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Chapter 22: God’s Redemptive Work in Jesus’ Human Life

Question E: What is the main issue in Jesus’ conflict with the leaders?

1. In many ways, Jesus claimed direct divine authority; he did not subordinate himself to the old law and its interpretative developments. By his words and deeds, Jesus made it clear that God is ready to save all who accept the gospel with faith, even if they have not kept the stipulations of the law. Those who conceived holiness as separation from the unclean necessarily insisted on the legalistic fulfillment of the law and opposed Jesus’ more profound fulfillment of it. Thus, emphasizing this conception of the holy, many of the leaders inevitably considered Jesus’ teaching and activity a serious religious threat.17

2. Moreover, in the minds of at least some of them, there seems to have been a further ground for opposing Jesus. There is a certain tension in the old law (21‑D). Although it establishes a community in friendship with God, this community is limited: There is a tendency to understand it in the context of conflict between God’s chosen people and other nations with their false gods.

3. The prophets attempted to resolve this tension in favor of openness to all humankind and all human goods (see Is 56.6–8; also Jon and Ru). In the time of Jesus, however, many of the leaders overlooked this and instead regarded much of God’s creation as beyond redemption. Hatred for evil which cannot be redeemed is justified. Thus, although there is no such statement in Scripture, Jesus was not misrepresenting the manner in which some actually lived out the law when he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ ” Conflict was inevitable between this teaching and his own, radically different command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5.43–44). To those who defined good and evil by the difference between us and them, his approach to evil was scandalous, almost blasphemous, for it seemingly mixed what is God’s with what is Satan’s.18

As Vatican II teaches, while “authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. Jn 19.6); still, what happened in his passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living” (NA 4).19 Jesus, Mary, and all his first followers were faithful Jews. However, those elements of the Jewish leadership who shared with Roman authorities in responsibility for killing Jesus were motivated by considerations understandable in the framework of their distortion of the imperfect vision of the Old Testament. Very similar but less understandable errors about the nature of evil and the way redemption must be accomplished have been made by many Christians, who proceeded to try to destroy evil by killing Jews, heretics, and others, rather than by a process of healing beginning with personal conversion.

4. This conflict came to a head over the cures which Jesus did on the sabbath (see Mt 12.9–14; Mk 3.1–6; Lk 6.6–11). The Pharisees are outraged: They perceive that Jesus is breaking through one of the boundary lines which they consider to separate the good (which is God’s) from the bad (which is Satan’s and includes sick people as well as their illnesses). Jesus is operating from a very different fundamental conception of good and evil (see Mt 15.1–20; Mk 7.1–23), according to which evil is privation, and human fulfillment, such as the curing of the sick, belongs to God. So he cures; and some of the Pharisees begin to plot how to destroy him.

5. In effect, these Pharisees, with their tactic of segregating things and persons in order to avoid evil and their identification of themselves with goodness (being on God’s side of the line thus drawn), had consigned a great part of creation to Satan (see Mt 9.9–13; Lk 5.27–32).20 God wished to redeem the whole; but his love was too indiscriminate to suit such Pharisees, and it therefore had to be resisted (see Jn 9.1–41). It was this resistance that moved Jesus to fury (see Mt 23.1–35), while such Pharisees for their part were moved to an exercise of destructive power: exerting pressure against those who would have believed Jesus and seeking his death (see Jn 11.45–53; 12.42–43).21

6. Naturally, anyone whose activities might lead to instability posed a threat to the Jewish leadership, and the Pharisees who opposed Jesus surely used this fact for their own purposes. Moreover, it seems that the high priest Caiphas and his associates had reasons of their own for wishing not only to silence Jesus but to discredit him (see Mt 26.57–66; Jn 11.45–53). Thus the method of execution was important. His condemnation and execution as a criminal were sought, not simply as a form of public, social degradation, but because this type of death would seem to show that Jesus had been rejected by God. The criminal hanged on a tree is cursed (see Gal 3.13).22

17. See John Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 1–45. Bowker’s study shows that the opposition between Jesus and Pharisees is subtler than many have supposed, but likewise makes it clear that the notion that there was no irreconcilable difference is indefensible. The latter notion, suggested by some liberal scholars, seems to be generated partly by their apologetic purposes and requires one to write off as valueless (not merely critically examine) the New Testament witness: Ralph Marcus, “The Pharisees in the Light of Modern Scholarship,” Journal of Religion, 32 (1952), 153–64.

18. Birger Gerhardsson, The Ethos of the Bible, trans. Stephen Westerholm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 42–45, points out that Jesus’ teaching and practice necessarily conflicted with the implicit exclusivity of Torah-centered piety. See Jeremias, op. cit., 204–18, for a discussion of Jesus’ rejection of the oral tradition and criticism of the Torah itself.

19. See C. Witton-Davies, “ ‘The Jews’ in the New Testament,” in Studia Evangelica, 6, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone, Texte und Untersuchungen, 112 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1973), 655–65; also, although somewhat dated and not entirely acceptable in its interpretation, a courteous and enlightening apologetic work by a Jewish rabbi: Samuel Umen, Pharisaism and Jesus (New York: Philosophical Library, 1963).

20. Although dated, a work of A. T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), contains a still valuable reflection on the opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees which arose because of his “intolerable association with publicans and sinners” (76–81).

21. See D. Müller, “Pharisee,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 2:810–14, for a fuller treatment of the opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees, consistent with that sketched here. See also Aulén, op. cit., 55–74, for a summary of recent scholarship on this issue; although not entirely supportive, it leaves room for the interpretation I accept.

22. For the political motives of the Sadducean leaders and the significance of crucifixion (although missing the connection between the two), see T. A. Burkill, “The Trial of Jesus,” Vigiliae Christianae, 12 (1958), 1–18.