Whom to call “Pharisee”?

Not that I think we need to use “Pharisee” for anyone. But, if some insist on finding contemporary counterparts to the 1st Century Pharisees, here are more suggestions:

First, use it only for those who are committed to the Torah as a comprehensive explanation for the will of God. (In this sense, it is pretty hard to use for any Christian.)

Second, use it only for those who through the abuse of their teaching authority are leading people astray. (In this sense, it is fit most for heretics.)

Third, never use it as a synonym for “Jews,” “Judaism,” or any other generic Jewish group. It refers only to one group of Jews, and that group eventually morphed into the rabbis but that morphing involved major shifts and moves.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/213498 Michael

    I’ve been following this series with interest, Scot. On the first point above, is the Pharisaic view of Torah a hermeneutic that some today are applying to all of scripture? I was fascinated by your comparison of the flattening of the text into the redactable Will of God as opposed to the controlling hermeneuticu theme of Love God, Love Others.Would it be appropriate to use the term to refer to someone who approaches New Testament texts in the same way, redacting and flattening them out, instead of keeping Christ’s restatment of the Great Commandment as the controlling hermeneutic theme?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Yes, Michael, I think you are probably (and unfortunately) right.Jesus criticized his contemporaries for not seeing the ethical plan of God in love God and love others, he criticized them for not seeing that the plan of God involved him (Search the scriptures; they point to me). The Apostle Paul’s argument with his opponents (we dare not call them Pharisees only) was along the same line: they read the Bible through Moses and Paul said one has to begin with Abraham and with promise (instead of Law).What can we say about James, brother of our Lord: the royal law, and the essence of the Law is to love your neighbor as yourself.It goes on and on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6067679 Brother Maynard

    Scot, I had much the same question as Michael. I was looking at something recently that reacted strongly to Brian McLaren’s character Neo referring to evangelicals as modern Pharisees, and as a result of that exchange, I’ve been watching with interest as your description unfolded. I don’t know if this is the same type of conversation that prompted the series, but thank you for it nonetheless.istm that as suggested, the approach to scripture (as you have it, Torah or Bible) which assumes it has all the answers to the questions you put forward, is a kind of Pharisaical thinking.Now, I’m reading “comprehensive explanation for the will of God” as meaning that the scripture is expected to explain or answer everything… I don’t know if that’s stretching it too far or not. What I’m getting at is this notion of expecting the Bible to speak to contemporary concerns that are outside the thinking of the first century and prior… the stuff of which good isogesis is made.Somewhere between magic 8-ball and legalism.Thoughts?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Brother Maynard, Something was deleted in your message; can you send it again?Scot

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6067679 Brother Maynard

    Scot, I had much the same question as Michael. I was looking at something recently that reacted strongly to Brian McLaren’s character Neo referring to evangelicals as modern Pharisees, and as a result of that exchange, I’ve been watching with interest as your description unfolded. I don’t know if this is the same type of conversation that prompted the series, but thank you for it nonetheless.istm that as suggested, the approach to scripture (as you have it, Torah or Bible) which assumes it has all the answers to the questions you put forward, is a kind of Pharisaical thinking.Now, I’m reading “comprehensive explanation for the will of God” as meaning that the scripture is expected to explain or answer everything… I don’t know if that’s stretching it too far or not. What I’m getting at is this notion of expecting the Bible to speak to contemporary concerns that are outside the thinking of the first century and prior… the stuff of which good isogesis is made.Somewhere between magic 8-ball and legalism.Thoughts?

