I was prompted, by writing about the Pharisees in my last post, to look again at the historical source for their views. Surprisingly, our only contemporary source for information on the Pharisees, ouside the New Testament, is the historian Josephus. The same is true of the Sadducees. There are mentions in the Talmud, but these are much later. The third main “philosophy” or sect in first century Judea was the Essenes, which the NT doesn’t mention at all but Josephus, Philo and (briefly) Pliny does. Imagine that all we knew about the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties (or the Republicans and Democrats) came from a total of about a page in four or five fortuitously preserved sources. That shows the danger of dismissing Biblical people and events as fiction because of lack of confirmatory documentation.
But what has been preserved in Josephus shows, rather remarkably in my opinion, that amongst their main differences were their accounts of divine action, especially in relation to human free will. Three parties, three philosophies. Josephus is no Aquinas, of course, and is writing for a pagan Roman audience in order to put the Jews in a good light. So we must interpret his brief non-technical descriptions as well as we can. Of the Essenes he says:
[T]he sect of the Essenes affirm that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. (Antiquities XIII. ch 5)
For “fate”, we ought to read “providence”, because for all three of these highly religious groups Israel’s God, and no impersonal cosmic force, was the power in view. But the word “fate” was probably a better point of contact for the Romans, both religiously and philosophically. The complete determinism of God’s will to the Essenes fits their ascetic and apocalyptic approach, and their own view of themselves as righteous spirits trapped in evil flesh and awaiting liberation.
Conveniently, the Sadducees are described as representing the opposite pole:
And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly. (Ibid.)
But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. (Wars 2 8)
So here are recognisable purveyors of libertarian free will, and it seems to be hinted that God’s providence is totally denied in other areas too. If there are echoes of Greek philosophies here, it may not be coincidental, since it’s often forgotten that Judaea had been hellenised for centuries, and all its religious movements must have interacted to some degree with Greek ideas. Stoics believed in deterministic fate because their metaphysical materialism, with a strict concept of natural law, left no other option – which sounds rather familiar in our age of even Christian doubt about divine “interference” in the world. Conversely, the Epicureans claimed that both nature and human will are totally free – atoms swerve indeterminately. Maybe these influenced the Essenes and Sadducees to some extent.
The Pharisees’ position might be seen as something of a middle way, but as the acknowledged leaders of biblical exposition, faithfulness to Scripture rather than compromise philosophy probably formed their views:
These [Pharisees] ascribe all to fate, and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. (Wars 2 8)
Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. (Antiquities XIII. ch 5)
Though a role both for God’s providence and human will are included here, it’s a little hard to reconcile the two descriptions exactly. But it seems clear Josephus is trying to avoid the dualist implications of his second statement (some actions, not all, are the work of fate), by affirming free will rather than determinsim yet immediately qualifying it by saying that our choices are “liable to providence”. What does that mean? Well, the first passage inverts the order: everything is due to providence, which “cooperates” (in a rather Tridentine way, in Josephus’ description) with free choices made genuinely by men. What Josephus is clearly trying to say is that God’s will comes before and after human choice, in the way that Aquinas stately more exactly 1200 years later.
First I want to echo what I said in passing in the previous post: that the Pharisaic view is very much more in line with the whole of New Testament thought – barring, perhaps, Revelation – than those of the Essenes or Sadducees. In fact, allowing for Josephus’ scarcely philosophical account, we could easily fit that view to Jesus’ teaching on Judas (and others) fulfilling prophecy, or his sheep hearing his voice and responding; to Paul’s teaching on election, predestination and judgement; to Peter’s statements about unbelievers being destined to be so, and more. It makes more complicated Christian formulations about God’s decrees depending on foreknowledge of man’s response seem wide of the mark, for the Pharisees “ascribe all to Providence, and to God” and make room for free will, rather than vice versa. And to be honest, can you seriously imagine a legalistic Pharisee arguing for human autonomy over God’s will?
The second point is that these three varieties of Jewish thought make it impossible to ascribe Jesus’ or the Apostles’ teaching to mere ignorance or cultural conditioning. Paul rejected much of his Pharisaism on his conversion, and if the Essenes’ determinism or the Sadducees’ libertarianism had suited the gospel better, he would have embraced them, for he certainly would have been aware of them. It seems, then, that the “mediating postion” of the NT is there not because it was carried over from the Pharisees, but because it was true.
It only remains how we should respond to Christians taking a different line. What should we say to those who discount miracles, or if not those, God’s direct government of nature, or human affairs, either because they are “unscientific” or make God a control-freak? The deists amongst them resemble the Essenes in this, but the more theological advocates for nature’s, and men’s, “freedom” begin to sound like Sadducees. Perhaps they all need a crash course in Aquinas and Calvin… or just to read the Bible more carefully.