Jewish-Christian Resources

The Top Ten Dangers In Preaching on Jews and Judaism

Making Peace with the “Enemies” of Jesus: Assessing the Opposition to Jesus in the Christian Gospels

When Local Preaching Becomes Universal: Protecting the Gospels from Anti-Judaism

Teenage Strains in the Gospels (Matthew 23)

Are You a Pharisee?

The Top Ten Dangers In Preaching on Jews and Judaism


Effective preaching is difficult. Not only must pastors know the scriptures, the ecclesial tradition, and current theology, they must also speak so as to address the real issues in the lives of their listeners. Understandably preachers do not welcome additional responsibilities. Yet the 1974 Vatican guidelines for implementing Nostra Aetate (the declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions) warn preachers not to distort biblical passages by placing the Jewish people in an unfavorable light.

Busy pastors shake their heads in frustration. Avoiding a false presentation of Judaism in preaching is no small task. Not only has the Christian preaching tradition been molded upon a paradigm which promotes Jesus at the expense of Judaism, but the gospels themselves include tendencies which can reinforce this negative stereotype. Moreover the achievements of biblical scholars, who have worked diligently to form a new and more accurate paradigm, are still largely absent from the commentaries and preaching resources upon which pastors and catechists depend. As a result, often by default, Judaism is routinely denigrated when Jesus is preached.

What can be done to improve this situation? Minimally preachers should be warned where the pitfalls lie. Therefore, with apologies to David Letterman, I have outlined the Top 10 dangers of the traditional paradigm which threaten Christian preaching on Jews and Judaism. The statements are ranked in ascending order of frequency and harm. Each, as stated, is to be read as false according to current theology and historical research.

#10. Jews were united in their opposition to Jesus.

The Judaism of which Jesus was a part was a vibrant and diverse community. It was comprised of various groups, including Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Each of these groups had their own interpretation of the law and to some extent disagreed with others. It is likely that some groups opposed parts of Jesus’ teaching. It is also likely that other groups shared much in common with him. The gospels tend to generalize all Jewish groups into a single movement in an attempt to emphasize the distinctiveness of Jesus. Preachers should be careful not to promote this generalization, lest it appear that the teachings of Jesus are somehow antithetical to a united Judaism.

#9. The Jewish leadership orchestrated Jesus’ death.

Thankfully most Christians now understand that the Jewish people today cannot be held responsible for Jesus’ death. Yet it is also important to recognize that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were not the primary agents of his execution. Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment. Therefore the Romans were the responsible agents. Moreover, the diversity of Judaism (see #10 above) precluded any one Jewish group from having authority over the rest of Judaism and acting on its behalf. It is likely that some of Jewish temple authorities co-operated with the Romans and handed Jesus over to Pilate. However, most Jews and their leaders played no role in Jesus’ death.

#8. Jesus’ opponents were hypocrites.

It was a common rhetorical device in the ancient world to vilify one’s opponent in the course of debate. To call someone a “hypocrite,” “blind fool,” “viper,” “murderer,” or “child of hell” did not necessarily indicate the person’s moral character. Such epithets were often used merely to tag another as an opponent. Remember that when Peter disagrees with Jesus over the cross, Jesus calls him “Satan” (Mark 8:33). When the gospel writers apply these descriptions to Jesus’ opponents, they are indicating a disagreement. Preachers should dispel the impression that those so labeled were duplicitous, corrupt, ignorant, or evil.

#7. The Pharisees were opposed to love and mercy.

The presentation of the Pharisees in the gospels is misleading. Because the Pharisees are frequently in debate with Jesus and tagged as his opponents (see #8 above), it can appear that their teaching was radically opposed to his. Historically, however, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than most other Jewish groups. He shared with them a belief in the resurrection of the dead, seeing God as a loving Father, and the centrality of love of God and neighbor. The Pharisees were reformers in Judaism. They sought to make the practice of charity as important as worship in the temple. Preachers should avoid describing the Pharisees as “hard-hearted legalists.” In fact they employed a flexible interpretation of the law to promote the practice of love and mercy. Jesus did as well. But in this approach, Jesus’ teaching is similar to rather than divergent from that of the Pharisees.

#6. Jesus alone cared for sinners and the marginalized.

Jesus certainly preached the forgiveness and mercy of God to sinners and the marginalized. However, because the gospels so often show Jesus in debate with other Jews, the traditional paradigm falsely concludes that Jesus’ opponents were against such mercy and forgiveness. There is no historical foundation for this assumption. All Jews had access to God’s forgiveness through the sacrifices in the temple. The Hebrew Scriptures amply testify to a God who rejoices when a sinner repents and who is the protector of the marginalized. Jesus may have disagreed with his opponents over the means to attain God’s forgiveness. But preachers should resist giving the impression that Jesus’ opponents, and thereby Judaism itself, somehow rejected those who sinned, shunned the marginalized, or denied the mercy and forgiveness of God.

#5. Jews scrupulously followed the law so as to earn God’s favor.

This misunderstanding flows from a particular interpretation of the letters of Paul. Paul has been traditionally read as rejecting the Jewish law because it was contrary to grace. Modern research has successfully overturned this understanding, insisting that Paul and other Jews of his time recognized the law was not a way to earn God’s love but a means to respond to it. Preachers should resist the temptation to read the traditional understanding of Paul into the debates between Jesus and his opponents. For Jews, following the law was not scrupulosity or empty legalism. It was an honest attempt to conform one’s life to the free gift of God’s covenant.

#4. Jesus opposed the Jewish law.

Because Jesus is often shown in debate with other Jews about the law, it can be falsely concluded that Jesus was arguing against the law. As a Jew of his time, Jesus accepted the importance of the Jewish law as a means to respond to God’s love (see #5 above). Although later Christians revised the observance of the Sabbath and eliminated Jewish food requirements, it is likely that Jesus accepted and followed both. He most likely disagreed with other Jews about how the law should be applied, but such a debate was common among all Jews and demonstrated the importance of the law rather than a disregard of it. Preachers should avoid characterizing Jesus as an “anti-legalist” or suggesting that his mission was to free people from “the burden of the law.” Jesus was a legalist in the best sense. As a faithful Jew he interpreted the law in light of his own understanding of God’s kingdom.

#3. Jesus’ teaching was unique.

There were certainly aspects of Jesus’ teaching which were distinctive to him. But to characterize Jesus’ message as a stark contrast to the positions of other Jewish teachers of his day cannot be supported historically. Practically every saying of Jesus can be associated with a parallel saying from either the Hebrew Scriptures or rabbinic sources. Jesus, of course, is unique for Christians because they accept him as the Messiah of God. Preachers, however, should be careful not to extend this uniqueness to the content of his teaching. His gospel is easily situated into the context of first century Judaism. Jesus shared with other Jews the belief in a loving and merciful God, the forgiveness of sinners, the care of the poor, the love of God and neighbor. When this common teaching is presented as unique to Jesus, Judaism is falsely characterized as the antithesis of the very gifts it has bestowed on Christianity.

#2. Jesus was crucified because of his teaching.

There remains a persistent temptation in preaching to connect the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching with the motivation for his death. When it is falsely asserted that Jesus alone preached love and forgiveness to sinners and the marginalized and that Judaism was opposed to such teaching, the error can be compounded by asserting further that Jesus’ message was so radical and offensive to other Jews that it moved them to seek his crucifixion. Jesus emerges from this conflation as the victim of the “entrenched Jewish establishment” which was motivated by anger and jealously to kill him.

