First century models for divine action

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.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to First century models for divine action

  1. GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    These notions and beliefs have been around in various forms for a long time, and I agree with you that a great deal of Judaism was influenced by Hellenism. We should have moved on from this by now. I want to add these remarks to previous posts; I think we need to expand our understanding of nature, law and freedom, and progress in our thinking about humanity and God beyond the historical. Science has added to our knowledge, but to a lesser degree our capacity to reason and comprehend ourselves and the world has also improved.

    The basis for these discussions is (as I have stated before) the knowable and utterable attributes of God (as I had mentioned previously, knowledge, and the knowledge we think is of God, have been supplemented by Reason, Freedom and Faith).

    These remarks on law point to a ‘total’ concept for an individual and his/her community. Such a ‘totality’ results from considering the law-community as the sum-total of collective human reality. The law of God thus deals with God-man (singular) and God-community (general) in a similar context – the totality of human reality is provided as a concept. Freedom is an essential element in this discussion. To ‘think’ and ‘reason’ within this totality is to provide to human consciousness a basis for a meaning – that is, human reason does not require of itself to provide its grounds for a totality of concept or thought. The totality or completeness-awareness now stems from a comprehension of humanity as being ‘truly human’ and ‘meant’ to be that by God who provides this completeness within reason. The abstract or transcendental view (and perhaps ontological) that ‘as I think, so is the world’ is unnecessary but part of the baggage from the Enlightenment. One may also think within freedom. Certainty and uncertainty are not a pre-requisite to a concept as being so within a dynamic world. The world does not need to be determined in thought, nor does reason depend on the idea or an archetype for progress – simple and complex dynamics of human reality ensure that change through the constant – is,- and, may-be-more-then-is-(understood), and, after-it-is (understood),’ – this provides for reason to continue within concepts of past, present and future (an argument that includes ‘was’ is difficult to sustain, except as a memory, but communities formalise this as their history). This totality is not God, as it is not grounded on anything but human life and experience. To then argue for another type of totality, or mega-knowledge, appears as if reason is attempting to ‘cover’ its ignorance of the world through a concept that can only be dependent on reason (i.e. reason provides its own ground for such a totality). The sufficiency within the conclusion, I am alive: therefore I think, I act, I feel etc., (and also we are …), follows from these remarks and indeed is self-evident.

    This will do for now; would be glad to read your remarks/thoughts.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    To avoid writing a book I’ll restrict myself to picking up on one or two points. I don’t share your confidence that our capacity to reason or understand has increased. Rather, I’m constantly struck how previous generations anticipated our problems and dealt with them more coherently than we do (as a culture). We do, of course, work from a different knowledge base that, when we haven’t discarded or forgotten it, includes what was achieved in the past. And circumstances change, too, so there is always a move towards something new, and the past is never entirely re-run.

    Consequently, though, I am learning a lot more respect for past outlooks – even, for example, the insights gained from trying to get inside the ancient near east mindset of Genesis, or even of Enuma Elish.

    Another thought relating to the past is spiritual: in Christ the Church is a body eternal; we have living fellowship with those in the past, present and future. We owe a duty of care to the past, to receive and honour its insights. And we owe a duty of care to the future, to pass on our inheritence intact, and to add value to it for our successors.

    One can even view society that way – I think C S Lewis had such a view, saying that modernism privileges the present at the expense of both the past and the future (or it may have been someone else!).

    That may be at rather a tangent to what you’re saying…

  3. GD says:


    This area is fascinating and you can see that I enjoy working on it when time permits.

    Our present capacity to reason (and our knowledge) is the result of efforts in the past – thus respecting and understanding the past is of great importance. The ‘clouds of witnesses’ and the ‘halo of the Saints’ is eternal and is “the ever growing value and riches” for the Church Christ has established.

    All present generations also have a responsibility for, and by the culture and educational process, are endowed with, the achievements of the past. It is with this in mind that I refer to reason and freedom – presently it is faith that is getting ‘a work-out’.

    All of what we know, by definition, is grounded in the past. My statement, “simple and complex dynamics of human reality ensure that change through the constant – is,- and, may-be-more-then-is-(understood), and, after-it-is (understood),’ – this provides for reason to continue within concepts of past, present and future..” is intended to provide a setting by which we may consider a ‘determining world’ presenting to human beings, while we may also discuss a ‘determined’ world (e.g. predestination) to God. It is because the past, present, and future may be considered accessible to God, while the present as determining with each of our actions is a becoming of our future while ‘holding on’ to our past. I find law and freedom to be of fundamental importance in these matters.

    Yes the topic has been discussed for many centuries and will continue to occupy us for centuries to come.

  4. Jon Garvey says:

    I’m reminded again of a quote from Roger Scruton, showing that the “determining” world too is very largely the product of others, past and present, rather than simply our own choices:

    “Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals: it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.”

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