The Am Ha-Aretz, Sinners, and the Prodigal Son

I went to my church’s Bible study last night.  We’re going through Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, which is about Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son.  (Tim Keller doesn’t like that title for the parable, for it concerns two sons and a father, who is prodigal in his generosity.  But I use that title because many of my readers know the parable by that name.)

We were talking about the Pharisees, the tax-collectors, and the sinners, and the pastor was saying that the Pharisees regarded anyone who was not in their group as a sinner.  I read something about this topic a week ago, in The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period.  I found that I was both agreeing and also disagreeing with my pastor, but (perhaps fortunately, since I don’t like to make waves) I could not articulate where I agreed and disagreed, for my thoughts were jumbled in my mind.  I know the view of Jacob Neusner and many other scholars of rabbinics (except for E.P. Sanders) that the Pharisees had an exclusive system of table fellowship, in which people partook of a meal together according to rules of purity and hoped (in some manner) to experience God that way.  I have read in rabbinic sources and scholarship on the rabbis (who considered themselves the successors to the Pharisees) that the rabbis had a contemptuous attitude towards the am ha-aretz, the Jews who were not scrupulous in observing certain rules (i.e., separating tithes and the heave offering from their produce).  But I vaguely recalled reading in The Cambridge History of Judaism that the Pharisees did not regard the am ha-aretz as sinners, for sinners were those who knowingly rebelled against God’s rules, not those who merely neglected them.  And did the Pharisees believe that only they would enter the World to Come?  There is a passage in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10 saying that all Israel will have a place in the World to Come, plus there are views there that those Jews who are somewhere between good and evil will enter it.  But rabbinic literature often talks about Israelites who would not enter the World to Come, and I could not remember what it says about the am ha-aretz.

I did find the passage in The Cambridge History of Judaism that was vaguely in my mind, however.  It was on pages 636-643 of “Jesus: from the Jewish point of view”, by W.D. Davies and E.P. Sanders.  According to Davies and Sanders, the am ha-aretz are those “who either are not scholars or who are not sufficiently rigorous in buying, selling and preparing food.”  Davies and Sanders (at least here) maintain that the Pharisses thought that even ordinary Israelites should obey the priestly purity rules in handling and eating food, and so they looked down on the am ha-aretz for not being scrupulous.  But Davies and Sanders argue that the Pharisees did not regard the am ha-aretz as sinners.  They quote Mishnah Avot 5:10, which lists four groups: the one who says “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is in the intermediate category; the one who says “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” is an ignorant am ha-aretz; the one who says “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours” is a pious person; and the one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.  The am ha-aretz here is ignorant, but he’s not a sinner.  Davies and Sanders cite t. ‘Abod Zar. 3.10, in which Rabbi Gamaliel gives his daughter in marriage to an am ha-aretz, and B.T. B. Metz. 33b, in which Rabbi Judah (a fourth generation Tanna) includes the am ha-aretz in the Israel that will receive God’s salvation.

According to Davies and Sanders, sinners were not people who merely committed sins, for everyone did that.  Rather, they were people who committed sins habitually and who thereby knowingly placed themselves outside of God’s covenant with Israel.  Gentiles were sinners by virtue of being outside of God’s covenant, period, which was why Paul used the term “Gentile sinners” in Galatians 2:15.  (At the same time, rabbinic literature does talk about righteous Gentiles.)  Jacob Neusner would probably disagree with how Davies and Sanders are using rabbinic sources here, for they are saying that later material is somehow relevant to the time of the Pharisees.  At the same time, I do not think that we should assume that the Pharisees considered anyone outside of their group to be sinful or hell-bound, without evidence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Neusner would agree with me on this (not that he even knows of me). 

The argument of Davies and Sanders was that many Pharisees disliked Jesus, not because he was hanging around with ordinary Jews who were not scholars and were not overly scrupulous in certain legal details, but rather because he was eating with those who sinned enough that they placed themselves outside of God’s covenant.  In my opinion, this fits the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the younger son deliberately places himself outside of a relationship with his father so he can be independent and live a profligate life.  Jesus had a heart for these kinds of people, which was why he hung around them—he wanted the lost to be found.  Many Pharisees were like Jesus in that they believed that a sinner could repent, but the Pharisees’ separatist rules may have hindered them from reaching out to people.

All of this said, I think that many of the issues that we discussed at the Bible study group last night are relevant to what I just said about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, under the influence of Davies and Sanders.  Many Christians want to reach out to those who violate moral standards, but they fear being influenced by them and being led down a wrong road.  But we agreed that we should be friendly to everyone who enters our church’s doors, even if they show up to our service drunk.  And, whereas some rabbis had a system that distinguished among the righteous, the intermediate, the am ha-aretz, and the wicked, perhaps Jesus was presenting another point-of-view: that we’re all sinners.  I’m not saying that Jesus (or, for those who don’t ascribe certain words to Jesus, early Christianity) thought that all sins were equal and deserved the same judgment, for Jesus in John 19:11 refers to a greater sin, and Luke 12:47-48 presents a harsher punishment for those who know the master’s will and do it not, whereas those who unknowingly disobey receive a lesser punishment.  But I do believe that humility is important—that we shouldn’t “minister at” people, but “to” people (as someone in the study said).  I know that I’ve made mistakes, and I still do.  If I had received certain cards in life, or if I had succumbed to certain temptations, I could have ended up as the sort of person on whom society looks down.  Even ministering to others should not occur from some spiritual or moral hilltop, in my opinion, but it should proceed on the assumption that we all have made mistakes.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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