There were clearly Jews who disagreed with some aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Jews, however, did not kill one another over such disputes. Jesus was executed not because he offended Jews but because his actions threatened the interests of imperial Rome. His action of overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple raised the concern of Pilate that Jesus was a troublemaker who could incite a riot during Passover time. With the co-operation of a small number of temple authorities, Pilate would have moved quickly to crucify Jesus. Preachers should resist identifying the content of Jesus’ gospel as the reason for his death. In a true sense Jesus did die for the gospel. He went to the cross believing in the loving God who was his Father. But his belief was not foreign or offensive to Judaism but rather the gift Jesus received from his Jewish heritage.

#1. Christianity has replaced Judaism.

For centuries preachers and catechists taught that the death and resurrection of Christ eliminated Judaism as a viable way to God and that Christianity had taken its place. This tradition stands in marked contrast to the teaching of Paul who clearly states that the gifts and call of God to the Jewish people are “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Since Nostra Aetate numerous church documents and papal pronouncements have built upon Paul’s assertion. Today Catholic teaching asserts that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is still in effect and that Christianity and Judaism are linked together at the very level of their identity.

The danger of overlooking this dramatic development in Church teaching has given it the highest ranking in our Top 10, because it carries the deepest implications for Christian theology and pastoral practice. Though false, the traditional paradigm of replacement or “supersession” does have the advantage of simplicity: one faith displaces the other. The new paradigm is more complex: two living faith communities, each in true relationship with God. Clearly more theological reflection is needed to draw out the implications of this new understanding and its ramifications concerning role of Christ and the scope of salvation. Nevertheless, preachers should avoid statements which imply that Jews have been rejected or abandoned by God. Contemporary Jews continue to live according to their own covenant, maintaining an ongoing relationship with the same God whom Christians worship.

These then are the Top 10 dangers in preaching on Jews and Judaism. Extensive material is available to substantiate the claims made in each category. But, as a pastor myself, I realize how difficult it is to find time for such background research. Therefore, these blunt statements are offered as a limited guide to the dangers that Christian preachers should avoid. If you find any of these harmful impressions in your preaching, please stop repeating them. We who believe in Jesus Christ have an obligation to speak the truth regarding the Jewish people and their covenant with God. To do otherwise is contrary to the gospel we proclaim.

Making Peace with the “Enemies” of Jesus:

Assessing the Opposition to Jesus in the Christian Gospels

[This is a written version of the 7th Annual Driscoll Lecture in Jewish-Catholic Studies, given at Iona College 28 March 2006.]

The presentation of Jewish religious leaders within the Christian gospels is a significant problem for Jewish-Christian relations. By and large the presentation is negative. So much so that it would be fair to say that the Jewish leaders emerge from the gospels as the enemies of Jesus. The gospels set Jesus against a united block of Jewish authorities who constantly attack him, often with malice and manipulation. Therefore, readers of the gospels must direct their sympathies either to an enlightened, noble, and fair-minded Jesus or to a group of narrow, duplicitous, and biased opponents.

This essay will attempt to assess the historical accuracy of the presentation of the Jewish leadership in the gospels. It will do so in a limited way, examining the treatment of the Pharisees in two passages of Matthew’s gospel. Despite this narrow focus, if it can be established that Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was more positive than Matthew’s presentation, it may begin to make “peace” with the so-called “enemies” of Jesus.

An Initial Paradox

A seeming contradiction exists between official Catholic directives on how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day are to be understood and the scriptures themselves. Consider the following statement from the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews:

An exclusively negative picture of the Pharisees is likely to be inaccurate and unjust . . . If in the Gospel and elsewhere in the New Testament there are all sorts of unfavorable references to the Pharisees, they should be seen against the background of a complex and diversified movement . . .  . if Jesus shows himself severe towards the Pharisees, it is because he is closer to them than to other contemporary Jewish groups. (Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, June 24, 1985.)

The Vatican commission encourages interpreters to adopt a fair-minded and favorable approach to the Pharisees, to situate them within the reality of first century Judaism, and to appreciate their closeness to the teaching of Jesus. So far, so good. But this simple encouragement becomes problematic when it is placed against the following two passages from the Gospel of Matthew:

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they [the Pharisees] asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. (Matthew 12:9-14.)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24.)

The Pharisees emerge from these two scriptural passages in a negative light. They try to entrap Jesus. They seek to kill him. They are hypocrites and blind guides. They ignore justice, mercy, and faith. Such scriptural passages have generated a common and pejorative view of the Pharisees which may be summarized as follows: The Pharisees were hypocritical legalists who demanded a scrupulous practice of the law in place of mercy and love. They viciously attacked Jesus and promoted his crucifixion.

Official Church directives ask Catholics to reject this negative view. But how can one square such directives with what the biblical texts seem to say? This essay will attempt to construct a revised view of the Pharisees which reflects the positive admonitions of Church teaching and at the same time is responsible to the scriptural witness. It will proceed in three sections: 1) The Nature of the Christian Gospels; 2) The Pharisees of the First Century CE; 3) Three Historical Statements Concerning the Pharisees.

The Nature of the Christian Gospels*

No responsible interpretation of the Christian gospels can be made without appreciating their literary form. The work of analyzing this aspect of the gospels is extensive. Here it will be briefly summarized in three theses.

The Gospels Are Not Primarily Historical Accounts

Modern biblical scholarship is in agreement that as the evangelists sat down to write the gospels, they did not write as modern historians. Their aim was not simply to report what happened in the ministry and death of Jesus. Their primary purpose was to move their readers to faith—to lead them to the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the one whom God had sent into the world. There is historical information in the gospels. But the evangelists felt free to adapt the material which was passed down to them. They reshaped it, adding some things, leaving other things out, emphasizing one thing over another, and rearranging the order of events. They felt the freedom to make such changes because the gospels are not modern scientific histories. They are creative works of evangelism which strive to build up the faith of their readers.

This insight into the literary form of the gospels allows us to assess more clearly the relationship between the gospel narratives and the historical accuracy of the material they contain. Every literary genre has its own relationship with historical accuracy. Different kinds of writing are held to different standards of historical exactitude. A person reading a modern biography of Abraham Lincoln expects everything in that biography to be historically accurate. The biographer is not free to make up scenes or present his or her surmises as fact. However, a person reading an historical novel based upon the life of Lincoln understands that the writer has more flexibility. The author need not limit every scene, every character, and every quotation only to what historically occurred.

From a literary perspective, the gospels are closer to historical novels than modern biographies. They contain historical information but not every aspect of their narration is historically accurate. Therefore, the gospels in our Bibles are not primarily historical accounts. The ramifications of this understanding lead to the second thesis.

The Non-historical Aspects of the Gospels Do Not Undermine Their Authority for Christians

Believing Christians hold that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. They believe that God’s truth is communicated to them through the biblical text. Yet the means of that communication is mediated through the literary form of the text in question. If the gospels were modern biographies, they would attempt to make truth and historicity correspond precisely. But the gospels are not such biographies. Therefore the truth of the gospels is not limited to statements which are historically exact. The creative reshaping of the gospel materials by the evangelists is able to express truths which are inspired and authoritative, even if they are not historically accurate. The only time truth and history must perfectly match is in literary works which promise to honor this identity. The gospels are not that kind of literature. The truth which is proclaimed by the gospels remains authoritative for Christians apart from its historical accuracy.

