“Kosher Jesus” – #4 Pharisees, Sadducees & Zealots

Book Title: Kosher Jesus
Author: Shmuley Boteach
Date Published: February 2, 2012
Publisher: Gefen Publishing House; First Edition (US) First Printing edition
Genre: 1. Theology
2. Jewish Life
3. Biographies
ISBN: 978-9652295782
Reviewer: Rich Robinson
Review Date: May 1, 2012

Chapter 3 – The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots

Now as I’m back from yet another hiatus, this time one of three weeks of bringing Passover seders to churches throughout Oregon, we’re ready to plunge back into Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new and controversial volume, Kosher Jesus.

Last time I offered some brief comments on Boteach’s chapter sketching the relationship between the Jews and their Roman overlords. Now we’ll glance at chapter 3 of Kosher Jesus, which delineates in brief compass the inner-Jewish world of the first century. For this, Boteach focuses on three groups: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. (He does not talk about a fourth important group, the monastic Jews of Qumran, who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and give us a glimpse into yet another form of the Judaism of the time.)

First-century Judaism was varied enough so that many scholars have taken to referring to “Judaisms” to underscore the differences between various groups, while others speak of “common Judaism” to emphasize the points that unite them. It is anachronistic to speak of “rabbinic Judaism” in the first century; that kind of Judaism did not develop until after 70 CE and did not reach mature form until the compilation of the Mishnah and Gemara in later centuries ca. 200 CE and after.

Boteach’s sketch is necessarily oversimplified, but basically on target. The Pharisees understood the Scripture to be interpreted through the Oral Law; the Sadducees, though they had their own traditions, did not. What Boteach does not mention is that this allowed the Pharisees to be highly adaptive in responding to changes in society that the original biblical authors did not envision, leading in many cases to a more lenient interpretation. Another important point not mentioned is that the Pharisees were very concerned with purity laws, which affected such matters as who one might be able to eat with. That is important background for many of the incident recorded in the gospels. Politically too, Boteach is right: the Sadducees were loyalists to Rome. He might have added that they were the upper-crust aristocrats; the Pharisees were the “party of the people.”

Unfortunately Boteach continues by upbraiding the New Testament’s portrayal of these groups. He makes several claims:

1. Boteach claims that “the picture conveyed of the Pharisees resembles nothing so much as the vicious caricatures of Jews that would later populate medieval works” (p. 19). Presumably he will offer evidence for this statement later in the book. It is a statement, however, out of step with current biblical scholarship (which often places Jesus in a theological position close to that of the Pharisees). In addition, the real background for Jesus’ ethical controversies with the Pharisees is not medieval anti-Semitism — that is absurdly anachronistic — but the Hebrew Bible’s own prophets’ critique of Israel and summons to repentance. The background is Isaiah, not Torquemada.

2. Boteach claims that the New Testament brushes over the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both being denounced together by Jesus and both improbably coming out as a group to see John the Baptist. However, it is not said that they formed a single delegation; they may well have come at separate times, the accounts being compressed in the gospel. Furthermore, the priests were not only drawn from the Sadducees; there were Pharisaic priests, and therefore the hard-and-fast distinctions Boteach draws need nuancing. It is possible that a priestly delegation could have included members of both sects. And finally, the prophet-like ethical denunciation of both groups could be because matters of the heart cross the boundaries of political and social groupings.

But Boteach sees malice afoot where others see a nuanced social situation. “Something is amiss,” he writes. “Somewhere along the line, the image of the Pharisees has been tampered with” (p. 20). Like one of those TV history documentaries that thrives on the innuendo of conspiracy, Boteach claims that there was “a concerted effort by the editors of the Gospels to paint the Pharisees and Sadducees as having common interests…. Subsequent editors,” he darkly suggests, “added the Pharisees in order to distance Jesus from rabbinic Judaism.” Rabbinic Judaism, however, did not yet exist. And no one claims the gospels were edited when rabbinic Judaism finally did take shape, ca. 200 CE and beyond.

Boteach’s third group, the Zealots who rebelled against Rome and helped catalyze the First Jewish Revolt of 66–70 CE, is accurate enough. However, his suggestion that the Jesus story shares much in common with the Zealots’ own narrative is rather far-fetched, but he will hopefully develop that idea as in the following chapters.

To be continued…


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