Why No One Should Call Anyone a “Pharisee”

j8820This 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!

So, let’s make this lesson #1 about how to use the word “Pharisee” today: the Pharisees were an historical group of Jews that had their good and bad points. Doubtless there were some bad Pharisees, just as there are some bad priests, doctors, Presidents of the United States and French restaurants. Ergo, using “Pharisee” as a term of insult is pretty weak, from a historical point of view. It’s like saying, “I think you have both positive and negative qualities!” Honestly. If our most devastating critique is that the target of our criticism has better moments than others, why even bother to demean them? (Which, come to think of it, may not be a bad idea.)

But there’s a better reason not to use the word “Pharisee” to criticize someone else. There is a history associated with using the word “Pharisee” as an insulting term. The history is anti-Semitic. It’s not a history that anyone I know would want to be associated with.

(I’m going to pause here to say something that is so important to me, I will say it twice. No one I know uses the word “Pharisee” in a way intended to be anti-Semitic. No one. I am not accusing anyone here of anti-Semitism. Quite the contrary. I am assuming that all my readers, and all the Christians I know, are friends of the Jewish people, and want to avoid even unintentional anti-Semitism. Hence this post.)

For this post, I will draw on the work of two scholars, Susannah Heschel and Katharina von Kellenbach. Heschel first. In the book In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, Heschel penned the chapter addressing the German theological tradition’s understanding of the Pharisees. The German theological tradition has dominated Protestant theology, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so the influence of this tradition extends well beyond Germany. There’s a reason why most every serious Christian scholar I know can speak German. The German Protestants have heavily influenced the way American Protestants do their theology. So, what the Germans thought is important. Simple as that.

And the Germans thought very little of the Pharisees. Very little. According to Heschel, the German scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries described the Pharisees as “rigid, petrified, degraded, cankered, disfigured, wrathful, violent and even as a cadaver ….” Here are just a few of the German portraits of the Pharisees, as reported to us by Heschel:

The Pharisees represent a wish to deceive oneself and, on top of it, God, [a wish] which turned out to be no more than an ever-growing despair, the tighter and more hardened the shackles of the idolatrous power, which one hoped to evade through hypocrisy.

These shadows, which exalt the glory of our Lord, are the Pharisees. In them, however, and through us a repellent picture is set up, which strongly warns against hypocrisy, which is an abomination in the eyes of God.

The Pharisees closed the gate of the tradition much more eagerly than did the papacy; they plugged the fountains from which any kind of renewal in their church circles might flow.

Pharisaism undermined the conscience, killed religion and morality at their roots.

piety in their hands became still and lifeless …

German Jewish scholars, in particular Abraham Geiger and Heinrich Graetz, attempted to counter this extremely negative view of the Pharisees, penning works that described the Pharisees in more even-handed (if understandably apologetic) tones. But their works were rejected by German Christian scholars. It was easy for Christians to marginalize the work of these Jewish scholars, as they were not affiliated as professors at German universities or permitted to publish in major university journals. And if academic discrimination was not enough, German Christian scholars accused their Jewish counterparts of bias … and worse. One German scholar called the works of Geiger and Graetz “wholly unhistorical and baseless, because they are themselves nothing but Pharisees and do not intend to be anything else.” [emphasis added]

But wait. How could Christian German theologians call their Jewish counterparts “Pharisees,” when the sect of the Pharisees had passed from the world scene nearly 2,000 years earlier? The answer is a simple one: in German theology, “Pharisee” was a metonym for Judaism, both ancient and modern. What is a metonym? I have never encountered this word before, but it turns out to be incredibly useful. A metonym is a word or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated.  For example, “Washington” is used as a metonym for the U.S. federal government. “Brass” means a military officer. The “Crown” is monarchy. A “suit” is a business executive. “The bottle” is an alcoholic drink. The “pen” is the written word.  And in German scholarship, “Pharisee” was a metonym for “Jew.”

Go back and re-read my discussion above, on what German scholarship thought of the Pharisees, only this time, substitute the word “Jew” for “Pharisee.” This is what German Christian theologians thought about the Jews – not merely about the Pharisees mentioned in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus, but all first century Pharisees, and all first century Jews, as well as the Rabbis who later formulated normative Judaism after the fall of the Second Temple, and all subsequent generations of Jews, and Judaism as a whole. The anti-Judaism of the European Christianity of this period is well-known, and also beyond the scope of this post. My point (drawing on Heschel) is a smaller one: for these scholars, the “Pharisees” represented all Jews, during Jesus’ day and thereafter – or in their words, the Pharisees were “the Jews in superlative, the “true Israel,” “Judaism’s ideal Jew.” Whatever ugly things they said about the Pharisees, they also said about Judaism – and vice versa. As Heschel notes, these scholars imported adjectives from then-current anti-Semitic literature to describe the historical Pharisees.