Although the claims of the gospels remain authoritative for believers, the literary nature of the gospels leaves the issue of historical accuracy an open question which must be evaluated issue by issue. This leads to the third thesis.

The Historical Aspects of the Gospels Must Be Specifically Established

Because the gospels are a mixture of historical data and artistic editing it must be determined which parts of the gospels are historical and which are not. To illustrate this point, consider the following theoretical example. We want to write an accurate historical account of the life of Abraham Lincoln. But somehow every document concerning him—every book, every letter, every source—has been destroyed. There is one exception. A single historical novel on the life of Lincoln has been preserved. Now we know that a great deal of historical information is included within that novel. But we cannot automatically accept every scene, every character, and every quotation as historically reliable. We must make judgments in each case whether this scene or this character has the ring of historicity or whether they are present because of the imagination and artistry of the historical novelist.

One way to make such judgments is to learn as much as we can about the culture, politics, and beliefs in the period in which the events occurred. In our theoretical case, we would try to learn as much as we could about politics in the city of Washington during and after the Civil War. If our historical novel tells us that Lincoln was shot and killed while watching a play, Our American Cousin, at the Ford’s Theater, we would question the historical likelihood of such an event. On one hand, being shot in the theater is an unusual way to die. Perhaps our novelist is creating this scene for dramatic effect. On the other hand, it would not be likely that the novelist would change something as fundamental as the manner of Lincoln’s death.

To decide between the two alternatives we would diligently search for any piece of information outside the novel which could help us. Was there a Ford’s theater in Washington? Do we know of any presidents who attended plays there? Did it ever produce Our American Cousin? The discovery of such outside information would assist in judging which parts of the novel were likely to be historical and which parts were the creative expression of the novelist. Moreover, if we were to discover within the novel characteristics and attitudes which were inconsistent with the characteristics and attitudes which were common during the Civil War Period in Washington, such inconsistencies might indicate the creative shaping of the author rather than an accurate reflection of the historical period in which the events took place.

Employing such an array of strategies is necessary for anyone who would wish to determine the historical reliability of a literary work which does not espouse historical accuracy as its primary purpose. The historicity of elements of the narrative can be assessed in light of material which is available from outside the text.

The availability of such outside information can help resolve the paradox with which this essay began. When the portrait of the Pharisees in the gospel of Matthew is compared with the historical information concerning the Pharisees, it leads to a high likelihood that Matthew’s characterization of the Pharisees is both non-historical and dangerous.

The Pharisees in the First Century C. E.

Information concerning the Pharisees in the first century is limited. We have no writings of the Pharisees. There are, however, two sources outside of the gospels which shed light upon them: the rabbinic writings and the writings of Josephus. Combing through this material, a majority—if not unanimity—of scholars have concluded that the Pharisees are best identified as a reform movement in Judaism. The Pharisees desired to make the practice of Judaism more personal and more active in the religious life of the ordinary Jew. They accepted the temple and the temple cult, but they insisted that Judaism was not simply about cultic practice. Genuine worship must include personal responsibility motivated by the love of God and neighbor. Of course, this perspective was not new to Judaism. It can be found throughout the Jewish scriptures, particularly in the prophets. It was, however, the restating of this traditional perspective which characterized the Pharisees’ attempt to renew Judaism.

The Pharisees were not priests. But just as the priests had codified the cultic laws of the Temple, the Pharisees interpreted biblical laws in order to promote love, loyalty, and human compassion as the inescapable responsibilities of every Jew.  In doing this they were served by their interpretation of the law. Unlike the Sadducees who held to a strict interpretation of the written text, the Pharisees believed there was an oral law which went beyond the written letter of the law. They promoted some actions of love and mercy which were not explicitly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. These actions were hospitality to travelers, visiting the sick of all religious groups, dowering the indigent bride, giving charity anonymously, burying the dead, and promoting peace in the midst of hostility. These teachings were formulated into commands of the oral law. Following such commands was seen to constitute true worship.

Jesus expresses a similar viewpoint in the Sermon on the Mount: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:3-24). This teaching of Jesus has a Pharisaic ring. In fact, Jesus may have developed his own teaching on this matter in light of the teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus (like many Jews of his time) espoused ideas which probably came from Pharisees: the resurrection of the body; piety as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting; calling God as Father; and priority of love of God and neighbor. Christians who are unaware of Pharisaic teaching and practice tend to see these teachings as unique to Jesus. It is more historically probable to view them as a Pharisaic influence upon Jesus. It is for this reason that the Vatican Commission can claim that Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than to other contemporary Jewish groups.

When historical information from outside of the gospels is evaluated, the Pharisees emerge in a positive light. This increases the possibility that the negative evaluations of the Pharisees in the gospels are a result of the perspective of the evangelists rather than an accurate reflection of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. In order to test this possibility, three statements concerning the Pharisees will now be examined. All three have a high level of historical reliability.

(1) The Pharisees Were Legalists (So Was Jesus)

Both Jesus and the Pharisees were legalists. Christians tend to see “legalist” as a negative term. They therefore assume that Jesus could not be a legalist. Yet such a position is historically improbable. Jews of the first century did not view being a legalist negatively. Knowing the law and following the law expressed one’s participation in the covenant. Jews saw God’s choice of Israel as a free gift and following the law as a response to that gift. Determining what the law demanded and following it was an honor. Throughout history Christians have tended to characterize such attitudes towards the law as “nitpicking,” “earning salvation,” or “scrupulosity.” Such characterizations are prejudiced and inaccurate. To argue over the meaning and application of the law was an essential aspect of Jewish faith. It was an accepted part of the teaching and practice of both the Pharisees and Jesus.

With this appreciation of the law in mind, let us return to the passage of the curing of the man with the withered hand in Matthew 12:9-14. In this passage both the Pharisees and Jesus engage in a responsible debate over the law. Both the issue and the situation of the debate must be appreciated, if the passage is to be interpreted fairly. The issue is the Sabbath and what kind of work is permitted on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a sign of Jewish identity. It was not an incidental matter. Observing the Sabbath was a way every Jew could testify to his or her belief in God’s love and the covenant which bound God and Israel together. In no part of this gospel passage does Jesus reject or diminish the Sabbath. There is every reason to believe that the historical Jesus accepted the Sabbath and followed it. In this passage Jesus and the Pharisees are not debating over whether to honor the Sabbath but in what circumstances might another duty override the command of Sabbath rest.

The Pharisees pose the opening question: “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?”  As stated, every Jew would answer, “of course!”  Every Jew would admit that a cure could be performed on the Sabbath, if the problem was sufficiently serious. If a person was in danger of death or afflicted with a serious immediate need, Jews would acknowledge that a cure would be permissible despite the command of Sabbath rest. Since such a position was so universal, the Pharisees’ opening question must be read more narrowly. They are not asking whether it is permissible to cure on the Sabbath, but whether it is permissible to cure this man on the Sabbath. They are arguing a specific case of the law: can this man with the withered hand be cured today?

What then are the specific conditions of this case? Presumably this man’s hand had been withered for years. Such a longstanding disability would lessen the urgency of the case. The Pharisees argue that it would be better to wait until tomorrow to heal the man. By taking this approach it would be possible to both heal the man and honor the Sabbath.

