Thursday, January 29, 2015

Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene?

Yesterday in part 1 of 5 Blog posts on Jesus in the New Testament I discussed Jesus, Torah, and Ethics. Part of that conversation included asking if Jesus fit into any one of the main sects of Judaism in the first century.  So for part 2 I want to further the dialogue and ask was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or something all together different?

Remembering from my previous post on Jesus, Torah, and Ethics, the Torah was the universal foundation for all Jewish life and thought. The written scripture become increasingly foundational for second Temple Judaism (time between return from exile and Jesus). The scriptures however needed interpretation. Scripture needed clarification on confusing or seemingly contradictory matters regarding feast days, cleanliness requirements, and daily application. Not much has changed in 2,500 years. The interpretations became what is called Halakhah. Different groups began to emphasize one Halakhah over another creating sects or as Josephus labeled them for his Roman audience philosophies.

The Sadducees comprised mostly of the aristocracy of Israel. They were connected to the priestly ranks and thus were part of the temple life in Jerusalem. They were well educated in the law and temple practice. For this period the High Priest was usually of Sadducee pedigree. The High Priest served as the leader of the temple as well as the political figurehead of Israel and the people respected the role even when they did not like some individual leaders. Theologically, they are best known for denying the afterlife for the claim of only accepting biblical text with no further interpretation...ie limited Halakhah.

Jesus would not be considered part of the Sadducean sect. First, he was not an aristocrat or a temple priest. This is probably the most noticeable difference between Jesus and the Sadducees. Jesus did have a problem with the way Temple leadership was conducted, but this puts him in the majority with many in Israel, and does not make him unique. Jesus did speak about the afterlife in the future Kingdom of God language and resurrection. Jesus also did not keep the same cleanliness codes the priests would have kept. Jesus did honor the temple and participate in festivals that would have been priestly led like feast of unleavened bread.

The Essenes were a complex group and best known for their connection to the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, not all Essenes were isolationists who lived monastic lives in Qumran. Some lived in cities around Israel but still kept strict laws and habits. The most extreme were celibate and single, but marriage was allowed as was sex for procreation. They followed a hierarchy of leadership who seemed to oppose temple Sadducee leadership specifically. They were exceedingly righteous and respected to the point Herod didn’t require a verbal oath of loyalty from them. It took many years to gain full acceptance into the Essene lifestyle and one could be removed from fellowship for life for sinful infractions. Finally, they believed in an afterlife and in a mixture of fate/predestination and freewill.

Comparing Jesus to the Essenes is interesting. He believed in a close knit community as evidenced by his twelve disciples and broader followers. He opened up his following to others as well as seen in the gospels with his many followers but he did have an intimate group of twelve. Like Qumran he encouraged his followers to travel without supplies relying on the Holy Spirit and others for support. For Qumran this meant having needs met from other Essenes, for Jesus it meant anyone who was a person of peace (Luke 10, Matthew 10). Unlike Qumran entrance into Jesus’ fellowship did not require prerequisite knowledge or pure lifestyle separating him from them in this regard. As far as we know he was single but encourage marital fidelity. He was righteous and encouraged others to be so. This separates him from all groups who limited or extended the law based on Halakhah. Jesus was forgiving, welcoming back those gone astray such as Peter, another point in conflict with Qumran and the Essenes. As a whole Jesus was an Essene though they have some things in common, there is not enough here to classify him among them alone. However, there are some who argue that some of the earliest Christian converts has Essene backgrounds given their desire to live communal lives as seen in places like Acts 4:31ff.

The Pharisees developed as an opposition group to Hyrcanus. Despite their seeming popularity in the Gospels they were small in number compared to the Sadducees. They were a group who sought to live pure lives in the "real world." As such many of their specific codes of conduct have to do with agriculture, eating, purity of wounds and women, when and how to tithe, and other everyday things. Where the Sadducees focused on the holy days and temple cult, the Pharisees focused on the average Jews daily life. They tried to apply the biblical teachings to all things though never achieving the cleanliness of the priests because of practical reasons. Like Essenes believed in freewill and fate. That Israel was chosen but obedience is optional is core to their understanding of Jewish life. They also held to the idea of resurrection of the righteous and punishment of the wicked. Despite it being a common belief they ran the Sanhedrin and synagogues Sanders argues against this. However, they were still respected.

