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Archive for September 9th, 2018

The Good Pharisee: Meditations on Nicodemus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 9, 2018

What was a Pharisee?  The backstory behind Christianity’s favorite religious rogue gallery

The word Pharisee has long been established as a term of abuse in Christian circles.  It does not appear as an explicitly negative term in the Gospels, but whenever Pharisees enter the story they usually serve as a foil for the actions and teachings of Jesus.  From this the most likely interpretation is that the Pharisees are either fools or villains or most likely both.   An additional historical complication arises from the fact that the Pharisees are the undisputed predecessors of all later forms of orthodox Judaism.  The hagiography contained in Pirke Avot features the same individuals who appear (albeit anonymously) as the bad guys in the Gospels.

Spoiler alert!  I am stating my conclusion right up front: Jesus was himself a Pharisee.  I am neither alone nor original in holding this view.  The statement is only shocking because of the negative connotations which have clustered around the word “Pharisee” as derived from the Gospels.  Naturally I (and the scholars who uphold this view) don’t mean that Jesus was a hypocrite or a villain.  Rather Jesus split off from a particular school of Judaism, and that happened to be the school of the Pharisees.

To see the plausibility of this thesis, look at what has frequently happened to modern social and political movements when they split, one group taking the name and the other the substance of the movement’s ideology.  Hear the vitrolic way that conservatives use the word “liberal” and you would never guess that conservatives (at least American conservatives) were the original liberals, a word which once signified free enterprise, small government, and the writings of John Locke.  At the other end of the spectrum we read about Vladmir Lenin “fighting against the socialists” …which would be quite confusing of we didn’t know the historical context of the Bolshevick/Menshevick split, and that the former renamed themselves the communists in order to signal  a purer and more aggressive form of socialism.

Given the historical context, it should be understandable that Jesus fought more often and more vigorously against the Pharisees than anyone else, precisely because we generally fight against those who are closest to us, and not in just a geographical sense.  We fight against those with whom we share our basic principles, since we know enough about their minds that we can have a worthwhile disagreement with them.  There were many other ethnic and ideological groups present in first century Palestine.  Somehow or other, it is always the Pharisees that Jesus is running into.  This is no accident.

A typology of religious attitudes

We can use the groups present on the historical scene during the generation of Jesus ( on his human side) to understand the broader religious choices which have been available to humanity before, then, and ever since.  One could endlessly ponder the particulars of the Pharisees as a religious movement, but for purposes of application to our own spiritual struggles it might be better to look at the contrasting world views which characterize the Pharisees, their opponents, and each of their moral equivalents in other generations.   This simplification leaves out a lot, but it gets to the heart of the matter.  We can distill the essence of religious life down to a few types.

The wicked believe in neither God nor Torah

The Greeks, believe in God without the Torah, (a.k.a. the “unknown God” the many gods, or the god of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.)

The Sadduccies believe in the Torah but not in God.

The Samaratains believe in God and a defective Torah

The Pharisees believe in both God and Torah

It should be fairly obvious which group Jesus lines up with.  None the less, there seems to be a problem with the Pharisees.  We might guess that they had some sort of problem even if we didn’t know about their  numerous run-ins with the John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles.  It is not a problem with the ideals of the Pharisees, who’s name meant “separate”…in the sense of separate from their surrounding Hellenistic social environment.  Perhaps they weren’t separate enough.  That was the view of the Essene sect which went to great length in forming an alternative society.  Was that also the view of Jesus?

Not necessarily.  Remember that Jesus was accused of being more lax than John the Baptist, who was probably an Essene.  John and the Essene sectaries lived in the wilderness, but Jesus was willing to go into town and fellowship with urban dwellers, Pharisees in particular.  One gets the impression that Jesus was willing to take Pharisee life and practice (their “Torah”) as an initial baseline for godly living.  The major problem wasn’t that the Pharisee interpretation of the Torah was too lax or too strict, although Jesus was forthright in offering a different interpretation of halacha (i.e., rules for the walk of life) when called upon to do so.  No, it is something more fundamental than a disagreement of halachic particulars (for example, whether or not healing is permitted on the Sabbath) however important those might be.

Nicodemus

Fortunately we have a concrete example of a good Pharisee, a Pharisee to whom Jesus could divulge his full council.    In the encounter with Nicodemus we glimpse the fundamental deficiency which rendered the walk of the Pharisees out of accord with Jesus, and by implication, with God.  This deficiency was the failure of the Pharisees to be Pharisees in the sense defined above, those who putatively believe in both God and the Torah.  It was a failure in terms of the standards which the Pharisees had set for themselves.

In visiting Jesus under the cover of night, Nicodemus was out of alignment with at least one of the two axiomatic principles of the Pharisees.  Whatever the quality of his Torah observance might have been, Nicodemus was deficient in faith towards God.  We know this because he feared men more than his Creator.  He demonstrates this visiting Jesus under the cover of night.  At this point, Nicodemus may not even recognize Jesus as Messiah.  However he knows that Jesus is “of God”…perhaps a prophet.

Yet he fears the opinions of men.  Is this what it means to believe in God and Torah?  What about “not having any idol in front of my face” as the first of the “ten words” would have it?  Belief in God doesn’t mean just understanding the concept of God, it means a living faith in God.  So is Nicodemus, who is perhaps the best of all the Pharisees, even a Pharisee himself?  Is he not a crypto-Sadducean, an atheist who conforms to Torah outwardly?

