Restoring the image of God — Debating Pharisees

How to read scripture has long been a subject of debate. In fact, how to read scripture was an active debate in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, Jewish mystics studied scripture looking for particular type of divine revelation. Some mystics sought after Ezekiel’s entry into the throne room of God. These mystics thought that seeking to enter heaven in a vision would provide for them divine revelation and power. Other mystics sought in the letters and characters of scripture the very keys to the mysteries of creation. In the hundred years after Jesus, other mystics would seek to turn scripture into a numerological system of revelation. This study is known as Gematria. 

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day had particular ways of reading scripture. For example, they interpreted the servant in Isaiah 42 as representing Israel. And in Daniel 9, the figure of the “one like a son of man” also represented Israel. 

Based on a reading of Deuteronomy 28 through 30, Pharisees believed Israel to still be in exile. Israel and Judah had been banished from the Land, and only a remnant of the people had returned. Exile was still in progress because the prophesied blessings marking the return from exile had not yet occurred. 

The Pharisees were determined that they would do what it takes in order to enable the return from exile. They saw that the heart of the people must be fully given over to God in order for the exile to end. They reasoned that the people’s heart was not fully given over to God because they were not obeying Torah in its fullness. In fact, they saw that God’s intention always was that Israel be a nation of priests. They therefore reasoned that all of God’s people should adopt the priestly purity rituals, and to adopt those rituals into their daily lives.

Furthermore, in order to ensure all of Israel had given their hearts to the LORD, the dominant school of the Pharisees believed they had permission from God to employ religious violence in order to remove the filth, the evil, the unbelief from within Israel; and, one day, to use religious violence to drive out the hated oppressors, the Romans.

This dominant school was known as the Shammaite Pharisees, who in Jesus’ day, were in the majority. The Hillelite Pharisees were in the minority, and did not teach active violence against fellow Israelites. In fact, so different were these two schools of thought—so different were they about everything from interpreting religious violence, to interpreting divorce, to ruling whether or not Ecclesiastes was actually scripture—that the Jews in Jesus’ day commented that it was like there were two Torahs in the land. For the word Torah, in Jesus’ day, did not only reference the first five books of the Bible, but came to mean the sum total of all the laws and commandments in both the first five books of the Bible and from the the body of tradition that had built up to interpret it (i.e. the “Oral law”).

The sect in Qumran—the people behind the Dead Sea Scrolls—, on the other hand, believed that the Pharisees were quite wrong in their interpretation and understanding of scripture. The Qumran sect called the Pharisees “speakers of smooth things.” The Qumran sect had different and particular way of reading scripture. Here is what one scholar who has examined the sect’s writings says about their scriptural interpretation.

“The [Qumran] commentaries are very different from the objective expositions of biblical books which we find on our library shelves today. In the first place, the Qumran commentator is not at all interested in biblical prophecy. For him, every word of Scripture was pregnant with meaning for his own day, and it is in its contemporary relevance that the interpreter is interested. In the process of arriving at its import for his time, nothing is barred to the commentator: any twisting of the meanings of words, reference to variant traditions known to the author although not included in the text before him, word plays, and even rewriting the passage to suit his interpretation, all is legitimate to the Qumran writer who is himself fire with the spirit of prophecy. This ‘eschatological knowledge’, by which the signs of the times could be interpreted in the light of ancient prophecy, was a special divine gift, possessed by the Qumran writers as by Jesus and Paul, and, indeed, the light thrown by these Qumran commentaries on the treatment by New Testament writers of Scripture texts is worth looking at in a later chapter. But to us, seeking first-hand knowledge of the history of the Sect, these references by Qumran authors to contemporary events, in which they saw the signs of the coming of the end of the age, and the new era, can, carefully treated, be most valuable”.

Jesus’ interpretation of scripture

When Jesus said the words,

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40).

He was talking about His particular method of interpreting scripture, and expressing His opposition to that ways in which the religious leaders of His day were interpreting them. Jesus may have been talking to the Pharisee who believed that Israel’s return from exile would be like resurrection from the dead (Ezekiel 37:11–14). He may have been speaking to the mystic who sought after the power of creation within the Torah. One thing is certain—Jesus was expressing a disagreement with how scripture was being read, and placing His view in opposition to it.

Jesus read scripture with one particular lense. Jesus’ lense was that scripture bore witness to Him. Jesus read Deuteronomy 28 through 30 and realised that the promised post-exilic blessings were soon to be realised. Jesus read Psalm 2 and realised He indeed was the LORD’s anointed. He read Psalm 8 and realised that He was the son of man. He read Psalm 22 and saw His prophesied future. He read Psalm 37 and took comfort that He would not be abandoned. Jesus read Isaiah 42 and saw Himself as the suffering servant; which He combined with Isaiah’s royal poems about a kingly deliverer (e.g. Psalms 61, 63, 65). Jesus read Daniel 9 and knew the “son of man” figure was referring to Him. Jesus saw the entire narrative arc of scripture as centering on Him, as God’s anointed one, who would represent and be a substitute for Israel; indeed, for all mankind.

