Pharisees

Not the Bad Guys You Thought They Were

One of the most exhausting aspects of living in a Christian-dominated society is hearing the term "Pharisee" used to mean everything from arid legalist to hypocrite to self-righteous asshole to person who cares about the letter of the law but not the spirit to religious fanatic to institutional authority to whichever variety of Christian the speaker doesn't like

If you Google "Pharisee" the first thing that pops up is a dictionary definition, which includes "hypocrite" as a secondary definition. The victors write the history, and nowhere is that more apparent in that Christians have managed to define the founders of rabbinic Judaism as "hypocrites" in the dictionary itself

9673.png

Note the fourth image from the left. While most Christians today understand that using the sort of antisemitic caricatures popular in 1930s German propaganda isn't acceptable when applied to modern-day living Jewish people, they're still using them for dead Jews, because hating the Pharisees, and applying to them all the canards that it's no longer socially accepted to say about "Jews", is basically a Christian tradition.

The Pharisees don't deserve hate. While, as in any group of people, they ran the spectrum of personality types, their teachings crafted an adaptable, humane, and resilient Judaism focused on ensuring that the Jewish people didn't die, disperse, or despair in the wake of destruction, exile, and enslavement. Jews have continued to preserve our identity and peoplehood—not to mention our capacity to feel joy, have compassion for others, and fight for justice—even in the shadow of Auschwitz. Judaism has been an ark that has weathered apocalyptic, genocidal storms over and over again, and we owe much of that to the genius of the people who adapted it from a location-bound, Temple-centered national religion to something much more fluid, life-filled, and healing.

Given that "Pharisee" is actually a synonym for "early rabbi," using it as a synonym for "hypocrite" has deeply ugly overtones.

Far from being hypocritical, modern-day Pharisees do, in fact, practice exactly what they preach. Keenly aware both that Jews have been able to thrive in North America, and that American and Canadian antisemitism, written into policy, killed Jews who were barred from taking refuge here, almost 100 rabbis were arrested while protesting the deportation of children who were beneficiaries of the DREAM Act. Another 200 Jewish protesters, mostly rabbis, blocked traffic to protest Trump's Muslim ban. About 50 went to the camps at the border to protest the abuse and deportation there.


Most of these rabbis were from the Reform movement, which is the largest Jewish "denomination" in the US. The total number of Reform rabbis in the US is around 2000. (People tend to vastly overestimate the number of Jews in the US. There actually aren't that many of us. Even by very generous definitions of who counts as Jewish, we're less than 2% of the population.)

So, to be clear, that means roughly 10% of the rabbis of the largest Jewish group in the United States were out in the street, blocking traffic with their bodies, risking their safety to try to protect their Muslim neighbors. About 5% were there trying to stop the deportation of children. 

For comparison, the United Methodist Church has about 40,000 pastors in the US, and the Catholic Church has roughly the same number of priests. There are almost 20,000 Presbyterian ministers. The ELCA has about 10,000. If 10% of Methodist pastors or Catholic priests showed up to block traffic, that would be 4,000 clergy. If those four denominations combined (which would start to be the equivalent of what the Reform movement represents for American Jews) showed up in equivalent numbers, it would be 10,000 clergy. It's still not really equivalent, because (assuming they're white) they wouldn't be facing the same sort of active danger that rabbis face for being visibly Jewish in the face of growing white nationalism in the US. 

Rabbis (at least those from non-Orthodox movements) in the US are, in astonishingly high numbers, people who will drop what they're doing and travel to a protest to put themselves at risk of arrest (and far worse) to protect other marginalized groups from harm. 

Torah arks (the cabinets in which synagogues keep Torah scrolls) often bear the legend Know before whom you stand. It's a reminder that what the ark contains is sacred, but for many Jewish philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, it's also a reminder that every human being is made in the divine image, and G-d stands behind each human with whom we come face-to-face. I'd add to that, in this case, know of whom you speak. Because when you use the term "Pharisee" the people to whom it actually, historically applies are overwhelmingly preaching that we must care for the stranger and practicing exactly what they preach.

Pharisees as the Ancestors of Modern Rabbnic Judaism

If you're wondering what I'm talking about, and why I take negative portrayals of the Pharisees so seriously, you're probably not that familiar with Jewish history after the Second Temple period. The Pharisees were the ancestors of modern rabbinic Judaism. That transition is something that's generated hundreds of thousands of pages of history and analysis, which obviously I can't compete with. (And for the sake of transparency, there is of course a minority academic school that opposes this understanding.)

To summarize and vastly oversimplify the history, the Pharisees were a group of Jews active in the first century CE who began decentralizing Jewish worship from the Temple (and began shifting power away from the hereditary priesthood who served in the Temple to community-recognized teachers knowledgeable in Jewish law). When the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE and carted most Jews off to Rome as slaves, Judaism had to adapt to the absence of a Temple, and the shift away from the Temple to local communities and from priests to legal and cultural experts—rabbis—allowed it to continue in exile. (For example, Gamaliel, who appears in the NT as a Pharisee friendly to early Christians, is honored in Jewish tradition as a tanna, one of the early generations of rabbis whose views are codified in the Mishnah, the first code of post-Temple Jewish law.)

The analogue in Christianity is probably that the Pharisees are to rabbinic Judaism as the apostles and church fathers are to Christianity. 

Dramatis Personae of First-Century Judaism

DISCLAIMER: I’m going to talk about “Judea” a lot in this and other posts, because that’s what it was called at the time (the Romans merged Roman Judaea and Roman Syria into Syria Palestina in 135 CE). Please do not confuse that with sympathy for right-wing Zionist insistence that modern-day Palestine should be referred to as “Judea and Samaria.”


I'm sure there are entire books on the different Jewish sects and schools and factions of the first century. It was a busy time around the Mediterranean for a lot of different cultures. A lot of people (like Jesus's followers) thought the world was going to end really soon, people were dealing with encounters with different cultures, and trying on new ideas and philosophies. 

There's no way I can cover them all in depth, so instead, here's an oversimplified chart of who some of the key players were.

Name
Modern Descendants
Source
Shtick
Locations
Romans?
Liked
Hated
Notes

Pharisees

 

 

 

 

 

Sadducees

 

 

 

Priests

 

Scribes

 

 

 

Kohanim

 

 

Levites

 

 

Essenes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therapeutae

 

Qumran sect

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hasmoneans

 

 

 

 

Herodians

 

 

 

 

 

Am haaretz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zealots

 

 

 

 

 

God-fearers

Jews

 

 

 

 

 

Karaites?

