Are You a Pharisee?


Most Christians draw their understanding of the Pharisees from the New Testament. This is unfortunate, because many of the communities which shaped the New Testament were involved in serious debate with the Pharisees over the direction of Judaism. Therefore, the picture of the Pharisees in our scriptures is often slanted against them.

A careful reading of other historical sources reveals a more positive understanding of the Pharisees. They were one of several Jewish groups of the first century C.E.  Their aim was to extend the holiness and worship of the temple into the everyday life. Their interpretation of the law was more flexible than other Jewish groups because they believed that an oral legal tradition held authority along with the written scriptures. They encouraged an approach to God as a loving Father and cherished a hope for the resurrection of the dead. In light of this information, it seems that Jesus’ own teaching was influenced by the Pharisees.

The Catholic bishops of the Second Vatican Council attempted to correct the inaccurate presentations of the Pharisees and took great steps to improve the relationship between Catholics and Jews. This relationship was addressed chiefly in The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The writing of this declaration was complex and a genuine learning process for the council participants. Many bishops from Europe and the United States were keenly aware of the manner in which Christian distortions of Jews and Judaism had contributed to the growth of Nazism and the horror of the holocaust. Bishops coming from parts of the world where Jews were few contributed perspectives concerning the other great religions such as Islam and Hinduism. What resulted from this international mix was a document with a world-wide perspective which related the church to a variety of religious traditions in a positive way. The document was not, however, without opposition. A conservative minority expressed fear that such a positive view of other religions would weaken the majesty of the Catholic Church and lead to indifference and the lessening of missionary activity. There was even an effort in October of 1964 to derail the document.

The declaration was, however, finally passed. It calls the Church to alter the false perceptions of the past. Section #4 of the text insists that the Jewish people remain most dear to God because of their ancestors. It not only repudiates the charge that the Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death but also decries any displays of anti-Semitism at any time and from any source. In 1985 the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews issued a series of Notes that were intended to implement the ideals of the Declaration from Vatican II. The Vatican Commission stated that an exclusively negative picture of the Pharisees is likely to be inaccurate and unjust.  They also asserted that if Jesus shows severity in some of his debates with the Pharisees in the gospels, it is because he is closer to them than to other contemporary Jewish groups.

Correcting a false presentation of the Pharisees is a key component of the Church’s effort to establish an accurate understanding of Judaism and recognize the family ties between Christians and Jews. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E., the direction of Judaism was guided by the Rabbis who were successors of the Pharisees. Thus all modern expressions of Judaism descend from the Pharisees. Jews today would hold the Pharisees in respect, much as Christians respect the apostles. It is, then, a serious insult to Jews when Christians perpetuate a false and derogatory understanding of the Pharisees. Seeing them as legalists, hypocrites, and enemies of Jesus not only ignores our best historical information, it also minimizes the positive influences the Pharisees have contributed to the Christian tradition.

Are you a Pharisee? Since the group no longer exists, it is impossible to be a Pharisee. But if you believe in the resurrection of the dead and in a loving God whose will for us has been revealed in both written an oral form and shows us how to live our faith in everyday life, you are standing in the faith of the Pharisees.

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6 thoughts on “Are You a Pharisee?”

  1. This homily sparked our curiosity on various levels. What was the complete text of the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions (NOSTRA AETATE); other definitions of the Pharisees from a non-religious historical definition; and the relationship of Jesus to Zacchaeus? Regarding the latter, God’s forgiveness is on a more personal and relational level, and what of Zacchaeus in the future? He more than fulfilled the Jewish law by repayment of his wrongdoing. How will he be seen in the eyes of the public and even by his own family from now on? As a biblical symbol of our own sinfulness, we are invited by grace to live forgivingly with others who seek to feel the loving comfort of knowing God. To answer your final question, we “…believe in …a loving God…”

    • Thank you for your excellent questions. The most useful official statement on the Pharisees is not from Nostra Aetate but from the 1985 statement of THE VATICAN COMMISSION FOR RELIGIOUS RELATIONS WITH THE JEWS entitled “NOTES on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.”

