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The Background to the New Testament #12

Dress of the People, and enter the Pharisees


From the book "Sketches of Jewish Social Life" by Alfred



     It would have been difficult to proceed far either in
Galilee or in Judaea without coming into contact with an
altogether peculiar, and striking individuality, differing from
all around, and wich would at once arrest attention. This was the
Pharisee. Courted or feared, shunned or flattered, reverently
looked up to or laughed at, he was equally a power everywhere,
both ecclesiastically and politically, as belonging to the most
influential, the most zealous, and the most closely-connected
religious fraternity, which in the pursuit of its objects spared
neither time nor trouble, feared no danger, and shrunk from no
consequences. Familiar as the name sounds to readers of the New
Testament and students of Jewish history, there is no subject on
which more crude or inaccurate notions prevail than that of
Pharisaism, nor yet any which, rightly understood, gives fuller
insight into the state of Judaism at the time of our Lord, or
better illustrates His words and His deeds.  Let us first view
the Pharisee as, himself seemingly unmoved, he moves about among
the crowd, which either respectfully gives way or curiously looks
after him.

     There was probably no town or village inhabited by Jews
which had not its Pharisees, although they would, of course,
gather in preference about Jerusalem with its Temple, and what,
perhaps, would have been even dearer to the heart of a genuine
Pharisee - its four hundred and eighty synagogues, its Sanhedrims
(great and small), and its schools of study. There could be no
difficulty in recognising such an one.  


     Walking behind him, the chances were, he would soon halt to
say his prescribed prayers.   If the fixed time for them had
come, he would stop short in the middle of the road, perhaps say
one section of them, move on, again say another part, and so on,
till, whatever else might be doubted, there could be no question
of the conspicuousness of his devotions in market-place or
corners of streets. There he would stand, as taught by the
traditional law, would draw his feet well together, compose his
body and clothes, and bend so low "that every vertebra in his
back would stand out separate," or, at least, till "the skin over
his heart would fall into folds" (Ber. 28 b). The workman would
drop his tools, the burden-bearer his load; if a man had already
one foot in the stirrup, he would withdraw it. The hour had come,
and nothing could be suffered to interrupt or disturb him.  
     The very salutation of a king, it was said, must remain
unreturned; nay, the twisting of a serpent around one's heel must
remain unheeded. Nor was it merely the prescribed daily seasons
of prayer which so claimed his devotions. On entering a village,
and again on leaving it, he must say one or two benedictions; the
same in passing through a fortress, in encountering any danger,
in meeting with anything new, strange, beautiful, or unexpected. 
And the longer he prayed the better. In the view of the Rabbis
this had a twofold advantage; for "much prayer is sure to
be heard," and "prolix prayer prolongeth life." At the same time,
as each prayer expressed, and closed with a benediction of the
Divine Name, there would be special religious merit attaching to
mere number, and a hundred "benedictions" said in one day was a
kind of measure of great piety.


     But on meeting a Pharisee face to face his identity could
still less be doubted. His self-satisfied, or else mock-modest or
ostentatiously meek bearing would betray him, even irrespective
of his superciliousness towards others, his avoidance of every
touch of persons or things which he held unclean, and his
extravagant religious displays. We are, of course, speaking of
the class, or, rather, the party, as such, and of its tendencies,
and not of all the individuals who composed it. Besides, there
were, as we shall by-and-by see, various degrees among them, from
the humblest Pharisee, who was simply a member of the fraternity,
only initiated in its lowest degree, or perhaps even a novice, to
the most advanced chasid, or "pietist." The latter would, for
example, bring every day a trespass-offering, in case he had
committed some offence of which he was doubtful.  How far the
punctiliousness of that class, in observing the laws of Levitical
purity, would go, may be gathered from a Rabbi, who would not
allow his son to remain in the room while he was in the hands of
the surgeon, lest he might be defiled by contact with the
amputated limb, which, of course, was thenceforth dead. Another
chasid went so far in his zeal for Sabbath observance, that he
would not build up again his house because he had thought about
it on the Sabbath; and it was even declared by some improper to
intrust a letter to a Gentile, lest he should deliver it on the
holy day! These are real, but by no means extreme cases. For, a
Rabbi, contemporary with the apostles, was actually obliged to
denounce, as incompatible with the continuance of society, the
vagaries of the so-called "Chasid Shoteh," or silly pietist. What
was meant by these will appear from such instances as the refusal
to save a woman from drowning for fear of touching a female, or
waiting to put off the phylacteries before stretching out a hand
to rescue a child from the water!