 

 

 

See kohanim

--

 

 

 

Kohanim

 

 

Levites

 

 

Christians, maybe?

 

 

 

 

 

--

 

--

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

--

 

 

 

 

 

--

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Jews, probably; some people who used to be Jews, probably

 

 

Jews

 

 

 

 

 

Christians, Jews

NT, Josephus, others

 

 

 

 

NT, Josephus, others

 

 

See kohanim

NT

 

 

 

 

Torah 

 

 

Torah

 

 

Josephus, Pliny, Philo

 

 

 

 

 

Philo

 

Archaeology

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tanakh, NT

 

 

 

 

NT, other sources

 

 

 

 

Rabbinic literature, Torah

 

 

 

 

 

NT, others

 

 

 

 

 

NT, Tanakh, archaeology, other sources

Figuring out how to make the law livable

 

 

 

Temple service

 

 

 

See kohanim

Drafting legal documents, legal expertise

Hereditary priesthood

 

Hereditary temple service

Voluntary poverty, communal life, the apocaylpse, asceticism

 

Asceticism, meditation

Criticizing other Jews, asceticism, the apocalypse

 

 

 

 

Trying to eliminate the influence of Hellenism, ruling

Murdering Hasmoneans, being Roman puppet kings

 

 

Being peasant-y, adopting other religious practices, annoying the rabbis

 

 

Guerilla warfare

 

 

 

 

Gentiles who believed in Judaism and participated in some Jewish worship without fully converting to Judaism

Jewish communities

 

 

 

 

Temple

 

 

 

See kohanim

Unclear

 

 

 

Temple

 

 

Temple

 

 

Cities

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexandria

 

Desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

 

All over

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind you, with a knife

 

 

 

 

Varied

Get rid of 'em, but not until we can do it safely

 

 

Appease them and maybe get on their payroll

See kohanim

Unclear

 

 

 

Varied

 

 

Varied

 

 

Avoid 'em

 

 

 

 

 

 

??

 

Hate 'em

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Necessary evil

 

 

 

 

Sugar daddies

 

 

 

 

Varied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kick 'em out, violently

 

 

 

 

Varied

Each other (although they argued a lot), the common people

Rich people, priests, Romans

 

See kohanim

Their clients, probably

 

 

Varied

 

 

Varied

 

 

Themselves, angels

 

 

 

 

 

Philosophy

 

Themselves, angels

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jews who were into being Jewish

 

 

Romans

 

 

 

 

 

Varied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pharisees, maybe

 

 

 

 

Varied

Romans, Sadducees

 

 

 

 

Pharisees

 

 

 

See kohanim

Unclear

 

 

 

Varied

 

 

Varied

 

 

Pharisees, Sadducees

 

 

 

 

 

??

 

Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, the normal Jewish calendar, pretty much everyone

Jews who were into being Greek-ish

 

Any Jews who got too uppity

 

 

 

Varied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadducess and other traitors

 

 

 

Varied

Political party

 

 

 

 

 

Political party

 

 

 

See kohanim

Probably the same people the NT refers to as lawyers

Caste (hereditary priesthood)

Tribe (of Levi)

 

 

Existence is questioned by some scholars, possibly the same as the Qumran sect

Possibly not a Jewish sect

Source of the Dead Sea Scrolls, possibly the same as the Essenes

 

 

The dynasty founded by the Maccabees, who gave us Hanukkah

Idumean converts to Judaism who became Roman client kings

Lit. "people of the land"; rural Jews who didn't really accept or care about rabbinic teachings

Militant resistance movement, parent group of the sicarii assassins

Possibly the first gentiles to convert to Christianity

Jews: Giving Romans Headaches Since 63 BCE

So who were the Pharisees? If they weren’t arid legalists, what was their deal? Well, before we can get to that, we need to talk about the hotbed environment of first-century Judea.

 

Before we even get to that, it’s important to understand the Jewish suspicion of centralized power. According to the Torah, we’re basically supposed to be, in the words of Monty Python, an autonomous collective.

Having a king was a compromise and necessitated the role of the prophet, who in Jewish thought is someone who isn’t primarily concerned with predicting the future, except in the sense of someone telling you “if you don’t turn on a light when you go down in the basement, you’re going to trip and fall.” A prophet’s role is, primarily, to yell at people in charge. Sometimes they yell at the people as a whole, but mostly they yell at kings. For Jews, yelling at whoever’s leading us is a sacred duty. It’s how we keep them honest. 

 

The Romans probably understood this in a political sense—it’s not like they didn’t get into screaming matches on the Senate floor, after all—but that was the elite yelling at the elite. The idea that commoners could yell at kings, or religious leaders, or military leaders, appears to have been a bit unsettling for them. (Also, their vaunted tolerance wasn't as tolerant as it often gets made out to be

 

(Jews are, in our self-conception, all the biological or adopted descendants of Abraham and Sarah, so family gets to yell at each other.)

Arch_of_Titus_Menorah.png

First-century Judea (and Samaria, and the Galilee) was brutally occupied by the Roman Empire, and was bursting at the seams with different political/philosophical groups. And in Judaism, you can’t really separate those from religious sects, since we don’t make clear distinctions between politics, philosophy, ethics, and spirituality. The personal is political, in Judaism, and the political is personal, and the personal is also spiritual, whether or not you believe in God. (You can be Jewish and atheist, for example.)

So one of those groups was the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in an afterlife, believed in strict adherence to the Torah (without the mediation of subsequent writings, philosophies, or interpretations), and were, in many cases, thoroughly entangled with the Romans. Not every last one of them, obvious, but definitely the most powerful ones. They also seem to have had significant overlap with the Levites/kohanim (the hereditary caste in charge of Temple activities), although there were also Levites and kohanim who were Pharisees. 

The Venn diagram of kohanim/Levites and Sadducees wasn’t a circle, and suborning some of them wasn’t enough to suborn Jewish religious practice, although it’s not clear if the Romans understood Jews well enough to understand that. They got that the Temple was central to the religious practices of the Judeans they were conquering—they were used to religious centers having that sort of authority—and they seemed to think that taking over the Temple would bring the Jews in line. 


Spoilers: it didn't.
 

Being part of the priesthood isn’t a vocation in Judaism—it’s a hereditary caste. If your dad’s a priest, and you’re male, you’re a priest too and there’s nothing you can do about it. The entire system, however, is set up to ensure the priesthood can’t become an institution like, say, the Catholic Church. So while only members of the tribe of Levi (including the line of kohanim, priests) could perform most of the Temple functions, the tribe of Levi wasn’t allotted lands like the other tribes were. They were dependent on the sacrificial system for their food. 

