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The "Fraternity" of Pharisees
To realise the state of religious society at the time of our Lord, the fact that the Pharisees were a regular "order," and that there were many such "fraternities," in great measure the outcome of the original Pharisees, must always be kept in view. For the New Testament simply transports us among contemporary scenes and actors, taking the then existent state of things, so to speak, for granted. But the fact referred to explains many seemingly strange circumstances, and casts fresh light upon all. Thus, if, to choose an illustration, we should wonder how so early as the morning after the long discussion in the Sanhedrim, which must have occupied a considerable part of the day, "more than forty men" should have been found "banded together" under an anathema, neither to eat nor to drink "till they had killed Paul" (Acts 23:12,21); and, still more, how such "a conspiracy," or rather "conjuration," which, in the nature of it, would be kept a profound secret, should have become known to "Paul's sister's son" (v 16), the circumstances of the case furnish a sufficient explanation. The Pharisees were avowedly a "Chabura"--that is, a fraternity or "guild"--and they, or some of their kindred fraternities, would furnish the ready material for such a "band," to whom this additional "vow" would be nothing new nor strange, and, murderous though it sounded, only seem a farther carrying out of the principles of their "order." Again, since the wife and all the children of a "chaber," or member, were ipso facto members of the "Chabura," and Paul's father had been a "Pharisee" (v 6), Paul's sister also would by virtue of her birth belong to the fraternity, even irrespective of the probability that, in accordance with the principles of the party, she would have married into a Pharisaical family. Nor need we wonder that the rage of the whole "order" against Paul should have gone to an extreme, for which ordinary Jewish zeal would scarcely account. The day before, the excitement of discussion in the Sanhedrim had engrossed their attention, and in a measure diverted it from Paul. The apologetic remark then made (v 9), "If a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God," coming immediately after the notice (v 8) that the Sadducees said, there was "neither angel nor spirit," may indicate, that the Pharisees were quite as anxious for dogmatic victory over their opponents as to throw the shield of the "fraternity" over one of its professed members. But with the night other and cooler thoughts came. It might be well enough to defend one of their order against the Sadducees, but it was intolerable to have such a member in the fraternity. A grosser outrage on every principle and vow--nay, on the very reason of being of the whole "Chabura"--could scarcely be conceived than the conduct of St. Paul and the views which he avowed. Even regarding him as a simple Israelite, the multitude which thronged the Temple had, on the day before, been only restrained by the heathens from executing the summary vengeance of "death by the rebel's beating." How much truer was it as the deliberate conviction of the party, and not merely the cry of an excited populace, "Away with such a fellow from the earth; for it is not fit that he should live!" But while we thus understand the conduct of the Pharisees, we need be under no apprehension as to the consequences to those "more than forty men" of their rash vow. The Jerusalem Talmud (Avod. Sar. 40 a) here furnishes the following curious illustration, which almost reads like a commentary: "If a man makes a vow to abstain from food, Woe to him if he eateth, and, Woe to him if he does not eat! If he eateth, he sinneth against his vow; if he does not eat, he sins against his life. What then must he do? Let him go before 'the sages,' and they will absolve him from his vow." In connection with the whole of this matter it is, to say the least, a very curious coincidence that, at the very time when the party so acted against St. Paul, or immediately afterwards, three new enactments should have been passed by Simeon, the son of Gamaliel (Paul's teacher), which would exactly meet the case of St. Paul. The first of these ordained, that in future the children of a "Chaber" should not be necessarily such, but themselves require special and individual reception into the "order"; the second, that the previous conduct of the candidate should be considered before admitting him into the fraternity; while the third enjoined, that any member who had left the "order," or become a publican, should never afterwards be received back again.
Three words of modern significance, with which of late we have all become too familiar, will probably better help us to understand the whole state of matters than more elaborate explanations. They are connected with that ecclesiastical system which in so many respects seems the counterpart of Rabbinism. Ultramontanism is a direction of religious thought; the Ultramontanes are a party; and the Jesuits not only its fullest embodiment, but an "order," which, originating in a revival of the spirit of the Papacy, gave rise to the Ultramontanes as a party, and, in the wider diffusion of their principles, to Ultramontanism as a tendency. Now, all this applies equally to the Pharisees and to Pharisaism. To make the analogy complete, the order of the Jesuits also consists of four degrees * -- curiously enough, the exact number of those in the fraternity of "the Pharisees!"
* When speaking of the four degrees in the order of Jesuits, we refer to those which are professed. We are, of course, aware of the existence of the so-called "professi trium votorum" of whom nothing definite is really known by the outside world, and whom we may regard as "the secret Jesuits," and of that of lay and clerical "coadjutors," whose services and vows are merely temporary.
Like that of the Jesuits, the order of the Pharisees originated in a period of great religious reaction. They themselves delighted in tracing their history up to the time of Ezra, and there may have been substantial, though not literal truth in their claim. For we read in Ezra 6:21, 9:1, 10:11 and Nehemiah 9:2 of the "Nivdalim," or those who had "separated" themselves "from the filthiness of the heathen"; while in Nehemiah 10:29 we find, that they entered into a "solemn league and covenant," with definite vows and obligations. Now, it is quite true that the Aramaean word "Perishuth" also means "separation," and that the "Perushim," or Pharisees, of the Mishnah are, so far as the meaning of the term is concerned, "the separated," or the "Nivdalim" of their period. But although they could thus, not only linguistically but historically, trace their origin to those who had "separated" themselves at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, they were not their successors in spirit; and the difference between the designations "Nivdalim" and "Perushim" marks also the widest possible internal difference, albeit it may have been gradually brought about in the course of historical development. All this will become immediately more plain.