How research in ancient speech & talk sheds light on Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees in the Gospels is something that is still emerging in biblical studies. From time-to-time, one finds articles about Jesus and the Pharisees in journals, magazines, and online blogs that would have benefitted from considering ancient Mediterranean social processes like gossip and rumor. One such article is Scot McKnight’s response to the new BARNA Study at the PATHEOS website (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/05/01/the-pharisees-my-response-to-the-new-barna-study/ ) this May 1, 2013.
The BARNA study asks “Are Christians More Like Jesus or More Like the Pharisees?” McKnight incisively points out the problems this question implies enough so that I can refer you back to his article (which one should read anyway, especially if one continues reading this blog entry). Along his way of assaying who the Pharisees were according to Josephus, the Gospels, Mishna, Tosefta, and both Talmuds, McKnight rightly identifies how calling someone(group) a “Pharisee” is an example of labeling:
“Now another point: this kind of rhetoric is what is called “labeling” in order to overpower someone with moral status. To label someone is to put them in a category, or a box, or a corner, and then slap a sticker on their head so we know what to think and how to think about such a person. Labeling often strains the wisdom of Jesus and becomes unChristian, and it is what Jesus fought against constantly — and this means we have to see what Jesus meant by “Pharisee” and what he didn’t mean by “Pharisee.”
I think it is important to recognize that although labeling is indeed a rhetorical tool used by a labeler to gain some kind of power over the label-ee, more to the point, labeling involves the construction of social identity. Labeling was integral to the construction of a group’s collective identity insofar as it was directed at outsiders to, among other things, evince what “we insiders” are not – especially if the labels are negative, as they usually are.
Labeling was also often closely associated with the values of honor and shame in antiquity, and thus implies the agonistic (competitive) aspects of the social process that were typically worked out through public hassling of others in a process called challenge-riposte. In other words, when someone or some group was publicly challenged, labels would probably soon be flying in an attempt to negatively construct the identity of an outsider.
Indeed, labeling was often part-and-parcel with gossiping about someone negatively. Alternatively to McKnight’s suggestion that Jesus “fought against” labeling, the Gospels report that Jesus actually engaged in negative labeling (and gossip!), and was very aggressive about it (See my article “Gossip in the New Testament,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 42.4  204-213). In Mt 23, Jesus both gossips about (23:1-7) and then vigorously labels the Pharisees as “hypocrites” (23:13ff.) – as McKnight’s article points out so well, but interestingly without calling it what it is, that is, labeling.
Indeed, McKnight’s unpacking of what Jesus meant by “hypocrisy” according to Jesus’ own elaboration on the label, is just fine as it is, but his conclusions about the Pharisees are puzzling to me:
Put together, Jesus accuses the Pharisees for “hypocrisy” because they had abused their teaching authority by teaching false things, not living according to what they taught, and for the desire for power. In addition, their teaching was a focus on minor issues to the neglect of major issues. To be “hypocrite” is to be a false teacher who leads both self and others astray from the will of God. The term should not be limited to “contradiction between appearance and reality.” Should we call anyone “Pharisee”? Be careful, that’s my rule.
As a corrective to this conclusion, or perhaps a clarifying nuance(?), it is important to emphasize something that McKnight does not, namely, that the reasons Jesus’ labels the Pharisees “hypocrites” – “…because they had abused their authority…” etc. etc. – are all reasons according to Matthew’s Jesus! McKnight offers these “reasons” for the label without articulating an opinion as to their accuracy. Yes, some Pharisees may have been doing these things (as McKnight points out earlier in the article, but not after opining what Jesus means by “hypocrites”) but not all of them, and perhaps not many of those Pharisees standing there listening to Jesus tear into them in front of the crowd. Moreover, there is little or no indication how the crowd responded to Jesus’ tirade. This is important because as soon as Jesus turns toward the crowd (Mt 23:1) and starts gossiping negatively about the Pharisees (Mt 23:2-7), he basically invites the crowd to construct the Pharisees with him – ah, the risky business that gossip can be.
If Jesus’ labeling is granted moral maneuvering room by Christian readers sympathetic to his cause, then why no such slack for the Pharisees who labeled Jesus a drunkard and a glutton (Luke 7:34)?
(I’ve often wondered: if Gandhi said something to the effect of “Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word or deed, not even to the supposed advantage of this creature,” how would a discussion about non-violence between him and Jesus go? But, I digress.)
In any event, like most people in the 1st century Mediterranean world, Jesus wondered about the gossip about him (Mk 8:27) gossiped about people (Mt 23:1-12), labeled them indulging in name-calling (Mt 23:13ff.), and even told lies (John 7). Knowing this sort of thing may shock a Christian at first, but in the socio-cultural story-worlds of the Gospels where he does all of this, he is actually behaving honorably. This Christological perspective “from the side” adds important plausibility to any portrait of the historical Jesus.