It is important to note how Christians reading this passage often miss the Pharisees’ position entirely. Because the gospels frequently set the Pharisees in direct opposition to Jesus, Christians suppose that the positions of Jesus and the Pharisees are diametrically opposed. Therefore, when the Pharisees ask “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” Christians conclude that the Pharisaic position is that you can never cure anyone on the Sabbath. Because Christians do not understand the scope of the question, they presume that Pharisees would let people suffer and die rather than break the Sabbath. Under this presumption the Pharisees become group of hard-headed and inhuman extremists. The Pharisees’ position, however, is that it is better to wait until tomorrow since there is no immediate need.

The same misunderstanding is often applied to Jesus’ concluding statement in verse 12: “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Every Jew would agree with Jesus’ conclusion, including the Pharisees who are debating with him. They would respond, “Of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. What we are discussing is what good can wait until tomorrow and what good should be done today.”

Jesus believes that the man should be cured today. But notice how he arrives at his position. He is a legalist. He argues the law. He proposes a legal test case. What should be done if a sheep were to fall into a pit on Sabbath? This was a common case in Jewish legal discussion. The Essenes in the Damascus Scroll (11:13-14) held that only a threat to human life could justify work on Sabbath. Therefore, an animal could not be rescued on the Sabbath. The Pharisees held a more lenient interpretation. They were attuned to poor farmers whose entire livelihood could rest on one sheep. Therefore, they argued that the potential loss of that sheep was too great to risk and it was permissible to rescue the animal even on a Sabbath. Jesus knows the Pharisaic position. He refers to it in verse 11: “will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (It goes without saying that the Pharisees would allow a human person to be lifted out as well.) Jesus is using the interpretation which he shares with Pharisees to push the envelope further. He is arguing that if he and the Pharisees allow an animal to be pulled out of a pit, why not also allow this man’s withered hand to be healed today. The Pharisees would respond by arguing that being caught in a pit is dangerous to life, whereas waiting until tomorrow to heal a withered hand is not.

Jesus clearly disagrees with the Pharisees over the healing of this particular man on the Sabbath. But he is not disagreeing over the value of the Sabbath, whether cures are possible on Sabbath, whether good can be done on the Sabbath, or whether one can pull animal or human out of the pit on the Sabbath. He is disagreeing over whether in honor of the Sabbath the man with the shriveled hand should wait until tomorrow to be healed. Jesus says, “no.” The Pharisees say, “yes.” We might side with Jesus, but the Pharisees’ position is not heartless or nitpicking. The Pharisees are attempting to balance two values: the curing of a man in need and the honor of the Sabbath. Both the positions of Jesus and of the Pharisees are credible and reasonable. They are both valid legalistic opinions on how to interpret the law.

(2) The Pharisees Were Not Hypocrites

There is no reason to believe that historically the Pharisees were more hypocritical than any other religious group of the first century. How then can the frequent use of the term “hypocrite” and other slurs such as “blind guides” which are prevalent in such scriptural passages as Matthew 23:23-24 be understood?

In assessing such charges, one must appreciate that vilifying an opponent was a common rhetorical technique in the ancient world. In the first century, debate was not polite. Polemically attacking your opponents and accusing them of various moral deficiencies was a widely accepted as a rhetorical practice. Among Roman writers the technique was called vituperatio. It consisted in many strategies of denigrating your opponent.

Plutarch was one of the most urbane of ancient philosophers, yet this did not stop him from slurring his opponents. When an Epicuran named Colotes attacks Plutarch’s  teachers as “buffoons, charlatans, assassins, prostitutes, and nincompoops,” Plutarch responds by calling Epicurans “prostitutes who were characterized by irreligion, sensuality, and indifference” (Moralia, 1129b). The Hellenistic Jew, Philo, calls the Gentiles of Alexandria “promiscuous and unstable rabble—more brutal and savage than fierce wild beasts” (Embassy to Gaius, 18:120; 19:131). The writings of the Essenes teem with vituperatio. They call those outside their community “sons of the pit who live in a spirit of falsehood and are ruled by an angel of darkness. They belong to the lot of Satan and God has vengeance planned for them” (1QS, 3:19-21; 5:2, 10).

Some comments of Pharisaic teachers come down to us in the Talmud. We know that there was competition between two Pharisaic schools: Hillel and Shammai. When a follower of Hillel, Dosa Ben Harkinas, hears that his brother Jonathan has sided with the House of Shammai in a case involving levirate marriage, he calls his brother “first born of Satan” (Yevanot 16A). Strong rhetoric of this type is also present within the Jesus movement. When Peter disagrees with Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer, Jesus responds, “Get behind me, you Satan!” (Mark 8:33). Disagreements in the ancient world were routinely expressed in the most brutal language.

In light of this rhetorical practice, vilifying language in the gospels or anywhere in ancient literature cannot be presumed to render an accurate description of the moral status of the persons addressed. It is often rhetoric. To call someone a hypocrite, a prostitute, a scoundrel, or any other slanderous title, was often only a convenient way to identify that person as an opponent who disagreed with the position of the writer. Such slander need not be affected by facts. A particular Pharisee might be a good and insightful person. But if he disagreed with the author’s position, he might well be tagged a blind fool.

At the time of the writing of the gospel, Matthew’s community was in a struggle with the Pharisees over the heritage of Judaism. Matthew clearly believed that God had sent Jesus as the Messiah. The Pharisees did not accept this belief. Matthew’s slander towards the Pharisees is therefore most likely a means to express a disagreement which existed between them after the destruction of the temple. It does not describe a disagreement between the Pharisees and Jesus during his ministry. Wherever we place its origins, the purpose of such slander in Matthew is to tag the Pharisees as his opponents. It should not be taken as an accurate description of the Pharisees’ moral character.

The most striking example of rhetorical slander can be found in the Didache, a second century Christian work: “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites who fast on Mondays and Thursdays; rather you should fast on Wednesday and Friday” (8:1). It is difficult to see the moral superiority of Friday over Thursday. In this text being a hypocrite simply means fasting “like them” rather than “like us.” When the practice of vituperatio is appreciated, it is likely that the slanderous claims of the gospels concerning the Pharisees do not indicate that they were more hypocritical than any other religious group of the first century.

(3) The Pharisees Were Not Involved in Jesus’ Death.

The historical circumstances of Jesus’ death require an entire essay in themselves. But the main points of the situation may be briefly summarized. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. Therefore, the Romans were clearly the primary agents. It is likely that some of the Jewish leadership cooperated with the Romans in Jesus’ crucifixion. The most likely agents were the temple authorities. Even though certain offenses were punishable by death under Jewish law, the authority to execute the offender was reserved to the Roman procurator who at the time of Jesus was Pontius Pilate. It is possible that the Pilate permitted Jewish authorities to execute offenders for certain religious violations. But the case of Jesus did not involve such a violation and so his death would fall under Pilate’s direct control. The temple authorities would be limited to only an auxiliary role.

Yet Matthew 12:14 claims that the Pharisees went out and conspired against Jesus to destroy him. Is such a statement historically reliable? Two tendencies in the gospels indicate that this charge is a non-historical claim added by the evangelist. One tendency in all the gospels is to reduce Roman responsibility for Jesus’ death and to place it in Jewish hands. Another tendency on the part of the gospel writers is to routinely lump various Jewish groups together. Thus the gospels give the appearance that all Jewish groups were plotting against Jesus. Yet despite both these tendencies, there is no mention of the Pharisees in the gospel passion accounts.  In the actual description of Jesus’ death, the Pharisees are noticeably absent.