So, when we see Jesus reading and commenting on the Torah, we’re not surprised that He also read the Torah in His particular way. “I am the light of the world” said Jesus, referring to the candles lit in the Temple (John 8:12). John the Baptist said of Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), recalling the lambs that were sacrificed every morning and every evening in the temple. “I am the bread of life,” said Jesus, recalling the manna that fell from heaven, as well as the show bread that was placed in the Temple (John 6:35). Later on, Christians would point to the veil that divided the Holy from the Most Holy Place, and say that it was the body of Christ (Hebrews 10:20). In all these ways, Jesus read Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and saw that it all related to Himself.

This was a revolutionary way of reading scripture. It was a way of reading scripture that was accepted by believers in the Way of the Nazarene. After all, it was they who said, “All the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in [Jesus Christ]” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Jesus is the Word of God

Now, I want you to consider the implications of this. Remember when Israel stood united around Sinai, they heard “God speak all these words” (Exodus 20:1). Moses said about that day, that “You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12). It’s really important we understand that God didn’t say, “Here are Ten Commandments, Ten Rules.” What Exodus says God said was, “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). It’s really important, because when John writes—“The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)—we are supposed to get that He’s saying Jesus is the Word of God, but this time, instead of being without form, He was given form, given flesh, and He came and dwelt among us. This is a profound theological statement—Jesus is the Word of God, the Decalogue (if you will), made flesh.

You can’t separate Jesus, the Word of God, from the Word of God spoken at Sinai. Scriptural symbolism says they go together. At Sinai, the Word of God formed the covenant treaty between God and Israel. The the cross, the Word of God formed the covenant treaty between God and Israel. At Sinai, the Word of God was shattered into pieces at the foot of the holy mountain. At the cross, the Word of God was shattered by the sins of Israel—indeed of the world; indeed: of you and me—our sins were laid on Him, and shattered His life. 

We are supposed to get these references; it’s supposed to be clear. This is how Jesus and His ekklesia read scripture. For Jesus, the entire narrative focus of the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets focused in on Him and His mission for Israel and the world. For Jesus, Torah were scriptures that testified of Him.

How Jesus read the Bible

So, when we start to read some of Jesus’ comments on Torah, we start to learn even more about Jesus’ interpretive method. When the Pharisees came to Jesus to test Him, they said, 

“Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3).

Here is a typical test question. It defines the difference between Shammaite Pharisees—who said you can divorce your wife for any cause whatsoever—and Hillelite Pharisees, who placed some stipulations on things your wife had to do wrong before you could divorce her. So, note that as these Pharisees are testing Jesus, they’re not actually asking Him about what’s in the scripture we hold in our hands today; they were actually asking Him about their traditions surrounding divorce—they call it “Oral Torah,” or, “the traditions of the elders”, and it has found its way into the Mishnah and the Talmud today.

Jesus responded to them,

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4–5).

Here Jesus holds up the precept of marriage, as instituted in Eden, as the model by which further scriptural teachings should be established. When the Pharisees challenged Jesus on this, they asked about a Mosaic judgment.

“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7; Deuteronomy 24:1–4).

Jesus responded with something that is fascinating, and profound for our understanding of scripture. Jesus replied,

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).

Here Jesus is saying that Mosaic judgments don’t always represent the heart of God’s will. Remember, preceptual reasoning from Genesis defines the will of God; whereas the laws and commandments and judgments and rulings define the boundary of God’s will. They define the outer limits of God’s will. We can’t always reason from the outer limits back to the heart of God’s will. But if we start at the heart of God’s will, as revealed to us through scripture and the Spirit of God, then we have a framework by which to understand where this Law fits in.

What’s fundamental is not God’s law; God’s law is secondary, and given both as an accommodation for sin, and as a definition of sin within fallen humanity. For a human conscience blinded to God’s will, the Law provides a definition of what is sin. But for a regenerate Christian, it is God’s will that is supreme in the Christian’s life. That’s why the law is given for sinners (1 Timothy 1:9). And what is God’s will for Christians? We find that stated in the same place that says the law is given for sinners. It says,

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

Sermon on the Mount

In Matthew 5, we find the monologue known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” The author of Matthew has arranged material spoken by Jesus. In all likelihood, it contains material Jesus spoke about on many occasions, with many different audiences.

Jesus says something that has been terribly misinterpreted through the centuries ever since. To understand what Jesus is saying, we need to remember the Hebrew roots of the words and language Jesus is using. In rabbinic discussion, the Shammaite rabbi would say to the Hillelite rabbi, “Your teaching is destroying the Law!” And the Hillelite rabbi would deny that, by saying, “No, I am fulfilling the Law!” What is meant is, “Your interpretation of the Law is wrong.” And, “No, it’s not, I’m interpreting it correctly.”

So, when we read in Matthew 5:17, Jesus saying:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish [destroy] the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish [destroy] them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

We need to recognise that Jesus is using rabbinic language that was normal for His day. A rabbi has accused Jesus about interpreting the law incorrectly. Jesus is saying that, “No, I’m showing you what indeed the Law means. My interpretation is the fulfilment of the law.”