You Must Be Born From Above

Herein lies the embarrassment of Nicodemus.  He seems to have been convinced that Jesus was, if not God, at least the voice of God in his own generation, otherwise the highly respected Pharisee would not have taken the trouble to pay a visit to the upstart rabbi.  Yet he visits Jesus at night, thus testifying that for him the wrath of men is more to be feared than the power of God.  Hence Nicodemus reveals himself to be an atheist, if not in theory, at least in practice.  In some respects he is worse off than the Saducees who winked at the idea of a living God, but who, like Voltaire centuries later, understood that a facade of divinely sanctioned morality (Torah) was necessary for the functioning of society.  At least the Sadducees and kindred thinkers are only in the business of deceiving others, not themselves. In contrast, Nicodemus desperately wants to believe in God, and not just the cosmic god of the Saducees and Aristotle, but a living God who concerns himself with the welfare of His creatures.  Yet the fear of Nicodemus overcomes his faith.  As the first words in the Decalogue put the matter, he allows the face of human power to interpose itself between his soul and its creator.

Jesus, sensing this fear in the heart of Nicodemus, derails the interview by an appeal to fundamentals.  It is not that Jesus is asking Nicodemus to undergo some mystical initiation into  a higher life.  This has been the standard interpretation of much of evangelical Christianity for the last three hundred years.  In a way it is much simpler than that.  Jesus is implicitly asking Nicodemus, “Do you, or do you not believe in God and the promises of God?”  It is not a matter of grasping the concept “God” or having a historical knowledge that made promises at certain times and in certain places.  Rather, do you trust in this God and order your life accordingly?  Nicodemus doesn’t trust God to protect him from men, but relies instead on the darkness of night.  He behaves the way any frightened creature would.  He normal,  being no more than a typical creature of God.  In order to go beyond normal, he would have to be procreated, and not just created, by God.  He would have to partake in God’s attributes of omniscience and omnipotence.  Then he would no longer fear anything.  Isn’t that what we would all like?

Before the Cross

There may have been many good Samaritans, but there was only one good Pharisee, Jesus of Nazareth.  All the others were to some extent impostors.  The failure was so total that, after the Pharisees split with Jesus and the apostles, the type flipped over into its anti-type.  The word Pharisee, which originally denoted righteousness and sanctification, has come to mean a hypocrite, a make-believer rather than a true believer.  Although “Pharisee” is a useful term of abuse for any bully pulpit, if we want to approach the matter as a serious historical study, we will need to take a more empathetic view.  Then perhaps we will discover that the Pharisees are more deserving of our pity than our condemnation.

Compared to the Sadducees the Pharisees were probably a pretty stressed out group.  As a sect, the Sadducees were in the business of deceiving others, not themselves.  They reasoned that there was little harm in adopting bit of Greek culture.  The people of the country could be introduced to the world outside of Judaism bit by bit, reassured by nominal adherence to the  Torah.  Beyond the amiable conversation common to moderates everywhere, the Sadducees must have shared the secret joy of conspirators who know they are “pulling a fast one” on the general public.  Jewish on the outside, Greek on the inside.  Is not variety the spice of life?

In contrast to the genial secularism of the Sadducees, the Pharisees must have been bad company.   Far from being conscious hypocrites, their bane was their own sincerity.  Only sincere people can be stung by the accusation of hypocrisy.  We can safely assume that not just Jesus, but other Pharisees commonly accused one another of hypocrisy.  Unlike the Sadducees they each wanted desperately to keep faith with the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.  Yet each in their own heart knew that they fell short.  Though they were gregarious, their social events must have been haunted by the fear that the mask of belief would be torn from their face by less than generous colleagues.

This contrast between the happy Sadducee and the grim Pharisee is of more than historical interest.  It is a perennial paradox of the spirit.  The higher we set the bar of our spiritual life, the more dissatisfied we become.  Sometimes we become so dissatisfied that we are apt to envy the carefree attitude of stone cold atheistic secularists.  Yet we are wrong to do so, for as David frequently notes in his Psalms…”we can see their end.”

After the Cross

We shouldn’t take the story of Nicodemus and his encounter with Jesus out of context.  The typical evangelical interpretation, that Nicodemus was lacking a special spiritual experience which would have lifted his life onto a higher plane, misses the main point.  Certainly we should strive for spiritual enlightenment and edification.  However the main point is chronological.  Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus prior to the cross.  Moreover, Jesus is not just speaking to Nicodemus, but to all God-believers or wannabe God-believers.  The more sincere one is in striving towards faith the more one falls short, and in frustration things other than God often wind up being more important.  This might be called the Pharisee’s Paradox.

That was before the cross.  After the cross human inability is accounted for and redeemed.  We are all like Nicodemus, apt to wait to the dead of the night to seek God, for fear of the crowd.  As we are filled by the Holy Spirit some of us become bolder, and are willing to proclaim him in the light of day.  Either way, it is no longer a salvation issue, since God knows our weaknesses, and even, or especially, the weakness of our faith.  It is the weakness of a child, not a bond servant, and is pardoned.  Pardoned and often indulged, on the understanding that we can do better, and will be helped to do better.

Like Nicodemus we are apt to put the face of man between our soul and the face of our creator.  However our creator understands this because he is our procreator as well, and knows our souls from the inside out.  This is already foretold in the Torah and the Prophets.  When David incurred God’s wrath by enumerating the Israelites in a census he was given the choice of whether to suffer at the hand of human beings or of God.  He chose to suffer from God out of fear of human beings.  God permits this, although it would seem to go against the criticism of Nicodemus mentioned previously.  Here we have the two fears stood on their head, as it were,  since here fear means the opposite of love, not a synonym for respect.  Hence the fears of David, and by implication our fears as well, are rendered licit by a merciful God.  This is not to say that it is good to fear, even to fear evil.  Rather one should laugh at fear in derision.  However, until we are able to do that, God is a loving parent and understands.

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