Why Pharisees Matter

Tefillin-2Since posting last Friday a little corrective information about who the Pharisees really were (see “The Pharisees” here) I’ve had some interesting interaction with Christians both in person and online about the topic. Most of that interaction has been positive, some of it a little negative, and one very negative but isolated voice. I blogged about Pharisees. Mega-blogger Scot McKnight posted most of my article on his site and I had much interaction there. And then last night I taught about Pharisees at a unique Bible study group that has formed for this summer. They want my friend Steve Purtell and I to give them the context behind the New Testament that they have not been getting in church (see “Give Us Context Please,” here).

The most negative experience was a guy who said, “We don’t need a renewal of the Pharisees at this time in history.”

Actually, in some senses we do. We need a renewal of the image of the Pharisees in our time. We need accuracy in understanding who Yeshua’s opponents were and why one group of them, the Pharisees, had so many who became followers of Yeshua later while other groups (Sadducees and Essenes) did not.

And most of all it would be great to see abandonment of the sad practice of stereotyping religious Jews vis a vis the Pharisees. Whenever I speak in a Methodist church, for some reason, they sing a hymn (its in the Methodist hymnal) which in the second verse talks about Jesus refuting the hard-hearted Pharisee. The one time I attended a certain mega-church here in Atlanta (it was not Northpoint, not Andy Stanley) the pastor said, “The Pharisees had over 600 rules about how to please God but Jesus had only two.” It was actually a central point in his message. He had no idea that the number 600 comes from the traditional number of commandments of God (not the Pharisees) which is 613. He also had no idea that Jesus’ two rules (love God, neighbor) are the hardest two to keep.

Stereotyping religious Jews through faulty understanding of the Pharisees goes something like this:

Religious Jews = Pharisees = Hypocrites . . .

Or a variation:

Religious Jews = Pharisees = Those working hard to earn God’s love . . .

It is a human tendency to stereotype people and groups. The rabbis of classical Judaism had their origin in the Pharisees but changed many things and often wound up agreeing with Yeshua on specific points. The rabbis noted seven kinds of “hypocritical Pharisees.” And Christians, as well as anyone else, should realize it is religious people who can become judgmental, not just Pharisees. Those who don’t care about holiness are very tolerant. People who care how they act and what they do with their lives are most prone to excess in judging others and in professing ideals they do not live up to. It was the Pharisees’ very desire for holiness and messianic redemption that led to examples of excess.

Generalizing about the Pharisees and viewing Judaism as a bankrupt religion and Christianity as God’s replacement for a failed people has been the backbone of Christian anti-Semitism. It is a key tenet of supersessionism (replacement theology, the Church supersedes Israel as the chosen people). That history has included the demonizing of Jews, even from the church fathers, and a progression to violence (the Crusades, Inquisition, Ghettos, Pogroms, Holocaust).

A lot of the progress that has been made and, in part, the reason it is now common to hear of the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish Paul is that the Holocaust shocked Christendom into some slow, but wonderful, change. Sixty-eight years after WWII things are improving, but a lot of anti-Judaism still pervades pop-Christianity.

Long ago, starting at the end of the first century, Jesus became a Gentile. Early art depicting Jesus shows him wearing a Greek style tunic. The common Jesus image of more recent centuries is a brown-haired, blue-eyed European.

The church’s message to Jewish people for most of the last 2,000 years has been, “Become a Gentile so you can be saved by our Jewish Messiah.” Jewish faithfulness to Torah, Sabbath, food laws, covenant, and peoplehood was “legalism.” I have called this message to the Jewish people Reverse Galatianism. In Paul’s letter to Galatia he decried those who told Gentiles, “Become Jews so you can be saved by our Jewish Messiah.” Somehow, the church got the message Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews but misunderstood and thought Jews should not be Jews either.

According to the prophets and to Paul’s great section on the matter in Romans 11, only when the Church reconciles with Jewish people will Yeshua return. That claim may seem bold and in need of explanation and defense. (Maybe a future blog post). Yet I am convinced of it from my reading of scripture and could back it up at length (perhaps I will soon). Non-Jewish followers of Jesus need to re-capture sense of following a Jewish Messiah. The kingdom of God (as explained by the prophets) comes with Gentiles and Jews together.

Furthermore, you can’t understand the Gospels or Yeshua very well at all working with a false image of the Pharisees. The all too common understanding of Jesus versus the Pharisees in the Gospels looks like this:

Jesus = the Christian Pioneer calling for the end of Judaism/Torah which no longer matters now that Jesus makes all forms of holiness moot through his grace.

You will read the Gospels much more accurately if you understand it was an intra-Jewish debate not a new religion overtaking an old one. There were many Jewish views of Torah and Messiah and the way God would make redemption happen. Jesus came teaching a very specific path within Torah, a right way of keeping Jewish covenant life, that would bring about messianic redemption in unexpected ways. (Yes, unexpected, and too many people act as if it was obvious that there would be a two-stage messianic redemption with thousands of years of delay before the end!).

Getting the Pharisees right matters. It matters for your own deeper understanding of the kingdom of heaven and Yeshua’s message to disciples. It matters for your own relationship with Jewish people. It matters for your own deeper understanding of how God is unfolding messianic redemption in history. It seems to be that improving relations between Jews and Christians (and much improvement has been made) is a sign that Messiah is nearer.