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The Christadelphian | September 2009

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Fellowship in the Gospel: 13 – Assembled in the Name of the Lord
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “A woman, a publican and a ruler” | Nicholas White
  • Babylon’s magnificence | John V. Collyer
  • Pause and ponder 32 – First remove the beam | Stephen Whitehouse
  • Jesus and his opponents | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • Striking metaphors in Jude | Dudley Fifield
  • Acts of the Apostles 30 – Acts 27:7-44 – Shipwreck | Paul Cresswell
  • The Letter to the Philippians 9 – “I count all things but loss …” (Philippians 3:8-16) | Mark Allfree
  • Abraham our father | Tom McCarthy
  • Signs of the times A time of trouble
  • Israel and their land Huge gas discovery
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Jesus and his opponents

ON many occasions, Jesus’ opponents – the Pharisees and Scribes in particular – challenged his authority. Although the Biblical part of their history begins in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah (i.e., after the exile in Babylon) and ends during the life of our Lord, much of the time during which these groups came into being is “between the testaments”. Information from this period will help us understand why it was that these sects and groups treated the Lord so aggressively.

First, the Scribes and Pharisees: these students of the law would at first see in Jesus some sort of an ally, for they too wanted God’s chosen people to repent – but only as they saw it, i.e., to move towards an even stricter interpretation of the law. In their teaching, the scribes always quoted from the Law of Moses or from those who had spoken or written on some particular matter. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount Matthew records that Jesus taught with authority, “and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:29). Jesus spoke out against the mechanical formalism which these men encouraged, saying instead that what a man believed in his heart and could be seen in his life, was so much more important.

It was not long before the Scribes and Pharisees joined together to engineer the downfall of Jesus. They saw in him a dire threat to their authority. As early as Mark 2, a group of Scribes challenged Jesus saying that he was speaking blasphemy by stating that he could forgive sins (Mark 2:5-12). Notice that Jesus could so clearly read their minds and he challenged them before their thoughts ever were put into words. This surely must have made them wonder about him, especially after the sign of his healing the paralysed man. Who was this teacher? Where did he come from? They disapproved of Jesus’ behaviour at a meal (verses 16,17) and again over what happened on the sabbath (verses 23-28).

This very real opposition continued and intensified, and early in the Lord’s ministry they had some unusual allies as we shall see later. Probably the greatest confrontation is recorded in John’s Gospel when these Jewish leaders challenged Jesus about his parents (John 8:3,12-18). They implied that the circumstances of his birth were questionable (verse 41), and boasted that they were Abraham’s descendants. Jesus’ response was scathing – “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (verse 44). We must therefore ask, Where did these groups originate?

Scribes

The Scribes were experts in the study of the Law of Moses. Initially, in the time of Ezra, they were priests (Nehemiah 8, cp. verses 2,4). But by his time the voice of prophecy had all but ceased, so this class of men became increasingly important as interpreters of the law. At first, they dedicated themselves to making accurate copies of the Law of Moses, all by hand of course. However, they were soon looked upon as arbiters of “right and wrong” in both religious and civil matters because of their expert knowledge. So, on occasions, they are referred to as “lawyers” in the Gospels (e.g. Luke 7:30). However, even as early as the time of Ezra himself (c. 450 BC), a rift was beginning to appear between those who meticulously adhered to the teachings of the law and those aristocratic priests who wanted closer ties with the world outside their own country.

After the time of Alexander the Great (died 323 BC), the influence of Greek culture (Hellenism) grew very strongly, particularly in the northern part of Alexander’s empire. The returned exiles were then ruled over at different times by either the Ptolemies of Egypt from the south or the Seleucids of Syria from the north during the whole of this period (see map alongside). So God’s chosen land became a constant battlefield, including, of course, the period of the revolt of the Maccabees. There was also a growing legal struggle between the purists on the one hand, and those on the other who wanted the Hellenistic influence to flourish.

The Scribes added their own interpretations to the law in particular cases. The decisions of the most respected of them became those very “traditions” which were so condemned by our Lord (e.g., Matthew 5:21,27,33,38,43). They were not a distinct sect, separate from the priests, until the beginning of the second century BC. This separation came about because of the repressive behaviour of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a notorious Seleucid ruler (175-164 BC). It was at that time that many of them joined in open rebellion against any Hellenistic influence. The most zealous of the parties involved in this rebellion were the Hasidim. They were not however political zealots. They were content to live under foreign rule – provided they could obey the Law of Moses to the full. From that time, even under Roman domination, they became increasingly influential, were given seats in the Sanhedrin and were much respected by all people. Usually their views were even more respected than those of the priestly aristocracy among whom were the Sadducees.

In the time of our Lord, the Scribes belonged largely to one or other of two schools of thought. They followed either the very strict Rabbi Shammai or the more moderate Rabbi Hillel in their interpretations of small details in the law. So by that time both groups studied the law, taught their own pupils and administered justice in the Sanhedrin and other courts according to their view of the law. So who were the Pharisees and from where did they come?

Pharisees

The name Pharisee (Greek, pharisaios, from Aramaic peras, ‘to separate’) first appears during the early years of the Hasmonaeans. Assuming that Malachi was the last prophet who spoke at about the time of Ezra or Nehemiah, one of the lasting effects amongst the returned exiles was a return to a zealous worship of Yahweh as the one true God. Never again did God’s chosen people turn to idolatry. They became intensely monotheistic. They revered the Law of Moses and their own understanding of it. They meticulously observed the sabbath day and in a puritanical spirit hated any form of heathenism. It was from the reformers under Ezra and Nehemiah that these Pharisees sprang, just as the Sadducees grew from the priestly court party under Zerubbabel.

