How Our View of the Pharisees Affects Our Actions

In a prior post, I put in a good word for the Pharisees, hoping to add nuance to our image of this group and to avoid unintended insults of modern-day Jews.

Harsh, but Internal, Critique

Some might object that the latter concern amounts to too much political correctness or an attempt to tidy up the Bible to make it friendlier to contemporary sensibilities. It might seem more candid to acknowledge outright opposition: not only between Jesus and the Pharisees (e.g., Matt 23:13–39 par.), but between Christians and Jews in general. Among many examples, Revelation speaks of the “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9), and Paul characterizes his rivals this way: Jews

killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last. (1 Thess 2:15–16, NIV)

It is proper to seek the unvarnished truth. At the same time, given Christianity’s complicity in persecutions of Jews and slurs against them as “Christ-killers,” I trust I am not the only one who winces at the words above. The dilemma is acute: Is antisemitism found in the pages of the New Testament or on the lips of Christ?

A reassessment of early Christianity’s relationship to Judaism helps reframe the issue. In the decades after the Holocaust, biblical scholars reconsidered how Jesus and his first followers understood themselves. Rather than founding a new religion—“Christianity” versus “Judaism”—it has become increasingly clear that for the first generation or two at least, Christianity was seen as a sect within Judaism. There were indeed harsh debates back and forth with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and with Jewish crowds, but these were not inter-religious debates. Rather, the New Testament witnesses a debate among Jews.

The implications are important on numerous grounds; one of them concerns the topic at hand. Internal critique has a different resonance than external critique.[1] Imagine you are a US citizen and a partisan of either the Democrats or Republicans. A presidential election has just gone against you, and you lament, “Americans are such fools. The country is irreparably damaged now!” This bitter remark that ostensibly blankets the whole nation in fact assumes several nuances:

  • Qualification: “Americans” implies, not everyone, but a (perhaps razor-thin) plurality. You exempt yourself and likely tens of millions of others.
  • Sympathy: To be so disappointed at the result, you presumably remain a proud citizen, albeit a distraught one.
  • Hope: Despite the emotional outburst, it is likely that you treat members of the other party kindly, continue to recruit them to change their minds, and may well see significant promise in America’s long-term future.

If you made the same comment about a nation not your own, by contrast, particularly one with few historical ties to your people, it would smack of xenophobia, because the nuances above would be less likely to apply.

We must understand the New Testament as internal critique with implicit qualification, sympathy, and hope for the Jews. This presents an apologetic opportunity and ethical challenge. Apologetically, a charge sometimes laid against the New Testament is that it is antisemitic. Were it external critique, that might be true, but not so given the nuances of internal critique.

Ethically, we now live in a time when nearly everyone thinks of “Jews” and “Christians” as separate religions (messianic Jews notwithstanding), and thus we must take care when we read, teach, and preach the New Testament. Some tips:

  • Always explain the historical context of these passages to avoid fostering anti-Jewish prejudices.
  • Mentally associate negative uses of “Jews” in the New Testament with “the majority” to disassociate these terms from universal application to all Jews.
  • Use wording that situates early Christians within Judaism, such as “Jesus debates His fellow Jews.”
  • Prefer “Jews” to “the Jews,” which has a distancing effect.

By doing these things, we can seek rapport with Jews today and better honor our Jewish Messiah.

Written by Timothy Gabrielson.

Timothy Gabrielson is assistant professor of biblical studies at Sterling College in Kansas and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute.

[1] I owe this insight to a friend in my doctoral program, Nathan Thiel. See his “Blinded Eyes and Hardened Hearts: Intra-Jewish Critique in the Gospel of John” (Ph.D. diss., Marquette University, 2016).