Was Jesus a Pharisee? This argument has been made several times over. It is probably the group he had the most in common with. Since Judaism was a faith of the written word it is easy to see how Jesus would study the scriptures, see himself in it, and interpret those laws and narrative for himself and teach others to follow his ways. This is what each sect did. The Pharisees sought to apply law to everyday life for the common Jew. They rooted their interpretations to past Halakhah. Jesus, however, reinterpreted the law in light of himself alone as being the fulfillment, something the Pharisees would have taken offense at since they looked for a logical train of thought from any rabbi back to Moses. Jesus knew and understood the law, he studied it, and his first “profession” was likely carpentry. He summoned followers who were day laborers and taught them the law. In many respects this is the way of a Pharisee.

Does Jesus fit into any one of these groups neatly? I do not think so. Jesus is unique in many ways. He replaced the image of the Temple with his body, an affront to all Jews but especially Sadducees. He had an open table and fluid community of followers, unlike the Essenes. He reinterpreted the law through himself, unlike the Pharisees who looked to other ancestors for support. Does Jesus have things in common with them? Certainly, but he does not fit any one group exclusively, but he does fits with the Essenes and Pharisees more than the Sadducees.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jesus, Torah, and Ethics

The Jewish world in which Jesus lived was shaped by the Torah. Jewish life was unique in the ancient Mediterranean world because Torah observance and the Levitical and Deuteronomic laws were to govern all of life, not just the cultic practices of Temple worship.  Here is a key point that many in miss in the Jewish understanding of the law. They practiced the law not because they felt it earned them salvation. They believed they were chosen and unique already because of God's covenant with Abraham that was reemphasized with Isaac, Jacob, the exodus, and ratified in the law of Moses. Rather, observance of the law is a way of maintaining identity and marking them as different from Gentiles. 
Here is another caveat, there was both a universal Judaism and a variety of sects. Much the same with modern Christianity where universal Christianity would adhere to elements of things like the Apostles Creed and the canonical Bible but there are also a variety of denominations. For Judaism the universal beliefs included their being chosen by God, the Torah as foundational for life, and the Temple, and feast days. We know about three main sects, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The question is did Jesus fit into any one of them? And if not how was his understanding of scripture and ethics different.
The Qumran community took obedience of the Law to an extreme by removing themselves from the rest of society as best they could.  Instead of priests declaring clean and unclean and instead of community dialogue regarding application in everyday situations, one person or the council of twelve became the filters through which all application was made.  To become part of this community required a multi-year multi-step process which, involved turning over all possessions and withdrawing from a “normal” everyday existence.  Those who are not in right relationship with community are forced into processes of repentance.
With this background Jesus is similar in many ways and yet clearly different.  Jesus’ use of Mishnah type phrases is seen in his Sermon on the Mount.  So in some ways his teaching style does not differ all that much from his contemporaries.  He cares about the law and states he didn’t come to change it but rather fulfill it.  Like the Mishnah, Qumran, and OT demonstrate Jesus also believed that application, i.e. action, was required to demonstrate obedience.  “Everyone who hears words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man…”  Matt. 7:24.  He also clearly still finds use in the Temple and priests for when he heals the lepers he instructs them to present themselves to the priests.
Jesus’ call to radical discipleship is rooted in the basic principles of the Jewish teachings to love God.  The law, temple activities, festivals, and diets is centered on the idea of loving God in every aspect of life.  What make the Jewish people unique is they desire God to shape every element of their existence. And yet there was constant separation of who did and didn’t have access to God either because of Temple cleanliness or Torah interpretation.  Uncleanliness prevented people from Temple practices and community.  Most people were unclean most of the time for one reason or another.  This basically puts a majority of the population out of relationship with God and the ability to engage freely in community and household life.  The interpretation of the law essentially required actions and time to become clean again.  Jesus is different because he heals people removing the need for further action required for purification and eliminates the time needed to be made clean.  He also calls people out to follow him without any test or previous ability unlike Qumran which requires demonstration of being an expert in the law.
Jesus also emphasizes the love of neighbor, where chapters 19-20 of Leviticus that is quite specific.  These laws governing right relationship with others was to be expressed through specific actions of not lying, stealing, oppressing, murdering, etc.  Priests and Levites spent much energy defining what constituted lying, stealing, oppressing, etc.  This is where Jesus goes beyond his contemporaries.  His teachings sometimes begin with “you've heard it said…but I say…”  He goes beyond physical action into motivation.  You cannot just not murder someone, but you cannot harbor hatred either.  You cannot just not steal, you cannot covet.  You shouldn't just give charitably, but do so without pretense.  Jesus’ love of neighbor goes beyond mere definitions of what is or is not permissible to do to others but rather gets into the “heart” of the matter by rooting every action in love. 
Jesus’ call of radical discipleship is most different because it is rooted in following him, rather than Torah alone.  He separates himself from Moses, the Levites, Priests, and subgroups like Pharisees/Sadducees/Essenes because he does not consider himself an expositor of the Law, a teacher of application, or part of the Temple system.  Instead he is the very presence of God, he is the fulfilment of the law (Matt. 5:17-20) and he alone is the source of his love ethic.  He is the kingdom come near. Through Jesus the chosenness of Israel is expanded to include all people. 