The gospel of Matthew then spends the next several pages of text showing exactly how Jesus interpreted the law. We can deduce from reading through these passages that Jesus considers “light” laws (such as anger, lust, etc.) to be equivalent in value to “heavy” laws (such as murder, adultery, etc.) (Matthew 5:22, 28). Jesus identifies a law that does not identify with the heart of God’s will, and identifies the correct interpretation (Matthew 5:32). He also shows that the limitation on retaliation that Moses gave—eye for an eye—is a brake on human retaliation, not the nearest thing to the heart of God. God’s heart is centered on “Loving one’s enemies, and praying for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

The character of the Father Himself is the template from which all Christians must be made.

Traditions of the Elders

There is a debate Jesus held with some Pharisees that has long been misinterpreted. And this misinterpretation has not been helped by the fact that someone who misinterpreted this also added to the biblical text. We need to read this carefully.

“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’” (Mark 7:1–5).

Now, given the background we’ve heard this morning, we can tell what’s going on here. The traditions of the elders being referenced are the interpretations of the rabbinic sages, the precursors to the Mishnah and Talmud. The subject is one of washing of hands. You see, the priest needed to wash in order to enter the Temple. Pharisees had extended this idea to washing in one’s home, because they wanted Israel to achieve Temple levels of holiness in the family home. That’s why Mark explicitly defines this Pharisaic teaching and labels it as such. So, the subject is clearly defined as washing hands before a meal, and the idea is explicitly attributed to the Pharisees, not scripture.

Jesus continues in this context to heavily criticise the Pharisees for their interpretations. He states that the Pharisees’ interpretations undermines the very Word of God, and is contrary to God’s own intent.

Then Jesus says,

“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:14).

What is Jesus referring to as being outside of him? Jesus is talking about eating food with unwashed hands. That, after all, is the subject of the dispute.

Now listen to this,

“And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable” (Mark 7:17).

Can I ask a question? What is the parable?

Is the parable: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him”? Is that a proper parable? Or is there a parable that was written in the text, but is now no longer there? I can’t quite say.

But Jesus goes on to answer,

“And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’” (Mark 7:18–19a). 

What is Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about food that is eaten with unwashed hands. For that is the subject of the entire debate.

Now, if you have a King James Version bible, you’re not going to get the next comment, because this phrase doesn’t appear in the KJV. But in most modern translations, this phrase appears, in brackets, immediately after.

“(Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:19b).

Now, can I ask you: How can it logically follow that a discussion about eating food with unwashed hands—i.e. an interpretation of the Pharisees—turns into a declaration about food laws, which is codified in the Leviticus? The answer is that it logically does not follow. Then how come this phrase appears in some bibles? Not in the KJV, but in some bibles?

The most likely explanation is this: A scribe who was writing notes in his margin misinterpreted the text. The scribe didn’t know about all the background that we now know, and completely misread the text. So, the scribe put into his margin what that scribe thought Jesus was saying. Then, later, when people were copying this manuscript, someone accidentally copied the margin comment into the main text. That’s the most likely explanation as to why many manuscripts do not contain this comment, and many other manuscripts do contain this comment.

We can be confident that the comment is indeed a later addition, because it the comment does not logically follow from the context of the discussion; nor, indeed, does it match with Jesus’ own statement from Matthew 5:17; nor, indeed, does it match with Peter’s own behaviour in Acts 10.

The calm before the storm

Today we’ve reviewed the context and background of some of Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees. We haven’t reviewed all the debates. For example, there’s a notable debate about sabbath breaking, which, if you review it, you’ll see that the debate is not about sabbath breaking per se, but about the Pharisees’ interpretation of sabbath breaking.

But we’re leaving the two largest, most rancorous and vigorous, debates until next week. The two most important debates centre on the questions:

  • Who are the people of God?, and
  • What is the purpose of the Temple?

These latter debates were so acrimonious that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day decided to kill Him for it.


What have we learned?

  1. In Jesus’ interpretation of scripture, the precepts of Genesis outweigh the laws of Moses, because the precepts of Genesis talk to the will of God, rather than the limits of His will.
  2. That there were many ways of interpreting scripture in Jesus’ day, many of which Jesus disagrees with.
  3. Jesus has a peculiar and innovative way of reading scripture, which subsequent generations of Christians have come to see as being the way in which scripture was always intended to be interpreted.
  4. Jesus’ sermon on the mount is contains a statement that says Jesus interprets the law correctly — NOT that Jesus abrogates the law; NOR that Jesus says the law will never change. But He’s saying that His interpretation of the law is the correct interpretation.
  5. Jesus heavily criticised the use of Pharisaic oral law, saying that the Oral Law contains evil teachings that undermine the purposes and intent of God’s will.
  6. By analysis of the context, we have identified an errant piece of text in some bible translations. You can be sure that this text is not what Jesus says.
  7. Finally, what I want you to meditate on this week, is that Jesus is the embodiment of the Word of God. The same Word of God the sounded at Sinai, became flesh in Bethlehem. You’re not meant to separate the content of the Word of God in either place. They are one and the same. Think about it. Meditate on it.