Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Pharisees in Mark

Mark does not present the Pharisees in the most flattering light. Each time the Pharisees appear in Mark, they enter into conflict with Jesus, and once Jesus warns his disciples concerning the “leaven of the Pharisees.” In the midst of the conflict, Mark makes unmistakably clear the distinction between Jesus and the Pharisees.

In Mark, the Pharisees constantly criticize Jesus and his disciples. The central criticism of Jesus is his laxity with regard to their customs and traditions. The first encounter in Mark between Jesus and the Pharisees involve his eating with those who were socially unacceptable (2:16). While the Pharisees prided themselves on their separation from all that was defiled, Jesus made it his custom to associate with the sinners- so much so that Jesus defined the social and religious outcasts as the focus of his ministry. The second encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees involved matters of food (2:24-28). The prevalence of fasting by the Pharisees has been previously noted by Mark in conjunction with the incompatibility of Jesus’ presence in contrast to the time of Jesus’ removal and the newness of Jesus’ ministry (2:18-22). While Jesus and his disciples were passing through a field of standing grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees noticed that Jesus’ disciples plucked grain and ate because they were hungry. In response to the charge of this impropriety, Jesus responds with a Scriptural argument centering on the priority to men and their needs, and not the letter of the law. Instead of arguing about the propriety of his disciple’s actions, Jesus returns to the greater principle of God’s gift of the Sabbath on behalf of man. Jesus thus sets his interpretation of the law in contrast with that of the Pharisees; and further, he places himself as the “son of man” as the authoritative interpreter and teacher of God’s will (2:28). The next incident also centers on the Sabbath, and the freedom to do good to a man with a withered hand (3:1-6). Jesus compassion was well known through Jesus prior actions, and the Pharisees sought to use Jesus goodness as a means to bring accusation against him. Having been bested previously by Jesus with regard to the interpretation of the law, the Pharisees refuse to answer Jesus challenge on the lawful action toward the man. Jesus understands their silence as condemnation of his action, and indignantly heals the man. In response, they seek Jesus’ destruction (3:6). The next encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is a direct and deliberate challenge to Jesus by the Pharisees (7:1-22). In this instance, what is central is not the letter of the law, but the traditions built up around the law by Jewish teachers. In dining, the Pharisees noted that Jesus followers did not practice the strict cleansing rituals followed by the rest of the Jewish people. Jesus response to this criticism is his most direct and harshest yet. Previously Jesus allowed his mission, his interpretation of the law and his compassion to stand in stark contrast with that of the Pharisees. In this instance, Jesus responds that the Pharisees were themselves lawbreakers, and not the moral rigorists they appeared (7:9-13). Once again, Jesus not only prevails in argument over the Scripture with the Pharisees, but also presents his own unique authority to interpret and to abrogate the law (7:14-22; esp. 18). The next meeting of the Pharisees and Jesus was a result of their testing Jesus and seeking a sign (8:11-12). Jesus does not see this question as an honest concern, but as an attack on himself and a sign of the perversity of the teachers and the age they represent. Jesus would later warn his disciples to be on guard against the corrupting influence of these teachers (8:15). The test of the Pharisees regarding divorce likewise ends with Jesus vindicated as the true, authoritative teacher of the law (10:2-9). Finally, the Pharisees appear once more in the litany of challenges Jesus faces upon entering Jerusalem (12:13-17). Whereas other challenges were religious, this challenge is primarily political. In his wisdom, Jesus answer avoids the dilemma intended to trap him.

Several observations suggest themselves concerning Mark and the Pharisees. First, the nature of the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees is fundamental. The distinction does not concern a more conservative verses a more liberal interpretation of the law; rather, there is a fundamental gap between the practices of Jesus and that of the Pharisees, so much so Jesus would warn his followers to be on guard against their corrupting influence. With regard to the law, it is not simply that the Pharisees were strict while Jesus was more lax; rather, Jesus charged the Pharisees misunderstanding, and this breaking, the law. Further, while the Pharisees may have prided themselves on their understanding of the law, Jesus consistently demonstrates their knowledge and the application of their knowledge are faulty. Second, there is a progression in the actions of the Pharisees. In the first encounters, the Pharisees appear passively complaining Jesus, while as the book progresses, the Pharisees become more active in seeking to test and to trap Jesus. As the reader’s recognition of Jesus Messiahship grows throughout the books, that of the Pharisees declines. In this pattern, Mark portrays the Pharisees as ones who have moved beyond misunderstanding and disbelief, in to the realm of direct oppositions to God’s appointed agent of redemption. Finally, Mark makes clear by the associates of the Pharisees his negative presentation. Already at the opening of the book, after having been bested by Jesus, rather than repent and readjust their attitude to Jesus’ teaching, the Pharisees seek to destroy Jesus in conjunction with the Herodians. The Pharisees appear from the city of Jerusalem, the place of Jesus death in order to challenge Jesus, and are later sent by the leaders of Jerusalem to trap Jesus. The Pharisees are presented as dark elements within the book, until they are identified with those responsible for putting Jesus to death. Within Mark, there is no sign of light, no remnant of faithful Pharisees; his portrayal is totally negative.