Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hellenism, Pharisees, Sadducees

A reader, Patrick Sullivan writes:
"I want to explore further into Pharisees vs Sadducees; and specifically how Hellenistic thought bears on it. I sort of get the sense that Semitic and Hellenistic culture 'encounter' one another across several millennia, and that there are, not distinct steams of culture, but distinct moments of their engagement that can be dissected out."

There is no way in the span of one blog one could span the entirety of this subject. It would take an entire course to get through it and it is one of the most important issues in Biblical studies.

There are several moments in Hebraic history that define everything that comes after it. One example of this is the Exodus. The Exodus changed the way the Hebrew people thought about themselves, God, the universe, and the world. And their reflections as a result of this event transformed human history. Another such moment is the Babylonian exile. 

Among these transformative events, few are greater than the advent of Greek Culture in Canaan. It simply would be hard to overstate how massively important this encounter is. It really begins with the conquering of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. Cross-pollination between cultures continues through the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabean Revolt. The New Testament cannot be fully understood except in the light of the encounter of these two great cultures, Hebraic and Hellenistic. The Jewish Religion that defined Jesus' time was the result of the clash between, and the commingling of, Athens and Jerusalem.

To understand the significance of this clash in the formation of the Sadducees and Pharisees, one must first understand the difference between the two groups. The Sadducees were the aristocrats of the Jewish societies, they were the Aaronic Priests, the Levites whose charge was to keep and maintain the Temple. They took as authoritative only the first Five Book of Moses, and accepted none of the wisdom books, the prophetic writings, or the historical books as authoritative when it came to issues of God's Will and nature. The Sadducees therefore did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, since afterlife theology only grew up in the prophetic and apocalyptic periods. The Sadducees religion was very Temple-Centric, and they colluded closely with the Romans since they believed preservation of the Temple took precedence over everything else. The Sadducees were closer to the Romans politically than any other group for just this reason.

During Alexander's time or shortly thereafter, the Greek King would assign the Temple priest in Jerusalem. Since the Temple Priest was de facto also governor (before the Herodian period), this was a very politically charged activity. Eventually, the High Priest lost some of his political power, but remained a significance political force. And so, the Greeks are in many ways responsible for the political attitudes of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were not highly Hellenized, but they did not stand against the Hellenization of the rest of the population, for the most part. The Maccabeean revolt was in part a revolt agains the priesthood's neutral attitude towards Greek Activities.

The Pharisees were experts in the various Jewish Scriptures, and were less Temple-centric than the Sadducees. They considered as authoritative the First Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Histories, the Wisdom Writings, and the various commentaries that rose up during the Second Temple Period. The Pharisees believed that all Jews were subject to those laws that the Pentateuch only assigned to priests and Levites. This was one big point of contention between them and the Sadducees...they thought the priestly laws applied to all people (a doctrine based on Prophetic writings), whereas Sadducees thought such laws applied only to priests. 

Additionally, Pharisees tended to be more liberal in application of the law. Pharisaical teachers went through a process of 'binding and loosing', where the Levitical laws are altered based on later writings, and various interpretations. The Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, were an apocalyptic sense, in that they were looking for the End Times and believed in a coming Resurrection of the Dead. Belief in the Resurrection begins before the Pharisees existed, and probably before even Greek Rule. But it was Greek Rule that spawned the Apocalyptic literature, and made belief in Resurrection ascendent. It was a way to explain evil and make sense of it in the face of the Antiochan progroms.

There can be no doubt that Greek culture heavily influenced the Pharisees. Their belief in Resurrection is in part a reaction to Greek beliefs about the afterlife. Greek modes of philosophy are often used in interpretation (Philo is a supreme example here), and there is a dualism in at least some Pharisaical writings, ie belief in the devil, that comes in part from Greek culture. Like the Sadducees they accepted Roman rule, but only because they waiting on the Messiah to come and make the world right. They were less Temple-centric because the scriptures themselves were more important to them. Since the daily life of the Jew had sacramental significance, the Temple was not the end-all and be-all of relationship with God. 

The Pharisees simply would not have come into existence, except that the Greeks took over and the Maccabean revolt began. It was the Maccabean revolt that helped to spawn them. The Sadducees were a natural outgrowth of the Aaronic priesthood, but are less the result of the meeting of the two cultures.

There is a ton more that can be said about this. More specific questions would help spawn more answers.

No comments:

Post a Comment