as a careful textual critic, seeing them as a type of piety like Rome, a view that Luther shares in part. Luther is more nuanced than purely anti-Semitic – in some ways praising the Pharisees. An excellent chapter. Angela La Delfa’s lavishly illustrated chapter ‘The Pharisees in Art’ is a helpful and revealing look at the depiction of Pharisees in (Western) art. Echoes trends identified in the book – with Nicodemus being the only really positively identified one. Fascinating and complex. Christian Stuckl’s ‘A Brief, Personal History of the Oberammergau Passion Play’ is a fascinating snapshot of European history (particularly German and in relation to Jews) and the power of tradition. A really powerful and sobering vignette that really draws the more ‘academic’ aspects of this book together to show why it matters. Adele Reinhartz’s ‘The Pharisees on Film’  is interesting, if derived from an earlier work. This means that whilst it echoes some themes from the book/conference, tighter integration might have helped. The film examples are not particularly current. Susannah Hechel and Deborah Folger offer the coauthored ‘The Pharisees in Modern Scholarship’, a helpful overview of modern scholarship, bracketed by a cautionary tale. A good bridge from this volume into future work. Philip A. Cunningham’s ‘A Textbook Case – the Pharisees in Catholic Religion Textbooks’ is a workmanlike and at times painful read – it would be a useful cautionary read for anyone involved in teaching (or preaching!) anything involving the Pharisees.

Part 3 – Looking to the Future

Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter ‘Preaching and Teaching the Pharisees’ is helpful but not perfect. Some good guidelines but a few ‘er, what?’ moments for me. A good practical summary that does what it says on the tin, it could have done with more space to breathe. Massimo Grilli and Jospeh Sievers offer the final chapter, ‘What Future for the Pharisees?’, offers a fascinating blend of scholarly summing up, and identity-driven/shaping reflection questions. As a standalone piece it would be a good introduction, as a closing chapter to this book, it is really strong. It’s worth noting that in addition to the usual end matter of a long book like this, there’s also an Appendix, which is a reproduction of the ‘Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Pontifical Biblical Institute’.

To conclude, then, this is an invaluable resource for scholars working on the Pharisees or related New Testament/historical topics. It is also a potentially helpful resource for preachers – with the underlined chapters above being particularly pertinent, possibly also including Collins and Pattarumadathil’s on Matthew – but one for reference and study rather than a ‘must buy’. It’s worth noting too, as is often the case with Eerdmans big hardbacks, that this is a nicely produced book. The pattern design on the cover is also reproduced in section breaks throughout – underlining the seriousness of the topic, and helping to reinforce the ‘bookness’. I’m very glad to have read this comprehensive and intriguing book, and would recommend keeping an eye out for a copy if any of the above piques your interest.

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