Where the law created isolation by removing people from community for purity issues, Jesus heals and restores into community.  Where the priestly temple system is big and cumbersome, Jesus is simpler.  Where the unclean have not access to the Temple, Jesus gives immediate access to himself.  Where the Qumran community requires a three year process for acceptance, Jesus calls out sinners to be in his inner circle immediately.  Where the law is interpreted and fences built around laws to further define their meaning to follow God, Jesus instead is claiming to be the very core of what it means to follow God. 


These are some of the ways Jesus has a more radical summons to a more difficult discipleship.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Blog series introduction: 5 DMin Topics

I spent last week participating in my second Doctor of Ministry class at Northern Seminary. The emphasis of this D.Min is the Jewish Context of the New Testament and is taught by Dr. Scot McKnight. We spent each day looking at a specific topic that is important to the conversation of the local church in relationship to the scriptures.  We discussed: 
  1. Homosexuality and Sexuality in the first century
  2. Torah observance and ethics of Jesus
  3. Eschatology, Judgement and Hell
  4. Atonement
  5. Jesus and Judaism (was Jesus a Sadducee, Pharisee, or Essene)
I am going to use this space to write about each of the five topics we discussed in class over the course of the next couple weeks. So check back often the next couple weeks to see if a new post has been made on a topic you're interested in.

In the meantime here are a couple articles worth checking out:
  • Some of my friends lean towards universalism (we'll discuss this next week under atonement) because they don't like the idea of predestination that Calvinism favors. But what if in reality universalism is a form of Calvinistic predestination? Roger Olson shares why this is the case in "Universalism is in the air.."
  • Aaron Rogers doesn't think God cares that much about football scores. I think most Seahawks fans think God might.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Flying observations.

I get to travel around the Midwest as part of my ministry. The places I have opportunity to visit are reflections of Gods creative wonder. The people are often dedicated Christians seeking to join God in his mission in their communities. I mostly drive, but handful of times a year this means I fly. I enjoy flying. But there are a couple of things that I have noticed that cause me to take pause.

First is the intentional organized segregation of passengers. I heard it said once, "You can have as much education as you can pay for." It was slight on the US higher education issues, greed, consumerism, and the amount of loans students are taking. But the point was made and it is fairly universal. You can have as much of anything you can afford. The question is should this consumerist concept be applied to all areas of life. Such as flying.

Those who pay more get bigger seats, early boarding, more snacks/drinks, and access to the front lavatory. While at the airport they have access to different waiting clubs with more comfortable amenities. All other passengers are squeezed into smaller seats, have limited snacks if they're available, and a vast majority of the plane shares a similar lavatory. While at the airport they share the limited outlets, bathrooms, and seating. I suppose at its most basic this makes sense.