 

While the Torah was (and still is) considered sacred, there was no assumption of special divinely generated insight for the priests, let alone infallibility. The role of speaking for the divine was held by prophets, not priests. The priests were functionaries, not divine mouthpieces, and not even necessarily religious/legal experts—the rules were very specifically everyone’s knowledge. (According to rabbinic tradition, by the turn of the millennium, the priests actually had to be instructed by more learned community members on how to perform their duties.)

 

The Romans came in, conquered Judea, and then decided, “Oh, these people are super-religious so we’ll just subvert the Temple and they’ll settle down.” They tried putting images of the emperor in the Temple, which caused everyone to completely lose their shit and stage the first sit-in protest in recorded history. 

 

So then the Romans decided, “Okay, we’ll get the priests in our pocket.” They succeeded with a lot of the Sadducees, including the High Priest (they basically allowed a particular family to buy the office).

 

Instead, people started decentralizing from Temple worship. And the party of that decentralization was the Pharisees. They were involved with the rise of synagogues, and their whole shtick was creative, flexible, and humane interpretations of Jewish law. They were “rigid” or “legalists” in the sense that they considered the Torah binding, but their concern was making it livable. 

Were the Pharisees "Legalistic"?

Whether the Pharisees were legalistic is a poorly framed question. They were deeply concerned with the law, but that’s not really what the term means. 

 

It’s important to understand, in talking about this framing, that Jewish and Christian views of the Torah (which is what Christian scripture is referring to when it talks about the Law) are radically different. For Christianity, which in its early days had a strong antinomian bent, the law is something confining. The NT describes it as a burden, as something so demanding that no one could live up to it. 

 

For Jews, Torah is a privilege and a delight. At the time (even if that “time” is mythic) that we received the Torah, law was the province of kings. (Under the Code of Hammurabi, the accuser in a suit was allowed to learn the law that would govern how the suit was handled, but the accused was not.) In most cases, knowing the law was limited to the literate, and determining the law was the right of the ruler. There were, in most cases, different laws for different classes of people. 

 

The Torah, on the other hand, puts the law in the hands of literally everyone. Everyone’s responsible for knowing it, and everyone’s responsible for reminding others of it. It applies to everyone. Rich or poor, if you’re injured, the same penalties and benefits apply to you. (There are, to be clear, some rules that are different for slaves, and I’m not going to defend that, but even having the same rules for rich and poor people was pretty radical at the time.) Sabbath observance, rather than being seen as a burden, was—and still is—seen by Jews as both a privilege for Israel (we get a holiday celebration every week!) and an assertion of freedom (we are not required to work every day of the week). 

 

We take infinite delight in playing with the text (Psalms even describes it as our “plaything”), interpreting and punning and creating stories between the lines. We dance with Torah scrolls on holidays. We stand up when the Torah comes out of the ark, and dress it in special clothes for some observances. We bury scrolls that can no longer be used as if they were people, and we kiss books containing the text of the Torah if we drop them. 

 

For us, justice isn’t opposed to compassion. It’s the basis of compassion, arising from seeing all humans as made in the divine image. Law ensures that if we ever forget that, or don’t feel it, we still behave as if it were true. This view is woven throughout our very language. In English, giving money to the poor is “charity,” which originates linguistically with the idea that one’s heart is moved to aid another. One gives charity as a sign of one’s own goodness. In Hebrew, the same activity is tzedakah, which is from tzedek, justice. One gives tzedakah because it is unjust that anyone should go without having their basic needs met, and we are commanded to help remedy that injustice.

 

Jewish law is designed to affect every area of our lives, not in a constraining way, but in a mindful way, in a way that helps us find wonder and the traces of the sacred in everything. 

Here’s a great thread by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg about the use of the term “legalistic” in regard to Jewish practice.

Two Jews, Three Opinions

Anyway, so the Pharisees were engaged in getting people to move elements of Jewish worship into their own homes and into community centers. They were engaged in making the law more flexible and humane. They knew they were taking Judaism in a new direction, but like most such innovators, they saw themselves as getting back to the true meaning of the texts. They probably thought their innovations were temporary—just until Judea got out from under Roman rule and the Romans stopped interfering with the Temple—but those very innovations were what allowed it to survive the destruction of the Temple and exile. 

A key feature of the Pharisaic learning and teaching style is that they really, really, really liked to debate. They loved teaching by asking questions. Debating was the main way they studied and worked out their principles. That’s in large part because they acknowledged a human element in religious teachings. The Torah might be the divine word, but understanding, interpreting, and applying it was a human endeavor (the later Talmudic articulation of this principle would be “it is not in heaven”), and that entire body of human commentary and interpretation was holy.

The debate itself, the multiplicity of opinions, the disagreement, is all part of Torah, and sacred.

How Did the Pharisees' Contemporaries See Them?

Far from being self-righteous hypocrites who looked down on the people around them, the Pharisees were of the people, and many of them were beloved teachers. 

If you have trouble believing that, take it from those among their contemporaries who didn’t like them: Josephus and the gospel writers. Josephus was wealthy and probably a Sadducee. Here’s what he has to say about the Pharisees:

Now, for the Pharisees, they live simply, and despise delicacies in diet. And they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them, they do. They think they ought earnestly to strive to observe those commandments which it has seen fit to dictate to them. They also pay respect to those who are advanced in years, nor are they so bold as to contradict them in anything which they have introduced. Though they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not exclude the freedom from men of acting as they think fit, since their notion is that it has pleased God to make a temperament whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of men can act virtuously or viciously. (Antiquities XVIII, 12-13)

So, according to Josephus, the Pharisees:

  • live simply

  • follow logic and reason

  • do what logic tells them is good for them

  • strive to observe the commandments

  • respect the elderly

  • believe in both fate and free will

  • believe that humans have the choice to make their actions good or bad

 

Josephus also adds (listing two translations here):

 

On account of these doctrines, they are very influential among the body of the people, and whatever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction. In this way, the inhabitants of the cities gave great tribute to the Pharisees by conducting themselves virtuously, both in their way of life and their discourses as well.

On account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people: and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction. Insomuch, that the cities give great attestations to them, on account of their intire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives, and their discourses also. (15)

So, they're popular among the people because the people like their doctrines. Depending on the translation, the people either pay tribute to the Pharisees because of their virtuous conduct, or they pay tribute to the Pharisees by behaving virtuously.

