You Might Be a Pharisee if…

The Pharisees get a bad reputation from their portrayal in the gospels, but it probably isn’t deserved. Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine recently discussed why that is likely to be the case that we are guilty of misunderstanding the Pharisees in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a copost to that interview.

To start, Amy-Jill Levine shared some information about who the Pharisees were:

In much of the Christian imagination, beginning with the Gospels, the Pharisees (with a few notable exceptions) represent hypocrisy, misogynism, elitism, xenophobia, the letter of the law rather than on the Spirit, and generally everything that Christians, and by extension, everyone, does not like.

Conversely, Jews have, since the Middle Ages, recognized the Pharisees as the predecessors of Rabbinic Judaism: The Pharisees encouraged the Jewish people to increase the sanctity of their lives and fully to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Even within the New Testament, however, the picture is complicated:

The Gospels show them in synagogues, as hosting Jesus at dinner, and as teaching the people. When Matthew states that the Pharisees “cross sea and land to make a single proselyte” (23:15), the impression is not one of separation but of active engagement with fellow Jews to help them better to follow Torah.

Josephus also talks about the popularity of the Pharisees among the masses despite not being a fan. (Josephus thought people should look to the inherited roles held by priests rather than to the Pharisees.) …

Paul is a Pharisee, and he never rejects his Pharisaic connections. Gamaliel (Acts 5) speaks up on behalf of Peter and John. Nicodemus, a “leader of the Pharisees,” also speaks up on behalf of Jesus, and he together with Joseph of Arimathea entombs Jesus’s corpse. Acts mentions other Pharisees who joined “the way.”

Levine also added that the debates that Jesus held with the Pharisees were those of a Jew debating with Jews about the best way to honor their shared religion:

By debating with the Pharisees about Torah interpretation, Jesus does not remove himself from the Jewish community. To the contrary, one does not debate about something in which one has no investment.

First-century Judaism was quite diverse when it came to specific practices (e.g., handwashing) and belief (e.g., in resurrection of the dead). Jesus and his followers are part of that diversity—as were Pharisees. …

Perhaps if more people understood that Jews did then, and do now, disagree on how to follow Torah, they would be able to recognize his debates with Pharisees as something normative within Jewish life rather than a rejection of it.

Thus, in the context of the times, the Pharisees were just a specific group of people with shared beliefs that Jesus and his followers were engaging with about interpretation of Jewish religion.

The popularity and success of the Pharisees was accounted for by a few aspects of the lifestyle and teachings of the Pharisees:

  • Their concern for practice
  • Their flexibility in Torah interpretation
  • Their living among the people rather than retreating to the Dead Sea
  • Their reputation according to Josephus for living simply rather than ostentatiously
  • Their egalitarian rather than inherited status

That very popularity, however, positioned the Pharisees as rivals of the religious movement started by Jesus, which may have contributed to negative portrayals in the Gospels:

The Gospels, written at least a generation after the death of Jesus, recognize the Pharisees—and for John’s Gospel, all the “Jews”—as the rivals to their teachings. We can track an increase in anti-Pharisaic rhetoric as we move from Mark to Matthew to John. Scholars debate the presentation of the Pharisees in Luke and Acts as to how intense the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric is.

While most Jews chose to follow the Pharisees, the Gospel message received wider welcome in the non-Jewish world. For the followers of Jesus, first Jewish and then among the nations, the Pharisees served as the major rival to their teachings even in places where there were no Pharisees.

Thus, some of the portrayal of Pharisees as opponents of Jesus may have been shaped in the telling by people who experienced them as religious rivals.

As a means of countering negative portrayals of Pharisees, Amy-Jill Levine shared a list of “you might be a Pharisee if…” based on historical data:

You might be a Pharisee if:

  1. You believe in a combination of fate and free will.
  2. You believe in the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment.
  3. You reject elitism and favor voluntary groups over inherited positions.
  4. You value your traditions, but you also realize they must be reinterpreted in light of new social circumstances.
  5. You want to make it easier and more meaningful for people to engage in their traditions, and you are willing to discuss how to do so.
  6. You care about multiculturalism and maintaining group identity despite assimilationist pressures.
  7. You have been maligned over the centuries for your commitment to your tradition.
  8. You’d have dinner with Jesus.

This is a very different viewpoint than the common caricature of Pharisees as representing “hypocrisy, misogynism, elitism, xenophobia, the letter of the law rather than on the Spirit.”

For more about the Pharisees and how Christians are sometimes guilty of misunderstanding the Pharisees, head on over and read the full interview with Amy-Jill Levine. It’s a very interesting and rich interview with a lot of great information, so definitely worth the time.

3 comments for “You Might Be a Pharisee if…

  1. It’s important to recognize that the “Pharisees” in the New Testament are a caricature, because the reality behind that caricature is in every religion and every movement, and I suspect in every heart: legalism, checking boxes, being concerned with appearances and judging and being judged by others, etc. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees should make us look inside ourselves, not down at others. It’s a real challenge to cast out our inner “Pharisee.”

    Another challenge is teaching young people to obey the commandments without encouraging their inner “Pharisee.” I suspect that was one of the motivations for the new For the Strength of Youth pamphlet.

  2. I don’t find number three on that list making sense to me. You could still embrace elitism of the voluntary group.

  3. In the Church we often teach using caricatures or rather labels. We find them in the scriptures all the time. That the Lamanites were a dirty and disgusting people who enjoyed hunting and stealing… today, that “Latinos” are like that and that “gringos” are over there, that the old leaders are stubborn and must be changed… that the people of the world are like that… that he is “worldly”, so it doesn’t surprise me that the labels are wrong.

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