Introducing the Pharisees (Mark 2:18-22)

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on March 3, 2021

Last week, we saw Jesus at dinner at Levi’s house, along with “many tax collectors and sinners” (2:15).  This provoked a question from a group we hadn’t met yet: “the scribes of the Pharisees” (2:16).  These Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus was eating with such people.  As we’ll see more clearly later (7:1-23), shared meals and table fellowship were of the utmost importance to the Pharisees.  Today, however, I want to offer a broader introduction.  Who are these Pharisees?  What makes them different from other groups?  What might Jesus be saying about how his group differs from his own?

 

The Pharisees are prominent in chapter two of Mark.  They first appeared last week (2:13-17); this week they’re associated with fasting (2:18-22); and they’ll appear next week, too (2:23-28).  The way they appear in this week’s passage is important:

 

Now John [the Baptist’s] disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to [Jesus], “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18)

 

Already we see three distinct groups: John’s disciples, the Pharisees’ disciples, and Jesus’ disciples.  Much like ourselves, the anonymous group of “people” are puzzling over what makes these three groups different from each other.  This in itself is telling: usually, we 21st century Christians read the Gospel and we imagine the growing Jesus movement in contradistinction to a single, monolithic Judaism whose leaders are power-hungry, legalistic, and nit-picky about pious details.  In reality, however, there was no unified Judaism against which Jesus and his followers were reacting.  There were different movements within Judaism, and these sometimes competed with each other.  Jesus and his followers were one such.  John the Baptist’s followers were another.  The Pharisees were yet another.  And there was a fourth important group we’ve not met yet: the Sadducees. 

 

There were more than these, but these are the ones of whom we’ve most likely heard.  Getting a general sense of the Sadducees and John the Baptist’s disciples will help us understand the Pharisees, with whom we’ll deal last. 

 

The Sadducees are among the wealthiest, most urban, and most conservative groups in Judaism of the 1st century.  They are squarely establishment folks because the status quo, including the tense relationship with Rome, benefited them more than it did most other Israelites.[1]  The Sadducees included chief priests, nobility of various kinds, and elders.  They had large landholdings, and their power base was primarily in Jerusalem.  They had little following amongst the masses, and even less so in a place like Galilee, far from Jerusalem.  By the time Mark is written, the power of the Sadducees is in decline.[2]  Mark is therefore not terribly concerned with differentiating the Jesus movement from them; they aren’t Jesus’ real competition.  In Mark’s Gospel, the Sadducees are named only once (12:18), and they only appear after Jesus has entered Jerusalem. 

 

Most important for our purposes is the Sadducees’ conservatism.  The Sadducees were politically conservative in the sense that they embraced and perpetuated the status quo; the dominant order was their order (insofar as the dominant order was Israel’s at all).  They were also scripturally conservative in that they practiced what we might call a ‘literal’ reading of the Torah.  The consequence was that the Sadducees believed that “only the priestly caste could, and therefore should, comply with the demands of [liturgical, ritual] purity.”[3]  In short, for Sadducees, the Jerusalem Temple is the only place where the practices of daily holiness (washing hands, maintaining boundaries between different people groups, etc.) really matter, and so the priestly class is the only people group who need to be concerned about it.

 

Contrast these Sadducees with a figure like John the Baptist.  John the Baptist is not in a big city like Jerusalem, but out in the wilderness (1:4).  He does not have large landholdings but lives on locusts and wild honey (1:6).  He’s proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins, and folks from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside are going out to him to be baptized (1:5).  For us, baptism has an explicitly religious connotation, but John’s baptism probably had a thicker, more all-encompassing connotation.  It was not simply religious, but an act of political and even economic protest.  What one was repenting of was one’s participation in the broken dominant social order, in all its economic and religious and political dimensions.

 

We’ll have occasion to explore some of those dimensions more fully later on.  For now, it’s enough to note that John the Baptist represents a rejection of the status quo which the Sadducees represent.  The geographic withdrawal from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem to the site of John’s ministry in the wilderness typifies this rejection.  It’s unlikely that there were very many Sadducees going out to John: they would be less likely to repent of a class system which benefited them. 