     Readers of the New Testament will, remember that the very
DRESS of the Pharisees differed from that of others. Simple as
the garb of Orientals is, it must not be thought that, in those
days, wealth, rank, and luxury were not recognisable quite as
much, if not more, than among ourselves. No doubt the polished
Grecian, the courtly Herodian, the wealthy Sadducee, as well as
many of the lady patronesses of the Pharisees (Jos. Ant. xvii. 2,
4), would have been easily recognised.  At any rate, Jewish
writings give us such descriptions of their toilette, that we can
almost transport ourselves among the fashionable society of
Tiberias, Caesarea, Jerusalem, or that of "the dispersed," who
were residents of Alexandria or of the wealthy towns of
     Altogether, it seems, eighteen garments were supposed to
complete an elegant toilette. The material, the colour, and the
cut distinguished the wearer. While the poor used the upper
garment for a covering at night, the fashionable wore the finest
white, embroidered, or even purple garments, with
curiously-wrought silk girdles. It was around this upper garment
that "the borders" were worn which the Pharisees "enlarged"
(Matt. xxiii. 5). Of these we shall speak presently. Meantime we
continue our description. The inner garment went down to the
heels. The head-dress consisted of a pointed cap, or kind of
turban, of more or less exquisite material, and curiously wound,
the ends often hanging grace-fully behind. Gloves were generally
used only for protection.


     As for ladies, besides differences in dress, the early
charge of Isaiah (iii, 16-24) against the daughters of Jerusalem
might have been repeated with tenfold emphasis in New Testament
times. We read of three kinds of veils. The Arabian hung down
from the head, leaving the wearer free to see all around; the
veil-dress was a kind of mantilla, thrown gracefully about the
whole person, and covering the head; while the Egyptian resembled
the veil of modern Orientals, covering breast, neck, chin, and
face, and leaving only the eyes free. The girdle, which was
fastened lower than by men, was often of very costly fabric, and
studded with precious stones. Sandals consisted merely of soles
strapped to the feet; but ladies wore also costly slippers,
sometimes embroidered, or adorned with gems, and so arranged that
the pressure of the  foot emitted a delicate perfume.  


     It is well known that scents and' "ointments" were greatly
in vogue, and often most expensive (Matt. xxvi. 7). The latter
were prepared of oil and of home or foreign perfumes, the dearest
being kept in costly alabaster boxes. The trade of perfumer was,
however, looked down upon, not only among the Jews, but even
among heathen nations. But in general society anointing was
combined with washing, as tending to comfort and refreshment. The
hair, the beard, the forehead, and the face, even garlands worn
at feasts, were anointed. 


     But luxury went much farther than all this. Some ladies used
cosmetics, painting  their cheeks and blackening their eyebrows
of antimony, zinc, and oil. 


     The hair, which considered a chief point of beauty, was the
object of special care. Young people wore it long; but in men
this would have been regarded as a token of effeminacy (1 Cor.
xi. 14). The beard was carefully trimmed, anointed, and perfumed.
Slaves were not allowed to wear beards. Peasant girls tied their
hair in a simple knot; but the fashionable Jewesses curled and
plaited theirs, adorning the tresses with gold ornaments and
pearls. The favourite colour was a kind of auburn, to produce
which the hair was either dyed or sprinkled with golddust.  We
read even of false hair (Shab. vi. 3), just as false teeth also
were worn in Judaea. Indeed, as in this respect also there is
nothing new under the sun, we are not astonished to find mention
of hair-pins and elegant combs, nor to read that some Jewish
dandies had their hair regularly dressed! However, the business
of hairdresser was not rearded as very respectable, any more than
that of perfumer. 1


     As for ornaments, gentlemen generally wore a seal, either on
the ring-finger or suspended round the neck. Some of them had
also bracelets above the wrist (commonly of the right arm), made
of ivory, gold, or precious stones strung together.
     Of course, the fashionable lady was similarly adorned,
Padding to the bracelets finger-rings, ankle-rings, nose-rings,
ear-rings, gorgeous head-dresses, necklaces, chains, and what
are nowadays called " charms." As it may interest some, we, shall
add a few sentences of description. The earring was either plain,
or had a drop, a pendant, or a little bell inserted. The
nose-ring, which the traditional law ordered to be put aside on
the Sabbath, hung gracefully over the upper lip, yet


1 The learned Lightfoot (Home Hebr. PP. 498 and 1081) has
expressed a doubt whether the name "Magdalene" is to be rendered
"from Magdala" or "the hairdresser." We have noted in a previous
chapter, that the inhabitants of Magdala engaged in such and
similar business. But the Rabbinical passages to which Lightfoot
refers are not satisfactory, since they are evidently dictated by
a special animus against Christ and Christianity.


