Were Pharisees adversaries of Jesus? Jesus was closer to them than to other Jewish groups

It is vital to distinguish between Jesus’ criticism of the way the Pharisees obey the Law and the criticism of the Law itself. It is not about abolishing the Law but fulfilling it, emphasizes Dr. Karma Ben Johanan, a lecturer at the Faculty of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in a commentary for the Heschel Center of the Catholic University of Lublin for Sunday, November 5.

The passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew, which we read on November 5, contains the powerful words of Jesus. Jesus teaches his disciples not to act, giving them the example of the Pharisees and the scribes,” said Dr. Karma Ben Johanan.

The lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem reminds us that for centuries, many Bible students identified Judaism with the Pharisees; hence, the religion of Moses was opposed to the followers of Jesus, i.e., Christians. “In this way, Judaism and Christianity was portrayed Judaism and Christianity as two opposite ways – one flawed and one true, one evil and one good,” writes Dr. Ben Johanan.

Today, the antagonism between Judaism and Christianity has given way to a better understanding of what the criticism of Jesus was really about. As Dr. Ben Johanan points out, Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17), they prove his reverence for the Law. It helps us to understand Jesus’ attitude toward the Pharisees. “Jesus fully respects the authority of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who ‘have taken their seat on the chair of Moses’. The critique which he stresses is not against the Law itself, the Law which they have the authority to teach, but rather, against the way they themselves observe it”.

Modern knowledge of the New Testament and the process of its creation in the Jewish environment allows us to understand Jesus’ attitude towards the Pharisees properly. According to Dr. Ben Johanan, their polemic “is based on shared values and doctrines, not on the negation of the other side.” The Bible commentator points out that Jesus, as well as the Pharisee convert to Christianity, St. Paul, “explain their opinions, interpret the Bible, and preach like their Jewish brethren, especially the Pharisees.”

In conclusion, Dr. Karma Ben Johanan recalls an excerpt from a 1985 document by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews: “Pharisaism, in the pejorative sense of the word, can spread in any religion. It can also be emphasized that Jesus’ harshness towards the Pharisees is because he is closer to them than to other Jewish groups of his time” (“Jews and Judaism in the Proclamation of the Word of God and the Catechesis of the Catholic Church,” III, 8).

The full text of the commentary can be found at the website of the Heschel Centre at the Catholic University of Lublin


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