New Testament scholars Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Levine share a goal: dissect and demolish 2,000 years of Christians’ disparaging portrayals of the Pharisees, the Jewish rabbis of Jesus’s time. They are the coeditors of The Pharisees (Eerdmans, Dec.), a compendium of essays drawn from a May 2019 international conference at the Gregorian University in Rome, “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal,” that brought together dozens of Christian and Jewish scholars who examined the origins and impact of slandering Jews from Jesus’ time to today.
Sievers, a Catholic priest and professor emeritus of Jewish history and literature of the Hellenistic period at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, led the conference. For the book, he teamed up with Levine, an emerita professor from Vanderbilt University, who joined Hartford Seminary in August as a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies.
The Pharisees tracks hateful portrayals of Jews “not only in scholarly works but also in the arts, including Passion plays and cinema, as well as in textbooks and in preaching,” Sievers says. “Old and new prejudices and stereotyping, which are rampant today, are based often on ignorance or sometimes on false certainties. The Pharisees have been and are victims of both. A reconsideration has to be done by Jews, Christians, and other scholars together.”
Levine, who is Jewish, encountered anti-Semitic tropes even as a child, growing up in a Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood in North Dartmouth, Mass. She recalls “friends with crucifixes on the walls and rosary beads in their hands,” one of whom said, “You killed our Lord.” She adds, “I started asking questions then, and I’m continuing to do so 60 years later.”
Levine says that for Jews, the Pharisees are “our spiritual ancestors, those who preserved the interpretations of Israel’s scriptures and adapted them for the people apart from the Jerusalem Temple. Many Christians, following certain Gospel passages, regard the Pharisees and, by extension the Jewish tradition, as lifeless, legalistic, and so toxic. After two millennia of misunderstanding and in consequence, bigotry, it’s time for a more historical, less negatively stereotypical understanding both of the Pharisees and of Jesus’ interactions with them.”
In their own chapters in the book, the coeditors each give very specific suggestions for change in teaching, preaching, and cultural presentations of the Pharisees. Sievers writes that people need to recognize “how elusive it is to know your own self, much less the historical Pharisees.”
Levine writes, “If priests, pastors, and religious educators would stop bearing false witness against Pharisees, if people in general will stop using ‘Pharisee’ as a synonym for ‘hypocrite,’ and if Jews and Christians had better knowledge of both our common roots and our distinct branches, we’d be closer to the love of neighbor and love of stranger that Leviticus and Jesus command.”
Andrew Knapp, Eerdmans’s senior acquisitions editor, says, “Ignorance and prejudice fueled anti-Semitism throughout history.” The Pharisees, which also includes an address to the 2019 conference by Pope Francis, demonstrates the “essential role of interfaith collaboration in the study of history, theology, and the practice of religion,” Knapp adds.
Cathy Lynn Grossman is a veteran religion and ethics writer living in Washington, D.C.