This absence is a strong indication that despite the tendency to associate all Jews in Jesus’ death, the Pharisees played no role in Jesus’ crucifixion. Historically a limited number of Jewish temple authorities probably cooperated with Pilate in Jesus’ crucifixion. That cooperation by a few was read back by the gospel writers into Jesus’ ministry and generically applied to all Jewish groups. The Pharisees are thus charged with trying to kill Jesus because they are a Jewish group. It is guilt by association. Their role in Jesus’ death is not historical.

A Revised View of the Pharisees

If we summarize our discussion, the following revised view of the Pharisees can be proposed. The Pharisees were a highly respected reform group in Judaism advocating a flexible interpretation of the law in service of love and mercy. As a group they were neither scrupulous nor hypocritical. Their teaching was very close to that of Jesus. They played no part in Jesus’ crucifixion.

This revised view can help resolve the paradox with which we began this essay and allow us to read the Christian gospels aware of the inaccurate and unjust understandings which can be derived from them. Yet advancing this revised view is no simple task.

Despite the work of many scholars over the last few decades, the traditional view of the Pharisees is remarkably persistent. To be a Pharisee for most Christians today still means to be a hypocritical legalist or a blind fool. One can always claim that adequate efforts of adult education are the reason that such misunderstandings persist. But I believe the issue lies much deeper. The traditional Christian view of the Pharisees remains attractive to many Christians for homiletic and educational purposes.

When the traditional Christian view of the Pharisees is connected with similar views of other Jewish groups, all Jews appear united against Jesus. This leads to a characterization of Judaism as a superficial, self-serving, and misguided religion. Once this false picture of malice and hypocrisy is accepted, Jesus can be easily presented as the light of the world, shining against the darkness of Judaism and its leaders. As a believing Christian, I fully hold that Jesus is the light of the world. But I do not believe that my faith requires me to negate the light and truth which was present in Jesus’ culture, Jesus’ opponents, or Jesus’ Jewish faith.

In order to believe that Jesus is good, we do not have to believe that Judaism is evil. In order to believe Jesus’ gospel was one of love, freedom, and grace, we do not need to claim that the law was about judgment, scrupulosity, and meriting salvation. In order to believe that Jesus died for our sins, Christians do not need to believe that Jesus was crucified because his message was so different and so opposed to the message of the Pharisees that they could not wait to kill him.

Preachers and catechists might find that such a stark contrast helps them emphasize the importance of Jesus. But I insist it does so at a great cost. To make this false contrast may be dramatic, but it is also historically indefensible and morally unjust.  We must work against it.

What can we do? We can educate ourselves and share what we learn with others.  Christians must come to believe that a Jesus who is thoroughly Jewish and understood in continuity with the Jewish tradition is no less our Messiah. We must teach that Jesus not only argued with other Jews but he also shared many central ideas with them. We must be careful when we read the gospel debates between Jesus and his opponents to understand that they are most often a debate within Judaism rather than against it. We must not understand slander in the gospels literally but rather see it as a part of the rhetoric of the time. Christians can and should see Jesus as dying for the gospel but understand that Jesus’ gospel was not opposed to Judaism but in continuity with it. Jesus taught a loving and merciful God because as a Jew he was taught that God was loving and merciful. He died believing in that God, but his death was not the result of the envy or opposition of fellow Jews who did not believe in such a God. He was put to death because he disturbed the interests of imperial Rome.

Christian homilists and teachers must insist that Christianity is truer and stronger when it admits its continuity with Judaism rather than falsifying Jewish beliefs in the misguided attempt to make a more dramatic point. Promoting a revised view of the Pharisees can be an important corrective in establishing such a continuity.

The Pharisees and most Jews of the first century were not the enemies of Jesus.  They were the ancestors of Jews today who we Christians claim as our brothers and sisters. It is with these elder brothers and sisters that we Christians must find a way to stand in our broken and despairing world and together proclaim our shared inheritance: the love and mercy of the God of Israel.


** The argument and examples of this section have been previously published in George M. Smiga, “Separating the True from the Historical: A Catholic Approach to the Passion Narratives,” in Pondering the Passion: What’s at Stake for Christians and Jews? Ed. Philip A. Cunningham, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, pp. 56-58.

When Local Preaching Becomes Universal:

Protecting the Gospels from Anti-Judaism

[This article appeared in Chicago Studies, Vol 50, n. 3, 2011, pp. 315-29.]

Gospel Preaching for Local Communities

No author of the New Testament ever envisioned writing for the Bible. The four gospels which now stand in the Christian canon were originally created for local faith communities. The narrow and specific nature of these writings was determined by the shape of the early Christian movement itself. After the resurrection of Jesus early missionaries set out to preach the Good News throughout the Mediterranean basin. The effort was not organized nor did it benefit from a unified message. Prior to creeds, councils, catechisms, the canon, and established church structures, the small groups of believers in Jesus understood the meaning of the gospel in different ways, greatly shaped by the teaching and perspectives of the particular apostle who first announced the message to them. One has only to read the letters of Paul to recognize the range of debate and disagreement over the significance of Jesus and the practices by which believers should follow him. There was in consequence a wide variety of messianic sects who understood and believed in Christ according to their particular circumstances. Luke Timothy Johnston provides a cogent description of this phenomenon:

The messianic sect was diverse from the beginning. . . . Christianity was quite literally a new invention every place it appeared. The mission was not centrally controlled with respect either to structure or to ideology. . . . There was no long period of stability during which self-definition could be consolidated. The messianists made it up as they went along. For at least the first fifty years of its existence, there was no one thing that could be called “Christianity” as a standard by which to measure deviance. There was rather a loose network of assemblies on the fringe of synagogues and in lecture halls down the street, whose boundaries of self-definition were vigorously debated.1

These assemblies were small by modern standards, often consisting of less than one hundred members gathering in a home or meeting hall within a much larger urban setting. In time, some of these local communities composed accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the form which has come to be called “gospel.” The purpose of such gospels was not simply to record the data of Jesus’ ministry, death , and resurrection but to preach the meaning of those events in light of the history and issues of the local church. There was in this sense a “homiletic” aspect to the gospels. The story of Jesus was told so as to connect with the lives and struggles of the community for which it is written. As in any homily, the original recipients of the gospel could easily identify which part of the narration was addressing their own story. Details of their history and themes which addressed their own experience would be immediately apparent. Ways of expression and verbal cues would be easily identified. Indeed the inclusion of such local issues and cues within the gospel would make its message particularly relevant and effective.

As the Christian movement spread, gospels written for specific local circumstances were shared with those outside of their original communities. Over a period of decades and indeed centuries, four of these writings were accepted by most Christians and included in the biblical canon. The process by which such acceptance was accomplished is notoriously difficult to establish. But what can be said with confidence is that local gospels were given a universal authority for a larger and later church. This historical development has long been acknowledged. However, the hermeneutical ramifications of such a process are often overlooked.

When a local gospel was read by those outside its community, the homiletic shaping of its story was more difficult to recognize. The horizon between the story of Jesus and the story of the local community which composed the gospel became blurred. As the gospels were read in new contexts, the original setting which a particular gospel presumed was no longer apparent. Verbal expressions which had a specific local meaning and allusions which engaged the original readers either disappeared into the text or were left illusively hanging without clear significance. As later readers struggled to understand such aspects of the text, they often settled on meanings which made sense to them in their own contexts. Thus expressions and issues which once addressed a specific local community were reinterpreted in ways which suited a wider readership whose composition and perspectives were frequently much different from the community for which the gospel was composed. When local gospels were adopted as part of a universal canon, this process of shifting contexts enlarged and occasionally redirected the meaning of the original texts.