      Here are sections III, 6-8:

      6. Jesus shares, with the majority of Palestinian Jews of that time, some pharisaic doctrines: the resurrection of the body; forms of piety, like alms-giving, prayer, fasting (cf. Mt 6:1-18) and the liturgical practice of addressing God as Father; the priority of the commandment to love God and our neighbour (cf. Mk 12:28-34). This is so also with Paul (cf. Acts 23:8), who always considered his membership of the Pharisees as a title of honour (cf. ibid. 23:6; 26:6; Phil 3:5).

      7. Paul also, like Jesus himself, used methods of reading and interpreting Scripture and of teaching his disciples which were common to the Pharisees of their time. This applies to the use of parables in Jesus’ ministry, as also to the method of Jesus and Paul of supporting a conclusion with a quotation from Scripture.

      8. It is noteworthy too that the Pharisees are not mentioned in accounts of the Passion. Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-39) defends the apostles in a meeting of the Sanhedrin. An exclusively negative picture of the Pharisees is likely to be inaccurate and unjust (cf. Guidelines, Note 1; cf. AAS, loc. cit. p. 76). If in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament there are all sort of unfavourable references to the Pharisees, they should be seen against the, background of a complex and diversified movement.

      Criticisms of various types of Pharisees are moreover not lacking in rabbinical sources (cf. theBabylon Talmud, the Sotah treatise 22b, etc.). “Phariseeism” in the pejorative sense can be rife in any religion. It may also be stressed that, if Jesus shows himself severe towards the Pharisees, it is because he is closer to them than to other contemporary Jewish groups (cf. supra n. 17).

      As to your question about Zacchaeus, you are certainly correct about God’s personal forgiveness. Whether, however, the public and his family will see him differently, is really up to them. No small part of the biblical story is to underline the harsh judgment of the crowd concerning Zacchaeus. If God has forgiven him, so should others.

  2. Hello Father Smiga,
    To help me understand the Bible in context, how was it then, that Jesus was crucified? Who loathed Him so?
    Thanks and many blessings this new year!

    • Although it is common to suppose it was hatred which led to Jesus’ crucifixion, a much more plausible reason is fear. The Jewish nation was known throughout the Roman Empire as difficult. Because the Jews believed that their land was given to them by God, it was intolerable to have the land occupied by Gentile non-believers. This led to regular rebellions against Roman rule. Pilate knew his job was to nip any possible disturbances in the bud. The most dangerous time of the year was Passover, when Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. We have no reason to believe that Jesus had any political intention to overthrow Roman rule. But Rome did not care about intentions but only actions. When Jesus overthrew some tables in the temple, this would have been reported to Pilate. Then out of fear of a possible uprising, Pilate (without much discussion or due process) would send Jesus quickly to the cross.

      You might consult #10,9, and 2 in the Top Ten Dangers article in this blog

      • Thank-you for the clarification, Father Smiga, and I read the Top Ten Dangers article. Now if I may be so bold as to make the following observation:

        It seems earlier in time there existed congruency between one’s faith and one’s faith-tradition. Faith and faith tradition were understood to refer to the same thing; there was no difference in content between discussing one’s Catholic faith or one’s faith as a Catholic.

        But when history is rewritten it seems possible to lose that congruency, and that resulting incongruence may lead one into having to make a choice between following one’s God-given faith or following Catholicism.

        Therefore, it seems the way to maintain that God-given congruency is not to rewrite history, but to simply ‘rewrite’ our response to history by rejoicing in the growth of our understanding of Him: Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

        By the power of the indwelled Holy Spirit we are enabled to love all others as He
        first loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:10). Therefore, we now
        understand that in that same way that He first love us we are to sacrificially love
        (forgive) our enemies -whoever they may be.


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