However this past week I experienced a nearly empty flight. This rarely happens. But on this flight there were a couple empty first class seats, nearly all economy plus seats available, and one seat per row in economy. Upon seeing this some people attempted to practice normal human desire to spread out only to be told to return to their assigned seats. An announcement came on that said people could move if they wanted to pay an upgrade fee. I understand that some people paid for the upgrade and would be annoyed to have people sit there for free. I understand that flight crews have to monitor safety and accurate head counts. But at some point we have to acknowledge we segregate passengers if not racially, economically. I question the validity of this segregation. The plane arrives safely for all passengers. Why does it matter if one sits three rows forward or back if they are available?

Second observation. Airports are places of none-presence. You are neither where you are from or where you are going. Mentally and emotionally you are not present, but thinking ahead or back. People are on phones and tablets engaging in places other than where they are. They read books, magazines, and watch TV to remove them from their location. Even the staff in their various roles only seek to remove you from the space you are dwelling...ie get you on your way as expeditiously as possible. 

So a point of confession. I have flying points. I sometimes use clubs and upgraded seating. Not always but sometimes. I read, email, text, and generally disengage from those also traveling near me at times. So I make these observations from experience.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

Bringing Order to the New Year

For the first handful of years of this blog I only posted once or twice a month on content I felt focused on young adults struggling with faith. The reality is I'm not a young adult anymore. I turn 33 this year and the issues I have written about are in fact for all demographics of people seeking to walk a more faithful journey in Christ. So my new years resolution is to write and link to other quality posts more often in 2015. I will to continue to observe and comment on theology, the Local Church, and how to come to grips with life in Christ "Shaped by the Story" of scripture.

To begin 2015 I want to invite you to wrestle with the tension between cultural values and lasting divine order. In the Jewish world that shaped scripture I am beginning to see that divine order shaped much their understanding of who God is. God created the world with order when he speaks all things into existence while hovering above the tohu evohu the "chaotic nothingness" in Genesis. His law provides order for social and holy interaction with one another and God. The Temple and the priests taught and exemplified this order. To be unclean meant to be out of balance with divine order. One was to seek ways of becoming clean again through sacrifice, washing, and time. This process put one in proper order again.

In the New Testament we see examples like Paul writing about what it is like to live a life out of order. He calls it living in the flesh or giving into the passions. Galatians 5, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4, and 1 Thessalonians 4 all provide commentary on what Paul understands to be actions that exemplify a life out of order in contrast with actions that model a Christ centered life in proper balance. He always emphasizes in these examples the importance of love being the one empatice for right action in Christ. 

Mixed into these lists of virtues, gifts, and actions rooted in Christlikeness are also cultural values Paul believes are things that should be kept up for the purpose of social protocol. Examples include the veiling of women and the social castes and family dynamics. For Paul, a society in proper order is one where people are what they are and they should not seek to be otherwise. Slaves remain slaves, masters remain masters, people were subject to local authorities, women and men each have specific roles in the home and community. None should seek to be otherwise, but instead value their role and be the best version of that in the name of Christ. To try and move between castes, challenge local authority, or relax gender roles would create social disorder and Christians had a hard enough time being accepted in Paul's day without also challenging the status quo of social niceties.

Here is the tension. Are Paul's understanding social order things we can look at now and say, maybe they were for a time and place that no longer have the same weight as today? If so are his limited lists of of gifts, virtues, and Christians actions as part of a well ordered Church life also in question? Or is there something to be said for proper order and encouraging people to find out who they are in Christ and encourage them to live into their gifts to create a more ordered Church and society? Where is the balance between positive social dynamics we can adopts and live into as Christians and what ones need to be challenged and as Christians demonstrate another reality in Christ?

How one answers these questions is what determines whether you're living a life shaped by the word and a life of incarnation or a life shaped primarily by social niceties and a life of excarnation. 

Some other things to read this week:
5 Reasons why Progressive or Evangelicals lost me by Benjamin Corey
Two Questions Pastors Should Ask by Lawrence Wilson