Such a process has direct relevance to the manner in which Jews and Judaism are presented in the gospels. Historically the shifting contexts of interpretation not only moved from the local to the universal but also from a Jewish to a Gentile church. Although the gospels were written for communities closely tied to the Jewish heritage, most Jews did not join the Christian movement. By the end of the first century, followers of Jesus were predominately Gentile. This shift in population placed largely Jewish documents in the hands of Gentiles who read them from a new perspective. That perspective was not only divorced from the local debates over Jewish characters and issues which shaped the composition of the gospels. It was also less knowledgeable of the Jewish context and prone to interpret it in a negative manner.

Today there is a growing desire among Christians to understand the presentation of Jews and Judaism within their gospels fairly. Church directives encourage modern interpreters to preach and teach the scriptures in ways which do not distort their meaning, especially when they seem to present the Jewish people in an unfavorable light.2 Nevertheless it is often difficult to discover how aspects of the gospels which have for so long seemed to denigrate Jews and Judaism can be read in new ways.

It is the purpose of this article to remind preachers and catechists that the gospels in our canon have passed through several shifts in context which have radically influenced the manner in which we read them. By appreciating the issues which occasioned the original authors to compose the gospels for their local communities, modern interpreters will often discover a more positive context in which to understand the presentation of Jews and Judaism in the gospels. Such a context can serve as a hermeneutical tool to avoid understandings which are derogatory and misleading. The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John will be used to provide two examples of how shifting contexts have scarred the history of biblical interpretation. These two examples will also demonstrate how local preaching, when it is universalized, can produce devastating effects.

The Gospel of Matthew: A Struggle Between Jews About Judaism

One of the most negative passages towards Jews in the New testament is Matthew 23. In this chapter Jesus attacks the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, blind fools, murderers, serpents, and children of hell. Since Jews today honor the Pharisees as those who ground their tradition (much as Christians honor the apostles), the insults of this chapter seem to smear the very foundations of Judaism. How should Christians interpret this problematic passage? Does Matthew’s gospel require them to accept these slurs as they stand within the text? Appreciating how this passage originated as local preaching can lessen its overwhelming polemic.

No gospel comes to us with a description of its local community attached. It is, however, possible to reconstruct the nature of the local church and the issues which engaged it from indications within the gospel itself. This effort is facilitated in the case of Matthew by the scholarly consensus that Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a source. Thus even small editorial changes which Matthew made in his source can be taken as significant indicators of his concerns.

Employing such tools, one is able to conclude that Matthew’s church was a “Christian-Jewish” community.3 The order of the adjectives is important. Matthew was writing for a small sect of Jews living in an urban center such as Antioch. Although this group was united in the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah, it still saw itself as Jewish. Matthew’s church, for example, still honored the Jewish Sabbath and followed the Jewish dietary requirements. Changes in Matthew’s editing of Mark substantiate these claims.

­­Chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel is often called “the little apocalypse,” because it describes what will happen at the end of time. As in most apocalyptic writing, upheaval and distress are seen to characterize the end of the age. Mark worries about the difficulties which pregnant and nursing mothers will face in the turmoil of the last days. He prays that their flight will not occur during winter (Mark 13:17-18). When Matthew copies this verse of Mark, he recognizes another time when he hopes that flight can be avoided. After Mark’s concern about winter, he adds a concern about the Sabbath (Matt 24:20). Matthew prays that flight will not be required on a Sabbath because his community still honors the Sabbath rest.

Matthew also reveals the Jewish nature of his community in regards to dietary concerns. Mark uses a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees to ratify his own community’s freedom from Jewish food restrictions. In the midst of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples, Mark adds the editorial comment, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). When Matthew copies this passage for his gospel, he omits Mark’s assertion (Matt 15:17-18). The most probable explanation for this omission is that Matthew’s community still observes Jewish dietary requirements.4

Both Sabbath rest and dietary concerns indicate that Matthew’s church saw itself as a sect of Judaism. When Matthew’s self-designation is accepted, it becomes clear that the attacks against the Pharisees which characterize this gospel are part of a intra-Jewish debate. After the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. a variety of Jewish groups attempted to chart the future course of Judaism. The Pharisees were one such group; Matthew’s community was another. Matthew disagreed with the Pharisaic agenda for the future, because it did not include the role and teaching of Jesus which was core to Matthew’s faith.5 As Matthew composed the story of Jesus for his local community, his frequent and negative references to the Pharisees were intended to emphasize the disagreement between them and his community over the future of Judaism.

Matthew took words and deeds of Jesus which came down to him from the first third of the century and preached them in manner which connected them to the issues relevant to his own church in the last third of the century. For his local community the significance of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection was heightened because they heard it related to their own circumstances. Each time the Pharisees were mentioned in their gospel, the community of Matthew would recognize a reference to the Pharisees of their own time. They would be affirmed in their mission to chart the future of their Jewish faith around the person of Jesus and remember how the Pharisees advocated a different mission. The disagreement was not minor, because for Matthew’s community the Pharisees were part of their own religious tradition. As in all family disputes, the intensity of disagreement was great.

Matthew used all of chapter 23 to vent his side of the intra-Jewish debate with the Pharisees. He employed common rhetorical devises of his day to shape the attack. Disagreement with an opponent was not a polite exercise in the ancient world. Slander was acceptable and often exercised to attack an adversary. Greeks, Romans, and Jews all found it advisable to slur someone with whom they disagreed. There is a rhetorical term to describe this technique: vituperatio. Polemically attacking someone with charges of moral deficiency served the social function of identifying “the other” so as to reaffirm one’s own position.6 Jesus himself is shown to use this technique in Mark’s gospel. When he wishes to inform Peter that his objection to the cross is wrong, Jesus does not say, “Peter, I beg to differ with you.” He attacks: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). Peter is told he is wrong by being called a child of hell.

Vituperatio would be recognized for what it was within the local preaching of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s community would understand that calling the Pharisees hypocrites, murderers, and children of hell did not necessarily mean they were bad people. It meant that the Pharisees were people with whom they disagreed. Chapter 23 of Matthew is an effort within Mathew’s local preaching to assert the difference between two forms of Judaism, that of the Pharisees and that of Matthew’s church. By using slurs in this section Matthew is telling his local community, “Our way is the future of Judaism. The way of the Pharisees is not.”

Matthew’s gospel was local preaching. However, as has been discussed, when a local document is read in a new context, the significance of the narration often shifts. The characters and issues which had the most immediate relevance to Matthew’s circumstances were the precise characteristics which Matthew felt the least need to specify. The debate of his community with the Pharisees would be immediately recognized. Therefore there was little need to elaborate its contours within the text. When subsequent readers attempted to understand the gospel, it was in this precise area that context was most lacking. In such a vacuum new interpretations were required.

Each time the gospel of Matthew moved into a new setting, the unexpressed original context for Matthew’s local preaching demanded a new understanding. That understanding was regularly shaped by the circumstances in which the gospel was being read. To Matthew’s local church, it would be easy to recognize that chapter 23 was addressing their dispute with another Jewish group over the future of Judaism. As the gospel moved into new contexts, however, at least three distinct shifts in interpretation can be indentified which altered the understanding of the Pharisees.