  • Anonymous

    Actually, BM, Pharisaical/Evangelical thinking is midrashic, so I think you have it reversed. The idea in midrash is that the Scripture is not clear enough and does not provide all the answers “as is.” Therefore, something must be added to it–i.e., customs/traditions–sociology/psychology. Added to that the halakah of “application” and you have a very little bit of Scripture and a whole lot of other stuff. This was also the problem of the scholastics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    It is that paragraph that beings “istm”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10100943 Michael F. Bird

    Scot,This is the best pastoral applicationsof a study of Pharisees that I’ve ever seen. Frequently the term is used to describe either Christians who are more conservative than others, or else against the entire Jewish people. This is good stuff for anyone preaching Matt 23!Mike Bird

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3075330 Bob

    istm = “It Seems To Me”.BTW (By the way) I am loving watching you learn to blog Scot. IMHO (In my humble opinion) you’re a fast learner.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Wow, I’m learning fast. “istm”I’m very hesitant to speak about the Pharisaic theology of the Bible for the simple reason that it creates a logical opportunity for many to pounce on groups today: thus, if they were literalists in the Bible, we can pounce on literalists; if they saw it as infallible, we can pounce on them.This is what I’m trying to avoid. The issue is that the Pharisees were bound in to a hermeneutic of the Torah with which Jesus partly agreed (yes, the Word of God) and partly disagreed (no, it is about love of God and love of others). They were committed to Torah. They abused it in Jesus’ view. It needed to be understood otherwise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/9548318 John Frye

    Scot, your series on the Pharisees has helped me…I tended to use the term as a perjorative label. As far as present day application, could it fit those who treat the Bible as a book of morals, as a list of prescriptions that govern (almost) everything we do? Isn’t it true that the biblical directives only make sense from within a relationship with God that is actively demonstrated by the Jesus Creed? For example, the Beattitudes. They are pronouncements of blessing. The moralistic approach turns them into imperatives—”in order to be blessed, you MUST ….” Is this a form of pharisaism?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    John,As always it is not easy to be fair and accurate, and at the same time avoid the charge of moralism.Here’s a run at it: the Pharisees, like the Essenes, saw the Torah as God’s revealed will; its laws (mitzvot) were binding; they had an interpretive tradition about it: all that together makes for a Pharisaical hermeneutic. (Specifics included.)Treating the Bible has having moral code is treating the Bible fairly. Jesus differed with them on “how” to read those moral codes, which he reduced and then spread like a good infection (CS Lewis) to love God/love others. I would not call someone who treated the Bible as a comprehensive set of morals a Pharisee, but “normal.” Jesus is the one who pointed the whole to the relational dimension.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6067679 Brother Maynard

    “Morals” is not the same thing as “rules.” One comes from the heart and one comes from the page… writing God’s law on our hearts causes us to (want to) love God and love others. Writing it on the page as a code of conduct lends itself to legalism, where the words are then used or twisted to fit the situation. otoh (on the other hand), loving God / loving others must surely give us an inner compulsion for the the properly principled response… but legalism attempts to override that by saying no, the page says this, which means thus-and-so, and therefore…istm that this is the kind of thing the Pharisees did, took what was on the page and forced it to fit, then elevating their interpretation. I think God wants a more natural response based on the spirit (Spirit) and not the letter.Not that I’m out to fix the label or figure out who’s got the Pharisaical mantle in the 21st century… but the term has been used and I wonder if it’s 80% or 20% accurate, or just wrong. This is how I see it, and how I could conceive of modern-day Pharisees. Of course, I could be wrong.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    I’m not all that interested in trying to figure out whom we should call Pharisee today in our churches, as you can see, so I’ve done my best to steer clear of that discussion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5744685 J. A. Gillmartin

    Scot -Couldn’t find a trackback URL so I’ll let you know here that I’ve linked to you at The SHEEP’S CRIBHE ALONE IS WORTHY

  • Don

    I think the modern equivalent to Pharasaism (is that the right word?) is that portion of the Body of Christ that can be readily identified as Fundamentalist – and specifically, those fundamentalists who are: anti-denominational, anti-charismatic, dispensationalist, selectively literalist and legalistic, politically and culturally conservative, and opposed to fellowship with believers who do not totally agree with them on all points of faith and practice; who, when confronted with a scriptural refutation of one or more of their doctrincal positions, invariably accuse the questioner of failing to “rightly divide the Word of Truth”, and are far more concerned with the government’s fiscal policy than its administration of justice.But, that’s just my view.Don in Phoenix


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