|October 2, 2010
How did Early Christianity view the Pharisees?
Christian scripture (the New Testament) refers to the Pharisees numerous times in negative terms. References refer to conflicts between Pharisees and John the Baptist and Pharisees and Jesus. There are also several references to Paul of Tarsus being a Pharisee before he became a follower of Jesus. In short Christian tradition has been the cause of widespread awareness of the term “Pharisees” and unfortunately has employed it over the centuries in a negative light.
Some people have speculated that Jesus was a Pharisee and his arguments with the Pharisees were a sign of inclusion rather than of fundamental conflict. Jesus' emphasis on loving one's neighbor for example, echoes the teaching's of Hillel. Yet his view of divorce is closer to that espoused by Shammai.
Others have argued that the portrait of the Pharisees in Christian Scripture reflects a time when the followers of Jesus did not consider themselves to be part of the Jewish people and were attempting to distance themselves from us and in order to seek converts amongst the Romans.
An important issue in the Christian view of the Pharisees is the tension between love and law. Christian scripture presents the Pharisees as a people obsessed with man-made rules while Jesus was more concerned with God's love. The Pharisees scorn sinners while Jesus sought them out. Christian scripture depicts the Pharisees as “self-righteous rule followers”. As a result certain circles have come to use the term, “Pharisee” to describe hypocritical and arrogant people who place the letter of the law above its spirit. Big surprise, I can think of a lot of non-Pharisaic Jews who would fall into that category!
Christian scripture presents the Pharisees unfairly. They claim that the Pharisees were obsessed with avoiding impurity while rabbinic texts reveal that they were concerned with offering the means to remove impurity so a person could once again participate in the community. Christian scripture claim the Pharisees objected to Jesus' mission to outcast groups such as beggars and tax-collectors, while rabbinic texts emphasize the opportunity for forgiveness. Actually much of the teaching of Jesus, (the Sermon on the Mount) is consistent with Pharisaic and rabbinic thinking.
Bottom line if a non-Jew calls you a Pharisee, give them a potch!
This week's commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish"
Jewish Lights Publishing.