He points out that the Pharisees are able to persuade the poor, while the Sadducees are able to persuade only the rich, and he’s pissed off because he thinks the Pharisaic approach to the law is too flexible and lenient. Here's what he has to say about the Sadducees:

But the doctrine of the Sadducees is that souls die with the bodies. Nor do they regard as obligatory the observance of anything besides what the law enjoins them. For they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent. This doctrine is accepted only by a few, yet by those still of the greatest standing. But they are able to do almost nothing by themselves, for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they submit themselves to the notions of the Pharisees because the multitude would not otherwise tolerate them. (16-17)

The Sadducees:

  • don't believe in an afterlife

  • are literalists

  • are few in number, but draw their membership from the elite

  • are reluctant to serve as magistrates

  • have to go along with the Pharisees in their legal rulings because the common people insist on it.

 

Note that he talks about how the Pharisees were respected because they were virtuous in both their words and their conduct: they practiced what they preached, they walked the walk. (This is where parables like that of the Pharisee and the tax collector get their bite: far from expecting the Pharisee in the story to be self-righteous and hypocritical, the audience would have been expecting him to be a kindly teacher standing up for the rights of his neighbors.)

So yeah, it’s pretty unfair that caring about the law and making sure it’s applied fairly and humanely and making it your life’s work in terms of ensuring it helps people keep their hope and sense of peoplehood in the face of an all-powerful empire trying to destroy those things gets translated, later, by that same empire, as being “rigid legalists” and “hypocrites.”

And certainly there were other Jews throwing invective around, but what probably started out as in-group invective among Jews, including the authors of some of the NT, takes on a very different cast when its employed by outsiders, especially when there’s a significant power differential. If I call my sister a cheat because she beat me at cards, that’s very different from the IRS coming along and saying she’s a cheat. 

Christians also seem fond of mining the Talmud for negative quotes and then retrojecting them into the Judaism of Jesus’s time. The Talmud is too complicated a subject to fully explain here, but to put it quite simply, it’s a record of debates. You can find pretty much every position it’s possible to hold in it. Some of them are pretty ugly, and some of those positions were sincerely held by individual rabbis, while others were devil’s advocate positions for the purpose of debate or contrast.  Judaism doesn’t have centralized authority or dogma. We consider the discussion sacred, not one single answer. 

What was Jesus's Relationship to the Pharisees?

Jesus most likely was a Pharisee. Or, if that makes you uncomfortable, I can phrase it this way: Jesus’s contemporaries—both those who agreed with him and those who didn’t—mostly likely saw him as a Pharisee.

 

For starters, Jesus’s whole setup—wandering teacher, group of followers, poor himself, sponsored by wealthier Jews—was characteristic of the Pharisees. So was his style of exegesis, his use of parables as teaching tools, and his approach to the law. And his ambivalence toward the Temple, and his unwillingness to kowtow to the Romans. He was very concerned with social justice, he focused on decentralized community groups, he spent a lot of time interpreting the law, and so on. Moreover, almost everything he says has precedent among other Pharisees (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a reformulation of a famous dictum of Hillel the Elder (110-10 BCE) who phrased it as “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another”). Some of his opinions would have been held to be pretty liberal by other Pharisees (e.g. his reported disdain for hand-washing), while others were middle of the road (healing on Shabbat), while still others were unusually conservative (divorce). 

 

The one statement that seems unique to Jesus is the idea that you have to love your enemy. The Torah tells us that we have to be fair to our enemies, that if their ox stumbles while we’re watching, we have to help out, but it doesn’t command us to love them, and most Pharisees were interested in actions over thoughts. That said, most of what Jesus was doing in situations like this was a tried and true Pharisaic practice, called a khumra. This is an expansion of a law designed to ensure we don’t accidentally transgress the law itself. For example, the Torah tells us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk; the rabbis expanded that to “don’t eat milk and meat together.” The Torah tells us don’t commit adultery; Jesus says don’t even look at someone whom you might be tempted to shtup if you’re not available to one another. 

 

The Pharisees portrayed in the gospels seem to view Jesus as one of them—they approach him to debate with him, which, far from being hostile, was how they learned from and taught one another. The gospels often treat it as hostile, although you can see that this is probably editorializing on later authors’ parts by comparing different versions of the same story.

 

For example, in Mark 12: 28-34 (Mark is the earliest of the gospels), Jesus is debating marriage with some Sadducees, and a “scribe” (probably a Pharisee—the gospel uses a lot of these terms interchangeably) comes along and asks him for an interpretation. 

 

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 

 

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

 

32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 

 

34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. 

 

In short, the scribe hears him teaching and considers him to be answering well, and comes over and asks him a question. Jesus gives an answer. The scribe is like, “Good answer!” and Jesus is like, “you too!” 

 

Here’s the same story in Matthew, a later gospel:

 

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

 

37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

 

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 

 

46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. 

 

In this version the lawyer/scribe is clearly identified as a Pharisee, and instead of a single Pharisee overhearing Jesus out-debating the Pharisees, approving, and coming over to find out more about Jesus’s positions, it’s a group of Pharisees getting together and sending one of their number to “test” him. 

 

Jesus gives basically the same answer he gives in the other version. 

 

But then, instead of the lawyer giving an approving response and citing his own teaching, Jesus doesn’t wait for an answer and pushes on to challenge the Pharisees on their view of the messiah, tells them they’re wrong, and then no one is able to “give him an answer.”

 

The story has been recast from a mutually approving meeting between two colleagues to a David and Goliath story in which Jesus, surprisingly, dumbfounds a monolithic and hostile group of Pharisees. 

 

The Pharisees also warn Jesus and his followers when the Romans or Herod are coming for them (e.g. Luke 13:31), and when the narrative moves to Jerusalem and begins the Passion sequence, the Pharisees drop out of it (except as voices of moderation in the Sanhedrin) because they had no philosophical or ideological reasons to be involved with the Romans. 

 

Jesus (possibly! if it’s not simply later additions by later editors) criticized the Pharisees not because he thought they were the worst of the community around him, but because they were the best of the community around him, and that other groups like the Sadducees were largely unreachable. He criticized them not because they were the least like him, but because they were the most like him. 

 

Nothing Jesus is recorded as saying in the synoptic gospels (John is weird and gnostic, and I’m not even going to get into what Paul says Jesus said) is out of keeping with what the Pharisees were saying. Not every Pharisee, because their entire shtick was disagreeing with each other, but when he wasn’t reiterating majority positions, he was reiterating minority ones. Nothing he said was something that would have induced the Pharisees—assuming they even had the power, which they probably didn’t—to get him executed. 

