I have three items for my write-up today on Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, by E.P. Sanders.
In rabbinic literature, are the attributions of certain opinions to the
sages reliable, or are they merely a later hand putting words into
those sages' mouths to give the opinions some weight?
According to Sanders, Jacob Neusner "argued extensively and well that
attributions are generally reliable", but Neusner "has later criticized
those who hold this view as fundamentalists" (page 168). Sanders does
not agree with fundamentalism, but he does think that "we may broadly
accept attributions as sound" (page 168). Sanders' reason is that "The
most-often-named Rabbi in the Mishnah is R. Judah (b. Ilai), mid-second
century, not Hillel, who was considered to be the founder of the right
line of interpretation, nor Akiba, who was considered to be the most
acute halakist of the rabbinic movement" (page 168). Because
the Mishnah does not attribute a lot of opinions to prominent sages,
Sanders apparently argues, it is not simply putting words into the
mouths of prominent sages to give certain opinions some weight.
Moreover, while Sanders acknowledges that there are incorrect
attributions, he concludes from "confusions" in the Mishnah that there
was no attempt to harmonize or make everything come out looking smooth,
and Sanders considers that to be another attestation to the "general
reliability of the material" (page 170).
I think that
Sanders makes good points, but I wouldn't rule out that there were times
when opinions were put into the mouths of past sages to give them some
weight. I wrote a post about the methodology of Neusner and others
regarding this issue: see here.
continues his discussion about whether the Pharisees believed that they
needed to eat their ordinary food in a state of ritual purity, as if
they were priests. Sanders makes many of the same arguments that I mentioned here:
that the Pharisees were often concerned about ritually defiling
priestly food, not ordinary food; that it's unlikely that the Pharisees
of the first century generally believed in handwashing before meals,
when later rabbis debated that very issue; etc.
But Sanders does appear to acknowledge that Pharisees applied some purity rules to non-priestly food.
As I mention in that link, John Meier says that Sanders affirms that
the Pharisees washed their hands before Sabbath and festival meals. On
page 232 of Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, Sanders says
that "They avoided food which had been contaminated with
corpse-impurity, and it appears that the ordinary people did so as well
(Eduyoth 1.14; Oholoth 5.3)." On page 247, Sanders says that "they
would not buy olives from an 'am ha-'arets because they did not wish
bringing into their own houses food which had fly-impurity" (by which
Sanders may mean food that was touched by a swarming thing, if I'm
interpreting his statements on page 141 correctly). On page 192,
Sanders says that "the Pharisees avoided the food and vessels of the
But Sanders does not believe that the
Pharisees applied priestly regulations to themselves. Pharisees went to
funerals and worked the soil, things that priests did not do. (The
part about priests not working the soil was news to me.)
According to Sanders, Pharisees also did not believe that they had to be
free of midras purity (impurity that is transmitted to what one "sits,
lies or leans on") before they could eat. Sanders says that a
menstruating woman, for example, defiles her bed, and yet it's likely
that the Pharisees still slept in the same bed as their menstruating
wives, for there are no rules on "separate furniture and its handling,
or on the shelters where menstruants stayed" (page 233). Moreover,
according to Sanders, the Pharisees did not bathe as soon as they got up
in the morning to cleanse themselves from midras impurity. The
Pharisees, for Sanders, were "less careful than priests' families" (page
Sanders is probably right that the Pharisees did not live entirely
like priests. But I think that there had to be a reason that they
imposed on themselves stricter rules than they expected other Israelites
to follow. Sanders himself acknowledges the possibility that they made
"a kind of gesture towards living like priests" (page 166). If
that is the case, then couldn't one legitimately argue that they were
trying to be an especially holy and pure community within Israel,
perhaps so they could experience God at a special level, or (as Sanders
says on page 192) to be godly?
3. Sanders argues against the idea that the Pharisees were exclusive. I talk some about Sanders' approach to this issue here and here.
Sanders says that the Pharisees were not like the exclusivist Essenes,
who had their own priesthood. And Sanders refers to an example in which
a Pharisee said that ordinary Israelites were not bound to a certain
stricter standard that the Pharisees applied to themselves. Sanders
says on page 192: "The discussions of pots and food in Eduyoth 1.14 and
Oholoth 5.2f. show that the Pharisees did not try to impose all their
rules on others. They declared the food pure for the 'am-ha-'arets, and
that constitutes an admission that people were not required to live like Pharisees."
the same time, Sanders acknowledges that the Pharisees did not eat with
the am ha-aretz, who were not scrupulous on certain purity rules.
On page 248, Sanders states that, because the am ha-aretz "were not
wholly trustworthy about midras-impurity and fly-impurity[,]
Pharisees...would not eat with ordinary people, and their trade with
them was restricted." But didn't Sanders say that the
Pharisees felt they could eat even if they were not free of midras
purity? There may be some nuance in all of those pages of Sanders that I
missed! One point that Sanders makes a few times is that the Pharisees
tried to be pure, but they weren't always successful----and they did
not aim for the priestly standard of perfection regarding ritual purity.
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