so as not to interfere with the salute of the privileged friend.
Two kinds of necklaces were worn - one close-fitting, the other
often consisting of precious stones or pearls, and hanging down
over the chest, often as low as the girdle. The fashionable lady
would wear two or three such chains, to which smelling-bottles
and various ornaments, even heathen "charms," were attached. Gold
pendants descended from the head-ornament, which sometimes rose
like a tower, or was wreathed in graceful snake-like coils. The
anklets were generally so wrought as in walking to make a sound
like little bells. Sometimes the two ankle-rings were fastened
together, which would oblige the fair wearer to walk with small,
mincing steps. If to all this we add gold and diamond pins, and
say that our very brief description is strictly based upon
contemporary notices, the reader will have some idea of the
appearance of fashionable society. 1

(We should note here that we cannor find Jesus saying one single
word to condemn the use of such outward adorning. If the use of
make-up and jewelry was wrong, nay even sin, as some today would
claim, you would expect that somewhere in the four Gospels Jesus
would have addressed the subject; but He spoke no word against
the use of perfumes, make-up, and jewelry, hair arrangements, by
men or women. The verses often quoted from Paul or Peter on this
subject, as greatly misunderstood, in the light of the whole
Bible. Full in-depth studies on the subjects of "perfumes" -
"make-up" - "clothes" - "jewelry" - "hair" can be found on this
Website - Keith Hunt)

PHYLACTERIES - A Pharisee invention!

     The sketch just given will be of some practical use if it
helps us more fully to realise the contrast presented by the
appearance of the Pharisee. Whether sternly severe, blandly meek,
or zealously earnest, he would carefully avoid all contact with
one who was not of the fraternity, or even occupied an inferior
degree in it, as we shall by-and-by show. He would also be
recognisable by his very garb. For, in the language of our Lord,
the Pharisees made "broad their phylacteries," and "enlarged the
borders of their garments." The latter observance, at least so
far as concerned the wearing of memorial fringes on the borders
of the garments - not the conspicuous enlargement of these
borders - rested really - on a Divine ordinance (Num. xv. 37;
Deut. xxii. I2). In Scripture these fringes are prescribed to be
of blue, the symbolical colour


1 Compare my "History of the Jewish Nation," pp.315-318.


of the covenant; but the Mishnah allows them also to be white
(Men. iv. 1). They are not unfrequently referred to in the New
Testament (Matt. ix. 20; xiv. 36; xxiii. 5; Mark vi. 56; Luke
viii. 44). As already stated, they were worn on the border of the
outer garment - no doubt by every pious Israelite. Later Jewish
mysticism found in this fringed border deep references to the
manner in which the Shechinak enwrapped itself in creation, and
called the attention of each Israelite to the fact that, if in
Num. xv. 39 we read (in the Hebrew), "Ye shall look upon him"
[not "it," as in our Authorised Version] "and remember," this
change of gender (for the Hebrew word for "fringes" is feminine)
indicated "that, if thou doest so, it is as much as if thou
sawest the throne of the Glory, which is like unto blue." And
thus believing, the pious Jew would cover in prayer his head with
this mysterious fringed garment; in marked contrast to which St.
Paul declares all such superstitious practices as dishonouring (1
Cor. xi. 4).1

(A full in-deth study of 1 Corinthians 11 and "head-covering" is
found on this Website - Keith Hunt)

     If the practice of wearing borders with fringes had Scrip-
tural authority, we are well convinced that no such plea could be
urged for the so-called "phylacteries." The observance arose from
a literal interpretation of Exod. xiii. 9, to which even the
later injunction in Deut. vi. 8 gives no countenance. This
appears even from its repetition in Deut. xi. 18, where the
spiritual meaning and purport of the direction is immediately
indicated, and from a comparison with kindred


1 The practice of modern Jews is somewhat different from that of
ancient times. Without entering into details, it is sufficient
here to say that they wear underneath their garments a small
square, with fringes, called the little tallith (from  "talal,"
to overshadow or cover), or the "arbah canphoth" (four
"corners"); while during prayer they wrap themselves in the great
tallith, or so-called prayer-cloak.


expressions, which evidently could not be taken literally - such
as Prov. iii. 3; vi. 21; vii. 3; Cant. viii. 6; Isa. xlix. 16.
The very term used by the Rabbis for phylacteries---"tephillin,"
prayer-fillets - is of comparatively modern origin, in so far as
it does not occur in the Hebrew Old Testament. The Samaritans did
not acknowledge them as of Mosaic obligation, any more than do
the Karaite Jews, and there is, what seems to us, sufficient
evidence, even from Rabbinical writings, that in the time of
Christ phylacteries were not universally worn, nor yet by the
priests while officiating in the Temple. Although the words of
our Lord seem only expressly to condemn the making broad of the
phylacteries, for purposes of religious ostentation, it is
difficult to believe that He Himself had worn them. At any rate,
while any ordinary Israelite would only put them on at prayer or
on solemn occasions, the members of the Pharisaic confraternity
wore them all day long. The practice itself, and the views and
ordinances connected with it, are so characteristic of the party,
that we shall add a few further particulars.

