How influential were the Pharisees in the life and thought of first century Palestine? Mark’s Gospel indicates they were very influential (cf. 2 7, 2 16, 2 18, 2 24, 3 6, etc.). The Pharisees were a big deal in ancient Judaism. Many scholars believe Mk presents an accurate picture of the influence the Pharisees had in Judea in the first century (see, for example, William Lane’s commentary on Mark’s Gospel).
However, as an alternative view, according to one influential scholarly viewpoint (see, for example, Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction, p. 65), the Pharisees in fact had little influence, and Mark’s Gospel is therefore inaccurate on this score. We’ll be looking at several of these types of questions in the course. Notice that this is a historical question that is debated among scholars as to the historical accuracy of Mk in his portrayal of the Pharisees. We’ll look at a couple of these today. Later we’ll look at the crucially important question about Mk, ie, the origin of Mk. Is Mk based on eyewitness testimony or is it not?
When there is disagreement, the way historians settle questions such as these is by closely examining the primary source documents. Primary documents refer to the actual ancient sources (such as the Gospel of Mark), while works of modern historians and interpreters are referred to as the secondary literature. Of course, any statement made in the secondary literature is only as good as the evidence in the primary documents which backs it up. Good scholarship is always thoroughly grounded in solid evidence from the primary sources, whereas poor scholarship is not.
The moral of the story is that one should never naively believe something simply because a scholar says it, but always read the secondary literature or listen to lectures critically, demanding evidence from the primary sources. Try your hand at examining primary sources to arrive at historical conclusions, by closely examining the relevant primary sources outside Mark’s Gospel concerning this issue. This is true in any field. Scholars have their pet theories or maybe some political, ideological or social reason why they might want to advance a certain viewpoint and, therefore, they may not share with you all of the evidence. Look at the evidence for yourself to decide.
This is most important in the fields of biblical and theological study.
Someone out of faith might not look fully at evidence that might conflict with that. They might even not look at all of the evidence because it make be their particular denominational take on the faith. Some might even wish to tear down the faith in order to advance some other world view such as Deconstructionism or process theology, and the these people may not look at all the evidence in favor of what the Bible is saying.
All of these happen all the time. So don’t believe something naively just because an author or a professor says it but you should always read the primary sources in order to arrive at your own conclusions.
Below find all of the relevant, key primary sources that scholars look to when they debate this question. It comes from a variety of places. Did the Pharisees have this undisputed leadership as Mk implies and as the majority of scholars believe? Or is this minority view actually the correct one?
A related question is, “Is Mk accurate in his depiction of Jewish customs?” Ehrman argues that this is not accurate because as we’re going to find out, these Jewish customs are Pharisaic customs. Then why does Mk say, “All the Jews follow them?” So again, we have the full array of relevant ancient Jewish sources that scholars look at when they debate this question. Look through the evidence and whether or not this evidence of sources outside Mk is talking about the widespread use of these traditions such as they can talk about all the Jewish people following them. Does that show that Mk is simply following the practice known in Judaism of his day or is Mk doing something unhistorical and inaccurate? Decide for yourself based on the primary sources.
Relevant Ancient Jewish Texts:
Josephus, Antiquities 17.41
“There was a certain party among the Jews, who considered themselves very skilled in the accurate interpretation of the Scriptures, and people believed they were specially favored by God … They are those called the sect of the Pharisees.”
Josephus, Antiquities 18.15
“They [the Pharisees] in their teachings persuade the great majority of [the Jewish] people. Whatsoever they teach about worship, prayer and sacrifices, the people perform according to their [i.e. the Pharisees’) directions.”
Ac 26 45 [Paul at his trial before the Jewish king Agrippa]:
“All the Jews know of my life from my youth on, which I lived from the beginning among my people and in Jerusalem, since they know me from way back, if they are willing to testify, that in conformity with the most accurate sect of our [Jewish] faith I lived as a Pharisee.”
Pp 3 45
“If anyone else supposes they have grounds for trusting in the flesh, I have far more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews [i.e. a Hebrew speaking Jew of Hebrew speaking parents], in regard to my observance of the law, a Pharisee. . .”
These are the relevant primary texts from the second temple period (outside the Gospels) which we possess regarding the influence of the Pharisees. Read over these texts carefully for the evidence they provide regarding the influence of the Pharisees in ancient Jewish society. Do you believe these texts support Ehrman’s viewpoint that the Pharisees had little importance, or the implication from Mk that the Pharisees were highly influential in Jewish thought and life in Palestine in the first century A.D.?
A related issue: is Mark accurate in his depiction of Jewish customs? The key text is in Mk 7.
“For the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless they wash their hands up to the wrist do not eat, holding to the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace, unless they wash themselves they do not eat, and they have many other traditional practices, the washing of cups and pitchers and pots.” (Mk 7 34)
Ehrman comments: “Mark appears to misunderstand the practice: he claims that it was followed by ‘all the Jews.’ We know from ancient Jewish writings that this is simply not true. For this reason, many scholars have concluded that Mark himself was not Jewish.” (The New Testament: An Historical Introduction, p. 74)
Relevant Ancient Jewish Texts:
TB Beracoth 60b (part of the Mishnah, second century A.D. but codifying earlier traditions)
“Blessed are you, 0 Lord, King of the universe, who sanctified us by your laws and commanded us to wash the hands.”
Gospel of Jn 2 6 (first century A.D.)
(At a wedding feast): “There were six stone water jars placed there for the purificatory rites of the Jews, holding twenty or dirty gallons each.”
Letter of Aristeas 305 (2d century B.C.)
“And as is the tradition of all the Jews, they washed their hands and prayed to God.”
Despite a variety of level of observance of these traditions, they are widespread enough that Jewish texts, especially when addressed to a gentile audience (e.g. Gospel of John and Letter of Aristeas) routinely speak of them as followed by the Jewish people in general. Is it more likely that Mark, writing for a gentile audience, is simply following this Jewish practice, or that he is a gentile who is misunderstanding Jewish customs? What are your conclusions, based on the evidence of the primary sources?