Four main threads of thought can be drawn from their somewhat confused teachings:

  1. Their attitude towards the God of Israel – God and heaven became interchangeable terms. There grew up for them a belief in a whole realm of intermediary spirits including angels.
  2. Their understanding of God’s revelations of Himself in the Law of Moses – every word was inspired and Hillel taught that “he who gains the law gains the life of the world to come”.
  3. Their hope of the promised Messiah – the deeper a person’s understanding and the better his keeping of the law, then the sooner would Messiah reveal himself to them.
  4. Their belief in preordination, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead and future rewards or punishments which depended on the quality of this present life.

From the time of Hillel onwards their interpretation of the law became sterile, an outward show only. In his day, there were two hundred and forty-eight “things to be done” and three hundred and sixty-five things “not to be done”. One addition to the law put it this way: “He who lightly esteems handwashing will perish from the earth”. We can understand why the Lord castigated so many of them (in his day, there were six thousand all told). It all became a matter of, “Do the best you can and submit to God’s punishment for your defects” (Hastings Bible Dictionary).

This background explains why the Pharisees challenged Jesus about the matter of hand-washing (Mark 7:1-5). Jesus turns the tables on them by doing what they usually did, i.e., quoting from earlier writings (Isaiah 29:13). Then he challenges them directly: “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7-13). They were not able to reply.

As his ministry proceeded, Jesus told his disciples about his impending sufferings (8:31-33). Now we hear of the chief priests. Surely under Mosaic Law there should be just one high priest at any given time. Instead of relying on the provision of the law Caiaphas was appointed by Valerius Gratus, the Roman procurator, the immediate predecessor of Pontius Pilate. The latter was deposed in AD 36 by Vitellius, the Roman ruler of Syria. Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas had the title of high priests when John the Baptist began his ministry They were Sadducees.

Sadducees

No one is really sure how their name came about. There are a number of theories and any reputable Bible Dictionary will rehearse them for you. They were wealthy, educated men of the ruling class and drawn from the priests. They stuck closely to the law but had little regard for the additions made to it by the Pharisees. Hastings Bible Dictionary asserts that they were “the political party of the Jewish aristocratic priesthood from the time of the Maccabees to the final fall of the Jewish state”. From them were drawn the high priests at the time of our Lord, but they were always in a minority in the Sanhedrin.

Sadducees were great pragmatists and were characterized by their negative beliefs. They were very conservative in their politics and in opposition to the Pharisees. They denied the resurrection and personal immortality, so there could be no form of retribution in an afterlife. They denied the Messianic hope. They also denied the existence of angels and spirits, both good and evil. They did not believe that events were preordained, maintaining that the good or ill in one’s life was well within the control of each individual. They were men for and of this life. They did however, like the Pharisees, take their places in the Sanhedrin, and like the Pharisees, condemned the Lord Jesus. But after AD 70 they became just a memory.

It was this group that challenged Jesus with that preposterous question about the woman who had seven husbands (Mark 12:18-27). In his powerful answer he showed that they had not understood the Law of Moses, which comment would have infuriated them (verse 24).

Before looking at Jesus’ opponents as a whole, we must at least mention the Herodians.

Herodians

They are mentioned only three times in the Gospels (Matthew 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13). Most of those who know about them think of them as a political party supporting the Herod dynasty. After the Romans appointed a governor in the province of Judaea, they would be much in favour of Herod Antipas in the north (see map alongside of Herod's territories in Galilee and Peraea).

All of his opponents in turn had failed to trap the Lord Jesus with their clever questions (Matthew 22:16 – Herodians; verse 23 – Sadducees; verse 34 – Pharisees; verse 35 – Lawyers). When the Master asks them a question they could not answer him (verses 41-46)! Jesus then scathingly attacks his opponents, the Scribes and Pharisees in particular: “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne …” (23:1-7). He pronounces woes on them in words which not one of them could misunderstand (verses 13,15,17,23-25,27,29,33).

From this time onwards they became his implacable enemies: “The chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death” (Mark 14:1). With the complicity of Judas Iscariot these wicked men captured Jesus at night in the Garden (verses 43-45). The high priest, as leader of the Sanhedrin, in his frustration at the silence of Jesus at his illegal trial before the Sanhedrin did what no self-respecting high priest should have done – he tore his garments (Matthew 26:62-68). The Roman governor Pilate also marvelled at the silence of Jesus and at his whole demeanour during those long cruel hours when he was scourged, mockingly arrayed, crowned with thorns and deridingly worshipped. How true are the words of the prophet: “There is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net” (Micah 7:2)!

Later, every single one of Jesus’ opponents had to come to terms with the power of the resurrected Christ, first by using a lie, alleging that the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-15), later in the scathing words of Peter, “Ye denied the Holy One and the Just” (Acts 3:14,15). He pleaded with them to repent. Some of them on the Day of Pentecost did experience the goads of conscience (2:37). Yet again Peter’s words must have uncomfortably probed their minds: “This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders” (4:11). Yet many of the priests did turn to the resurrected Christ as their Saviour (6:7).

Some, of course, although amongst the Jewish leaders then, were and never had been his enemies – men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea. And all the Jewish leaders were ultimately forced to listen to the sound advice of Gamaliel (5:33-35, 38-40).

Why was it that these Jewish leaders treated Jesus as they did? The answer is simple – he challenged their authority in an unanswerable way and proved it to be ill-founded. They were envious of his unchallengeable authority. Jesus was always in control of every encounter with them and was ultimately triumphant through his glorious resurrection.

Trevor A. Pritchard

 

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