The Pharisees in Modern Jewish Scholarship: A Review Article -- By: M. Silva

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 42:2 (Spring 1980)
Article: The Pharisees in Modern Jewish Scholarship: A Review Article
Author: M. Silva


The Pharisees in Modern Jewish Scholarship:
A Review Article*

M. Silva

Few religious groups in the history of civilization have created more controversy than the Pharisees. Although the discussion has never really abated, the recent decade or so has produced more than its share of important contributions. For the purposes of this review we may simply call attention to two major works by Jewish scholars.

In 1970 Alexander Guttmann, for many years professor at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, published his Rabbinic Judaism in the Making.1 A clear and often insightful survey, this book, which follows traditional methods of research and evaluation, deserves more attention than it has received. Guttmann’s basic thesis is that, in contrast to the OT prophets (uncompromising idealists unable “to lead the people in accordance with their teachings,”) the Pharisees were effective leaders, willing to adjust the demands of the Torah to “the ever-changing realities of life” (p. xii). Only this view explains why the Pharisees alone survived ad 70 and why their teachings, further developed by the Tannaitic rabbis, became mainstream, normative Judaism.

No greater contrast to Guttmann’s approach can be imagined than that of Jacob Neusner (Brown University) to whom we may refer, not inaccurately, as “the Bultmann of rabbinic studies.” An astonishingly prolific scholar, Neusner has broached the subject of the Pharisees in various publications, pre-eminently in a three-volume work,2 the contents of which he has subsequently summarized in 154

* Ellis Rivkin, A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees’ Search for the Kingdom Within (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978). 336 pp. $12.95.

pages3 —a gracious act for those of us who read considerably slower than he writes. While emphasizing the depths of our ignorance regarding pre-ad 70 Pharisaism—a viewpoint that arises out of his distrust of the very material which Guttmann accepts as essentially reliable—Neusner believes we can accurately describe the Pharisees: they were learned men intent in elevating the spiritual status of the people by extending the purity rituals of the Temple to the daily experience of every Jew. Yet for all his basic differences with Guttmann, Neusner’s final assessment of the Pharisees’ contribution hardly strikes us as novel: “the Pharisees succeeded in reshaping the life of Jewry in a way appropriate to their new situation.”4

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