Editor’s note: The writer, a Mennonite Christian, is responding to a recent controversy over presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s use of the term “Pharisee” as a synonym for “hypocrite,” which he pledged to stop doing. A version of this article originally appeared at themennonite.org.
“What is a Pharisee anyway?”
I remember asking myself this question around the campfire at Mennonite summer camp. The question arose after singing this line: “I don’t want to be a Pharisee. I don’t want to be a Pharisee, cause they’re not fair you see. I don’t want to be a Pharisee.”
Since that time, I have learned Pharisees were the Jewish scribes and sages in first-century Palestine. They play a large role in the New Testament, often cast as the ones with whom Jesus argues, even being called a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33).
In the Christian narrative, Pharisee has been a stand-in for anyone who is self-righteous and hypocritical. Matthew 23:2-3 says, “The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else” (Contemporary English Version). Jesus, on the other hand, stands apart. He is loving, compassionate and congruent in his actions and beliefs. He is the “way, the truth and the light” (John 14:6). This narrative became a key driver for the early church’s separation from Judaism and has continued to be a typology for Christianity’s exceptionalism.
Recently, I joined Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont with my partner, who is Jewish. Though I plan to remain connected to the Mennonite church in San Francisco, we will be raising our children in the Jewish tradition. (The Mennonite Church is an Anabaptist denomination with about 2 million adherents worldwide.) It has been both a joy and a difficulty to begin to deepen into Jewish learning and practice. It is a joy because I feel the richness of Jewish thought and commentary bring alive in a new way the stories I learned in the context of the Old Testament. And it has been difficult to sit with the harm that has been done and continues to be done with the Christian narrative as the weapon.
I have learned that Judaism, as it is known and practiced today, very much identifies its roots with the Pharisees. They are regarded and revered as the forefathers who created and re-envisioned a tradition after their Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were forced into exile. While Christians may think of the Pharisees as a long-lost Jewish sect, their lineage is very much alive in the synagogue. As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Lavine writes, “Just as we are heirs of centuries of racism, we are heirs of two millennia of negative stereotypes of Pharisees and, by extension, of Jews — for it is substantially from Pharisaic teaching that rabbinic Judaism springs” (Quit Picking on the Pharisees, sojo.net). Lavine, with decades of deep relationship with Christians, begs us to realize that when we invoke the “Jesus vs. Pharisees” narrative, we cause harm.
This year, Easter fell during Passover. It reminds me of Christianity’s overlapping history with Judaism. And this year I remember that anti-Semitism is on the rise, as are all forms of bigotry and hatred. The anti-Semitic trope of Jews, such as George Soros, being the puppet masters and manipulators of the masses can be directly traced to nearly two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism that linked the Pharisees/Jews to the orchestration of Jesus’s death. This was what fueled the murder of 11 Jewish elders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.
I assume most Christians have no intention of being anti-Semitic when speaking of the Pharisees. Certainly I did not mean to be anti-Semitic when singing songs around the campfire at Mennonite summer camp, but I was.
When putting the New Testament polemics against the Pharisees into context, I can see that Christians and Pharisees were caught in chaotic times. Both groups were fighting fiercely for identity under the crushing domination and occupation of the Roman Empire. The making of enemies and the struggle against them is certainly a key part of any individual’s or group’s quest toward identity. However, the narratives that we rely on for individuation and identity are often overly simplistic and leave out any sense of nuance. When a group like Christians manages to wed itself with power and empire, these narratives quickly become deadly.
After sitting though Shabbat services for the past two years, embarking on Jewish learning and beginning the very difficult, tedious and rewarding task of learning Hebrew and the Talmud, I feel I am finally learning the question I asked as a child, “What is a Pharisee, anyway?”
The Pharisees, heard through the pages of the Talmud, are becoming my teachers and my friends. They created and preserved a beautiful tradition, one in which I find great solace and intellectual engagement. Sometimes the Pharisees, like any good friend, partner or therapist, confuse and annoy me. They do not create simple narratives, and for this reason, they help me grow.
Even in our own Christian texts I find proof that the Pharisees have more complexity than often remembered. Luke credits the Pharisees with warning Jesus of his impending arrest (Luke 31:3) and reports that Jesus and the Pharisees ate with one another (Luke 11:37). Sure, they debated and disagreed during this meal, but after reading one line of the Talmud, I can see that arguing was (and still is) an embedded practice among all Jewish teachers, rabbis and sages, including Jesus.
In finding the flexibility and exceptions to the simplistic narratives I was given as a child, there is opportunity to mature. As I unpack and learn the most painful parts of Jewish/Christian history, and as I remember my days at summer camp singing, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee,” I feel it is only by the grace of God, and perhaps the Pharisees, that I find myself in this place of healing, growth and learning.