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    Christianity & the Pharisees

    Q. Why do Christians think so badly of Pharisees?

    A. After a lifetime of involvement in interfaith encounter this evil and inaccurate prejudice still disturbs me greatly. It is one of the ugliest aspects of the classical Christian attitude to Judaism.

    It begins with the savage chapter 23 of Matthew and gives Pharisees and Pharisaism a monstrous reputation.

    They really should extol the Pharisees, not excoriate them. But they allow themselves the impossible view that the Pharisees were hypocrites who put on a pretence of piety whilst really being venal and mean.

    Matthew hurls at them the vicious slogan, “Scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites”. The terms “Scribes” and “Pharisees” are used pejoratively, though gentler texts show some sympathy for them both. In general, however, they are called snakes and vipers.

    The Pharisees – apparently all of them – are tarred as hypocrites, and the hypocrites – apparently all of them – are deemed Pharisees.

    Christianity hardly ever admits the truth, that Pharisaism was a progressive movement dedicated to spiritual and ethical outreach that democratised religion and applied it to changing circumstances.

    Far from being hypocrites, the Pharisees themselves warned against hypocrisy (Sotah 22b; Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch.37, etc.; cf. G.F. Moore, “Judaism”, vol. 2, 1932, pp.192-4).

    Far from being narrow-minded, they taught love and concern for all God’s creatures.

    If Jesus’ teaching echoed that of any Jewish sect of the time, it echoed the Pharisees.

    Not all Pharisees were paragons of virtue, but neither are all the adherents of any faith absolute saints. But it distorts the facts to condemn all the Pharisees for the possible faults of a few.

    It is high time that Christians spoke the truth about the Pharisees and demanded that dictionaries deleted the negative and unhistorical way in which they use terms like “Pharisee” and “pharisaical”.

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