Sanders on Reliability of Attribution, Purity and Ordinary Food, and Whether the Pharisees Were Exclusive

I have three items for my write-up today on Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, by E.P. Sanders.

1.  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.

2.  Sanders 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 ordinary people”.

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 234).

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.”

At 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.

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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