     The "tephillin" were worn on the left arm, towards the
heart, and on the forehead. They consisted - to describe them
roughly - of capsules, containing, on parchment (that for the
forehead on four distinct parchments), these four passages of
Scripture: Exod. xiii. 1-10; xiii. 11-16; Deut. vi. 4-9; and xi.
13-21. The capsules were fastened on by black leather straps,
which were wound round the arm and hand (seven times round the
former, and three times round the latter), or else fitted to the
forehead in a prescribed and mystically significant manner. The
wearer of them could not be mistaken. But as for their value and
importance in the eyes of the Rabbis, it were impossible to
exaggerate it.

     They were reverenced as highly as the Scriptures, and, like
them, might be rescued from the flames on a Sabbath, although not
worn, as constituting "a burden!" It was said that Moses had
received the law of their observance from God on Mount Sinai;
that the "tephillin" were more sacred than the golden plate on
the forehead of the high-priest, since its inscription embodied
only once the sacred name of Jehovah, while the writing inside
the "tephillin" contained it not less than twenty-three times;
that the command of wearing them equalled all other commands put
together, with many other similar extravagances. 1
     How far the profanity of the Rabbis in this respect would
go, appears from the circumstance, that they supposed God Himself
as wearing phylacteries (Ber. 6 a). The fact is deduced from Isa.
Ixii. 8, where the "right hand" by which Jehovah swears is
supposed to refer to the law, according to the last clause of
Dent. xxviii. 2; while the expression "strength of His arm" was
applied to the "tephillin," since the term "strength" appeared in
Ps. xxix. 11 in connection with God's people, and was in turn
explained by a reference to Deut. xxviii. 10. For "the strength"
of God's people (Ps. xxix. 11) is that which would cause all to
"be afraid " of Israel (Deut. xxviii. 10); and this latter would
be due to their seeing that Israel was "called by the name of
Jehovah," this ocular demonstration being afforded through the 
     Such was the evidence which traditionalism offered for such
a monstrous proposition.


1 We can recommend nothing better, to those who have heard that
the teaching of the New Testament has been derived from that of
the Rabbis, than to collate the revolting details on this
subject, as well as those connected with prayer, in Ber. 23 a to
25 b; or else to study their interpretations of dreams, or such
details as Ber. 62 a, b. To those who have been told that Hillel
might be compared with Jesus, we recommend the perusal of what at
times engaged that great Jewish Rabbi's teaching; for example, in
Ber. 23 a.


     The above may serve as a specimen alike of Rabbinical
exegesis and theological inferences. It will also help us to
understand, how in such a system inconvenient objections, arising
from the plain meaning of Scripture, would be summarily set aside
by exalting the interpretations of men above the teaching of the
Bible. This brings us straight to the charge of our Lord against
the Pharisees (Mark vii. 13), that they made "the Word of God of
none effect" through their "traditions." The fact, terrible as it
is, nowhere, perhaps, comes out more strongly than in connection
with these very "tephillin." We read in the Mishnah (Sank. xi.
3), literally, as follows: "It is more punishable to act against
the words of the Scribes than against those of Scripture. If a
man were to say, 'There is no such thing as "tephillin,"' in
order thereby to act contrary to the words of Scripture, he is
not to be treated as a rebel. But if he should say, 'There are
five divisions in the prayer-fillets' (instead of four in those
for the forehead, as the Rabbis taught), in order to add to the
words of the Scribes, he is guilty." Assuredly, a more signal
instance could scarcely be found of "teaching for doctrines the
commandments of men," and of, even on their own showing, "laying
aside the commandment of God," in order to "hold the tradition of
men" (Mark vii. 7,8).