 

Like many, many of his fellow Jews, he was executed via a Roman method of execution for something that Romans, not Jews, considered a crime. The Romans even put a handy sign up on his cross explaining that. Moreover, the crime for which he was executed—sedition—was one that the Pharisees sympathized with, not opposed—and ultimately would throw their collective weight behind a few decades later. Even if most of them probably would have told him to hold off for a bit until a better time, it wasn’t something for which they’d try to get him killed. 

 

Ultimately, even if they disagreed with his timing, their position is pretty clearly articulated by Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39: if God isn’t behind this activity, it will fail; if God is behind it, it will succeed. Either way, don’t try to stop it. 

For another Jewish perspective, here's a great thread by Rabbi Ruttenberg on Jesus and the Pharisees.

A Note on the Sadducees

I want to step back for just a moment and note that while, in general, I paint the Sadducees as the bad guys in this setup, Sadducees = Evil Roman Collaborators and Pharisees = Noble Populist Resistance is the 101-level understanding, here. I’m mostly sticking with that narrative because it’s hard enough to get your average Christian to understand that no, the Pharisees were not actually bad guys, and literally nothing Jesus said was out of keeping with what they were preaching. 

 

The 201 level of understanding is that while some Sadducees were probably just trying to line their own pockets, many of them were probably attempting to protect their people by appeasing the Roman occupiers. After all, Varus crucified 2000 Jews at the drop of a hat (and during the revolt which ended in the destruction of the Temple, the Roman would, according to some sources, crucify 500 Jews a day). While there was, especially under the Maccabees, Jewish admiration for martyrs, martyrdom has never held the privileged place in Judaism that it holds in Christianity. We’d rather our people live than die for their faith. So “let’s cooperate with them so they don’t kill as many of us” is, I think, an understandable position for Jewish leaders to take. (Haim Cohen, in his meticulous examination of the Passion narrative, The Trial and Death of Jesus, concludes that—assuming the “trial” before the Sanhedrin took place—the only way that the details make sense is if it wasn’t a trial, but a last-ditch attempt before Jesus went into Roman custody the following morning to get him to recant and save both himself and the other Jews who might be executed for sedition because of his activities. The Romans were not messing around when it came to stamping out rebellion.)

 

Dissenting Opinions

Of course, there are a few minority corners of academia who argue that the idea that the Pharisees were the same as the early rabbis isn’t as well-supported as other academics assume it is (see, for example, Günter Stemberger), but it’s notable that even they don’t claim that there’s much evidence against it, just that it’s not a given. This is, however, a minority opinion and, ultimately, I’m not sure it matters in terms of whether or not Christians should continue to use the Pharisees as their scapegoats. 

 

First, regardless of whether the actual historical connection is as clear cut as most historians now assume it to be, the figures of the Pharisees have been used to justify antisemitism toward living Jews for centuries. See, for example, another great thread of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s:

Second, even if the Pharisees weren’t the same as the early rabbis, they were still Jews, and given what their contemporaries were saying about them, they were hardly villains or hypocrites. So you’re still taking people suffering under occupation and trying to keep their people and culture alive and vilifying them in place of the occupiers who were oppressing, torturing, and murdering them and their neighbors. 

 

In both those cases, when you say “don’t be like those Pharisees,” what you’re actually saying is “don’t be like those Jews.” And believe me, your fellow Christians are hearing it. 

Pharisaic Disagreements with Jesus

I often get asked, "So are you saying Jesus didn't disagree with the Pharisees on anything?" 

That's not really a question I can answer, because to say that Jesus disagreed with "the Pharisees" on anything is to posit some sort of monolithic position that the Pharisees held. We don't have absolutely canon views in Judaism: there's no Head Jew who can determine what is official for all Jews. 

So the only answer I can give to the question of on what the Pharisees would have disagreed with Jesus is that any individual Pharisee probably agreed with him on some things and disagreed with him on other things, and which things fell into which category would have differed depending on which Pharisee you were asking.

That said, I think it's reasonable to identify positions Jesus held or seems to have held that were unusual or unique, at least in the sense that they aren't recorded in rabbinic literature, or, if they are, they're presented as a minority or individual opinion rather than as something that many rabbis agree on.

An easy one is Jesus's position on divorce, which is a pretty hardline conservative position. Divorce was permitted under Jewish law, and the main points of disagreement among the rabbis are about under which circumstances a man is permitted to divorce his wife (or even required to divorce his wife). Jesus's position of no divorce ever is definitely an outlier.

 

A lot of commentators who want to make Jesus out to be the original feminist and Judaism to be an exemplar of misogyny claim that by holding this position, he was attempting to protect women. This is a pretty specious argument, since at the time, as now, whether divorce was Good For Women depended on the woman getting divorced. Granted, a lot of what makes easily accessible divorces good for women today is that women can initiate them, which wasn't the case in first-century Judea. The Mishnah does outline situations in which a woman may get a rabbinic court to force her husband to divorce her (if he refuses to support her financially, if he refuses to have sex with her, if he's sterile, if he beats her or otherwise puts her in physical danger, if he has leprosy or another disease the rabbis believed to be contagious, or if he has bad breath or body odor or is otherwise "odious" to her), but whether the man initiates the divorce or the woman appeals to the court to compel him, the choice is in male hands. A liberal position on divorce isn't helpful to women if it's only liberal for men. At the same time, it's not as if being unable to leave a marriage was particularly advantageous for women. Commentators arguing that Jesus's position was an attempt to protect women tend to ignore that a Jewish woman had financial provisions in her ketubah (marriage contract) to protect her. 

 

A position on which Jesus appears to be unique, at least at the time, was his command to love your enemy. Jewish law contains obligations to one's enemy, but it does not insist that one love them, and while the rabbis argued over the extent of those obligations, I'm not aware of any of them arguing that particular position. (It's worth noting that this doesn't mean that they would have found Jesus's position offensive, just that it wasn't one any of them appear to have shared.)

 

The one position attributed to Jesus that I think other rabbis might have found offensive or objectionable is his claim to be able to forgive sins. 

 

I want to make clear here that the Pharisees were not against repentance, as many Christian commentators have made them out to be. On the contrary, across the board, they taught that God welcomes anyone who repents. 

 

That said, it's also important to understand that classical Hebrew didn't have different words for "sin" and "crime." Jewish law wasn't "religious" law to first-century Jews: it was law law. In Jewish thought, God can forgive sins against God, but can't forgive sins (or crimes) against other people on their behalf. And if you have committed a crime against another, before you can ask for forgiveness, you must make reparations. God was as much the principle that stood behind these laws as an injured party. It's also worth noting that aside from the legal consequences (usually fines) for causing harm, not having obtained divine forgiveness wasn't a binary in a heaven-hell sense. The relationship between individuals and God was fluid, and while sin created strain and distance in that relationship, it wasn't an absolute where one was damned for a single unforgiven sin.

