UPDATE: I edited the post by adding a paragraph near the end of the post. It begins with the words, “That is not to say they all acted with equal zeal…” [11:10 am]
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N.T. Wright notes that “Paul stands where three great roads converge.” Beginning with chapter two of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright explores these three roads in detail — that is, the three great cultural contexts which helped form the apostle’s worldview.
The most fundamental cultural context that shaped Paul is that of Judaism, but it is Judaism of a certain type.
Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee (e.g. Philippians 3:5). Who were the Pharisees? There have been many debates in NT studies concerning exactly who the Pharisees were in the time of Second Temple Judaism. Wright’s own broad conclusions are that they were:
- Not a small, insignificant group, but popular and influential in Israel.
- Active in promoting not only their own holiness but also that of other Jews.
- Many of them politically active.
The overriding concern of the Pharisees was purity. However, this was not simply the kind of personal “religious” purity we might imagine. As individuals, they were not scrupulous about holiness out of a concern for gaining God’s acceptance. As religious leaders, they weren’t concerned about “getting people into heaven” or “saving” lost sinners. The big theological questions of their day did not revolve around whether sinners are justified by works or by faith.
Rather, the Pharisees were active promoters of purity within the story and tradition of being Jews, God’s elect people. They practiced purity to advance the cause of preserving their nation, the people God had chosen. This purity went beyond personal piety and was meant to have a profound effect on the social, cultural, and political aspects of life among the Jewish people. As N.T. Wright says, “…before the debacle of AD 70 the main issue at stake for a Pharisee was not simply ‘how to maintain one’s own personal purity’, but ‘how to be a loyal Jew faced with oppression from outside and disloyal Jews from within.'”
This was about national survival, the Kingdom of God vs. the kingdoms of this world. And in the days of Jesus and Paul, the situation was becoming more and more intense. Remember that within a generation after Easter, these intense concerns for purity and the rule of God led to a rebellion that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. When Pharisees spoke of the “kingdom of God” and what it meant to be a loyal member of that kingdom, it “meant being prepared to bring about God’s sovereign will on earth as in heaven by dealing fiercely and forcibly both with Jews who were flouting it and with pagans who were imposing their alien ways on the devout in order to break their national spirit.”
As Paul himself wrote, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church…” (Phil. 3:5-6). The mark of the faithful Pharisee was zeal. Zeal was not just another word for strong inner passion. It meant action, at times forceful, even violent action. It was a straight path from “zeal” to the “Zealots” and then to military insurgency.
Wright references a passage from 1 Maccabees that describes the kind of zeal the Pharisees admired and sought. It concerns one Mattathias, a priest from Jerusalem who settled in the town of Modein. Mattathias lived in the days when Antiochus invaded Jerusalem and offered a desolating sacrifice on the altar (the so-called “abomination of desolation”). Despite the suffering and shame of those days, the text records that a great number of Jews remained faithful to God:
But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant… (1 Macc 1:62-63).
Mattathias was one of those faithful people. In the next chapter, we hear Mattathias’s lament over “the blasphemies being committed in Judah and Jerusalem” —
Alas! Why was I born to see this,
the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city,
and to live there when it was given over to the enemy,
the sanctuary given over to aliens. (1 Macc 2:6-7)
Then we see his faithful zeal for God and the traditions of their ancestors in action. When the foreign king’s soldiers come to town and urge Mattathias to do what Antiochus commands so that others in the town might follow his lead and be spared, the priest says:
Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.” (1 Macc 2:19-22)
Just then, one of Mattathias’s fellow Jews stepped forward and said he would obey the Gentile king. He offered a pagan sacrifice on the altar. Then 1 Maccabees says that “Mattathias burned with zeal and his heart was stirred” (2:24). In righteous anger, he killed the compromising Israelite and a king’s officer and tore down the altar. “Thus he burned with zeal for the law…” the author tells us. This was the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt, 167 BC.
N.T. Wright summarizes how this example helps us understand the Pharisees in the first century:
Zeal and the law, zeal and the law; the covenant, Abraham, Phineas and Elijah; faith, courage, the reckoning of righteousness, the promise of glory; pay back the pagans in their own coin, and hold fast to the commandments of the law! How much clearer could it get? …The important thing was this: this was what being “zealous for Torah” looked like. The long line of Israel’s history can be told in terms of Abraham being faithful, and it being reckoned to him as righteousness, and then of the others who showed their faith, their zeal, their courage. Keep the law, for that is the path to glory! It is not difficult to imagine a young Jew, faced with the sordid power of paganism in the early first century and the shabby compromises of many of his countrymen, being fired by this vision. Cling on to God’s faithfulness, stir up your courage, and act. This is what being a Pharisee was all about. This, indeed — confusing for us in a world where the word “Judaism” refers to a “religion” in our modern sense — seems to have been what Ioudaismos meant: not simply the practice of a “religion”, but the active propagation of the ancestral way of life and its defence against the attack whether from outside (as in the case of Mattathias) or inside (as in the case of Saul of Tarsus).
We have been taught to think of the Pharisees as legalists, practitioners of “works-righteousness” who believed one had to earn God’s acceptance through doing good or faithfully practicing religious rituals. We think of them as pedants, as overly scrupulous religious geeks with their noses either in the Torah or wrinkled up in disgust at the transgressions of their neighbors. We have marked them down as hypocrites when it comes to personal holiness, imagining that they carried juicy secrets under their sanctimonious robes while scratching scarlet “A’s” on the dresses of the Hester Prynnes around them. We picture them holding various hoops and requiring ordinary folks to jump through them to prove their worthiness, their fitness for the kingdom of heaven. All very churchy, very “righteous” in a holier-than-thou way.
Some of that may be accurate, but N.T. Wright’s description is much more vivid, and potentially dangerous. The Pharisees were the religious culture warriors of their day. They saw themselves as the guardians of Israel’s national purity. They believed that observing Torah as they kept it was not only good for individuals but essential to the moral and spiritual survival of the nation. They had a cause. They were zealous for that cause. Some of them even became official Zealots for that cause and used violent means to achieve their ends. They were implicated in Jesus’ death. Some, like Paul, chased down sects they found threatening. Many eventually took up arms against Rome itself.
That is not to say they all acted with equal zeal or that they were routinely characterized by violent force. As Wright’s general description above says, the Pharisees were not a small, insignificant, or fringe group, but were made up of respected, popular, and influential community leaders in Israel.
However, the Pharisees saw themselves as guardians of the tradition, and they were heirs to a history of resistance to threats from within and without. The greatest examples from the not-too-distant past were the heroic Maccabees. Like them, the Pharisees tried to avoid all contact with the unclean practices of those who were now ruling over them and they sought to impose strict religious discipline on other Israelites who were less observant.
A zeal for purity to preserve the nation.