Why should we bother with all this anyway? There are few good reasons. The first is that we Christians have a tendency to be either legalists or libertines. We develop an unhealthy interest in regulations, or we are libertines. Legalists are utterly unglued by whether or not a broken rosary can be thrown away. Libertines say stupid things like, Jesus freed us from sin and “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 12:1) They take these to mean that I can rob banks and chase women (or men as the case may be) as much as I please. The second is that we have had a rather thorny relationship with the Jews for the last two thousand years give or take.
Allow me to point out, as I have many times before to the point of being tedious, that the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses has nothing to do with our being a development of Judaism. I think it is very inexact to say that Christianity comes from Judaism. We do not. Judaism and Christianity share roots in the religion of Israel and its temple in Jerusalem. Again, what we call Judaism is really Rabbinic Pharisee-ism. I cringe every time I hear a non-Jew use the word Pharisee. They usually use it to mean hypocrite. Pharisees were not hypocrites. Wait! I thought Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites. “Woe to you, lawyers and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13) Are you saying that Jesus thought lawyers were hypocrites? I’d be careful if I were you. Let’s define our terms. Webster defines a hypocrite as a person who acts in a way that goes against what he or she claims to believe or feel. (For example) “He’s a hypocrite who complains about litter and then litters.” A hypocrite is a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs.
This is certainly not true of Pharisees. They were scrupulous about doing what they professed. Jesus was using a common and necessarily pejorative term in ancient Greek. In modern language a hypocrite is a dissembler, a liar intent on deceiving others. In ancient Greek it meant something quite different. It meant “stage actor.” “Hypo” in Greek means “under and “upokritis” meant to answer. Huh? In ancient dramatic theater actors wore masks. They were literally answering from under a mask. You had to have a beautiful body and a beautiful voice, but an ancient Greek dramatic actor could have the face of a goat, because no one ever saw it. Drama required that a person wear a mask denoting the character he was portraying. Everybody knew from the mask that this was the god Zeus, or the hero Achilles etc. The masks were pretty much stock characters. I was taught, but can’t seem to footnote, that in the mask was a sort of megaphone that made it easier for the actor to project his voice. Hence, the mask was the all-important piece of equipment for the play actor.
Our word in English “person” comes from the Latin word for dramatic mask, “Personare” meant to make a sound through something. Jesus was not accusing Pharisees of being liars. He was accusing them of being play actors which is something different. A good actor is quite convinced of his role in the drama. He “gets into” character. If an actor can convince himself, then he can convince the audience. What Jesus is saying is that the religion of the Pharisees is meant to be seen. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. We try to give good example and not to cause scandal or confusion. That is exactly what the Pharisees were trying to do. So who were the Pharisees? After the Maccabee defeat of the Syrian Greeks around 150 BC, the temple was purified, the priesthood reestablished, but the priesthood also became the political leadership of the land. The Maccabees made themselves kings, as well as priests though they were not descended from David and the tribe of Judah. They controlled government and the temple. The Pharisees formed from the scribes and sages in reaction to the priestly domination of religious and political life in the land.
The name Pharisee comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic word parushi, which means “the separated.” They were separated from the irreligious whether Gentile or Jew. The important difference between the Pharisees and other Jewish groups was their belief that all Jews had to observe the purity laws outside the temple. The priestly families who treated the temple and its religion as their own property held that religion was best left to the professionals. The Pharisees included the common man in religious observance by insisting that an Israelite was to practice ritual purity everywhere, not just in the temple and not just if he were a priest. They were in that sense the party of the common man. And they were accepted and trusted by the common people, in contrast to the Sadducees and the priestly aristocracy. The Pharisees held that, “A learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” (A mamzer is an outcast child born of a forbidden relationship, such as adultery or incest, in which marriage of the parents could not lawfully occur).
You can guess what this means in plain English. The whole point is that pedigree doesn’t matter. No wonder they were loved by the masses. It is interesting that a Jew is a Jew. There is no such thing as Jewish aristocracy as far as I can tell. The Pharisees drew a way of life from the written and the oral Torah, which is the application of the law handed down from Moses through the elders of Israel. This way of life was available to the common man. It gave him a greater role in the religious life. Sadducees rejected the concept of an Oral Torah. The Pharisees went on to preserve this oral law in the form of the Talmud. Thus they became the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud is the definitive book interpreting Torah and defining Jewish life. The sages of the Talmud considered themselves the heirs of the Pharisees, thus Pharisaic Judaism is the foundation of mainstream modern Judaism. Thus it is that legal observance is the bedrock of modern orthodox Jewish life.
This is where Christianity and Judaism diverge. For us law is a gift. The Messiah is the bedrock. We believe that the Messiah is the Torah come to life.
Next week: More fascinating stuff about the Law.