 

It's hard to know, from a legal standpoint, what Jesus meant by his claim, but it's easy to understand why, if other Pharisees understood the forgiveness he offered to be substituting for or superceding the law, they might have objected. If someone breaks into your house and steals something, and someone comes along and tells the thief, oh, are you sorry? no worries, then, you're off the hook, you're likely going to respond with oh no, you are NOT, you need to pay me back for what you took. Again, since there wasn't a distinction between "religious" law and civil/criminal law, forgiveness was the end of a process of repenting and making recompense, so Jesus offering blanket forgiveness of "sins," without consulting the harmed party or parties, and without recognizing that different sins involve different types of reparation, would likely have drawn pretty strong objections from Pharisees concerned with building a more just and mutually accountable society. 

Why Are Christians So
Attached to this Framing?

The obvious answer is “because that’s what it says in the NT,” but I want to talk about why I think Christians who are otherwise willing to question, disagree with, or ignore other things in the NT love this one so much.

 

Progressive Christian Twitter darlings John Pavlovitz, Fr. James Martin, Nadia Bolz-Weber and others have all been asked by rabbis and other Jews to stop using the Pharisee-hypocrite framing, and refused, either explicitly or tacitly. These are all people who, given their politics and self-presentation, one would expect to take seriously a marginalized group, subject to hate-based violence, pointing out that a word they’re using is a slur or something they’re doing is otherwise harmful. 

 

And to be clear, conservative pastors also do this. But conservative pastors largely don’t care that they’re doing harm to marginalized groups, and in fact, sometimes doing harm is the point for them. I could go on all day about how they talk about gay people, about conservative Christianity’s entanglement with white supremacy, about the links between evangelicalism and Qanon and other antisemitic conspiracy theories—and other people already have done so in far more detail than I care to get into. Go follow Chrissy Stroop on Twitter for regular in-depth analysis of this stuff. 

 

I’m more interested in speaking to the harm done by people you’d expect to care about this stuff, and who’d probably claim they care about this stuff, but continue to use harmful language in their preaching. 

 

Most progressive pastors just don’t know about the history. After all, not only is it a millennia-old Christian trope that the Pharisees were evil hypocrites, it’s literally in the dictionary. Some, if you point out the history of the use of “Pharisee” as an antisemitic cudgel, will apologize and stop using the term, although most will argue with you. But even those willing to ditch the word “Pharisees” remain wedded strongly to the idea that Jesus opposed the “religious authorities” of his day (at which point we’re back to “Judaism was the problem Jesus came to solve”) as much or more than he opposed the Roman empire. They’re willing to listen to Jews as far as not using specific language, but not as far as the concept being problematic (and ahistorical). 

 

So what’s going on?

 

I think it’s the intersection of a number of things.

Romans as Self, Jews as Other

One of the primary issues, I believe, is that Jews are the West’s most familiar Other. We’re the poster children for American religious tolerance, we’re the go-to whenever someone wants a religious perspective that’s not Christian, we’re the snarky sidekick on TV (whether it’s the West Wing or Buffy), we’re (in Orthodox form) a go-to Strange Culture Of The Week for procedurals like Law & Order and The Good Wife, and we’re the first guests invited to Christian-hosted interfaith events. 

 

We’re also the West’s go-to scapegoat for the last 2000 years. Every conspiracy eventually ropes us in as supposed shadowy puppetmasters, whenever there’s an upsurge in violence against marginalized people in the US, synagogues get vandalized—or worse, and whatever characteristics a culture most fears at the moment are imputed to us. 

 

Early Christians needed to distinguish themselves from Jews, and Christianity very quickly became the religion of (predominantly Roman) gentiles. So there’s usually a tendency to soften the role of the Romans in the Passion narrative, starting with the gospels themselves treating Pilate himself, a Roman governor so vicious that other Romans thought he was too much, as a reasonable, thoughtful man who only agrees to execute Jesus because of pressure from a violent mob of Jews, and treating Judea and the Galilee—in history, hotbeds of rebellion—as relatively peaceful under Roman rule. 

 

The NT is at pains to assert that gentiles have a right to—and are, in fact, the true heirs to—Jewish history, tradition, and writings, as well as (more abstractly) Israel’s blessing and relationship with the divine, and indignation at any opposition to this idea (note that Jews are presumed to be cut off from the tree of life in favor of gentiles “grafted” on to it, and can only conditionally reapply to regain their identity as part of the “true” Israel by converting to Christianity). Yet there remains a palpable insecurity among gentile Christians about their right to this inheritance, manifested in the assumption of Jewish xenophobia. 

This becomes, tacitly, the suggestion that the one time God decided to come to earth in human form, suffer, and die, it was primarily to tell a small group of people suffering and dying under a brutal occupation that they needed to be nicer to outsiders. And this means that whether they’re reading the parables or the prophets or the Passion, they end up rhetorically (to steal a phrase from Dr. Amy-Jill Levine) confessing the sins of the Jews rather than the sins of the church.

 

So it appears to me that whether most Christians realize it or not, their sympathies and identification in reading the NT are with gentiles, not Jews. When they’re reading parts of the narrative in which everyone’s Jewish, the “good” characters are assumed to be proto-Christians at odds with their society and context, rather than Jews at home within it. Christian tradition is so opposed to the idea that of Jesus’s contemporaries could have been reasonable, good people and not converted to Christianity that it even insists (in the complete absence of any historical evidence) that Gamaliel eventually converted. Retroactively forcing Christian conversion on dead Jews for whom people might have sympathy is, of course, a longstanding Christian tradition; its most recent incarnation is posthumous Mormon baptism of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And sorry, Christians, but when we’ve been fighting and dying for 2000 years to preserve our peoplehood and tradition in the face of your attempts to wipe it out, you don’t just get to wait until we’re dead and can’t speak for ourselves to declare that we agree with you.

 

Ultimately, it seems that even if Christians are willing to accept, in name at least, the idea that Jesus (and his early followers) were Jewish, they still at some level cling to supercessionist ideas that they were either somewhat un-Jewish Jews; that their main goal was radical reform of a broken, exploitative, and toxic Judaism; or that they were superior/”true” Jews holding on to the “real” Judaism (which was, of course, proto-Christianity). (Maybe just accept dual covenant theology and leave Jews alone?) What comparing the gospel accounts of what Jesus was teaching and saying to the Mishnah, historians like Josephus, and other records shows, however, isn’t Jesus as uniquely attempting to fix a calcified Judaism, but all sorts of different groups aware that that a living tradition was continuing to evolve and grow and debating how to best guide that evolution and growth.