 

This class system theme is important because it reminds us of the importance of groups.  We usually imagine John the Baptist as a solitary, wild-eyed, prophetic figure who is unique in his authority.  While John was certainly uniquely authoritative, he didn’t dream up this wilderness living on his own.  There were other movements around the time of Jesus who sought to live ascetic lives removed from society, and John may have been associated with or influenced by one of these.  The most likely candidates are a group called the Essenes.  The Essenes had been around for a while by the time of Jesus.  They lived strictly ascetic lives in communities without the class system on which the Sadducees relied.  They sometimes wrote apocalyptic tracts about God’s eventual (and potentially violent) in-breaking to renew Israel, but they themselves do not seem to have been actively engaged in political renewal.[4] 

 

When, in Mark, we read about “John’s disciples,” we may be seeing a reference to an Essene-like movement going on.  Furthermore, given both the special importance Mark (as well as the other three Gospels) gives to John the Baptist and the carefulness which Mark shows in distinguishing Jesus’ movement from that of John’s (2:18-22), it’s clear that “John’s disciples” were an influential and popular group in Galilee.  If they were not, Mark would not portray Jesus as associating so closely with John, or following so closely after John.  Nor would Mark need to distinguish Jesus from John by way of showing how fully Jesus excels him. 

 

We now have a context that can help us see who the Pharisees are: at one end of the spectrum we have the Sadducees.  They represent and perpetuate the dominant social order which preserves their privileged class status.  These are the “company men.”  At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Essene-like followers of John the Baptist who reject and disengage from that social order.  These are our off-the-grid radicals.  Somewhere in between these two poles we have the Pharisees.  The Pharisees neither perpetuate nor reject the existing order, but seek to reform it.  They’re the scriptural and political progressives of their day and are far more influential in Mark’s time than either the Sadducees or the followers of John.  They’re the group Mark sees as his real competition. 

 

The Pharisees are scripturally progressive in that, unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believe strongly in the oral interpretation of the Torah.  The Torah is a living, breathing collection of texts which demands creative interpretation for people’s everyday lives.  Thus, the Pharisees rejected the Sadducees’ confining of all the important purity rituals to the Temple and its priests.  They wanted lives of ritual purity and holiness to be available to everyone in their own homes, whether in Jerusalem or in Galilee.  This is a good thing to want and it’s something we miss about the Pharisees: it’s a bit like saying Church happens everywhere, not just at the altar.  This liberalizing of ritual purity by bringing it into people’s homes is also why the Pharisees were so concerned about Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners last week.[5] 

 

Furthermore, whereas the Law only requires fasting on the Day of Atonement (a day on which the Temple figured prominently), the Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, as well.[6]  There’s an expansive, populist element in the Pharisaic attitude, and this is a strong vote in their favor amongst the non-elite populace.  Fasting was a way of establishing spiritual street cred.  The regular fasting of the Pharisees (and, apparently, John’s disciples) is behind the question about fasting we get in today’s passage.

 

Politically, the Pharisees rejected the class-based consolidation of power amongst the Jerusalem elites, particularly when it meant cozying up to Rome.  For example, when the half-Jewish, Roman puppet King Herod the Great undertakes his massive rebuilding of the Temple complex, Herod fixes a golden eagle near the entrance—an undeniably Roman symbol.  It is a group of Pharisees who tear the eagle down.[7]  This is another vote in their favor amongst the populace.

 

The Pharisees have more in common with the followers of John the Baptist and groups like the Essenes—both groups fast, for example (2:18)[8]—though there are important differences here, too.  The Pharisees did not remove themselves to the wilderness, but were active in the places where people lived and were active competitors for political power.  Furthermore, while the Pharisees rejected the Jerusalem-focused class system which most benefited the Sadducees, their emphasis on ritualized holiness risked creating a different class system between “sinners” and the “righteous.”  (The Pharisees’ emphasis on this kind of purity appears to be the target of Jesus’ critique in 2:13-17.)  The Pharisaic emphasis on oral interpretation of the Torah, and the subsequent rise of influential, Torah-interpreting rabbis with large followings,[9] also risked maintaining a strong hierarchy between educated, literate folks (scribes and Pharisees) and the largely illiterate populace.[10]  In other words, they weren’t literalists like the Sadducees, but their open embrace of Torah interpretation and debate nevertheless maintained a strong hierarchy between educated and non-educated persons.

 

To conclude, I offer two observations: first, the movement around Jesus is growing, and the anonymous “people” in 2:18 are starting to note how the Jesus movement is different from other groups they know.  Rather than passively listening to Jesus teach with authority (1:21-22), or marveling at his healing (2:10-12), people are starting to ask Jesus the kinds of reflective questions that help create a distinctive group identity.  In other words, the people themselves are beginning to identify what is most important to them.  Fasting is a practice that establishes religious and moral street cred, as evinced by the influential Pharisees and followers of John.  However, in a poor, rural area, questions about fasting are also ultimately questions about food.  It is no accident that in Mark 2, we see Jesus having dinner (2:13-17), using a wedding feast as an explanation as to why his disciples don’t fast yet (2:18-22), and walking through grainfields while referencing a story about eating (2:23-28, which we’ll read next week).  All these stories involve food, and right in the middle is a question about fasting.