German Christian scholarship grew even nastier as it entered the twentieth century, adopting language that (to me, at least) has a Nazi overtone. One scholar argued that the Passover Seder was an expression of Jewish hope for world domination. Another blamed the Pharisees for having created the “spirit” that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Not surprisingly, many of these same scholars promoted the Nazi cause, joining the Nazi Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life, the institute that produced a “dejudaized” version of the New Testament and a catechism proclaiming Jesus as the savior of the Aryans.

The overt anti-Semitism of these German Christian scholars became impossible after World War II, in the aftermath of the Holocaust. But German Christianity persisted in their use of the word “Pharisee” as a negative metonym for “Jew.” Here, I’ll switch focus to von Kellenbach’s recent book The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators.  In this book, von Kellenbach describes how the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches in post-war Germany argued for the unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation of many Nazi war criminals, including those responsible for the mass murder of Jews. It is a deeply disturbing book, worthy of a longer discussion here. But I’ll focus simply on how these Germans used the word “Pharisee.”

The Christian forces arguing for amnesty for Nazi war criminals “identified the Christian tradition with peace, war and forgiveness, while Judaism was associated with war, vengeance and retaliation.” Some of these Christians were willing to baldly state things the way they saw them: in the words of one, Christians state “We forgive!” and Jews state “We do not forgive and absolve!” But in post-war Germany, it was risky for Germans to express anti-Semitism overtly. Such attitudes expressed by Germans accused of war crimes could lead to harsher punishment. Moreover, it was illegal in post-war Germany to engage in Volksverhetzung, roughly translated as hate speech against racial and religious minorities. “The very word ‘Jew’ had become taboo in West German parlance,” according to von Kellenbach. In this changed climate, “biblical references to the Pharisees became a clandestine vehicle for anti-Semitic clichés in a changed political culture where anti-Semitism had become dangerous.”

So, what was a post-war German to do if he wanted to accuse an opponent of Jewish anti-Christianity? Such a critique could be “repackaged in the figure of the Pharisee.” “References to the ‘Pharisees’ permeated letters that warned against hypocrisy and judgment in postwar Germany.” One such letter stated that “the call for the strict treatment of executioners at the frontlines, i.e., the shooting sites, smacks of Pharisaism.” Another such letter, defending a German bishop accused of reprisal killings of civilians during World War II, denounced the “Pharisaic self-righteousness” of the bishop’s accusers. Perhaps the most notorious such use of the word “Pharisee” was by the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who warned against the “scribes and Pharisees,” meaning the lawyers, judges, journalists and of course Jews who sought to convict him for his role in the Holocaust.

Let’s take a step back. I write from the perspective of an American Jew, and nearly all of the Christians I know are American Christians. From my perch on the west coast of the United States, the Germans I write about here seem far away. But really, they are not. Their theology continues to be influential. Moreover, they were central figures in inaugurating the “modern” approach to studying Jesus and early Christianity, an approach that utilized “modern” historical and sociological methods of scholarship that are still with us (albeit in a form that is much friendlier to Judaism). The current use of “Pharisee” as a term of insult may have begun with these Germans. I’m no expert on the history of Christian anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism, but I cannot find any prior group that used the word “Pharisee” so frequently or vehemently to denigrate their opponents (Martin Luther called certain of his opponents “Pharisees,” but it appears that he used this term to denigrate Catholics, not Jews).

Again, let me emphasize: I don’t think any of the Christians I know are anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic, and I’ve never met a Christian who uses the term “Pharisee” in a way I thought was intended to denigrate Jews. The purpose of this post is not to point fingers at anyone. It is simply to let Christians know that when they accuse others of being Pharisees, and even when they self-critically chastise themselves for Pharisaical tendencies, they are standing within a theological tradition that should make them feel truly uncomfortable.

So, let’s banish the use of the word “Pharisee” to describe contemporary people we don’t like, or contemporary tendencies we don’t like. If we think someone is a hypocrite, and if we feel like hurling an insult in their direction (and indeed, we should think twice about doing so), we might just try calling them a “hypocrite.” At most, Christians might say that so-and-so is like “some of the Pharisees” or “those of the Pharisees criticized by Jesus.”

After all, we Jews don’t see someone dangerously weaving through rush hour traffic, or taking up two parking spaces in front of the grocery store, and think to ourselves, “what a Franciscan!”

  • Jo Scott-Coe

    Yes. YES.

  • Chris Eyre

    Thanks for the information here. I did realise that the Germans basically invented historical-critical Bible scholarship and was I suppose dimly aware that some of their noted scholars had antisemitic tendencies, but had not realised that they used “Pharisee” as a metonym for “Jew”. I did however receive an impassioned lecture from a Jewish acquaintance about 15 years ago about how “Pharisee” was in any event going to read as “Jew” due to the lineage of Rabbinic Judaism, i.e. effectively all modern Judaism, from Pharisaism. He argued that where I said “Pharisee”, the Jewish ear would hear “Jew” in any event.

    Of course, ironically, the best evidence seems to be that out of the various schools of Jewish thought of the time, Jesus would have been a Pharisee himself (to paraphrase you, a blue-collar Jew centered on scripture rather than temple).

