The “Evil Pharisees” and Other Stereotypes and Caricatures

brother Volknotions.
Those brethren who are from the Dunkard line well know of what you are speaking: the back-hand of fellowship, shunning of venial sins, public confession of sin, all those old standard and standby hymns and everything else done in lower saxon dialect. Well might descriptions such as “hollow-out legalism”, “legalism of ‘humility'”, “oppressive legalism”, “paying lip-service” suit the Old Faith of our Anabaptist forefathers.

But I wonder if all those “evils” are causing a distorted view of first cent. Pharisees. Are you looking at the Pharisees through the “lens” of your ossified and institutionalized anabaptist experience. Be careful of following centuries of Christians projecting on the Pharisees and first cent. Judaism something that was never there. Let us be careful and not fall into the same mistakes the Church Fathers, the Roman Church and the Reformers did. That is, stereotyping and caricaturizing first cent. Judaism led on by those casuistrical Pharisees (blast them!) Let me attempt a “clarification of thought”.

I will deal with the ‘social justice’ prophets later. But at least for now, you are absolutely right, they were not in the least anti-Jewish or anti-semitic — they were, at times (and when they would get all hot and flustered), racist and anti-goeim: “Damn the Gentiles! God’s wrath will strike them down!” Ah yes, “social justice”. It all depends where your social justicing is standing. (Let us all remember that when we get all lathered up against the “bad guys”.

Back to “the Pharisees”…that is, the “bad guys”. I must ask you, what are you reading? Who are you listening to? Why are you doing the same old thing, and dragging out the same old Christian party line that stereotypes the Pharisees and thus as well first cent. Judaism. Again, I must say, please read the work of the consensus of the most noted biblical scholars and historians of the past fifty years. Read those who the the consensus of the academy most acknowledges . Please, put down (at least for a while) J. Yoder, Menno Simmons, Muentzer, Grebel, Humaier; put on the shelf Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Tolstoy, St. Francis (unless you are preapared to follow his early and later Rules, his Testament, and the eremitical life he lived — then see what you have to say), and Jim Wallis. Take a rest from Segundo, Boff, Guiterezz and the liberation theology gang. And do, pick up and become a student of — at least familiarize yourself with — biblical studies and those who can teach you well. Learn about Judaism.

Here, let me ask you, what do you truly know about Judaism? What do you know about Second Temple Judaism? About the early nascent Rabbinic movement, or about the intertestamental and pseudopigraphal literature? Have you read the Jewish apocalyptic corpus and the merkavah and Helakot mystical tracts? This is what you do: go to Synagogue, to friday night Shabbos, attend a Seder, study with a Rabbi, visit a yeshiva — and tell them that the first cent. Pharisees and by implication, Palestinian Judaism was oppressive, legalistic and “paying lip service to God” — and they’ll look at you quizzically and than take great offence at your religious hubris. The Rabbi, if he is in a very good mood (which they usually are) will just laugh.

Wake up, the Pharisees were not any of those things. That belief is an age-old ignorant rant that smacks of Christian religious bigotism. And the Christian social justicers continue and are complicit with it.

Next: the composition and demographics of the Pharisees’ party in first cent. Palestinian society and their use and purpose of “purity” and “holiness” codes and pracitices. The gospel writers and their communities inhouse wrangles with the nascent Rabbinic movement in the post-Temple situation; their family feuding, polemics and vitriol.

And, underlying all of this, what was the real issue of contention between Jesus and (at least some of) the Pharisees. How all this fits in with radical Anabaptism, radical Biblical exegesis, radical questions as to peace, pacificsm and who and what Jesus was all about, and its relationship to the new emphasis on activism, activation, actionizing and “social justice” of the “young and the restless”.

Comments (13)

  1. folknotions


    Rather than personally attacking me with charges of antisemitism (“Volknotions”) without knowing anything about me and making entirely inappropriate assumptions about what I do and do not read (I don’t read any liberation theology), how about you actually provide a cogent argument for why my interpretation isn’t correct. your post here is nothing more than an unprovoked personal attack on me and if you read the rules of this blog you will see that it is uncalled for.

