The year was 20 – not 2020, just 20.
Two thousand years ago, long before the issues dominating our headlines and news cycles were anywhere close to the horizon, there was a faith community with a covenant deeply rooted in a long history.
On the edge of a mighty empire that both tolerated and found them useful as a way of drawing support for the empire’s agenda, they sought to live their faith in a context that was always evolving around them.
Their faith foundation was called the Torah, and they looked to it through the lenses of several parts of their history that colored their understanding of what it meant. It contained not only the foundational principles of their covenant life, but also a vast array of applications to the circumstances of life.
There were two major leadership parties within that faith community, and they were characterized by their two different ways of understanding the Torah.
One had developed out of a long struggle in the tension between the priestly and the prophetic functions of religious leadership and had passionately held to the authority of the Law.
They were committed to its preservation and its teaching, but also to its interpretation and its application to the new and evolving challenges of life in a changing world.
They developed a body of interpretations, largely reflecting application of the spirit of the law to issues not anticipated or covered by its original written expression.
They were called Pharisees.
A second party consisted of largely wealthy aristocratic members of their community.
They had managed to accommodate their faith with the features of Greek culture brought to the area a few centuries earlier by the expansions of Alexander the Great and his armies.
They, too, were passionate advocates of the Torah but insisted on its written form; they did not accept the validity of the interpretations of the Pharisees.
Their perspective would have been similar to the more recent Campbellite motto: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
We might call them “textualists,” “literalists” or “originalists,” in that they adhered to the Law as written, without attending to its spirit in the face of challenges unforeseen by its framers.
They were known as the Sadducees.
There were other groups – “sub parties,” perhaps – in the Judaism of the early decades of the Common Era.
There were the Zealots, a radical group dedicated to the overthrow of the dominance of the Roman Empire, and the Herodians, who believed the dynasty of Herod was the fulfillment of the covenant promise, in spite of the atrocities for which his reign was known.
But it seems to have been the Pharisees and the Sadducees, with their different understandings and applications of the Torah to which they both professed allegiance, who set the stage for what would begin to emerge within a decade or so as a new and revolutionary embrace of the covenant.
The portraits we have of that “new covenant” do not show Jesus resolving the tension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
He seems to have had easier followship with the Pharisees, in spite of their reported challenges and resistance to his teachings. He did enjoy hospitality in the homes of some.
Their willingness to seek new ways of applying the spirit of the Torah to the challenges of life as they lived it seems to have given them some common ground.
The Sadducees and their “originalism” seem to have been more committed to the Torah as a protection of the features of what they embraced as a privileged status quo than to the discovery of how it might point to creative ways to expand the covenant promise into arenas of life where it had not been welcome.
It may be significant that the theological architect of the Christian movement was himself a Pharisee and may have continued to think of himself as one, even after the reorientation of his Torah faith from its reward orientation to its new grace orientation.
Of course, 20 is two millennia away from 2020, but it is interesting that human perspectives seem to be fairly consistent from age to age – only the labels change. The parties within Judaism of that era can easily put on modern clothes.
But the decades following year 20 point to a hopeful possibility for Torah understanding beyond the Pharisee-Sadducee conflict. It lies in the creation of a community of an internalized covenant that the Torah describes and toward whose ongoing fulfilment the Torah points.
Matthew’s report of Jesus’ words in response to a Torah concern captures this possibility and invites us to embrace it, “I have not come to break the Law in pieces (or perhaps also to fight over it) … but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17).
A future to hope for – then and now.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).