 

If Christians are to take the idea that Jesus was Jewish seriously, that means accepting that he was who he was and said the things he said because of his Jewishness, not in spite of it. And if they are to take seriously the universality of his message and the idea that he was God in human form, they should be asking what his choice to be born as a member of a tiny, occupied people was saying to everyone outside that people as much as or more than what it was saying to his extended family. 

 

If you’ve got insecurity or doubts about the idea that Roman gentiles didn’t stop with conquering Judea, stealing its resources, and murdering its people, but then decided that its history and traditions were actually about them, well, I don’t know what to tell you, but the solution isn’t to try to make us the villains in our own history and to make the conquerors out to be the victims.

Jews as Stand-Ins for Other Christians

Another reason that I think the “Jesus vs. religious authorities of his day” framing is so tempting to progressives is because in the contemporary US, religious authority is pretty closely wedded to state power. Conservative Christianity (and its most toxic forms, like the Prosperity Gospel ideology and evangelicalism) is one of the most influential politically influential demographics in the US. 

 

So the idea that Jesus would oppose them (because he opposed their first-century analogues) is a viscerally satisfying one for anyone who finds their contempt for the poor, for immigrants, for people of color, for LGBT people, etc. revolting. 

 

The problem is, in first-century Judea, religious and political authority weren’t aligned. The Pharisees were what the average Jew would have considered “religious authorities” in the sense of being experts on religious practice, and the kohanim and Levites were the people who were the administrative side of Temple worship. The government was an occupying power and its puppet kings, and the Pharisees were opposed to it. Those kohanim and Levites who were Sadducees and Roman collaborators weren’t a highly powerful and well-funded religious lobby that the government was afraid to offend—they were members of an occupied people whom the government treated as tools. 

 

There just aren’t good analogues between the political and religious setup of first-century Judea and 21st century America. 

 

But even when you point that out, a lot of progressive Christians will say that it’s important to take on the religious authorities of today who are preaching hate and point out that Jesus would have opposed them. 

 

And that’s true. I absolutely agree that the responsibility for calling out Christians preaching hate falls primarily on other Christians. But when you compare evangelicals and Prosperity Gospel preachers and white supremacist conservative Christians to Pharisees or “the religious authorities of Jesus’s day” you’re saying that the problems with them can be summed up as them being too much like Jews. 

 

And, frankly, the American Jewish track record on opposing white supremacy, caring for the poor, protecting reproductive rights, affirming LGBT people, etc. is a lot better than that of pretty much any Christian group. The problem with evangelicals isn’t that they’re too much like Jews—the Jews of today or the Jews of Jesus’s time. It’s that their positions are deeply inhumane and, yes, hypocritical, and that’s a homegrown Christian problem, not a Jewish one.

Christian Fragility

While I was coming to the conclusion that the reason otherwise progressive Christians cling so hard to the “the big bads in Jesus’s story were Jewish religious authorities, not Roman occupiers” narrative is that the big bads in the progressive Christian narrative are religious authorities because progressive Christians are the minority/opposition in their hegemonic religion, I read Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter, “Christian Privilege, Christian Fragility, and the Gospel of John” in The Gospel of John and Jewish-Christian Relations

 

Now, I love Amy-Jill Levine, and just like a first-century Pharisee, I’m now going to criticize her because 99% of what I’m saying is in complete agreement with her. I adore her, I wish she were my aunt, and I think her books and lectures on Christian-Jewish relations are essential for Jews and Christians alike. 

 

That said, I do think that her affection for Christianity and her diplomacy in discussing Jewish-Christian relations frequently leads her to elide the power differences between us. I mean, it’s all very well to say, “this Christian view of Jews is wrong, and this Jewish view of Christians is wrong,” while ignoring that Jews are 2% of the population and the rest of the population +/-1% of Muslims is all current or former Christians, and that Jewish prejudice against Christians means sometimes at Torah study we roll our eyes at you, while Christian prejudice against Jews results in violence against Jewish communities, tacit barring of Jews from positions of authority, and other outcomes with real weight in harming real people. 

 

She does, gently, talk about Christian privilege, but for her to title something “Christian fragility” seemed unusually confrontational for her. Then I started reading and, well, the chapter talks a lot about Charlottesville. 

 

The book is extremely expensive and seems to only be available to borrow from academic libraries, but she did a lecture at Boston College that’s basically a verbal version of it, so I recommend watching it:

Let’s be clear: the march was primarily about anti-Black racism and hatred toward immigrants. I don’t want to minimize that. But it was also about hatred of Jews. 

 

So of course, the Sunday after, pastors were obviously going to talk about the rally. Which is good. Clergy of all traditions absolutely should condemn evil when it’s right in front of them. As it happened, the lectionary reading (at least in some denominations) that week was Jesus and the Canaanite woman (Mark 7:24-30, Matthew 15:10-20), in which Jesus initially gets pretty racist when she asks for healing. Professor Levine searched for transcripts of sermons online and for blog entries by pastors from the Sunday after Charlottesville, and discovered that overwhelmingly, they talked about racism. Most didn’t mention the anti-Jewish focus of the marchers. 

 

So far, this is mildly frustrating—I don’t want talk of the Charlottesville marchers’ antisemitism to eclipse their anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism, because I think that needs to be centered, but I do think it’s important to at least mention that they were also targeting Jews—because the sermons coming from non-evangelical pulpits are far more likely to reinforce anti-Jewish attitudes than to openly endorse racist ones, but not necessarily dangerous. Leaving out mention of the anti-Jewish chants and threats is, to use Christian terminology, a sin of omission rather than commission. 

 

If only they’d stopped there.

 

Dr. Levine cites a blog post by a progressive pastor who’s also a seminary professor—so she’s teaching future pastors how to preach. The original version of the blog post talked about Charlottesville and America’s great national sin of racism, and then said this:

 

Jesus’ words would not have been shocking or offensive to the people around him in the story, nor to the original readers of Matthew’s gospel. Personal insults and harsh exchanges were part and parcel of First Century rhetoric, and Matthew would never have intended to portray Jesus as being a bigot. So we can’t blame Jesus for this kind of speech. The point was to show Jesus healing a Gentile, which actually would have been more shocking for Matthew’s Jewish readers.

 

First off, if you believe that Jesus was literally God incarnate, yes, you absolutely can blame him for that kind of speech. It’s deeply troubling that God would say that sort of thing about any humans. The theological workaround, of course, is that whenever Jesus says anything people like it’s because he was God and whenever he says anything people don’t like it’s because he was Jewish. Not even human, but specifically Jewishly human. 