  2. edward christian

    Well done. Again, I did provide a cogent argument, its right under your nose. I provided plenty of information that you can investigate and draw on for your self. Why won’t you see it? And why don’t you do your homework instead of blathering on about the “oppressive Pharisees”. And if you would have taken the time to read my last few sentences, I said I would explain further what the issue was between Jesus and some of the Pharisees. But you were too hot under the collar to pay any notice by that time. Nice? Was Jesus “nice”? Read the Gospels and see if Jesus was “nice”. What kind of language did he use? Look at some of the encounters he had with various and sundry individuals. “Harsh” might be a better word. His rudeness comes through more than once. He attacks his opponents…his family,…goodness gracious…even Gentiles (dog???) — come on. He even uses violence and strong arm tactics as he muscles his way through the Temple. Now thats just “Not Fair!” He’s not playing by the rules. I will present to you a “cogent” answer about why I think, following the best studies available, the Pharisees were not oppressive and legalistic. And what was the real issue between Jesus and the Pharisees pertaining to purity and holiness codes. Again, read, ask around, do your homework. If you think I’m wrong then go out and investigate the matter, and do the hard work, don’t just assume or swallow what some Christians have said. I will discuss some of this when you cool down. There’s nothing like a donnybrook, to get the blood going. Pacifism? Please don’t do violence to Jesus.

  3. edward christian

    As for the “Elders” who hold court here. Will you shun???

  4. carl


    * Assigned reading lists and blustery admonitions that all the “best scholars” are on your side does not an argument make.

    * Railing at your readers to “do their homework” without bothering to flesh out anything yourself is not blogging, it’s trolling.

    * Likewise, stuffing your post full of sideways digs at your presumed readers’ presumed predilections without setting up a cogent argument yourself is still not blogging. It’s still trolling.

    * Similarly, provoking someone with a post full of ad hominem attacks and then claiming that _they_ are too hot under the collar to have a discussion: guess what that is? Yep, still trolling.

    * Believe it or not, you are not the professor here. I don’t sit around waiting for your homework assignments so I can scurry off and do them. Likewise, I’m not interested in what you plan to lecture on next class period. If you’ve got something interesting to say (and buried amidst the bluster and silliness, some tidbits in your posts indicate that you might), please say it as coherently as you can manage (you can list all your favorite “best scholars” in the footnotes if it makes you feel better) and we can talk about it. Until then, kindly go start your own blog.

  5. admin

    Edward, please read the YAR Guidelines before contributing any further blog posts or comments. Personal attacks, name calling and belittling comments are not welcome here. If you continue treating people in this way, your author account will be blocked.

  6. edward christian

    My dear people, I thought that maybe you would pick it up. I’m Jewish. I must tell you, from my experience, if any other Jews would read here what some of you are saying about Judaism and the Pharisees of the first century as being oppressive and legalistic and alluding to it as hollowed-out, they would be deeply, deeply offended. And it reinforces what Jews have thought for so long about Christians and their attitudes towards us. Do you see why we have a very hard time believing you when you say things like that. I think that whatever you say, any Jewish person who read the descriptions of our forefathers that some of you said here, would call it anti-jewish. I tell you the truth, they would name it as anti-judaism. Finally,I wish all of you would learn more about our religion, our history and our faith. And I have read the sermon of the mount that your rabbi taught you. Bless those who curse you.

    Shalom, Edward Avram S.

  7. folknotions


    do you see why I have a hard time taking you seriously when you don’t provide an argument? You judged my stance without critiquing it. Where is the intellectual vigor in that?

    once again, you have not answered the call to properly address anti-judaic comments on the blog. It is one thing to call us anti-semitic. It is another to tell us why. And as carl said above, you are not the professor and I’m not going to go out and “learn more” unless prompted. Forget that you haven’t actually argued why Christian depictions of the Pharisees are bigoted – you haven’t even provided a list of scholars that you think have something to say on the subject!

    Please, prove me wrong!

  8. folknotions

    scratch that last part; edward did provide a list of scholars in another post.

