Were the Pharisees “Legalistic”?

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If we define legalism as “works righteousness,” then we cannot apply it to the Pharisees, because the Pharisaic understanding of piety was not based upon this concept.

When imprecise terminology is used to denote important concepts, it cannot help but bring confusion. The popular use of the term “legalism” to describe whatever it was that Jesus found objectionable about his adversaries is a case in point. The term is imprecise, and one suspects that, when readers try to define exactly what it was that Jesus objected to in the Pharisees’ approach to the Law, they, more often than not, take their cues from preconceived notions of what “legalism” should mean (the term having already been implicitly admitted as an adequate summary of the issue), rather than from the fine points of Jesus’ specific objections. I find that most lay readers of the gospels interpret Jesus’ discussions with and about Pharisees in strict dependence upon the notion of legalism, even to the point of glossing over Jesus’ otherwise very clear language. Terminology is supposed to clarify things, but the imprecision of the term “legalism,” combined with the presupposition that this term captures the essence of Jesus’ objection, only makes things unclear. I have often heard someone read a gospel passage relating Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees, only to follow it with an exposition that totally ignores Jesus’ specific objections to the Pharisees, and replaces them with objections not found in the text. The singer’s words are sage advice for readers of the gospels: “Don’t try to paint your masterpiece under artificial light!”

Of course, the term “legalism” does not denote a precise translation of anything appearing in the Greek text. Rather, the term represents a handy summation of what many interpreters of the gospels think Jesus refers to in a number of passages. Can we at all retain the term as a shorthand for at least some of Jesus’ objections to the Pharisees? That depends on how we define it. There are probably many meanings in circulation, but three seem to dominate. These represent the scope of the confusion: (1) it sometimes refers to the concept of “works righteousness,” that is, the belief that one earns one’s salvation through performing the Law; (2) it sometimes refers to the rabbinic multiplication of rules, intended as a “hedge” around the explicitly enjoined precepts of the Law, to keep them from being broken; or (3) it can also refer to the reduction of piety to legal casuistry, to the point of exploiting loopholes that contradict the spirit of the Law. Only the third meaning corresponds to anything that Jesus objected to in the Pharisees (being part of his overall objection to their hypocrisy), but the first two meanings seem to be more commonly associated with the way most Christians read the gospels today. Let’s take a look at these definitions, to understand why the first two are wrong.

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