What Were the Pharisees' Goals?
It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve written on N.T. Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, things have been pretty busy lately and I haven’t been able to do as much reading and writing as I would normally like to. Secondly, the reading of The New Testament and the People of God that I have been able to do has not been the most lively.
The last 40-50 pages I’ve read have consisted of Wright laying the historical groundwork to the first century and things have been a little dry. The parts that have been interesting and worth sharing here have been the sections describing the differing Jewish groups of the day (the Scribes, the pharisees, etc.).
In particular, Wright points out, in several places, that these groups are not anything at all like our modern, anachronistic understandings of them:
[The Pharisees] aim, so far as we can tell, was never simply that of private piety for its own sake. Nor (one need scarcely add) was it the system of self-salvation so often anachronistically ascribed to them by Christians who knew little about the first century but a lot about the Pelagic controversy. [The Pharisees’] goals were the honour of Israel’s God, the following of his covenant character, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel. (pg. 189)
Our current religious atmosphere in the post-modern West is one of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. As a society we’ve rejected the God of the Bible and the weight of our sin bears down on us. Because of this we have created our own systems of self-salvation (“going to heaven”).
While preaching against this sin of our day is a good thing for Christians to do we need to be careful of projecting the same sins back onto the Jews of the first century. Jews of the first century were neither concerned with “going to heaven” nor “earning” their way there through doing good things. They were concerned with the seeming discrepancies between what the Law and the Prophets spoke about God’s people and their historical circumstance and how they were to remain faithful to God in it all.
To be certain, the Jews were in sin, they were misreading the story, they rejected their messiah. However, the sin of the jews and the Pharisees were not necessarily the same as the sins of our own day. We can certainly learn from the foolishness and pride of the Pharisees but it will be impossible to do so if we insist on turning them into 21st century do-gooders.
Food for thought.