    Radical Anabaptism and Radical Biblical Exegesis comment by EC 

  9. Katie

    Just after Edward listed those scholars, I noticed an article by Amy-Jill Levine sitting on my boss’s desk. I always find it amazing how that works out and it feels like it happens to me all the time. I borrowed the article, read it, and found it enlightening. While I can’t say I’ve found Edward’s arguments as enlightening, his suggestion to check out Levine was helpful and I would suggest anyone who is interested take a look. It is available online at the Christian Century website.

    Misusing Jesus: How the church divorces Jesus from Judaism.

  10. lukelm

    I think I get most of what Edward is saying. Our common Sunday-school story about the Pharisees as the purveyors of a dead, legalistic dogmatism must be understood as a caricature, invented in part by the writers of the New Testament, to highlight and illustrate a certain view of Jesus’ message and status as a religious reformer. My knowledge on the subject is miniscule and mostly second-hand, but I do remember one conversation with my brother while he was in seminary learning about the real Jewish tradition that the Pharisees belonged to, and while remembering none of the details I recall being struck how it had nothing to do with the common caricature we all know.

    For Christians we might not even be aware that such assumptions bear any weight on the present, because they seem like a small (and dead, static) detail of our story. But for Jews today the Pharisees are one chapter of their real & living story, and I’d say that we would all do well to accept Edward’s assertion that there is something much more interesting and rich in 1st-century Judaism than we even know how to ask about, and since he claims to be familiar with it, approach it with curiosity.

    And let’s be careful about our metaphors. In trying to express one’s belief in Jesus’ message of justice, to say that Jesus spoke out against the oppressive Pharisees is not the same thing as saying that Jesus spoke out against oppression. Might Edward be correct in pointing out that some of our unexamined received notions about Judaism really do prop up a hidden anti-Judaism within the common story of Jesus as told within the church, beginning as children? I think he is.

    Edward, if you’re still reading this, let’s approach it from the most basic ground level. Who do Jews and modern scholars think the Pharisees were, and how did they fit into 1st century Judaism? I really have no idea, and I’m kind of curious.

  11. folknotions

    “And let’s be careful about our metaphors. In trying to express one’s belief in Jesus’ message of justice, to say that Jesus spoke out against the oppressive Pharisees is not the same thing as saying that Jesus spoke out against oppression. Might Edward be correct in pointing out that some of our unexamined received notions about Judaism really do prop up a hidden anti-Judaism within the common story of Jesus as told within the church, beginning as children? I think he is.”

    Well said, I think it is important to make the distinction between the group and the oppression. I’m still interested to hear from edward about the recent biblical scholarship re: Pharisees, though the Levine article posted by Katie was a very good read.

  12. Nathan Myers

    edward Christian,

    You’re not Jewish. Quit trolling. Or are you?

    Your last post had a little phrase; “we Anabaptists.” I’m not familiar with the Jewish branch of Anabaptism…maybe you could enlighten us

  13. carl

    Aside from questions of blog etiquette and trolling, I think Luke is right that there are important points here that deserve better treatment. The Levine article was a very informative read. My (limited) understanding (mostly from my mother, who’s a pastor) is that some scholars believe it’s likely that Jesus would have even considered himself a Pharisee, and that his condemnations of the Pharisees as recorded in the Gospels are basically an internal critique. Clearly the Gospel writers’ take on the Pharisees is a one-sided caricature.

    Perhaps a more nuanced view of Jesus’ relationship to the Pharisees and first-century Judaism could:

    * place Jesus firmly in the context of the long and remarkable tradition of Jewish prophets,

    * avoid making unfair blanket statements characterizing first-century Judaism as especially “oppressive and legalistic” (which aspects of it may have been, to about the same degree as religious institutions everywhere and everywhen tend to be)

    * still observe (without stereotyping or caricaturing) that, inasmuch as Jesus did conflict with the religious authorities of his day, his primary critique seems to have been about moral priorities and definitions of ethical purity. This seems to me to be too central to Jesus’ message (and too applicable to the church today) to just let it drop out of the narrative entirely.

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