On Pharisaism

In this post I outline the problems with a particular label common in Evangelicalism.

Originally drafted January 5, 2020 and last tended May 16, 2023 by Matt McElwee.
(See Revision History).

  • Accuracy:

    In recent review, I think there are elements of this which are mildly reductive with regard to the history and development of Judaism. This also largely ignores important aspects of the Reformation and Protestantism – especially German Higher Criticism.

  • Certainty:


  • Completeness:


I’ve been thinking about the word Pharisee recently. If you grew up in the Holiness or Baptist strains of early-2000’s Evangelicalism, the word Pharisee or Pharisaism packed quite a punch. In our world, it tended to refer to a self-righteous, legalistic, hard-nosed, works-based, often phony, hypocritical, pietistic individual bent on heaping judgement on other less-pious Jesus followers. It worked in two ways. On one hand, it was a somewhat helpful admonishment when your religious fervor was causing harm. On the other, it made it very easy to paint a character in your head of what the Pharisees in Jesus’ time were like based on people in your circles labeled Pharisee. Based on our rendering, the first century Pharisees were much like the gossipy yet overly-spiritual church lady who cared way to much about what the pastor’s kid wore to service each Sunday. Or they were that know-it-all kid in kid’s church who had every verse memorized and found personal pleasure in having opportunity to correct the kid’s pastor. Or worse still, the Pharisees were like Catholics.

That’s right, in many circles I grew up in, the most apt modern-day comparison to the first-century Pharisees was the Roman Catholic Church. Didn’t really matter who in the church, but most likely the priests and higher were the really bad ones, and the parishioners were likely the poor dumb fools who thought they were Christians, but were duped by modern day Pharisees into a path to hell.

I’m sure that no one believed every part of that, but it certainly gets at the emotions and imagination evoked when a pastor or elder would warn you against becoming a Pharisee.

Over the past few years I’ve been reading quite a bit of modern scholarship on first-century Judaism and it’s relationship to Jesus and Christianity. E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (which I have not completed but have started), James Dunn’s The New Perspectives on Paul, and roughly anything by N. T. Wright on Paul really drive home a different narrative of the Pharisees.

Here’s the basics, remembering that I am neither a Second Temple Judaism nor New Testament scholar and will probably mince some facts and timelines. The Pharisees really originated as a consequence of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid’s. When the Maccabees came out victorious, they set up a combined priestly/ruling class which eventually developed into the Sadducees. There were folks who didn’t jive with the eventual elitism and aloofness of the Sadducees who mostly handled politics and Temple stuff. This caused a rift to grow between the priests and the scribes/Torah experts. This second group, scribes and teachers, developed into a sect called the Pharisees.

The Pharisees had two main goals. On one hand, they emphasized personal purity and devotion to the Torah outside of the Temple. On the other, the Pharisees were really looking backward at God’s covenant with His people, trying to keep to it as best they could lest they get swept away into exile again. It seems at some level they hoped that through encouraging proper spiritual practice and reform, they could manufacture what was promised through the prophet Jeremiah, that the covenant would be written on their minds and on their hearts (Jer 31:33).

The point is, the Pharisees were not trying to “work their way into heaven.” Instead they were committed, zealously and sometimes harmfully, to keeping a covenant that was itself a response to already having been saved. What they were trying to avoid was another, perhaps final, exile and annihilation, not Hell.

So what’s the point? Is this yet another warning against legalism?

No. In fact the concern I want to raise is with the term itself and a need for a new one. My deep concern is that the word Pharisee and its derivatives are ahistorical and walk a dangerous line of antisemitism. Just a few days ago there was yet another attack here in the US against a Jewish community. This time it was a crazed man with a machete in Monsey, NY. This is not at all to say that the folks who throw around the term Pharisee are looking to harm Jewish folks, in fact most folks would never even put the two thoughts together. But Pharisees didn’t just disappear. In fact they were really the birth of modern Judaism, kicking off Rabbinical Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

What I’m ultimately seeking to question is whether or not we can find as a community new short-hand. Something that can evoke the emotions we’re seeking, taps into a deep imaginative well, and acts as a powerful corrective for potentially wayward brothers and sisters. I don’t think the need for a word like Pharisee is without merit (though often over-wrought), but I wonder if we could find something new that would divorce itself from a couple hundred years of anti-papal and antisemitic thought.