Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Scot McKnight says calling people Pharisees gets close to anti-Semitism

From Pharisees: Revisiting an Old Problem:
It is a standard procedure to say “Pharisee” and mean “legalist, bigot, hypocrite, or picayune meddler into other people’s religious business.” Look at any dictionary. But this is in and of itself a caricature and stereotype, for no one (I hope) would think that all Pharisees have always been religious bigots. Such language spells danger down the road in ways that might surprise us. Even more, we have tended to download anger or extreme disagreement with others onto this term “Pharisee.” So, when I call someone a Pharisee I do not mean anything nice or even charitable. Which, in and of itself is dangerous because no group (well, there are exceptions) is always wrong and always bad.

Martin Luther — and this was all charted out in 1977 in EP Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism – tended to equate the Roman Catholic establishment with the Pharisees of the Gospels. Everyone should read this book, regardless of all the scuttlebutt about his ideas ever since. The invective of Luther against the Roman Catholics in the 16th Century then was downloaded onto the Pharisees of the New Testament.

Here’s the problem: the impact of our use of Pharisee is that we have learned to call all Jews and anyone we think is too conservative a “Pharisee.” This can get very close and often actually is anti-Semitism.
Good on you, Dr. McKnight!


Anonymous said...

Just to add a little something, the historic and modern-day Rabbis are also referred to by some Christians as Pharisees as a way of devaluing Jews who follow traditional halachah in their lives. This is especially a problem for Messianic Jews since they are more likely to encounter non-Jewish Christians who will request or require said-Jewish believers to give up halachah because it's "the leaven of the Pharisees."


Yahnatan said...


Good point. To add even more complexity, the term Pharisee is still a positive term for some modern Jews, for example Rabbi David Rosen whose dialogue book with evangelical pastor R. T. Kendall was entitled The Christian and the Pharisee.

In my experience, contemporary Jews see the Pharisees as a historic movement predating the rabbis through whom the rabbis trace some of their theology. (The same can be said of Christians, who, on major doctrinal issues--such as the inspiration of the Prophets and Writings, the resurrection, and the Messiah--agree with the Pharisees.) But rarely do I hear contemporary Jews identifying with the Pharisees--except in the context of Jewish-Christian dialogue where it can be used to rhetorical advantage.