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Who Were Those People?

by Sarah Henrich

At some time or another in life, we’ve all had to introduce ourselves to a stranger. How do you characterize yourself in such a moment?

Usually we choose something that fits the occasion. Consider how you might introduce yourself if you saw someone faint in a busy store (“I’m a doctor”); at a World Day of Prayer service (“I’m from First Lutheran”); at a school function (“I’m the mother of a senior”); at a staff Christmas party (I’m in accounting” or “I’m Bill’s wife”). You get the idea. In different situ­ations we might name the town we come from or live in, whether we’re a married person, a parent, a quilter, a gardener, a college graduate. Once you start thinking about all the different ways you could identify yourself, the list gets very long. All of us are at one and the same time filling many different roles, shaped by many reali­ties. No single category fully defines us.

In the New Testament we meet a number of people who are at a real disadvantage in introducing them­selves to us. One, these men (and they are all men!) are identified only in terms of a single category. Second, they are always identified by other people and never get to speak for themselves. Third, they are introduced by writers who see them mostly (though not only) as opposed to Jesus. To make it even more difficult for us to get to know these characters, we rarely understand what the descriptive terms means.

About whom do I speak? The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers of the first century. You frequently find yourself bumping into them throughout the gospels. Paul also identifies himself as a Pharisee or as one who lived in accord with Pharisaic understandings (Philippians 3:5; see also Acts 23:6, which is not Paul's own description).

Sarah Henrich is professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

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