"Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
A few years ago at our New England United Methodist Annual Conference we were debating an issue related to how the church treats LGBTQ persons. One of my colleagues, arguing for inclusion, characterized those on the other side of the debate as “modern day Pharisees.” It was, I thought, an unfair comparison, and I quickly made my way to a microphone to respond.
“That’s unfair,” I said, when the presiding bishop called on me.
“It’s unfair to the Pharisees.”
There was a smattering of laughter, but I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was serious. I admit it was a snarky comment. And it was unkind. Not what Jesus would have said in that circumstance, although it seems possible he might have said something similar in one of his many discussions and disputations with disciples and others.
Like everyone else in my generation and like almost everyone who went to Sunday School and grew up in the church, I learned early on that the Pharisees were the bad guys. They were self-righteous and hypocritical, obsessed with observing the letter of the Law, yet utterly tone-deaf to its spirit. They were rich and powerful, and they colluded with the Romans in opposing and eventually killing Jesus. They were ritually clean, yet morally corrupt.
And I learned in seminary that they were the perfect foil for preaching. Every narrative needs a good villain, and the Pharisees were the perfect villains for almost any preaching topic.
It was perfect, with the slight problem that it was wrong.
The Pharisees were reformers.
They had a three-fold belief that God was a loving father, who loved humanity so much that he gave us the Torah, the Law, so that everyone who followed the law would have eternal life (fellowship with God, now and forever).
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John 3:16 will see the parallelism of construction. And beyond the similarity of form, the substance of the first and third points is basically identical. Each speaks of God as a loving father and each points toward eternal life. The difference is in the way. The Pharisees believed that following Torah was the way: John’s Gospel sees the way as believing in Jesus as the Christ.
The three-fold belief of the Pharisees gives rise to the animating question of Matthew, Mark and Luke: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If the way to fellowship with God now and forever is found in following Torah (the way), what does it mean to follow Torah? What specifically must I do? And the answer is the same in each of the three Gospels: love God and love your neighbor.
Every three years on the second Sunday in Lent, the Lectionary has us reading about how some Pharisees came to warn Jesus that Herod was after him. And after cycling through that text a couple of times I began to wonder. Why were the Pharisees warning Jesus? Weren’t they his enemies?
Two possibilities presented themselves in my mind. The first was mildly unsettling, given everything I had learned up until that point. What if the Pharisees and Jesus were not such bitter enemies?
There are many occasions where he judges them harshly. At one point he tells his followers to listen to what the Pharisees say, because “they sit on Moses’ seat,” but be careful not to imitate what they do. On the other hand, there are also instances in which they invite him to dine with them. Some are attracted to Jesus and believe that he is the Messiah, and the Book of Acts records occasions on which the Pharisees protect early Christians.
The second possibility was even more unsettling. What if Jesus himself was a Pharisee?
If you grew up, as I did, with the image of Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites, it may be hard not to reject that idea out of hand.
But think about it.
We know that it was Jesus’ custom to go to the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and we know that the Synagogue was a Pharisaic institution. Jesus and the disciples are in the Synagogue a lot.
We know that the Pharisees believed in the two-fold concept of the Law as written and oral. The written law was understood to be eternal, but the oral law had to be reinterpreted for each generation. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus first declares that he has not come “to abolish the law or the prophets.” On the contrary he says, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Then he seems to contradict that by launching into a series of teachings in which he says first, “You have heard it said,” followed by a commandment, and then, “but I say to you,” followed by a new teaching. It only makes sense when we recognize that in the first statement he is reciting the written law, and in the second statement he is giving a new oral interpretation.
Finally, we know that Jesus was called rabbi. And we know that rabbinic Judaism grew out of the Pharisaic movement. As one of my rabbi friends said, “If he was a rabbi, then he was a Pharisee.”
The Pharisees gave birth to two great religions, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, the only form of Judaism to emerge from the ancient world. They gave us the animating question for the synoptic gospels and the belief structure for the fourth gospel. They also gave us a model for Bible study and for the focus on scripture as part of the worship service.
Clearly, Jesus did have many arguments with the Pharisees as individuals or in groups. And he criticized the movement as a whole. But those disputes and disagreements should be understood as internal to the Pharisaic movement itself, just as Christians disagree with other Christians and sometimes criticize Christianity as a whole.
And Jesus was not the only Pharisee looking critically at the movement. His scathing criticism in Matthew 23 are mirrored almost exactly in a passage in the Talmud which records a description of seven different types of Pharisaic behavior, only the last of which is an example of the high standards of belief and practice to which they were called.
1. The “Shoulder Pharisee,” who wore his good deeds on his shoulder.
2. The “Wait a Little Pharisee,” who always put off doing good deeds until a later time.
3. The “Bruised Pharisee,” who shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and was bruised from stumbling and falling.
4. The “Humpbacked Pharisee,” bent double by false humility.
5. The “Ever Reckoning Pharisee,” who was always counting up his good deeds.
6. The “Fearful Pharisee,” always quaking in fear of God’s wrath.
7. And finally, the “God-loving Pharisee,” who lived with faith and charity, whose deeds matched his professed beliefs.
Whether or not one believes that Jesus was a Pharisee, how we view the Pharisees is very important for modern Christians.
Apart from the basic idea that historical accuracy matters, a reassessment of our attitude toward the Pharisees is critical for two reasons.
First, when we can see more clearly the Jewish context of Jesus’ life and ministry, we can better understand his teachings. We can see him as a rabbi advocating for his people against an occupying empire, rather than as a religious iconoclast rebelling against religious traditionalists. His religious and political views both come into sharper focus when can see him in his Jewish context.
The second point is also of great practical importance. Many Christians do not understand that modern Judaism, across the spectrum from the Orthodox to Reform and even Reconstructionist, all have their roots in the Pharisaic movement. When Christians slander the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, they are also implicitly criticizing modern Judaism. This is oddly ironic, since both Christianity and modern Judaism share a common beginning in the Pharisaic movement. Although the irony may be amusing, the practical result is that the historic Christian slander of the Pharisees has contributed to anti-Semitism.
A more accurate historical appreciation of the Pharisees can give us a clearer understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry and open the way to a more helpful relationship between Christianity and Judaism.