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The above may serve as a specimen alike of Rabbinical exegesis and theological inferences. It will also help us to understand, how in such a system inconvenient objections, arising from the plain meaning of Scripture, would be summarily set aside by exalting the interpretations of men above the teaching of the Bible. This brings us straight to the charge of our Lord against the Pharisees (Mark 7:13), that they made "the Word of God of none effect" through their "traditions." The fact, terrible as it is, nowhere, perhaps, comes out more strongly than in connection with these very "tephillin." We read in the Mishnah (Sanh. xi. 3), literally, as follows: "It is more punishable to act against the words of the Scribes than against those of Scripture. If a man were to say, 'There is no such thing as "tephillin,"' in order thereby to act contrary to the words of Scripture, he is not to be treated as a rebel. But if he should say, 'There are five divisions in the prayer- fillets' (instead of four in those for the forehead, as the Rabbis taught), in order to add to the words of the Scribes, he is guilty." Assuredly, a more signal instance could scarcely be found of "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," and of, even on their own showing, "laying aside the commandment of God," in order to "hold the tradition of men" (Mark 7:7,8).
Before passing from this subject, it may be convenient to explain the meaning of the Greek term "phylacteries" for these "tephillin," and to illustrate its aptness. It is now almost generally admitted, that the real meaning of phylacteries is equivalent to amulets or charms. And as such the Rabbinists really regarded and treated them, however much they might otherwise have disclaimed all connection with heathen views. In this connection we are not going to enter into the unsavory subject of their heathen superstitions, such as where to find, how to detect, and by what means to get rid of evil spirits, or how to conjure up demons--as these are indicated in the Talmud. Considering the state of civilisation at the time, and the general prevalence of superstition, we should perhaps have scarcely wondered at all this, had it not been for the claims which the Rabbis set up to Divine authority, and the terrible contrast exhibited between their teaching and that- -we will not say of the New, but--of the Old Testament. In reference to the "phylacteries," even the language of Josephus (Ant. iv, 212-213) savors of belief in their magical efficacy; although in this matter also he is true to himself, showing us, at the same time, that certain proverbial views of gratitude were already in vogue in his time. For, writing of the phylacteries, which, he maintains, the Jews wore in remembrance of their past deliverance, he observes, that this expression of their gratitude "served not only by way of return for past, but also by way of invitation of future favors!" Many instances of the magical ideas attaching to these "amulets" might be quoted; but the following will suffice. It is said that, when a certain Rabbi left the audience of some king, he had turned his back upon the monarch. Upon this, the courtiers would have killed the Rabbi, but were deterred by seeing that the straps of his "tephillin" shone like bands of fire about him; thus verifying the promise in Deuteronomy 28:10 (Jer. Ber. v. 1). Indeed, we have it expressly stated in an ancient Jewish Targum (that on Cant 8:3), that the "tephillin" prevented all hostile demons from doing injury to any Israelite.
What has been said will in some measure prepare the reader for investigating the history and influence of the Pharisees at the time of Christ. Let it be borne in mind, that patriotism and religion equally combined to raise them in popular esteem. What made Palestine a land separate and distinct from the heathen nations around, among whom the ruling families would fain have merged them, was that Jewish element which the Pharisees represented. Their very origin as a party stretched back to the great national struggle which had freed the soil of Palestine from Syrian domination. In turn, the Pharisees had deserted those Maccabees whom formerly they had supported, and dared persecution and death, when the descendants of the Maccabees declined into worldly pomp and Grecian ways, and would combine the royal crown of David with the high-priest's mitre. And now, whoever might fear Herod or his family, the Pharisees at least would not compromise their principles. Again, were they not the representatives of the Divine law--not only of that given to Israel on Mount Sinai, but also of those more secret ordinances which were only verbally communicated to Moses, in explanation of, and addition to the law? If they had made "a hedge" around the law, it was only for the safety of Israel, and for their better separation from all that was impure, as well as from the Gentiles. As for themselves, they were bound by vows and obligations of the strictest kind. Their dealings with the world outside their fraternity, their occupations, their practices, their bearing, their very dress and appearance among that motley crowd--either careless, gay, and Grecianising, or self-condemned by a practice in sad discord with their Jewish profession and principles--would gain for them the distinction of uppermost rooms at feasts, and chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi ("my great one, my great one"), in which their hearts so much delighted.
In very truth they mostly did represent, in some one or other degree of their order, what of earnestness and religious zeal there was in the land. Their name--probably in the first instance not chosen by themselves--had become to some a byword, to others a party title. And sadly they had declined from their original tendency--at least in most cases. They were not necessarily "scribes," nor "lawyers," nor yet "teachers of the law." Nor were they a sect, in the ordinary sense of the term. But they were a fraternity, which consisted of various degrees, to which there was a regular novitiate, and which was bound by special vows and obligations. This fraternity was, so to speak, hereditary; so that St. Paul could in very truth speak of himself as "a Pharisee of the Pharisees"--"a Pharisee the son of a Pharisee." That their general principles became dominant, and that they gave its distinctiveness alike to the teaching and the practices of the Synagogue, is sufficiently know. But what tremendous influence they must have wielded to attain this position will best appear from the single fact, which has apparently been too much overlooked, of their almost incredibly small numbers. According to Josephus (Ant. xvii, 32-45), the number of the fraternity amounted at the time of Herod only to about six thousand. Yet this inconsiderable minority could cast Judaism in its mould, and for such terrible evil give its final direction to the nation! Surely the springs of such a movement must have reached down to the very heart of Jewish religious life. What these were, and how they affected the whole community, deserves and requires not merely passing notice, but special and careful attention.