 

Second, note that Jesus’ response to the question about fasting doesn’t criticize either John’s disciples or the Pharisees, or even fasting per se, but only when fasting is appropriate.  “The days will come,” Jesus says, “when the bridegroom is taken away…and then they will fast on that day” (2:20).  This is a tempered answer, not the strong rebuke we usually imagine from Jesus towards Pharisees. 

 

It’s followed by two illustrations which use images ordinary Galilean folks would’ve known: mending cloth, which would’ve been particularly familiar to the poor (2:21) and wine in wineskins (2:22).  In the first image, what is new (the patch) is accommodated to what is old so as to extend the life of what is old (the torn garment).  But in the second image, what is old (old wineskins) lacks the elasticity to hold what is new (new wine). 

 

These are images about both the tension and the interaction between what is old and what is new.  With the new patch on old cloth image, Jesus’ point can’t simply be that what is new replaces the old because the patch is sewn precisely for the sake of repairing the old cloth.[11]  If something is torn in the fabric of Israel, then the Jesus movement as well as the Pharisees and disciples of John are all seeking to patch it.  But since Jesus has already said that he’s not there to call the “righteous” (2:17, i.e. the Pharisees), perhaps the old garment is simply the rural populace of Galilee, worn threadbare both physically and emotionally by the necessities of life under Roman occupation.  The movement around John has lost some of its power, and Jesus is restoring it like a fresh patch: Jesus is the “more powerful one” who comes after John, repairing the old garment (1:7).

 

The wineskin image may be more pointed.  It suggests that what is new requires more elasticity than what the old can offer.  This image follows closely after the dinner at Levi’s house, where the Pharisees were concerned that Jesus and his disciples were eating with many tax collectors and sinners (2:16).  The Pharisaic movement may therefore be the old wineskin which is not elastic enough to hold the ‘new wine’ of the Jesus movement, which includes tax collectors and sinners.  By including tax collectors and sinners, the Jesus movement ‘bursts’ the confines of Pharisaic imagination, which is too inelastic to include tax collectors and sinners.  This is somewhat ironic as, in their own way, the Pharisees themselves may have helped ‘burst the old wineskins’ of a group like the Sadducees. 

 

Thank you for reading this lengthy piece, and a gold star to anyone who has made it this far.  Having done this work once, we can refer to it as needed when the Pharisees return later.  For your own reflection: what, if any, parallels do you see in our own day to groups like the establishment Sadducees, the reforming Pharisees, and the radical but politically disengaged Essenes/followers of John?  And where, if anywhere, do you see a movement in our own day like the Jesus movement as portrayed in Mark’s Gospel?

 

God’s Peace,

 

 

Fr. Daniel+

 

[1] Rome’s general policy for governing its empire was to control the existing aristocracies in the territories they conquered (and perhaps elevate a few puppets into their midst), and then let/force the aristocracies to manage the populace more broadly.

[2] This is largely due to a major Jewish revolt in 66-70 CE and Rome’s crushing response, including the destruction of the Temple.  We’ll explore this more fully later.

[3] Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (20th anniversary edition, 10th printing, Dec 2017) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, 76.

[4] Myers, 83.  It seems to me the Essenes have a similar ethos to the Amish and some monastic groups today in their rejection of the dominant social order, though perhaps with a more polemical literary output.

[5] It’s also why, in chapter 7, the Pharisees raise the question of why Jesus’ disciples eat with unwashed hands.

[6] Myers (quoting Taylor), 159.

[7] Myers, 82.

[8] Fasting appears regularly in texts sacred to ancient Israel, and for a variety of reasons: “humbling before God (Ps 69:10), mourning (Ps 35:11; Esther 4:1-3), prayer (Tob 12:8; Jdt 4:9-13), confession and atonement for sin (Lev 16; Ezra 9:5-7; Neh 1:4-11), and living justly (Isa 58).”  See Warren Carter’s Mark, volume 42 in the Wisdom Commentary series edited by Barbara E. Reid, OP and Sarah J. Tanzer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019), 54. 

[9] The similarities to the movement around Jesus is unmistakable.

[10] It would seem that the sinner/righteous class system depends on literate elites who can interpret the Torah for its maintenance.  Myers argues that the Pharisees reject the Sadducees’ class system only to replace it with another, and therefore calls the Pharisees’ social piety “cosmetic” (159).

[11] Carter, 56.

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