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The Pharisees and the Tax Collector
A Practical Review of Strack & Billerbeck's Commentary on the book of Matthew
I’m thankful to Lexham Press for providing a copy of today’s work in return for an honest review. I would recommend this work in particular for those who are involved in apologetics or polemics, as well as Pastors and Scholars teaching and preaching on passages about Pharisees or the Early Church. If you would usually purchase books on Kindle, some reviews have mentioned formatting issues and inaccuracies in the Kindle version, this has been remedied and so the reviews are out of date.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus compares the prayers of two men, the first was a Pharisee who raised his voice in thanksgiving, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The second was a Tax Collector, who, humbling and humiliating himself, cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Whilst this example was a parable, it was not fictional in its essence, it reflected the parties present. Pharisees had gathered to judge Jesus’ teaching and in the wings stood the author of the first Gospel1, Matthew. This disciple had been a Tax Collector, called out of the work to which he had previously given his life in order to follow Jesus. From the first moments of that calling, he was mocked by the Pharisees (Matt 9:11), who were all too ready with an echo of the prayer Jesus attributed to them. On seeing how Jesus ate with Matthew and his peers “…they asked his disciples, Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
As Christians we take this assessment of the Pharisees to be true, believing in the infallibility of Scripture and trusting Jesus’ words. With that said, if we lack an understanding of what those same Pharisees believed themselves and about themselves, even in their own words, we ourselves up to criticism. In recent years, that gap of knowledge—particularly amongst Evangelicals—has led to some stepping in to undermine the New Testament view of first-century Judaism and offer a new replacement which would at the least alter, and at worst undermine core doctrines of the church.
Thankfully we needn’t fret in the face of challenges like these, we have incredible works which have been thoroughly researched and written which dissect the Talmud and Midrashim2. The Talmud is the primary text of Second Temple Judaism, consisting primarily of debates and discussions between Jewish leaders, around moral issues, Biblical texts, and current events. You can read more about Midrash/Midrashim here. We’ve been blessed with the recently translated works of Strack & Billberbeck—published by Lexham Press. The works of Strack & Billerbeck have long been important volumes for the understanding of 1st Century Judaism over the past century but, having been written in German by German scholars, they would have been inaccessible to most of the English-speaking world in their original language. These new translations form, to my mind, one part of a four-pronged approach to understanding 1st Century Judaism which stood during the time of the Gospels and the early church. The other three are:
The Bible — No matter how important it is for us to do our due diligence and—for the sake of apologetics/polemics—delve into extra-biblical sources, the Bible should be our primary source of truth.
The Apocrypha3 and the Talmud — both form the canon of work synonymous with what is usually called “Second Temple Judaism” and can aid in understanding not only what Pharisees, Sadducees, and the general Jewish population were being fed upon, but also why.
The late Jewish Scholar Jacob Neusner — Neusner was unparalleled in his field and wrote almost a thousand books during the course of his life, primarily on Second Temple Judaism. As a Jew, he himself disagreed with the “new perspective” of second-temple Judaism.4
The Strack-Billberbeck volumes (SBVs) do a fantastic job of tying together those first and second sources as they are commentaries on the New Testament with excerpts, explanations, and contrasts from the Talmud and Midrashim. The SBVs are like the map in an Ikea—for those of you who don’t know, these Swedish superstores are amongst the most geographically complex places on Earth. The Talmud is unwieldy, and not easily read. Whilst the map is still complicated, if followed well it will help you to navigate the Talmud and associated texts. The SBVs allow us to stand from the point of view of the NT authors, who had access to the knowledge and witnesses of the time, and allow us to emulate that capability as well as humanly possible in the 21st century. Here are two examples, both from Matthew 23, explaining how that looks practically, and how you might personally use the SBVs in your own Bible study/sermon prep.
Matthew 23:4 (ESV)
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
So, to extrapolate simply from what I’ve already mentioned, we need to:
Know what the Pharisees thought themselves
Whether the Bible, and specifically Jesus, is correct in what it/he says about them
This passage is distinctly referring to them, and so what do the SBVs have to say:
“With these onerous burdens one has to think in the first place of the nitpickingly precise…stipulations with which rabbinic interpretation had burdened individual commandments that penetrated deep into the life of the people, such as, for example, the commandments about purity and impurity, about tithes and what was holy, about fasting and praying, about sanctifying the Sabbath and festivals and the like…for example, there was added to the forbidden degrees of relationship for marriage in Lev 18:6ff.”
A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, Volume 1
I have included in a footnote5 a direct quote from the Talmud which proves the SBVs point here, and I’ve extrapolated the following bullet points from that section of the Talmud. I can only assume that this is what S&B had in mind when they reference Lev 18:6, which is discussed in this passage. It stipulates that:
One should not approach any close relative for sexual relations. (Which is obviously a good and biblical stipulation)
A man should not stay in a private room with a woman who is a close relative—even if she is his sister or daughter, because of public opinion.
