The way we talk about Pharisees, and why it matters


With the Lenten season coming up, it’s time to discuss something that’s been on my mind for a while: Pharisees.

Odd, I know — that’s not something that normal people think about, except perhaps how not to be one of them: those hostile, unbending, legalistic Jews of the 1st century. The ones who scolded Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath. They’re characterized as the type who wait to pray over their meal at a restaurant until they know other people are watching, so they can appear more pious.

But to Jewish people, hearing “Pharisee” used as a catch-all phrase to describe religious hypocrites is offensive, if not anti-semitic.

Considering I come from a Jewish background, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of this until I started reading The Jewish Annotated New Testament (which I highly recommend).

To Jewish ears, calling someone a “Pharisee” as an insult is akin to using the expressions “That’s so gay” or “That’s retarded.” And use of this term in a derogatory way, not just in the context of a Bible study, is common in both conservative and progressive Christian circles.

But being a critical part of the gospel story, we can’t ignore Pharisees, obviously. We can’t write them out of Scripture. So how do we handle this discussion in our Bible studies? How should pastors use the term “Pharisee” in upcoming sermons about Good Friday?

One solution is recognizing who the Pharisees were before we meet them in the gospels. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg offers some education in the following Twitter thread:

Some crucial tweets from that thread:

The Pharisees were the ancestors to Rabbinic Judaism- what we do now. Jesus was a Jew arguing with his fellow Jews about the future of Judaism, and that word has been used to murder & expel us for centuries– Inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions, the Holocaust, you name it.
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 seen 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.

In Christian context, any talk of “religious law” tends to be negative. You may have heard the gospel explained to you like this: Jews used to be trapped by laws that governed every aspect of their lives, with harsh punishments if they broke any of them. But along came Jesus, who redefined the law so that everyone is saved by faith instead — no kosher laws or sacrifices required anymore.

But the reality is more complex than that. Christianity can also be seen as a religion of “laws,” too: don’t have sex if you aren’t married. Don’t watch pornography. Don’t swear. Christians are quick to retort that these aren’t really “rules,” so much as things you do out of love for God and his Word.

Jewish law functions the same way for Jews.

Back to Ruttenberg:

Crucial tweets:

You know how contemporary mindfulness language says you should strive to be fully present when you’re doing the dishes and chopping the carrots and walking to work? “You shall love God your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day…Bind them as a sign on your hand and make them frontlets between your eyes; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6). Jewish law encircles our lives. It encourages us to strive for that connection.

The Jewish legal tradition says: no cooking on Shabbat, no writing on Shabbat, no watching TV on Shabbat, no spending money on Shabbat. These are all activities that I generally enjoy (okay, TV really depends, but you get the idea.)

What I noticed almost right away is that when I refrained from doing stuff that I WANTED to do, I got something that I really, truly, deeply NEEDED. Not doing the things made space for something else to happen inside the quiet and the stillness.

Ruttenberg goes on to explain that even when she wanted nothing more than to scroll through Twitter on a Friday evening, Jewish law knew better than she did what she really needed. Despite not wanting to adhere to the Law at the time, she’s always glad when, in the end, she does (I have the same attitude about going to the gym).

Christians talk about obeying God in the same way: maybe you’re tempted to have a drunken one night stand. Maybe you feel, in the moment, that God is the cosmic Fun Police. But ultimately, why do these standards exist? To protect us. Because he loves us.

Recall that these laws were given to Moses as part of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The Law, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Rather, it’s human error that can pervert it in unhealthy extremes. That human error — the tendency toward sin — is what Jesus came to rectify.

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

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6 thoughts on “The way we talk about Pharisees, and why it matters”

  1. Your post was very well articulated…and most timely. It addresses an issue that can become quite problematic as we move through this season on the religious calendar. However, it has also become increasingly more problematic in that the attitude towards and the use of “the Pharisees” can lay a foundation for antisemitism.

    Rabbi J

  2. Really enjoyed this post and the insights you shared and quoted. I have to say, how I’ve understood the Gospel (through commentators, etc.) is closer to the last paragraph of your post. Thank goodness!

  3. Sarahbeth, I love this post – thank you for sharing about this! Whenever I’m reading something about the Pharisees, I try to ask myself how I am reflecting what Jesus was concerned about in their interactions. After all, the Pharisees might have been considered the “guardians” of the faith. Isn’t that how we often see ourselves? The Pharisees were seeking to please God. Having come out of the exile and facing daily Roman oppression, they were concerned with a full restoration and to not go back into (full) exile. They had learned the hard way that obedience and faithfulness — rooted in thankfulness to God — matter.

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