Many Christians take the gospels’ generally negative portrayal of the Pharisees as factual history. Others don’t think much about historical accuracy, choosing instead to interpret the Pharisees as characters in a story, a literary mirror reflecting our own religious dysfunction, helping us acknowledge the ways in which we ourselves are “self-righteous hypocrites” and “elitist, judgmental, and indifferent to the poor.” Either way, too few of us focus on the unintended consequences of the negative portrayal of the Pharisees in the gospels.
Jews, meanwhile, learn a radically different account of the Pharisees. They were the heroic leaders who rebuilt the Jewish people’s national and spiritual psyche after the Jewish revolution of 67 C.E. and its crushing reversal in 70 C.E. They laid the foundations of rabbinic Judaism that undergirds expressions of Judaism today.
This difference could perhaps be tolerated if it weren’t for the fact that many generations of Christians projected their negative characterization of the Pharisees onto Jews in general. In other words, the tragic reality of anti-Semitism through history is connected to the negative portrait of the Pharisees in the gospels. In the decades since the Holocaust, Christians have been slowly coming to terms with this grim fact.
As Peg Conway wrote, “A positive presentation of Jesus does not require negative stereotyping of the Pharisees or any other Jews.” But that leaves Christians today with the challenge of figuring out how to deal with the negative depiction of the Pharisees in the gospels.
Some try to resolve this tension by specifying that the Pharisees in the gospels are not representatives of all Pharisees across all time. Only the Pharisees who showed up to oppose Jesus are reflected in the gospel accounts. So those depictions should not be taken as representative of all Pharisees, and certainly not of all Jews.
Others posit that the gospel writers were simply biased, unfair, and inaccurate. They intentionally reduced the Pharisees to a caricature, foil, or scapegoat simply to make Jesus (and perhaps themselves) look better in contrast.
As we look for the best ways to respond to these issues, all of us can agree that all Pharisees at all times did not fit any single characterization. (Even in the New Testament, there are several Pharisees who are positively described, such as Nicodemus and Gamaliel.)
And more generally, we can agree that no characterization of the members of a single sect within a religion should be extended to all members of that religion across all eras.
Whatever our religious identity, we must realize our sacred texts contain material that has been abused to harm others. We all must bear responsibility so that kind of tragic abuse will come to a decisive end.
That is why I am grateful that Conway, Blackburn, and others took time to challenge the issues raised in my article. And I am grateful to Sojourners for making space for their concerns to be heard.