from possibility to certainty in just 6 short pages

Virtually every morning at the office, I keep to a particular routine: arrive c. 7.00am; prayer and Bible reading until c. 8.00am; study/review a particular language (either Greek or German) until c. 9.00am; random ‘academic’ reading until c. 10.00am; and then work on my dissertation until c. 12.00pm, at which point I break for lunch. After lunch, I tend to check on e-mails and/or do a blog post [such as this one] and then do nothing but dissertation stuff for the rest of the day).

My ‘academic’ reading for this morning was C.J. den Heyer’s, Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement (1998).  Not really sure why I’ve taken on an interest in the specific topic of atonement, but I am enjoying what I’m reading–especially Martin Hengel’s, The Atonement: Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament (1981) and David Brondos’, Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle’s Story of Redemption (2006). However the reason for this post is not connected with den Heyer’s views on the atonement as it is a particular detail about the historical Jesus that den Heyer gives.

When briefly describing the political and social environment into which Jesus was born and later ministered, den Heyer calls attention to the Jewish Zealots and the party of the Pharisees.* The former responded to foreign occupation in dramatic ways in an effort to maintain Jewish heritage and identity, while the latter tended to seek amicable relations with the powers that be while at the same time remaining true to Judaism. It is within this context that den Heyer makes the following suggestion (p. 2):

It seems likely that Jesus came from their circles [i.e. the Pharisees]. We can infer from the Gospels that his parents observed the commandments of the Torah closely.

I’m not so much bothered by the second claim, because it can be reasonably inferred primarily because such an inferrence has the support of what the Gospels testify and imply about Jesus’ parents. (Certainly, one would hope the den Heyer is not making the assumption that observance of Torah necessarily entails membership with the Pharisees; although the converse could be argued). However, I am struck by the suggestion that Jesus came from the party of the Pharisees.** What struck me ever further was how den Heyer moved from this mere suggestion (i.e. ‘it seems likely’) to the more determined claim (p. 3):

The origin of the Pharisaic movement, to which Jesus’ parents belonged . . .

before finally settling on the decidedly certain belief (p. 7):

Despite [Jesus’] Pharisaic background . . .

What truly bothers me about this movement is that at no point along the way does den Heyer attempt to justify either the logical sequence (a sequence that seems a little backwards to me) or the historicity of the claims themselves. While I ultimately disagree with the arguments of Maccoby, he at least gave some discussion on how he arrived at his conclusions.  den Heyer does nothing remotely similar, which is a really a shame because if he’s going to make that move (or offer that portrait of Jesus, which he presumably wants his readers to accept as historical), then he needs to provide clear reasons for the move and why its results are historically viable.

* Here I am following E. Ferguson’s distinction between ‘sects’ and ‘parties’–see Backgrounds to Early Christianity (2003), 513.
** This, of course, is not original to den Heyer; H. Maccoby advocated precisely that point in his aptly and unambiguously titled, Jesus the Pharisee (2003), which elaborates a key theme in his earlier work, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986).


  1. This is a good example of what I call “skepticism masquerading as scholarship”: lots of speculation piled on top of very few facts. I wouldn’t say it was impossible that Jesus and/or his parents were once Pharisees, but considering the complete silence of the NT on the matter would seem to argue almost definitively against it.

    1. Hello again. I agree that it wouldn’t be impossible, partly because taking up a trade in conjunction with Pharisaic commitments was not uncommon. Paul, the leather-working Pharisee comes to mind. You were also right to point out the complete silence in the NT about the possibility, but I would also mention the silence in post-apostolic testimony about Jesus and his upbringing, family, etc. The only reason I can think of for why scholars argue for a Pharisaic Jesus is because it ably explains–in a more or less empirical way–how he can know the Torah (and the appended traditions) so well. However, there seems to be (at least) one fatal flaw in this type of explanation: (as you rightly pointed out) there is no evidence to justify the explanation; it’s pure supposition for the sake of maintaining a particular idea.

  2. 1) My understanding of Paul was that his standing as a Pharisee was wholly unconnected to his trade. Not that it wouldn’t have helped, but he probably would have been one anyway.
    2) Unfortunately for those scholars who argue for a Pharisaic background, even if He had one, it still wouldn’t explain how He was able to astound the Temple doctors with His knowledge of the Law at the age of twelve.

    1. Thanks for coming back, and thanks for your comments. With regard to the first one, it’s true to say Paul’s standing as a Pharisee is disconnected from his trade, in the sense that one does not necessarily demand the other. In fact, one scholar (D. Wenham) intimates that Paul acquired his trade later in life (i.e. post-Pharisaic training) and did so out of necessity (i.e. dude’s gotta eat). My reason for mentioning it before was more pre-emptive, to confront the likely assertion: ‘But Joseph was a carpenter; he couldn’t have been a Pharisee.’ Sorry for failing to make that clear.

      With regard to your second comment, only one thing presents an obstacle: D. Flusser (Jesus [1997]) noted a similar occurrence in Josephus, where he (Josephus) essentially schooled the religious teachers when he was about 14 (see Life, 2). I think you would respond (and I would agree with you if you did): the similarity between Jesus and Josephus is one of kind and not degree. However, Josephus was raised a Pharisee (contra M. Smith) whereas Jesus was not (contra Maccoby, den Heyer); thus the Temple doctors’ astonishment at Jesus’ knowledge would be comparably greater to that of Josephus. To put this crassly: to Josephus they might say, “Good lad; you’ve studied well”, whereas to Jesus they might say, “Holy crap! This kid’s a carpenter’s son?”

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