     Before passing from this subject, it may be convenient to
explain the meaning of the Greek term "phylacteries" for these
"tephillin," and to illustrate its aptness. It is now almost
generally admitted, that the real meaning of phylacteries is
equivalent to amulets or charms. And as such the Rabbinists
really regarded and treated them, however much they might
otherwise have disclaimed all connection with heathen views.     
     In this connection we are not going to enter into the
unsavoury subject of their heathen superstitions, such as where
to find, how to detect, and by what means to get rid of evil
spirits, or how to conjure up demons - as these are indicated in
the Talmud. Considering the state of civilisation at the time,
and the general prevalence of superstition, we should perhaps
have scarcely wondered at all this, had it not been for the
claims which the Rabbis set up to Divine authority, and the
terrible contrast exhibited between their teaching and that - we
will not say of the New, but - of the Old Testament. In reference
to the "phylacteries," even the language of Josephus (Ant. iv. 8,
13) savours of belief in their magical efficacy; although in this
matter also he is true to himself, showing us, at the same time,
that certain proverbial views of gratitude were already in vogue
in his time. For, writing of the phylacteries, which, he
maintains, the Jews wore in remembrance of their past
deliverance, he observes, that this expression of their gratitude
"served not only by way of return for past, but also by way of
invitation of future favours!" Many instances of the magical
ideas attaching to these "amulets" might be quoted; but the
following will suffice. It is said that, when a certain Rabbi
left the audience of some king, he had turned his back upon the
monarch. Upon this, the courtiers would have killed the Rabbi,
but were deterred by seeing that the straps of his "tephillin"
shone like bands of fire about him; thus verifying the promise in
Deut. xxviii. 10 (Jer. Ber. v. 1). Indeed, we have it expressly
stated in an ancient Jewish Targum (that on Cant. viii. 3), that
the "tephillin" prevented all hostile demons from doing injury to
any Israelite.

     What has been said will in some measure prepare the reader
for investigating the history and influence of the Pharisees at
the time of Christ. Let it be borne in mind, that patriotism
and religion equally combined to raise them in popular esteem.
     What made Palestine a land separate and distinct from the
heathen nations around, among whom the ruling families would fain
have merged them, was that Jewish element which the Pharisees
represented. Their very origin as a party stretched back to the
great national struggle which had freed the soil of Palestine
from Syrian domination. In turn, the Pharisees had deserted those
Maccabees whom formerly they had supported, and dared persecution
and death, when the descendants of the Maccabees declined into
worldly pomp and Grecian ways, and would combine the royal crown
of David with the high-priest's mitre.  

     And now, whoever might fear Herod or his family, the
Pharisees at least would not compromise their principles. Again,
were they not the representatives of the Divine law--not only of
that given to Israel on Mount Sinai, but also of those more
secret ordinances which were only verbally communicated to Moses,
in explanation of, and addition to the law? If they had made "a
hedge " around the law, it was only for the safety of Israel, and
for their better separation from all that was impure, as well. as
from the Gentiles. As for themselves, they were bound by vows
and, obligations of the strictest kind. Their dealings with the
world outside their fraternity, their occupations, their
practices, their bearing, their very dress and appearance among
that motley crowd - either careless, gay, and Grecianising, or
self-condemned by a practice in sad discord with their Jewish
profession and principles - would gain for them the distinction
of uppermost rooms at feasts, and chief seats in the synagogues,
and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi,
Rabbi ("my great one, my great one"), in which their hearts so
much delighted.

     In very truth they mostly did represent, in some one or
other degree of their order, what of earnestness and religious
zeal there was in the land. Their name - probably in the first
instance not chosen by themselves - had become to some a byword,
to others a party title. And sadly they had declined from their
original tendency - at least in most cases. They were not
necessarily "scribes," nor "lawyers," nor yet "teachers of the
law." Nor were they a sect, in the ordinary sense of the term.
But they were a fraternity, which consisted of various degrees,
to which there was a regular novitiate, and which was bound by
special vows and obligations. This fraternity was, so to speak,
hereditary; so that St.Paul could in very truth speak of himself
as "a Pharisee of the Pharisees " - "a Pharisee the son of a
Pharisee." That their general principles became dominant, and
that they gave its distinctiveness alike to the teaching and the
practices of the Synagogue, is sufficiently known. 
     But what tremendous influence they must have wielded to
attain this position will best appear from the single fact, which
has apparently been too much overlooked, of their almost
incredibly small numbers, According to Josephus (Ant. xvii. 2,
4), the number of the fraternity amounted at the time of Herod
only to about six thousand. Yet this inconsiderable minority
could cast Judaism in its mould, and for such terrible evil give
its final direction to the nation! Surely the springs of such a
movement must have reached down to the very heart of Jewish
religious life. What these were, and how they affected the whole
community, deserves and requires not merely passing notice, but
special and careful attention.


To be continued

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