DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Pharisees

The name is usually thought to mean "those who are separated" (separatists) and seems to date from only about 120 years before Jesus' times. The Pharisees were "separated" from ritual defilement and irreligion. Scholars generally think that they were descended as a party of the Jewish religion from the Hasidim - a group which fiercely resisted pressures to adopt Greek culture.

They were in no sense priests or ministers, but laymen banded together for a more exacting observance of the Jewish Law or Torah. Their rules are sometimes called the "oral Torah", the spoken law which was a development of the original written codes so important to the Jews. The spoken law was designed to ensure the fuller observance of the written law by making rules for detailed observations, settling disputes around interpretation and reconciling apparent inconsistencies.

By Jesus' time the body of spoken law had become considerable and is described here as the "tradition" or the "customs" of the elders or ancestors. It was the work of learned men known as rabbis or scribes to formulate and discuss the spoken law. In an age when literacy was comparatively rare, debates about the spoken law were usually in public.

Of course, the issue here is not hygiene but ritual cleansing. Most people thought that touching or being touched by certain things or animals would make them "unclean" and therefore unable to approach God properly. Unclean people were to be avoided socially. In effect, as long as they remained unclean, they were outcasts.

The evidence of Jewish scholars is that at the time of Jesus the ritual washing of hands before eating was in fact obligatory only for priests. The ordinary layman would not have worried about this unless he was about to enter the Temple to make a sacrifice.

It was not until about 100 AD that ritual washing became obligatory to everyone. We can only suppose that for some time before this there was already a strong religious movement in this direction.

We have to be a little cautious about the New testament presentation of the "Separatists" because we know that the very early Christians probably conflicted with the Pharisees. The latter are routinely criticised in the gospels and the general picture of the conflict is confirmed by the Jewish historian Josephus and by the Rabbinic traditions dating back to the first century.

It seems that Jesus and his followers didn't follow the Pharisaical line - but then nor did many contemporary Jews, so that in itself wasn't particularly unusual. What is unusual is that Jesus gave no credit to the idea of ritual contamination, a belief almost universal in his time. Without this idea, it's likely that much of every religion of the time would have collapsed.

Jesus was striking at the very heart of a system which regulated and controlled access to God and gave added status to some individuals and groups in the eyes of "good" people.

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