 

Second, the idea of healing a gentile obviously wasn’t something that first-century Jews would have found shocking: being a physician was a common Jewish profession in Egypt and Rome. Jewish law doesn’t say “let the foreigners living among you die if they get sick”: it says you treat them the same way you’d treat other Jews. 

 

This take, unfortunately, wasn’t uncommon. Through a neat little rhetorical loop, the scapegoats of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville also became the scapegoats of Christian pastors preaching against the Nazis marching in Charlottesville. (Plus ça change…)

 

This instance at least has a happy ending: Dr. Levine wrote to the pastor, who revised the blog entry. However, given the timeliness of the original post, how many people do you think went back to read it a second time after it was revised? The damage was already done.

 

Levine also goes through the notes on the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE), the approved bible of the American Conference of Catholic Bishops. Despite Nostra Aetate, despite The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures, despite The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable, the notes to this bible state that “dogs” and “swine” were normal Jewish terms for gentiles. She notes that they’re actually cross-cultural insults used by many cultures, and there’s no evidence of Jews generally calling gentiles “dogs” (although there are plenty of examples of Christians calling Jews “dogs”).

 

More generally, whenever someone in the NT—whether Jesus or his disciples—says something nasty, the NABRE decides that this must be an edit from Jewish Christians (gentile Christians, of course, being above that sort of thing). 

 

So the homiletic/interpretive equation becomes:

  • When Jesus says something compassionate, it’s because he was God.

  • When Jesus shows moments of doubt or vulnerability, it’s because he was human.

  • When Jesus says something nasty, it’s because he was Jewish.

 

Levine notes that Rosemary Reuther argued decades ago that “possibly anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure.” Levine adds that personally, she isn’t there yet. 

 

Neither am I. You don’t get a pass on fixing this crap. 

First Do No Harm

The examples Levine cites are the obvious ones, in which pastors are openly and explicitly talking about Jews. Here's a good video about how this stuff plays out in academia, where it's sometimes more subtle:

Less easy to get people to understand are why when progressive faves like Pavlovitz insist on comparing contemporary authoritarian Christians and white supremacists to Pharisees, it’s dangerous to Jews—and that his refusal to engage with rabbis and other Jews asking him to stop compounds the problem.

 

A trendy new solution to dealing with the NT’s more viciously anti-Jewish passages seems to be in subbing in “Judeans” for “Jews.” Adele Reinhartz notes the problems with that approach.

 

Ultimately, the actual historical Pharisees were almost certainly cool with Jesus (if he existed as portrayed in the gospels), and early Christian polemic against them is an obsolete historical spat that should be left in the first and second centuries. 

 

I mean: you won.

 

The vast majority of the world knows everything they know about Jews because of what Christians say about us. We can’t really stop you from claiming our history as your own and saying whatever you want about us. By the most generous interpretations of who counts as Jewish, we’re about 2% of the US population and 0.2% of the world’s population. There aren’t enough of us to be loud enough to be heard against the narrative you put forward about us. 

 

So the idea that you need to keep preaching the passages of the NT that treat Jews as competitors or worse is—not grave-dancing, since despite your best efforts, we still exist—but dancing on the body of someone you’ve beaten pretty severely. 

 

Even when pastors don’t actually use the term “Pharisee” in describing Jesus’s supposed opponents, that’s what Christians hear, as evidenced by the replies to one of John Pavlovitz’s tweets, in which he describes them as “polluted, sick, predatory, power-hungry, [and] hypocritical.” 

 

As Rabbi Ruttenberg points out in response

 

Also, when people use "Pharisee" to describe what someone horrible is doing, it implies that Jewish law somehow condones that thing (since Rabbinic Judaism came from the Pharisaic tradition historically). And I will tell you, in the cases I've see it used? Jewish law does NOT…

 

Now, if you can't see how Jews throughout history have been painted by Christians as being "polluted, sick, predatory, power-hungry, hypocritical" then you need to learn something more about history. Which is why the original tweet concerns me.

 

She also links to another of her threads, the “antisemitism explainer,” in which she points out how these canards are still operative today. 

 

Hate crimes against Jews are up. By 37%, according to the FBI in November. They're up across the board, yes, but only by 17%. There is a disproportionate rise in antisemitism. We make up only 1.4% of the US population. Our synagogues and even offices are being covered with swastikas. People are beating us up in the street. Our graveyards are being desecrated. There was a massacre in synagogue. Inflammatory rhetoric and dog whistles contribute to this climate.

 

The FBI regularly contacts rabbis to warn them about threats to their congregations. Synagogue board meetings include updates on which white supremacist “hunting lists” the synagogue is on. We celebrate our holidays under armed guard. 

 

When Christian preachers say “Pharisees” or “religious authorities” or even “Jesus’s opponents,” their congregants are clearly hearing “Jews.” 

 

And the results can be deadly.

The Point

What all of this ultimately boils down to, I think, is a need on the part of Christians for every last thing Jesus said or did to be unique and radical. (A friend of mine used to joke that if Jesus were recorded as taking a dump, Christians would insist Jews at the time were against pooping.) This seems to stem from the belief that the only way to make Jesus look good is in contrast to Judaism, and that if God came to earth in human form, it would be to say some radically different stuff than anyone had ever said before.

 

While that’s certainly a coherent argument, it’s not supported by Christianity’s own texts. You can find precedent for almost everything Jesus said in the Tanakh, and if you expand beyond Christian texts, you can find precedent for almost everything you can’t trace directly to the Tanakh to early rabbis like Hillel who lived a hundred years before him. 

 

Far from saying stuff that was radically new to Jews, Jesus was mostly just repeating or paraphrasing ideas most Jews were intimately familiar with.

Image by Ben Ostrower

Learn More

Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus. While Cohn, an Israeli Supreme Court justice and scholar of Jewish legal history, focuses mainly on the titular trial, he also provides a thorough education on the political situation at the time. He also gives a more nuanced portrait of the Sadducees than most authors tackling this history.

Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. I recommend this one with some caveats: Maccoby does a good job of giving background on who the Pharisees were and why the NT portrait of them is not historically accurate, but he does go into a lot of armchair diagnosing of Paul, which can't be supported. 

The Pontifical Biblical Institute, Jesus and the Pharisees (conference). This Catholic conference brought together most of the leading scholars studying Jesus and the Pharisees, and provides recordings of most of the talks (even translating the ones that weren't given in English). 

I especially recommend these: