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.”
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.