Pharisees, Then and Now

you-are-a-phariseeImproving 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.”

The Pharisees were a group (or sect) of Jews in ancient Israel, during the time of the Second Temple. The Pharisees are described differently in different places: sometimes as a political party, sometimes as a school of thought, sometimes as a social movement. I’ll rely here on a description of the Pharisees recently provided by Scot McKnight: the Pharisees were (1) devoted to Torah, (2) known as the most accurate (and also the most liberal) interpreters of Jewish law, and (3) devoted to living life as closely as possible according to Jewish law. We believe that the Pharisees were relatively popular among the Jewish people. One source calls the Pharisees “blue-collar Jews,” which might be accurate (if anachronistic!). The Pharisees are seen by Jews today as the spiritual ancestors of the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud and eventually governed Jewish life after the fall of the Second Temple.

But for Christians, “Pharisee” has a very different meaning. In the New Testament, the Pharisees are opponents of Jesus — perhaps his primary opponents. The Gospels paint an unflattering portrait of the Pharisees: according to the Gospels, the Pharisees attacked Jesus for his Sabbath practices, and Jesus thought that the Pharisees taught things that were contrary to God’s will. But the biggest problem Jesus had with the Pharisees was with their alleged hypocrisy:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Fast forward to today. I have learned that in present-day Christian talk, “Pharisee” means something different than an ancient Jewish sect criticized in the Gospels. Instead, Pharisee has come to mean a bad kind of Christian, or a bad tendency that good Christians should resist. For Christians, a “Pharisee” is someone who is judgmental, self-righteous, even hypocritical. Here’s one example: a recent survey of American Christians asked the question: are today’s Christians more like Jesus, or the Pharisees? According to the survey, being Jesus-like means listening to others, spending time with non-believers, thinking God is for everyone and feeling compassion for sinners. But being Pharisee-like means taking “self-righteous actions” (for example, “liking to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine”) and holding “self-righteous attitudes” (for example, feeling “grateful to be a Christian when I see other people’s failures and flaws”).

For a Jew, the modern Christian use of the word “Pharisee” is an odd thing to behold. Imagine if we used the word “Nazarene” to refer to a hypocritical Jew!

But if the Christians I know (mis)use the word “Pharisee” to describe other Christians, isn’t this an internal Christian problem? Is there anything here that should trouble a Jew like me? I think there is a problem here of concern to all of us. I’ll describe exactly what is bothering me in my next post.

  • John Brantingham

    Good post. In my own Catholic tradition, a tradition I have long since left, it was short had for religious hypocrite. There’s all kind of language like that, which makes no sense and is used without thought.

    • lbehrendt

      John, thanks. The Catholics have taken the lead on this question, as they have in many other areas of Jewish-Christian relations. In the Vatican’s “On the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985), the Church declared that “an exclusively negative picture of the Pharisees is likely to be inaccurate and unjust,” and that “if Jesus shows himself severe towards the Pharisees, it is because he is closer to them than to other contemporary Jewish groups.” Granted, the Church can and should go further than this, and it needs to work harder to get these teachings implemented at the local level, where you experienced something different.

      • John Brantingham

        Yeah, the Vatican can make any decree it wants, but we’re far away from Rome now and the local priests are likely not to have perfect knowledge of language use. It makes me wonder what kind of education they have and what it focuses on. Primarily, I would think those things they believe will save souls.

        • lbehrendt

          There’s always a gap between the Seminary and the pulpit. It exists in every religion.

  • Jo Scott-Coe

    Brilliant point to make. Now that you mention it, one of the things that puzzles me is how Pharisees and Sadduccees in catechism classes seemed kind of “lumped” together as opponents of Jesus, but (is this right?) they appear historically/theologically to have represented differing interests?? I’d like to know more about this, too. It seems that any Jewish authority group morphed into shorthand (as John points out below) for anti-Jesus–and ultimately anti-Christian or (as you say) “bad kind of Christian”– ironically reinforcing uncharitable and self-righteous, exclusionary attitudes (glad to see the failures in others?!). Yet, hello?! I just spoke with a Catholic priest who said that he was asked by rabbis to remove crucifixes from the rooms of Jewish patients in hospital recovery rooms in 1963– because the image would be re-traumatizing for them, an image of Christ crucified that had been used against them and would interfere with their healing. Seems like the Christian thing to do to remove them. And the priest did remove them. Someone might call him a hypocrite (“Pharisee”??) for not forcing a harder line.

    • lbehrendt

      Jo, wow! A priest really did that? And in 1963? What a marvelous gesture. I would think that keeping the crucifixes in place would be “pharisaic,” as it would elevate form over substance (in this case, the substance being bodily and spiritual healing).

      I feel a blog post coming on the Pharisees and Sadducees … stay tuned.

      • Jo Scott-Coe

        I totally agree with you that keeping the crosses there would have been too emphatic about form over substance. But my guess is that not all the folks who tend to throw the Pharisee pejorative around most freely would be thinking about this like you (or I)… Back to why the rabbi bothered to ask for the cross to be removed from the wall/bedside–the sign that had been “forced” against Jewish people (in a larger sense) historically, to “justify” persecution/murder/prejudice: “We are not the Pharisees you are looking for.”