Most introductory courses to the New Testament begin with attention to the context of first-century Judaism. A part of that attention notes the “parties” among the Jews of the time.
The Sadducees were the well-to-do aristocratic and priestly Jewish upper class. They made peace with the benefits of a secular Greek culture and held to a literal reading of the Torah.
The Pharisees were the scholars and theologians. They interpreted and taught the Law, valuing both its original expression and its evolving application to modern economic and social life.
The Essenes withdrew from the mainstream of society to preserve the purity of their faith, living a monastic life of separation.
The Zealots were a group of activist and nationalistic Jews dedicated to the expulsion of the Roman occupation of Palestine. A radical wing of this party, the Sicarii (from sicarius – “dagger”) engaged in “cloak and dagger” operations against the Romans and their sympathizers.
Finally, there were the Samaritans. While not really a “party,” they were a clearly identifiable group living north of Jerusalem who were marginalized because they worshipped in the wrong place and had a limited view of Scripture, according to “mainstream” Jews.
All of the groups claimed Jewish heritage as children of Abraham, believing they were “people of the covenant.” Yet, they were radically different in their views of the relation of that covenant to the everyday dimensions of life.
As I taught about these groups, it was a regular occurrence to discuss this diversity among the Jews for a while, and then have someone say, “Hey, wait a minute, that sounds just like…”
Contemporary labels entered the conversation, identifying corresponding perspectives at work in modern consideration of religious and political issues.
What emerges is a clear and important lesson: What is distinctive about these parties is not the names they bear at any particular time, but the perspectives they represent at all times as the human family responds to the issues and challenges of religious, social and political life.
Our current political dysfunction reflects the difficulty of these conflicting perspectives. Torah and Constitution have a similar function in the two arenas, as varied interpretations and selective applications seem to be at work then and now.
Whether the letter of the law or the spirit of the law is embraced seems to depend on what preconceived pattern of thought one wants to support.
The “law” (whether Torah or Constitution) seems to become the servant of the ideology rather than the other way around.
The other interesting point that emerges is that while these conflicting perspectives are very much a part of the context of the Gospel, the content of its testimony of God’s disclosure in Jesus does not identify with any one of them.
Rather, in response to Jesus’ life and teaching, the perspective we are invited to embrace is one that transcends this “party spirit” and focuses on the sacredness of every part of the human family.
Jesus is not presented as “taking sides” with Sadducees, Pharisees or Zealots. Indeed, there are indications of his openness to all of them.
He discusses theology with the Sadducees, has dinner with Pharisees and chooses a Zealot to be one of the 12.
What we see is reflective of (Pharisee) Paul’s affirmation that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. How many other categories would be added if he were writing today?
In word and deed, the Jesus of the Gospels seems to be calling us to embrace a theology that transcends ideology, nurtures the humility of recognizing the partiality of our understanding and urges us to avoid the subtle idolatry of confusing our perspective with the truth.
The “parties” will probably always be with us, and we will find ourselves identifying, often passionately, with one or the other of their perspectives.
But the Gospel offers us a calling that is higher than that, and the stakes of how well we hear and heed that calling are pretty high.
Theologian Paul Tillich spoke of faith as “ultimate concern.” Idolatry for him was the embrace of anything less as one’s guiding principle of life and decision-making. I am wondering if ideology may be the pervasive idolatry of our time.
The idolatry that plagues us most is not of statues or other material things, but of a solidified way of thinking that is given the authority of ultimacy.
This might well bear careful thought as we watch, listen and participate in the deliberations of our life together.
Which “party invitation” will we accept?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.