Friday, September 14, 2007

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus and the Pharisees differed on the approaches of purity and holiness. Throughout Leviticus, statutes were ordered for the Israelites to follow in order to approach God. God is holy, and certain requirements must be met before approaching Him. This is clearly seen in the design of the temple. No unclean person or animal was allowed inside the confines of the temple, and when one was declared unclean, there were certain procedures that were followed before coming into the temple proper.

The altar was the center of life, the conduit of life from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven. All things are to be arrayed in relationship to the altar…The lines of structure emanated from the altar. And it was these lines of structure which constituted high and impenetrable frontiers to separate Israel from the gentiles Israel, which was holy, ate holy food, reproduced itself in accord with the laws of holiness, and conducted all of its affairs, both affairs of state and business of the table and the bed, in accord with the demands of holiness. So the cult defined holiness. Holiness meant separation. Separateness meant life. Why? Because outside the Land, the realm of the holy, lay the domain of death. The lands are unclean. The Land is holy. For the Scriptural vocabulary, one antonym for holy is unclean, and one opposite of unclean is holy. The synonym for holy is life. The principal force and symbol of uncleanness and its highest expression are death. So the Torah stood for life, the covenant with the Lord would guarantee life, and the way of life required sanctification in the here and now of the natural world. It was that setting that the purity system functioned.[1]

The best paradigm that exemplifies the concept of clean and unclean of persons is illustrated within the animal kingdom as to its proper place within the sacrificial system in the temple.
[2] Only the clean animals were allowed presence into the temple; therefore, only pure persons were given access to the temple. The understanding of this thinking is tantamount to understanding the philosophy of the Pharisees. To the Pharisees, the center of holiness was the temple, and from the temple, there were certain lines that were drawn to prevent access to the impure and the unholy. The belief in Judaism during the time of Jesus revolved around God destroying all were deemed impure, that is, disobedient to the Torah.[3]

On the other hand, Jesus confronted many of the teachings of the Pharisees during His ministry. Much of his disagreements were directed to their traditional and legalistic interpretations. Instead of teaching the laws to others in order to approach God, the Pharisees were closing the access by applying all their laws and rules.[4] Jesus did not forsake the teaching of the Torah for it had its purpose, but He taught that the emphasis should be on the unity of the Law, not on the particulars.

Thus, while Jesus shares his opponents’ view of the symbolic value of the purity rules of the Bible, his activity and teaching point to a new vision of priorities based upon Jesus’ own perception of God and God’s will. The purity rules, while important, are not central but peripheral to some other central concern. The emphasis ought not to be on how Israel should approach God, but on how God in fact approaches Israel. The purpose of interaction with God…is to replicate and reveal how God acts toward his people (openness to all, openhanded and openhearted), not to replicate and support how Israel has acted toward God in the past (selective defensiveness developed in traditioning the past). In his activity, Jesus focused upon those in Israel who for some reason or other could not fit into the assembly of God’s people …. He thus insists upon a similar focus as priority for proper relationship with God….What results is the embedding of the purity rules of the Torah within the Torah as a whole instead of fitting the Torah as whole into the purity rules, as the elites would insist.[5]

The purity laws were designed to illustrate the spiritual requirements when approaching God. These laws were not “necessarily to be taken as universal and eternal prescriptions. They express God’s will for his people at a particular time, but as the NT [New Testament] makes clear they were not intended to apply forever or to Gentiles (Mark7: 14ff; Acts 10:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23ff).”
[6] The symbolic meaning of the laws must be carefully interpreted to avoid overrated allegorization of the text. The totality of the laws in Leviticus was designed to teach the Israelites the importance of holiness and separation of God’s people. The structure of “…the dietary laws would have been like signs which at every turn inspired mediation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God. By rules of avoidance holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal.”[7] Whereas the Pharisees stressed utmost adherence to the laws of Judaism, “Jesus’ teaching in these critical areas thus shows clearly the way in which he understands the will of God as the will of a loving and forgiving father rather than of a God who will have dealings only with the pure and the righteous and who will exact retribution from the impure and the wicked.”[8]

[1] Jacob Neusner, Purity in Rabbinic Judaism: A Systematic Account: The Sources, Media, Effects, and Removal of Uncleanness (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994),34.
[2] Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 135ff explains the categorizing of animals
that were clean and unclean, and parallels them with people. Just as the animals had their places within and without the temple, so persons who were considered
clean or unclean had proper places. Those persons who were considered pure and spotless had access to the temple; whereas, those persons who were impure were not allowed in the temple and considered barred from the presence of God.
[3] John Riches, Jesus and the Transformation of Judaism(London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1980) , 68-9.
[4] Malina, 143.
[5] Ibid, 144-5.
[6] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 162.
[7] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, reprint (New York: Vail-Ballou Press, 1980),57.
[8] Riches, 135.

No comments: