Methodist professor of Religion and Bible, Joel Allen, offered an insightful blog post this week entitled, Be Fair to the Pharisees: Guarding Against Anti-Jewish Attitudes. There is a persistent sense that the Pharisees were the bad guys in Jesus’ life and ministry, Allen suggests, and he offers his own daughter’s silly campfire ditty as exhibit A. “I don’t want to be a Pharisee, ‘cuz they’re not fair, you see,” sang the nine year old.
Allen offers a cogent rebuttal to the view that the Pharisees were self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites who emphasized the letter of the law over its spirit. His argument is that this is an over-generalization, a broad brush attitude that overlooks the many Pharisees who had the same critical attitude toward the “system” as did Jesus. “While Jesus certainly had abuses in the practice of Pharisaic piety and hypocrisy to condemn, he was not alone. Other rabbis had similar criticisms of their fellows,” says Allen. He calls on history and mentions Hillel, the leading Pharisee sage who offered his own version of “The Golden Rule,” a generation before Jesus.
I think that Professor Allen’s well written piece is right on, and I wholeheartedly subscribe to his views. Here is my basic view: The New Testament wrongly characterizes Israelite religion in general and the Pharisees in particular. The New Testament demonizes and scapegoats the Pharisees, and even more hurtfully, all the Jews. As Allen reports, following his time spent at Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati,
One of the things that surprised me in studying the Bible with rabbinical students was the degree to which they perceived the New Testament to be fundamentally anti-Jewish. As an orthodox Christian, I found it troubling to hear the teachings of Jesus described as ‘anti-Jewish’ and as contributing factors to Jewish suffering.
Allen suggests that the gospels lack a balanced view that fails to include the whole cloth of Pharisaism. Let me carry the argument a step further by offering two historical reasons why the New Testament offers only a partial and biased view of Pharisaism. What is important, I think, is a further evaluation of the history that occurred between the life and times of Jesus and the time when the books of the New Testament were written or compiled. Jesus’ ministry is commonly dated to around 30-33 CE, the letters of Paul to the 50’s, Mark’s gospel to around 70, Matthew and Luke to the 80’s, and John to the 90’s.
I suggest that two historical factors were at play that caused the New Testament writings to become ripe with anti-Jewish polemic and to grossly overstate the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, erroneously lumping them with the aristocratic Sadducees, and between Jesus and his fellow Jews. The first is the conflict between Paul’s Gentile mission and the Jewish, Jerusalem followers of Jesus led first by Peter but soon by James, the brother of Jesus. The second is the cataclysmic Jewish civil war and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans circa 70 CE which obviously occurred several generations after the time of Jesus but during (Mark) or before the compilation of the gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John).
Must Gentile Christians follow the ceremonial and symbolic rules of Torah, including circumcision, dietary practices, and Sabbath and festival observance? That was the basic issue between Paul and the Jerusalem church that came to a head nearly a generation after the death of Jesus. An “apostolic assembly” occurred in Jerusalem in the late 40’s to consider the issue, followed immediately by the “Antioch incident” in which Paul broke with James and Peter and set out on his independent missionary journeys. Much of Paul’s subsequent theology grows out of this basic dispute with the “Judaizers,” and the tone of his writings often became intemperate. He referred to Jerusalem emissaries as “peddlers of God’s word,” “false apostles,” “deceitful workers,” “false brothers,” “dogs,” and “evil workers.” Often, his polemic against the ceremonial Torah and those who promoted it sounded distinctly anti-Semitic, a sad irony for the Pharisee born of the tribe of Benjamin.
“The Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, they displease God.” Paul’s improvident words contained in 1st Thessalonians, the very first writing of the New Testament, indict not only the apostle to the Gentiles but subsequent generations of Christians who uncritically accepted his words at literal, face value. The danger of treating Paul’s writings as the infallible, inerrant Word of God becomes obvious.
While doing research for my own novel about Paul, I read a fascinating series of essays entitled, “Jesus through Jewish Eyes”, a collection of views of current rabbis and Hebrew scholars. In general, Jesus was treated quite well as a long lost Jewish brother, a Torah teacher who spoke with the cutting voice of a prophet. In private correspondence with one of the contributors, I asked a related question, “What do Jewish scholars think of Paul?” The answer was decidedly different. Paul was the apostate who perverted Israelite religious rituals, symbols, and myths into a Hellenized amalgam that splintered Christianity away from Jesus’ Jewish roots. Hyam Maccoby, a particularly anti-Pauline Hebrew scholar, has authored two books entitled, “Paul, the Mythmaker” and “Jesus, the Pharisee.” His titles say it all.
We don’t need to go nearly so far as Maccoby to understand that Paul’s tone is decidedly discordant to Jewish ears. We must also recognize the hostility between Paul and the Jerusalem church as the bass line of his disharmonious writings.
In 66 CE, the political firestorm in Jerusalem burst into the conflagration of civil war: sect against sect, class against class, brother against brother. Josephus, a Hebrew aristocrat who later joined the Romans, provided an eyewitness account.
Now after these were slain, the zealots and the multitude of the Idumeans fell upon the people as upon a flock of unclean animals, and cut their throats; and for the ordinary sort, they were destroyed in what place soever they caught them. But for the noblemen and the youth, they first caught them and bound them, and shut them up in prison, and put off their slaughter, in hopes that some of them would turn over to their party; but not one of them would comply with their desires, but all of them preferred death before being enrolled among such evil wretches as acted against their own country … the terror was upon the people so great, that no one had courage enough either to weep openly for the dead man that was related to him, or to bury him.
When the Romans moved in and finished the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Israelite society was forever changed. Over a decade later, the Pharisees regrouped as rabbinical Judaism, but any affinity with the Jesus sect was long forgotten. The rabbis now contended with the Jesus movement for the synagogues. The church of Jesus had become associated with the Gentile enemies, and the Christian writings reflected the new political realities. It was the Jews, not Pontius Pilate, who bore responsibility for the death of Jesus, and the gospel compilers washed their hands of their Jewish roots. The political undercurrents of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s wafted through the Jesus stories of the gospel accounts.
The writings of the New Testament sound anti-Semitic, at least to Jewish ears, and Christians must come to grips with this reality. Even more importantly, Christians must accept that Jesus had much in common with many of his Pharisee peers, his Jewish brothers. As Allen concludes, “Let’s be fair to the Pharisees, or we’re not being fair, you see?”