While sometimes political correctness can rise to the level of foolishness, the words we use do matter. My book editor recently reminded me of this truth.


I had used the phrase “Southern leaders” in referring to political leaders of the Confederacy. My editor pointed out that Blacks in the South were Southerners as well.

To equate Confederate and Southern does an injustice to those African-American Southerners. I should, she suggested, refer to political leaders in the South as “White” or “Confederate” Southern leaders. Lesson learned.

How “Pharisee” Became an Insult

Many of us can use a similar lesson on the use of the word Pharisee. In popular usage it usually has negative connotations. It suggests “narrow,” or “legalistic.”

It refers to those first-century Jews who sought show off their piety and religious observance. They stood, therefore,  in sharp contrast to the humble loving spirit of Jesus.

We betray the truth and spirit of the Bible when use the term Pharisee in this way. Here’s why:

1. The Pharisees were not legal sticklers: They introduced flexibility into Jewish law. They realized some of the rituals from the Book of Leviticus, for example, did not fit first century Judean life. They adapted.

In fact, the word “Pharisee” is derived from the Hebrew word “Parush,” which means “to interpret.”

The association of Pharisees with legalistic emerges in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul did introduce even greater flexibility into Jewish law, abolishing the need for circumcision and the kosher dietary laws. Yet, his views of the Pharisees read more like caricatures than accurate depictions.

2. The Pharisees were not enemies of Jesus: Yes, we read many debates between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Bible. The debates were not, however, between people God loves and those God rejects.

These were intellectual debates over the best way to interpret Jewish law. They were debates among colleagues not rivals.

[callout]I doubt Jesus or any of his followers would have used the term Pharisee as an insult.[/callout]

3. We insult Jesus and Christianity when we misuse the word Pharisee: Many of the stories and parables Jesus tells have parallels in the teachings of the Pharisees. Like Jesus they cherished wordplay and symbolism.  They were not biblical literalists. They were teachers and exemplars of the Torah.

4. The Pharisees were poor and humble: Several parables, especially in the Gospel of Mark, contrast pious and humble followers of Jesus with showy arrogant Pharisees. Without disputing the lessons in this parables, we need to look at them with an historian’s eye.

Scholars of the first century point out that the Pharisees emerged from the lower and middle classes of the Jewish community. They did not come from the Priesthood, whose corruption and ostentatious display of wealth they despised.

Status among the Pharisees did not depend on birth or wealth. It depended on learning and piety. They set up the first meritocracy in Jewish life.

I doubt Jesus or any of his followers would have used the term Pharisee as an insult. They would have seen them as fellow searchers for best way to live by God’s law. We should do the same.

Rabbi Evan

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by clicking here.

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