In this first post on the Pharisees, I wish to remind us of what we have learned about the Pharisees and I wish to get us to thinking about the potential danger of our rhetoric about them.
Before I go to the Gospels (and Josephus) to summarize what the Pharisees are all about, let me remind us of how we got to where we are.
First, it is a standard procedure to say “Pharisee” and mean “legalist, bigot, hypocrite, or picayune meddler into other people’s religious business.” Look at any dictionary.
Second, this is in and of itself a caricature and stereotype, for no one (I hope) would think that all Pharisees have always been religious bigots. Such language spells danger down the road.
Third, we have tended to download anger or extreme disagreement with others onto this term “Pharisee.” So, when I call someone a Pharisee I do not mean anything nice or even charitable. Which, in and of itself is dangerous because no group (well, there are exceptions) is always wrong and always bad.
Fourth, Martin Luther — and this was all charted out in 1977 in EP Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism — tended to equate the Roman Catholic establishment with the Pharisees of the Gospels. Everyone should read this book, regardless of all the scuttlebutt about his ideas ever since. The invective of Luther against the Roman Catholics in the 16th Century then was downloaded onto the Pharisees of the New Testament.
Fifth, the impact of our use of Pharisee is that we have learned to call all Jews and anyone we think is too conservative a “Pharisee.”
Sixth, this too is unacceptable for it is very close, often actually is, anti-Semitism.
Seventh, this rhetoric is what is called “labeling.” To label someone is to put them in a category, or a box, or a corner, and then slap a sticker on their head so we know what to think and how to think about such a person. Labeling is inherently unChristian, and it is what Jesus fought against constantly — and this means we have to see what Jesus meant by “Pharisee” and what he didn’t mean by “Pharisee.”
So, I am asking for the many who are still using “Pharisee” in the old-fashioned “religious bigot” sense to be much more careful. I won’t give names, but I’m seeing it on blogs and in books in a way that 15 years ago would have not been the case.
Soon I’ll post on what Josephus says about the Pharisees and what the Gospels say and about what we ought to mean when we say “Pharisee.” (I’ve got to get down to the my school office to find my notes.)