    The snag I see here is that quite independently of any influence of German scholarship, the Gospels are extremely critical of Pharisees, setting them up as one of the three categories of typical adversary (the others being Scribes and Sadducees, if we ignore the Fourth Gospel, which is another major problem in itself). You can readily arrive at the common usage of “Pharisee” or “Pharisaic” from just a naive reading, and as far as I can see the English did that rather before the Germans got their critical teeth into scripture. The earliest references to these usages I could find were in 1813 and 1818.

    We’re thus looking at something a bit different from your example; it’s a natural reading from our scriptures, and it’s an usage which has been around in common use in England for some 200 years. I applaud the objective of correcting the situation, but am not sure how we might go about it.

    It is rather reminiscent of the problem texts in the TaNaKh which we looked at a little while ago…

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, I’d like to know more about the history of the English use of the term “Pharisee.” I did not find that in my research.

      I agree that it’s natural to conclude from the Gospels that Jesus was at odds with Pharisees, or even “the Pharisees.” But that doesn’t mean that the Pharisees must forever remain a dirty word in Christianity. As writers like Anthony LeDonne have pointed out, Jesus had critical things to say about family, but Christians today are pro-family. Jesus criticized the Temple priesthood, but not all Christians today are anti-Priest. Jesus said some terrible things about Jews …

      My “natural” reading of the Gospels is that Jesus had a bone to pick with certain of the Pharisees of his day. There’s no way we can duck this, and I’m not sure we should try. But the historical Pharisees were not a monolith, and out of respect for Jesus, I don’t think we have to believe that Jesus was unable to draw distinctions. He had occasional nice things to say about the Pharisees, and about some Pharisees. Shouldn’t we consider this too?

      The fact that the Gospels are critical of Pharisees does not mean that we have to identify anyone as a “Pharisee” in the present-day. And if we want to use the word “Pharisee” in other than its historic sense, we need to be aware that until very recently the present-day “Pharisee” was an anti-Semitic caricature. We’ve dropped other such caricatures from our vocabulary, once we thought about their meaning. Why not this one?

      I’m not sure what I’m able to correct. I think it would be great if anyone using (or tempted to use) this word knew what it meant. With correct understanding should come correct usage. At least, that’s the hope.

      • Chris Eyre

        I have a copy of the full version of the Oxford Dictionary, which (inter alia) gives earliest word-uses in English with examples; I thought I recalled an usage in some early 19th century book I’d read, and checked. Frankly, I half expected to find an usage in Shakespeare, but it appears he managed to avoid that (although “The Merchant of Venice” is a problem in and of itself).

        That, of course, points up another piece of the problem – England used to be a profoundly anti-Semitic country as well, it just started moving beyond that rather earlier than most of continental Europe (with the notable exception of Holland, which was well ahead of us). We have stacks of writings, fictional and non-fictional, from those days which require an educated eye if those reading them are not to take in antisemitism by the “drip” method.

        Of course, those writings tend to be non-PC in terms of gender equality as well as race and religion (individually and collectively), and we do, I think, manage to instil enough consciousness of that to lead the majority of educated readers, at least, to be very aware that they’re reading something written from what is now an outdated and reprehensible viewpoint.

        The snag is that relatively few are going to be aware that “Pharisee” is an anti-semitic usage (20 years ago, I wasn’t aware of this myself). We’re a fairly secular society these days here, and a significant majority of educated readers are not going to have put any effort into studying the Bible. Those who *have* stand an unfortunately high chance of being part of an evangelical church (those being the only churches which are not contracting here), and my experience of evangelical churches is that they push a very negative view of Judaism as a religion. I have yet to hear an evangelical preacher here who does not consider that Judaism was at the time of Jesus a dysfunctional religion.

        One of the major planks of this understanding is very much that the Judaism of the time is seen as a religion of works righteousness. Humanity is seen as fundamentally incapable of measuring up to such a system (interpreted as requiring absolute adherence), and Christianity is then put forward as a way out of this impasse.

        Of course, I see this as a fundamentally *wrong* assessment of Second Temple Judaism, and so does the (modern and academically fairly dominant) chain of scholarship known as “The New Perspective on Paul”. Unfortunately sending the average evangelical off to read (for instance) E.P. Sanders, James Dunn or Douglas Campbell is impractical, as their books are very substantial tomes and they’re often regarded as “too liberal”. N.T. Wright’s “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” is huge, too; Wright might just be acceptably not-quite-liberal enough, but two large volumes is going to put most of them off thoroughly. I suppose in 20 or 30 years time this might have trickled into evangelical thinking, but no yet…

        I already have a reputation for buttonholing preachers after services and trying to correct their theology, and this is one of the points I get hot under the collar about. However, when preachers are basically saying “this is what Pharisees were really like”, I’m going to have difficulty persuading congregants to a contrary position. I’m tarred with the brush of being an “extreme liberal” in any event, as I don’t think Jesus actually said at least half of what he’s reported to have said (including virtually every “red letter” statement in the Fourth Gospel!).

        So yes, I agree your last two paragraphs. I do what I can when I can, and hope to persuade at least a few others to do the same thing.