'Pharisee' stereotype harms Judaeo-Christian relations, says Pope.
The love of neighbor is a common commitment among Christians and Jews, Pope Francis said Tuesday, to teachers and students at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute.
The pope explained that Christian interpretations of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, as well as consideration of the Jewish heirs to the Pharisaic tradition, must seek this common ground with accuracy, free of prejudice and stereotypes.
Love of neighbor “certainly constitutes an important basis for any dialogue, especially among Jews and Christians, even today,” the pope said in May 9 prepared remarks for the biblical institute, known in Vatican parlance as the Biblicum.
The papal audience included participants in the conference “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal,” held to mark the 110th anniversary of the Biblicum’s founding by Pope St. Pius X. The conference focused on the role of the Pharisees in the Christian Bible, Jewish traditions, and later Jewish-Christian relations.
Reflecting on the love of neighbor, Pope Francis said that the influential second century Jewish commentator Rabbi Aqiba, an heir of the Pharisees, described the words “love your neighbor as yourself” as “a great principle of the Torah.”
“According to tradition, he died as a martyr with the Shema on his lips, which includes the commandment to love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul and strength,” said the pope.
“Likewise, the so-called Golden Rule, albeit in various formulations, is attributed not only to Jesus but also to his older contemporary Hillel, usually considered one of the leading Pharisees of his time. The rule is already present in the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit.”
“Indeed, to love our neighbors better, we need to know them, and in order to know who they are, we often have to find ways to overcome ancient prejudices,” the Pope continued.
Pope Francis praised the Biblicum’s contributions to scholarly research and teaching in biblical studies, saying it has “worked to remain faithful to its mission, even in challenging times.”
Cardinal Augustin Bea, who died in 1968, was rector of the Biblicum before he became an influential cardinal. The pope described Bea as “the driving force” behind the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the Church’s relations with non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate. This document “set interreligious relations, and Catholic-Jewish relations in particular, on a new footing,” the Pope continued.
The conference on the Pharisees will help make possible accurate teaching and preaching about them and will make positive contributions to Christian-Jewish relations, the Pope said.
The treatment of the Pharisees in the New Testament and other sources was “at times polemical.” Their influence and portrayals drew many interpretations among both Jews and Christians.
“Among Christians and in secular society, in different languages the word ‘Pharisee’ often means ‘a self-righteous or hypocritical person.’ For many Jews, however, the Pharisees are the founders of rabbinic Judaism and hence their own spiritual forebears,” the pope said.
“The history of interpretation has fostered a negative image of the Pharisees, often without a concrete basis in the Gospel accounts,” the pontiff continued.
“Often, over the course of time, that image has been attributed by Christians to Jews in general. In our world, sadly, such negative stereotypes have become quite common. One of the most ancient and most damaging stereotypes is that of a ‘Pharisee,’ especially when used to cast Jews in a negative light.”
Citing recent scholarship, the pope said “we know less about the Pharisees than previous generations thought.”
“We are less certain about their origins and about many of their teachings and practices,” he said, predicting that the conference’s research into such questions will help provide a more accurate view and help combat anti-Semitism.
The pope surveyed some positive references to the Pharisees in the New Testament.
“If we look at the New Testament, we see that Saint Paul, before his encounter with the Lord Jesus, counted as a reason for pride the fact that he was ‘as to the Law, a Pharisee’,” Pope Francis said, citing the Letter to Philemon.
“Jesus had numerous discussions with Pharisees about common concerns. He shared with them a belief in the resurrection and he accepted other aspects of their interpretation of the Torah,” continued the pope.
“Jesus and the Pharisees must have had much in common, for the Acts of the Apostles tells us that some Pharisees joined the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem.”
The Acts of the Apostles also shows Pharisee leader Gamaliel defending Peter and John.
Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisee Nicodemus, recounted in the Gospel of John, is where he said “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
The pope cited Nicodemus’ defense of Jesus and his presence at his burial.
“Whatever view one takes of Nicodemus, it is clear that the various stereotypes about ‘the Pharisees’ do not apply to him, nor do they find confirmation elsewhere in John’s Gospel,” Francis added.
In the synoptic gospels, a scribe sometimes described as a Pharisee engages or tests Jesus by asking him about the greatest or first commandment. The Gospel of Mark concludes this exchange with Jesus saying “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” The Pope said this shows Jesus’ high regard for such religious leaders.
He encouraged the Biblicum’s teachers and scholars in their reflections.
“May your conference find a broad echo within and outside the Catholic Church, and may your work receive abundant blessings from the Most High or, as many of our Jewish brothers and sisters would say, from Hashem,” his prepared remarks concluded, using a Hebrew word for God.