(1) When Matthew’s Gospel began to be read by those outside its community, the aspects of the text which were relevant to Matthew’s local setting became more difficult to identify. It became easy to conclude that the Pharisees of the gospel were not a Jewish group with whom Matthew’s community disagreed but one with whom Jesus disagreed. Thus a dispute from the last third of the first century began to be read as a conflict of Jesus’ ministry.

(2) As the Christian movement became more and more Gentile, those who read the gospel would begin to see Judaism as a different religious tradition. They would still identify with Jesus, claiming him as “their own.” But the Pharisees who Jesus attacks within the text would soon be seen as representatives of a different religion. Thus a intra-Jewish debate of Matthew’s community would be read more and more as an attack upon Judaism itself.

(3) As the gospel was read by those who were unfamiliar with the rhetorical technique of vituperatio, Jesus’ perceived opposition to the Pharisees would seem grounded in moral corruption. Jesus would then be understood as attacking a bankrupt religious tradition.

Unfortunately most Christians who read Matthew 23 today will understand it through the lens of these three shifts. Unaware of the local preaching which shaped the gospel, they will assume that the historical Jesus was attacking the Pharisees because they were the representatives of a morally deficient Judaism. In this reading the position of the Pharisees and of Judaism is falsified, and Jesus is seen as rejecting his own tradition.

The Gospel of John: Judgment Against Local Rejection

Similar shifts in context and understanding occurred as the Gospel of John moved from a local document to a part of the Christian `canon. Standing apart from the three Synoptic gospels, John is marked by a high Christology and a thorough-going dualism. The reader is faced with a choice for or against Jesus which will result in either salvation or condemnation. Those who accept the Johannine understanding of Jesus will find light, truth, freedom, and life. Those who reject that understanding will find themselves in darkness, falsehood, slavery, and death. There is no gray area between these two options. It is either-or, life or death.

The most problematic aspect of John’s gospel regarding the presentation of Jews and Judaism centers on a specific Greek expression: hoi Ioudaioi. Although some would argue for another translation, the phrase is most commonly rendered as “the Jews.” The Gospel of John has a special affinity for this expression. It occurs 87 times in the four gospels, but of these occurrences 71 are in John. Sometimes hoi Ioudaioi is used in a neutral sense without any negative connotation, as in “a festival of the Jews” (John 5:1). But often hoi Ioudaioi is associated with the negative side of John’s dualism (31 times). In these cases those to whom the term refers are unbelievers, false, slaves, in darkness, and doomed to death.7 The judgment against and rejection of “the Jews” in John’s gospel is devastating. Consider these words of Jesus as he debates with hoi Ioudaioi:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:42-45)

Who are those who the gospel identifies as “the Jews”? Which people are to be included in this polemical category and thus receive the full force of the negative side of John’s dualism? Fortunately a careful reading of the gospel itself removes the possibility that “the Jews” is meant to refer to all Jews. Understanding hoi Ioudaioi in a universal sense renders many passages of the gospel contradictory. Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples can be used as an illustration.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20)

If the doors of the house where the disciples were gathered were locked to keep “the Jews” out, who were they locking in? All the disciples (and indeed Jesus himself) were Jewish. In this passage if hoi Ioudaioi is understood to refer to all Jews, the narration does not make sense.

Once it is determined that hoi Ioudaioi cannot be read universally, it is clear that some subset of Jews is intended as the referent. But this insight does not resolve the dilemma. When the interpreter examines the narrative context to determine what subset of Jews is intended, no one character or group within the gospel can be identified consistently. Sometimes hoi Ioudaioi appears to refer to the Pharisees (9:18), sometimes to the temple authorities (18:12), still other times to the crowd (6:41). The negative evaluation of these subgroups is constant even as the specific identities of the groups change. What explanation can be provided for John’s proclivity to use a universal term like “the Jews” to name a variety of negative subsets of Jews within his gospel? The perspective of local preaching can assist in resolving this conundrum.

The research of Raymond E. Brown has convincingly established that the history of the Johannine community has been included within the narrative of the gospel. Key events of the community’s history were woven by the evangelist into the gospel, augmenting the manner in which the story of Jesus was told.8 As in the case of Matthew’s gospel, the Gospel of John was written for a local community, and the issues and convictions of the community influenced the narration. A key passage in this respect is the story of the man born blind (John 9:1-41). In the midst of John’s lengthy dialogue over the meaning of the man’s healing, the parents of the blind man are questioned by the authorities. They refuse to answer the questions posed to them, and the evangelist tells us why:

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’ (John 9:22-23)

There is no evidence that followers of Jesus were being expelled from synagogues during his historical ministry. Scholars thereby conclude that in this passage we have a specific memory from the history of the Johannine community. Towards the end of the first century the community of John seems to have been expelled from its neighborhood synagogue because of its faith in Jesus. In its gospel the community’s expulsion was presented as part of the ministry of Jesus for purposes of local preaching. Members of John’s community wore their expulsion as a badge of honor. They also carried an animosity towards the particular Jews who expelled them. This animosity seems to have moved the evangelist to use “the Jews” as the tag which would bear the full force of rejection within the gospel. It was because the expulsion was so strongly etched into the community’s memory that “the Jews” could be used to identify so many different subgroups who were hostile to Jesus within the gospel’s narrative.

Also, it is precisely because John was a local document that a universal term such as “the Jews” could be used to carry a much narrower referent. The members of John’s community knew to which Jews hoi Ioudaioi referred. “The Jews” did not mean all Jews. For indeed Jesus and members of John’s community were Jewish. “The Jews” meant those particular Jews who expelled us from our neighborhood synagogue. Because John was a local document greater specificity on the identity of “the Jews” was not necessary.

When I was growing up, an elderly couple from Russia lived in the house across the street. They did not mix with the other members of our neighborhood. Their shrubbery was overgrown, and their yard was surrounded by a high fence. They seldom left their house. But all the children in our neighborhood knew one thing for sure. If a ball, a kite, or a balloon ever fell into their yard, we would never see it again. No amount of knocking or pleading would make a difference. Our property was simply lost. Over the years, when something went missing in our neighborhood, someone would invariably say, “Maybe the Russians took it.” Everyone knew to whom “the Russians” referred. No one thought for a moment that some covert military force had flown in from Moscow. Everyone in our local community knew that “the Russians” meant “those particular Russians who lived in the house across the street.”

In a similar way when the Gospel of John used “the Jews” as a negative term, the Johannine community knew that “the Jews” referred to “those Jews who had expelled us from the synagogue and who are for us the premier example of hostility, darkness, and unbelief.” Using this term as the way to tag those in the gospel who opposed Jesus and refused to believe in him made the gospel particularly effective as local preaching.

Of course the Gospel of John did not remain a local document. It was read by others and eventually took its place in the New Testament. Because the significance of “the Jews” was immediately apparent to its original audience, the evangelist had no need to specify to whom “the Jews” referred within the gospel itself. As this local gospel took on universal significance, the meaning of hoi Ioudaioi quickly became obscure and new understandings had to be provided. To John’s community “the Jews” were easily understood as those Jews down the street who expelled us from the synagogue. As the gospel began its journey towards the canon, two new contexts shifted the meaning of “the Jews” into a different and wider significance.

(1) Once the gospel began to be read by those outside of the Johannine community, the specific identity of “the Jews” which was so effective in local preaching became more difficult to recognize. When the local reference was lost, the animosity and opposition of “the Jews” began to be seen as occurring during the ministry of Jesus. Thus a local animosity of the community of John was transferred to a setting sixty years prior.  “The Jews” became a group within Jesus’ lifetime who opposed his mission and sought his death.

