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The Pharisees - Jewish Leaders in the First Century AD.
The Traditions of the Pharisees
The big question was: How authoritative is the oral law? The Pharisees accepted the oral law along with the Torah, and it was believed to be equally inspired and authoritative, and all of the explanatory and supplementary material produced by, and contained within were the oral tradition. This material began to emerge during the Babylonian Captivity that was brought upon the Jewish people. The Captivity was explained as divine punishment for the neglect of the law, and many during this period earnestly turned to the law.
During the Captivity or Exile, detailed commentaries on the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific restrictions that were designed to "build a hedge" around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible violation of the Torah by ignorance or accident.
The situation that the Jews were in (Post-Exilic Period), and how they were to deal with it exactly, was not clearly written in the Torah, according to some Jewish authorities. A new legislation had to be produced from that which already existed. It was like an evolution of traditions that would continue to grow, and would finally achieve written form as the "Mishnah" in 200 A.D.
During the time of Jesus the oral law came to be revered so highly that it was said to go back to Moses himself and to have been transmitted over the centuries orally, paralleling the written law that also derived from him. This is exactly what the Pharisees believed, and also it was these "traditions" that Jesus condemned.
Josephus said several times that the Pharisees were "experts in the interpretation of the Law" (Josephus, Life, 38). Of the various sects the Pharisees were regarded as "the most accurate interpreters of the laws" (Josephus, War II. viii. 14) and also were known for their austerity of life (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. i. 3). Josephus further specifies that it was exactly this obsession with "regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Laws of Moses" (Josephus, Antiq. XIII. x. 6) that constituted the breach between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Jesus continually referred to the oral law as the "tradition of the elders" or the "tradition of men" (Matt 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-23; also see Josephus, Antiq. XIII. xvi. 2).
Some examples in the New Testament alluding to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the minutia of their legalism are:
The tithing of herbs (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42).
The wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels (Matt 23:5).
The careful observance of ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7:l ff.).
Frequent fastings (Matt 9:14).
Distinctions in oaths (23:16ff.).
The scrupulous details of the minutia of the law are easily seen in the Mishnah. This encyclopedia of Pharisaic legalism instructs the reader with incredible detail concerning every conceivable area of conduct. To be honest it would be an injustice for me to try to describe it and it would probably take someone three lifetimes just to begin to understand it. My program "Jewish Literature in the Time of Christ" goes into more details about the Mishnah and other writings of the rabbis.
The legal material of the Mishnah is described as Halacha (literally "walking"), that which prescribes, as contrasted with the other basic type of material in oral tradition (esp. in the Gemaras and Midrash) known as Haggadah, or that which edifies and instructs.
Under the direction of their scribes, the Pharisees tended to multiply Halacha. This concern for every jot and tittle of performance might give the impression that the Pharisees were excessively rigid and intolerant. It is interesting to note that in their interpretation of the written Torah they often were more liberal than the literalist Sadducees.
There was often disagreement among them concerning the oral law. In the last decades of the 1st cent. B.C. there sprang up two rival schools of interpretation among the Pharisees. The one, led by Shammai, was very stringent and unbendingly conservative; the other, led by Hillel, was very liberal and willing to "reconcile" the laws with the actual situations of everyday life.
The Mishnah records this rivalry between the two schools often to illustrate truth. In fact, in the New Testament it seems that when the Pharisees brought difficult questions to Jesus they were relating to the disputes between these two schools of interpretation (e.g., divorce, Matt 19:3 ff.). It is also interesting that many Jewish scholars have compared Jesus with Hillel in such a way that Jesus could be regarded as a disciple of Hillel. When Jesus answered the question posed by the Pharisees concerning divorce (Matt 19:9) He apparently agreed with Shammai against Hillel. Hillel made a statement similar to Jesus' summary of the law. It is kind of a negative formulation of the Golden Rule: "What you would not have done to thyself do not to another; that is the whole law, the rest is commentary" (BT Shabbath 31 a).
Before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. it seems that the harsher attitude of the followers of Shammai tended to prevail among the Pharisees, but after the catastrophe the meek attitude of the followers of Hillel had won out. The division among the Pharisees had come to an end.
Although the oral law of the Pharisees and its "microscopic precepts" was condemned by Jesus as a "burden" that is impossible for men to carry, the work is quite impressive. This is true not only of the scope, the complexity of structure, and the inventiveness (not to say genius) of its exegesis, but also as a monumental expression of concern for preservation and righteousness.
The bottom line is that the most significant issues in the Law were lost in the trivial details of Pharisaic tradition. Any system that is governed by rules will ultimately fail. Only in the New Testament and in the teachings of Christ do we see that it is "the mercy of God which leads us unto repentance."
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