Book review: The Pharisees

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Joseph Sievers and Amy Jill Levine (eds.), The Pharisees, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).

by Tom Wilson, St Philip’s Centre, Leicester

The Pharisees invariably get bad press in sermons. The purpose of this book is to encourage preachers and teachers to think again. The book’s basic argument is that any account of the Pharisees given in the Gospels is polemical, one side of a debate conducted in a particular style. Unthinking repetition of these stereotypes can, at worst, contribute to continued antisemitism. Lest the reader rolls their eyes and thinks of political correctness gone mad, I personally have witnessed and heard from Jewish friends of many incidents of precisely this problem.

The write up of a conference held at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 2019, The Pharisees is perhaps not the kind of volume to read cover-to-cover in one sitting (specialist academics and book reviewers aside). The price tag may also mean those on a limited budget might look to a library to provide an opportunity to read it. But these points aside, this is a text that is well worth engaging with. In the prelude, Craig Morrison discusses where the name “Pharisee” comes from. He explores Leo Baeck’s focus on linking “saintliness” with “separation” as well as Louis Finkelstein’s argument that Pharisees were “separatists” within the Synagogue. He also covers New Testament approaches.

The first main part explores historical reconstructions. Many of these essays are specialist: a detailed exploration of 4QMMT from the Dead Sea Scrolls and what archaeological finds tell us about Pharisees being two examples. There is also considerable discussion of Josephus and the New Testament texts. Here essays range from detailed discussion of a particular passage (the woes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23) to more general questions as to whether Paul was a “perfectly righteous Pharisee” made all the more righteous by meeting with Jesus, and the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. This section contains essays that any serious student of the New Testament ought to read. What is particularly useful for those who tend to only engage with Christian (Evangelical) scholarship is that there are various perspectives present. It is, in my view at least, helpful for those who preach and teach the New Testament to understand how painful some of our most treasured texts are to other audiences.

This point, of the reception history of texts, is the central focus of part two. The sweep of history is broad in this section, beginning with the Church Fathers: Justin Martyr, Hegesippus, Hipolytus of Rome and Epiphanius of Salamis, as Matthias Sked explains how Pharisees were used as a symbolic group to suit the theological purposes of the authors. At the other end of this section, Philip Cunningham looks as how Pharisees are portrayed in Catholic religion textbooks, noting with disappointment that stereotypes and inaccuracies abound. Essays in this section discuss portrayal of Pharisees in art and in films, the Oberammergau Passion Play, as well as medieval scholars, Martin Luther and John Calvin. The tone of the section is one of Christian recognition of and repentance for past sins. There is a long, and deeply troubling, history of Christian antisemitism, which stands at odds with Jesus’ own Jewish identity, not to mention his command that we love everyone, including those we theologically disagree with, as ourselves. While it is true that Christians and Jewish people disagree as to our understanding of the person and significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the way in which Christians have done so has all-too-often brought nothing but shame and disgrace to our faith.

The third part provides suggestions as to how we can improve. All those training for ministry, or indeed who preach regularly, ought to read or listen to Amy-Jill Levine at least once. Not because you will necessarily agree with everything she says, but because her views will certainly make you think. This is certainly true of her essay on preaching and teaching about the Pharisees in this volume. Levine is a New Testament scholar of considerable standing, who is also Jewish. Her scholarship is on the liberal and revisionist side, and in other writing she has challenged the historicity of different aspects of the Gospel accounts. That is an area that is open to debate; what is not debatable is her experience of (unthinking) antisemitism perpetuated by both popular Christian preachers and Sunday school teachers, as well as by New Testament scholars. But Levine doesn’t just find problems. She also suggests solutions such as labelling discriminatory art, providing historical information in the church newsletter to supplement the sermon, utilising resources specifically written to help the preacher avoid antisemitism, as well as teaching more generally on the history of Christian–Jewish relations. Perhaps most importantly, Levine encourages Christians to work with Jewish people in developing appropriate responses.

Christians believe they have good news to share. Many Jewish people hear us sharing hatred, discrimination and prejudice. The only way to deal with this problem is for honest conversation resulting in meaningful change. It may not be the case that your Jewish friends and colleagues will come to faith in Christ. But at least they’ll learn you love them enough to be willing to admit your mistakes and change where you’ve got things wrong.

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