This is the last of three posts here on modern Christian use of the word “Pharisee.” In my first post, I commented on the odd tendency for Christians to accuse other Christians of being “Pharisees,” a term that has come to mean a self-righteous, overly pious, judgmental and hypocritical Christian. My second post focused on who the Pharisees really were: a popular and democratic sect within Second Temple Judaism that in Jesus’ day functioned as teachers and experts in Jewish law. The sources we have about the Pharisees are quite limited, and describe the Pharisees in both good and bad terms. Even Jesus had some good things to say about the Pharisees, and even the apostle Paul seemed to think that being a Pharisee was not a bad thing.
In his latest book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian scholar extraordinaire N.T. Wright imagines the Pharisees accurately describing themselves as follows:
We are a group of Jews who find ourselves dissatisfied with the way our country is being run and with our life as a people, at home and abroad. We are therefore devoting ourselves to the study and practice of Torah, as a kind of elite corps, intending to advance the time when Israel will finally be redeemed, when our God will reveal his faithfulness to our nation.
How bad do these people sound to you? They don’t sound that bad to me!
In my last post, I questioned the way present-day Christians use the word “Pharisee” to chastise other Christians. In current Christian vocabulary, “Pharisee” is a synonym for “self-righteous,” or “judgmental,” or “hypocritical.” Strangely enough, “Pharisee” is used by Christians primarily as a label to criticize other Christians, even though the historical Pharisees were a Jewish sect.
In an upcoming post, I plan to argue that Christians should not use “Pharisee” as a term of criticism. But first, I need to do a better job of explaining who the Pharisees were. On my last post, commenter Jo Scott-Coe noted that her Christian education lumped together the historical Pharisees with the historical Sadducees. Jo said she’d like to know more about the differences between the two groups.
Improving Jewish-Christian relations requires us to be sensitive about the language we use with each other. Language that seems innocent within each group, that we use with the best of intentions, may mean something quite different in conversation with an “other”.
For example: consider the word “Pharisee.”