How the Pharisees Got a Bad Rap

Sept. 8 2015

The existence of a Jewish sect known as Pharisees in the first centuries BCE and CE is well known to readers of the New Testament, as well as to readers of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Most historians agree that there was a close link between the Pharisees and the rabbis of the Talmud, but the connections are, at best, based on informed conjectures. Joshua Garroway explains why knowledge of this important group is so sketchy, and how its members became saddled with a reputation for hypocrisy:

The age-old association of the Pharisees with hypocrisy stems from scenes in the Gospels (for example, Matthew 23:1-39) in which Jesus denigrates the Pharisees as religious phonies who demand from others a strictness they themselves fail to observe. Many historians doubt that Jesus himself ever made such an accusation, however. More likely, the evangelists—who were vying with the Pharisees (or early rabbis claiming the mantle of the Pharisees) in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE— retrojected their own hostility onto the ministry of Jesus. Not Jesus but Matthew and Luke thought the Pharisees were hypocrites.

Were they right? The charge is hard to square with Josephus’ insistence that the Pharisees were lenient in imposing punishments and held the esteem of the masses. A Pharisee here or there may have exhibited superficial piety, but to indict them collectively on account of Matthew and Luke seems unwarranted. Much of the depiction of the Pharisees in the Gospels may derive from their similarities to the early Jesus movement and that movement’s frustration that this similar group did not accept Jesus as the messiah.

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More about: ancient Judaism, History & Ideas, Josephus, New Testament, Pharisees

European Aid to the Middle East Is Shaped by a Political Agenda

Feb. 18 2019

The EU’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Unit dispenses millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance to dozens of countries every year. Although it claims to operate on principles of strict neutrality, independent of any political motivation and giving priority to the neediest cases, a look at its activities in the Middle East suggests an entirely different approach, as Hillel Frisch writes:

[T]he Middle East is the overwhelming beneficiary of EU humanitarian aid—nearly 1 billion of just over 1.4 billion euros. . . . The bulk of the funds goes toward meeting the costs of assistance to Syrian refugees, followed by smaller sums to Iraq, Yemen, “Palestine,” and North Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, receives less than one-third of that amount. The problem with such allocations is that the overwhelming majority of people living in dire poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Bangladesh. . . . The Palestinians, who are richer on average than those living in the poorest states of the world, . . . receive over six euros per capita, while the populations of the poorest states receive less than one-eighth of that amount. . . .

Even less defensible is the EU’s claim to political neutrality. Its favoritism toward the Palestinians on this score is visible as soon as one enters terms into the general search function on the European Commission’s website. Enter “Palestine” and you get 20,737 results. Enter “Ethiopia” and you get almost the same figure, despite massive differences in population size (Ethiopia’s 100 million versus fewer than 5 million Palestinians), geographic expanse (Ethiopia is 50 times the size of “Palestine”), and degree of sheer suffering. The Syrian crisis, which is said to have led to the loss of a half-million lives, merits not many more site results than “Palestine.”

One of the foci of the website’s reports [on the Palestinians] is the plight of 35,000 Bedouin whom the EU assists, often in clear violation of the law, in Area C—the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. The hundreds of thousands of Bedouin in Sinai, however, the plight of whom is readily acknowledged even by Egyptian officials, gets no mention, even though Egypt is a recipient of EU aid. . . .

Clearly, the EU’s approach to aid allocation has nothing to do with impartiality, true social-welfare needs, or humanitarian considerations. [Instead], it favors allocations to Syrian refugees above Yemeni refugees because of the higher probability that Syrian refugees will find their way to Europe. . . . The recipients of European largesse who are next in line [to Syrians], in relative terms, are the Palestinians. [This particular policy] can be attributed primarily to the EU’s hostility toward Israel, its rightful historical claims, and its security needs.

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More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinians