The Pharisees have become a byword for hypocrisy in our modern society. Yet, I’m often reminded (in a friendly way, of course) by my Jewish friends that the Pharisees were not so bad and were actually the good guys back in the first century. We only need to read a few Jewish commentaries and some first-century sources to realize that the portrait of the Pharisees was uneven. What can we make of it? Many books have been written on this topic. I don’t see myself being able to solve this problem, but I wish to sample a text, Mark 2.23-27, in this blog to look at the characterization of the Pharisees not as a historical record a means to a message.
The story had Jesus and His disciples picking heads of grain in the field because they were hungry. Then, the Pharisees were pointing out that the action was performed on the Sabbath. Jesus then cited David as an example that sometimes exceptions were good. I’m not going to go through the whole story, but just want to point out one thing. One commentator, Lawrence Willis, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, mentioned that this record was not accurate because Pharisees would simply not be out on a Sabbath spying on Jesus. I suppose that is one explanation, but I thought of a different explanation.
Can we presuppose that all the Pharisees hated Jesus equally? I think that would be an overstatement. Is it more reasonable to assume that when Mark was talking, he was talking about one particular group of Pharisees whose hatred for Jesus was so severe that they were doing the unthinkable on the Sabbath? I think it is more reasonable to see the general term “Pharisees” in Mark to refer to a smaller but very vocal and even powerful group. This group would be out walking around on the Sabbath spying on Jesus instead of keeping Sabbath themselves. The irony is that by pointing out the breaking of Sabbath in their religious zeal, their action was also questionable with a view of the Sabbath law. This group would continue to follow Jesus asking Him insincere questions to trap Him (e.g. Mk. 7.5-7; 8.11) while connecting with the gentile rulers (Mk. 8.14) to cause Jesus’ eventual death. The group of Pharisees was not Mark’s message. Neither was Mark trying to represent the entire historical reality. Rather, this group was his literary foil to talk about his real message. What then was the real message?
Mark’s portrait of the Pharisees was not really just about hypocrisy or about anti-Pharisees. Instead, he used the portrait to show that there were religious people whose occupation with their own agenda was so strong that they were willing to break their own principles to accomplish their deeds. So many religious people are willing to break their own integrity to accomplish their own agenda today. Mark still speaks today.