A man should not converse with a woman in the market—even if she is his wife, for fear of public perception.
A man should not walk behind a woman—even if she is his wife, because of the potential for people to gossip about them.
One should avoid anything that might cause him to sin or cause people to talk about him.
The repeated strain here upon a man not only to refrain from sin but also from anything which might lead others to think him to be sinning is heavy beyond measure. We see similar cultural stipulations in the world around us today.
To be clear, if you’re preaching, I’d refrain from quoting directly from the Talmud or even this commentary, but rather take a similar approach to the one above, find the passages and then extrapolate from them the information relevant to your congregation and to the passage. In this case, Jesus is saying that the Pharisees place heavy burdens upon the Jewish people, give a couple of examples from above. You could also then give some examples of similar things we do today, yokes or burdens which people adopt in the name of morality and freedom which in reality bring sorrow and pain.
Matthew 23:11 (ESV)
“The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
In this case, we see the humanity and difference of opinion & practice which occurred within the community of Pharisees. This is a brilliant example of one party doing their best to live out personal holiness, and others taking that example and, like the example above, trying to find the rule to follow.
Raban Gamaliel at the wedding banquet of his son mixed a drink for Raban Eliezer, who rejected the offer. How could one of such high station condescend to serve him? When another accepted it, Eliezer confronted him, saying, “What is this supposed to be, Joshua, that we recline at table and Rabban Gamaliel stands and serves!” After some back and forth, it is decided that in fact, Gamaliel should send his slave to do the work of mixing and passing a drink, and. the matter is settled.
“The greatest among you shall be served by the servants.”
This contrast between Jesus’ teaching and the Pharisees isn’t spoken of only by Jesus, but also the Pharisees themselves. They would have agreed with his articulation of their theology, even whilst rejecting his rebuke. The issue wasn’t that the Pharisees disagreed with Jesus on this and knew they were wrong, but rather that they had convinced themselves of their own personal righteousness. Jesus’ words will be controversial until he comes again, but were distinctly aimed at the heart of the issue as far as the Pharisees were concerned. What the SBVs—and by extension the Talmud—highlight here is the wisdom with which Jesus delivered the Gospel, and the worldly wisdom which kept the Pharisees blind to it.
Whilst not everyone will benefit from this commentary or the others in the series, it is nonetheless an important resource and one I’m glad is now in English. I hope to pick up the other volumes too at some point down the road. In describing the SBVs to my father-in-law he jested that they didn’t sound like real page-turners, and he’s right, but they are quite clearly the easiest and most helpful way to unlock the form of Judaism which sat parallel to the early church. I talk a lot about understanding the Bible in context, and this quite clearly fulfils that role. Similar to understanding historical sources or Biblical languages, you shouldn’t simply take quotes or passages from the SBVs or the Talmud and read them wholesale during a talk or sermon, but rather you need to do the work of interpretation and application there too. If you’re talking about the Pharisees, be honest about what they believed, how that impacted Jewish believers in the early church, and what it would look like if we adopted the same principles. Comparing the easy yoke of Christ to the burden of shame offered by the Pharisees and other moral teachers is part and parcel of expositing the word. The best way to dispel darkness is to point it out and then illuminate it with light.
If you’re interested in picking up this volume for yourself, you can do so by hitting either of the links below. It is worth noting that a few Amazon reviews have mentioned formatting issues and inaccuracies in the Kindle version, this has been remedied and so the reviews are out of date.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Clarification: The first in the accepted canon of the NT
The Apocrypha is made up of books written between the time of the OT and NT, which are considered to be semi-Biblical by some Catholics, but are not a part of the Bible and are therefore not inspired. They are important nonetheless because of their influence on theology at the time, particularly eschatology.
Whilst we as Christians would disagree with Neusner on many things, this particular note is important to hear.
“It is written [ibid., ibid. 6]: “None of you shall approach to any that are near of kin to him.” From this it was said one must not stay in a separate room with any woman in a hostelry, though she be his sister or daughter, because of public opinion. For the same reason one must not converse with a woman in the market, not even with his wife. For the same reason a man shall not walk behind a woman, even though she be his wife. This was deduced from the following analogy of expression: It is written in the passage of illegal unions, “Ye shall not approach,” and here is also written, “Thou shalt not approach,” from which it is to be inferred that one shall not approach such things as can cause him to sin (or cause people to talk about him).”
The Babylonian Talmud: Original Text, Edited, Corrected, Formulated, and Translated into English, (Boston, MA: The Talmud Society, 1918), 9a:12–13.