When you’re young in America and inquisitive, and you read the four Gospels, you encounter the Pharisees as the bad guys. As I grew older and learned more about my own religion, about which, like most Jews of my generation, I knew little, something about the antagonism between Jesus and the awful Pharisaic rabbis seemed wrong and damned problematic—modern Judaism in all its forms, from the most orthodox to the most reform, is, after all, derived from those Pharisees.
Historians today regard the blame placed at the foot of the Pharisees, those horrible rabbis from Jerusalem who were sticklers for every rule, as having been misplaced. At the time of Jesus, there were two ‘warring’ camps among the rabbis: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Not much is known about the Sadducees, except that they opposed flexibility in the law and represented the wealthy Temple strata, the priests and the Levites. It was most likely the Sadducees who hassled Jesus and his followers not the Pharisees. But by the time the Gospels were compiled, there were no more Sadducees. The Temple had been destroyed and with it the seat of their power. Since only the Pharisees remained, the authors of the Gospels mistakenly confused the one with the other and blamed the Pharisees for the faults of their opponents.
This is not a minor point. Not only because it misrepresented Judaism but also because it misrepresented Jesus. Jesus, in many respects, is the epitome of the Pharisaic tradition.
Although for anyone familiar with the rabbinic tradition in the period of the Second Temple, this interpretation ought to be obvious, it’s also radically threatening in many ways, both for religious Jews and Christians: religious Jews because they believe in miracles and a Messiah and therefore must find excuses for Jesus’ marvels and for Christians who were raised on the erroneous belief that Judaism believes in a God of law whereas Jesus introduced love. Law, as Jesus well knew, does not preclude love, for the law is given by a God who is full of mercy and compassion. It is not actually regarding love that Jesus varies in his teachings from the Pharisaic tradition.
Those differences between his teachings and the main Pharisaic tradition offer perspectives with which to understand him, not certainly as the son of God but as a human being. Above all, he was a man of the Galilee. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The Galilee was an area of farmers and, as we know from the New Testament, fishermen. And because many were farmers, their halacha (system of laws) was often more lenient than that of Jerusalem: it was permissible, for instance, to eat chicken with milk in the Galilee.
The distance between the Galilee and Jerusalem therefore wasn’t just physical. Jerusalem was urban; the Galilee wasn’t. Jerusalem was the seat of power and of wealth; the Galilee was the periphery. The priestly caste, the Sadducees, emphasized obedience to a strict law, whereas the law in the Galilee was kinder. And perhaps, above all, the people of the Galilee labored for what wealth they achieved, whereas the priests and Levites grew rich from ceremony. The people of the Galilee were, in a phrase that was likely Jesus’ own invention, “the salt of the earth.” Their value was intrinsic and not dependent on coin. Jesus’ antipathy to money may be his most salient characteristic (and one Christianity has been loath to follow). It finds its most egregious expression perhaps when he drives the money-changers from the Temple. This was not just an expression of loathing for money but a protest against the nature of the Temple as an institution and the parasitic nature of the priesthood. The money-changers were essential for the functioning of the Temple. They accepted donations from Jews from around the world and converted the different forms of money into a common coin.
In Jesus’ day, Judea was a society stratified by blood ties. The priests (Cohanim), who were quite wealthy, lived in splendid apartments near the Temple mount (the ruins can be visited today). Under them were the Levites, the Temple assistants, who were also well-off, living, like the priests, off charity. At the bottom were the Israelites—everybody else. In one of his most famous parables, that of the Good Samaritan, Jesus expresses his disdain for the artificial divisions of Jewish society, made permanent by Jewish law (to this day, my son-in-law, who is a Cohen, will not enter a cemetery). The priest and Levite do not approach the ill man for fear of defilement. Only the Samaritan in the final text in the New Testament, but most likely an Israelite in the original, hasn’t the fear of defilement—he is the only one capable of regarding the man as a human being and not as a religious object.
I think Jesus wanted to do away with the class divisions as understood in his day. In his eyes, all of Israel were a priestly nation to be ushered into God’s kingdom. That is his radical vision—not political in the sense of a rebellion against Rome. Rome did not interest him—“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”—but God did. He did not emulate the pragmatism of the Pharisees. His vision had the sharp clarity of the ideal.