(2) As the Christian movement became more Gentile, Jewish groups began to be seen as foreign. Once this shift occurred, the universal scope which “the Jews” inherently carries began to be read quite literally. All Jews were seen as those who attacked Jesus and plotted to bring him to the cross.

Most Christians today will understand “the Jews” of John’s gospel through the lens of the two shifts that have been just been described. They read the gospel as presenting a Jesus opposed by the Jewish people as a whole who refuse his message and seek to destroy him. Of course, the animosity which surrounds John’s use of “the Jews” is not the most admirable aspect of the gospel. Yet it is significant that originally that animosity was not directed to all Jews but only to those local Jews who rejected the Johannine community.

Local Preaching as a Facilitator for Present Meaning

The canon of the Christian scriptures is fixed. Yet the meaning of the works of the New Testament continues to grow. The canon continues to yield new insights as new questions are posed to it and believers continue to grapple with its assertions in light of the needs of the Church. The contemporary concern to understand the scriptures in a manner which is fair and does not demean Jews and Judaism is both valid and necessary. Christians have every reason to approach works such as the canonical gospels seeking ways to forestall possible anti-Judaism even as they proclaim the victory of Jesus’ resurrection.

Appreciating the nature of the gospels as local preaching can serve as an effective tool in this endeavor. Although the meaning of any text cannot be frozen into any one time or context, the intention of the original author—to the extent it can be determined—is still a voice to be heard. The original context of a gospel cannot dictate all the subsequent meanings of the text. But it can call modern interpreters to compare their understanding against the setting in which the text was formed. Such a comparison will frequently reveal that the local preaching of the gospels espoused views on Jews and Judaism which were more positive than those adopted by later interpreters.

The two examples of Matthew 23 and John’s use of “the Jews” have been offered to explore the effectiveness of this approach. It is, of course, a romantic notion to believe that centuries of anti-Jewish interpretation can be erased by appealing to what the local preaching of the gospels originally intended. Nevertheless, realizing the local nature of the gospels not only reveals how later and more negative interpretations developed. It also provides necessary leverage for Christians today to create new understandings which repudiate false and derogatory perspectives. The denigration of Jews and Judaism all too often appears to be derived from our scriptures. Asserting that such negative evaluations were not the intention of the evangelists opens the possibility of re-reading the sacred text in ways which do not depreciate the faith tradition upon which its message stands.


1. Luke Timothy Johnston, “The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic,” Journal of Biblical Literature (Fall 1989) pp. 419-441, p. 425.

2. Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (n.4),” 1974, II.

3. Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

4. For a fuller treatment of this passage: George M. Smiga, Pain and Polemic: Anti-Judaism in the Gospels (New York: Paulist Press, 1992) pp. 56-57.

5. Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 10-16.

6. Sean Freyne, “Vilifying the Other and Defining the Self: Matthew’s and John’s Anti-Jewish Polemic in Focus,” in “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”—Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity, Ed. Jacob Neusner and Ernest S. Frerichs (Chico, Califorina: Scholars Press, 1985) pp. 117-43, esp. pp. 118-19.

7. George M. Smiga, The Gospel  of John Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism (New York: Paulist Press, 2008) pp. 16-21.

8. Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).

Teenage Strains in the Gospels (Matthew 23)


Any parent who has attempted to guide a teenage son or daughter through the years of adolescence knows that some days can be ugly. Conversations about curfew or driving rights can quickly become loud and disrespectful. Some of the emotion and volume can be traced to racing hormones. However, a great deal of the stubbornness and violence of this period flows from the need of teenagers to establish their own identity. Seeking the proper kind of independence from their parents, adolescents often overreact and speak so as to push their parents away.

A similar kind of teenage emotion and disrespect can be discovered in our gospels. All four gospels were written in what could be seen as a period of adolescence for the early Christian communities. Needing to establish their own identities apart from that of their parent religion, Judaism, these early Christian groups often struck out in ways which were unfair and violent.

A clear example of this tendency can be found in Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew was written by a young Christian community which was in a struggle to define itself apart from the Pharisees and their teaching. Matthew 23 colors all Pharisees with the same negative brushstroke. If we were to accept Matthew’s evaluation of them, they would all be hypocrites who live only to receive honor and privileges and have no concern for the burdens they place on others. Such a presentation of the Pharisees is unmerited. It results from the “growing pains” of the early church. But once these exaggerated evaluations of the Pharisees were accepted as part of the Bible, they denigrated the position of the Pharisees in common thought.

The English word, “pharisaical,” is an example of this tendency. It is defined in our dictionaries as “marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness.” To equate being a Pharisee with hypocrisy can only be explained through an uncritical acceptance of the negative portrayals of the Pharisees in the gospels. This adjective is offensive to anyone who desires unbiased representation of history. The Catholic Church has taken steps to alert those who read the Bible to this bias. In 1985 the Vatican issued Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. These notes recognize that many references hostile or less than favorable to Jews such as the Pharisees have their historic context long after the time of Jesus in the conflicts between the nascent church and the Jewish community (#21a).

In the ancient world, disagreements were not polite. The effort to tear down one’s opponent in speech was so common in the ancient world that it had a specific name. Greek and Roman authors called such tactics vituperatio. In such an approach negative charges were leveled against some one who was outside of one’s own group. In this way their group’s importance was lessened and the attacker’s group was enhanced. Such charges should not be read as accurate descriptions of the opponent who was being attacked.

A popular strategy in vituperatio was to call someone a “hypocrite.” In chapter 23 of his gospel, Matthew levels this charge against the Pharisees six times. As normally understood hypocrisy describes a lack of correspondence between what is said and what is actually done. However, in many places where Matthew calls the Pharisees hypocrites the charge does not fit the context. This suggests that Matthew is calling the Pharisees hypocrites not because their actions warrant that charge, but simply because it is a good way to tag them as his opponents. The practice of vituperatio is worth remembering as we read the gospels. Many members of Jewish groups may be characterized as “hypocrites” or “blind guides” not because they were phony or poor teachers, but simply because they believed things which were different from the beliefs of the early Christian communities. A peculiar saying in an early Christian writing called the Didache supports this point: “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, who fast on Mondays and Thursdays; rather you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” In this text what makes a person a hypocrite is not how or why they fast, but simply because they do so on a different day than Christians do.

If we accept the excessively negative descriptions of the Pharisees as accurate, they will lead us to an incorrect and prejudicial understanding of these important Jewish leaders. The Pharisees were a religious group who were well respected as holy and sincere teachers of the law. They desired to make the practice of Judaism a part of the ordinary lives of people. To believe what Matthew says about them in chapter 23 would be similar to believing what your teenage son or daughter might say to his or her friends when they ask about you as a parent. If the question was posed after a normal family argument, your teenager’s description of you could well be exaggerated and unfair.


 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.


2 thoughts on “Jewish-Christian Resources”

  1. Fr. Smiga,
    Your introduction to The Gospel of John Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism is the clearest and most informative presentation on this subject that I have come across. For years I have recommended your book to my students at Loyola New Orleans University, Saint Thomas University (Miami Gardens, Fl.), and at St. John Vianney College Seminary (Miami, Fl.). From the heart…THANK YOU! Would you consider posting a video presentation on the contents of this introduction?
    Again, thank you so much for your book, for this website, for so many important resources!
    George Rodriguez

    • Thank you George. The issue is an important one and it is good you are raising awareness of it. I will consider a video introduction.


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