Potentially Perilous Phrases


The commentary on “the Jews” follows the discussion about “The Pharisees” below


Two potentially perilous phrases

A number of wordings which have an anti-Judaic potential appear in the New Testament. However, two phrases, “the Jews” and “the Pharisees,” have been subject to anti-Judaic interpretation more than any others. They are scattered frequently throughout the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and Acts. The words “the Jews” appear nearly 100 times in the Gospels alone; the expression “the Pharisees” shows up over 80 times.


Not every instance is meant to be anti-Judaic

Neither phrase necessarily fosters an anti-Judaic interpretation. For example, when the “magi from the east” ask “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” (Mt.2:2) they are not making a negative comment about the Jewish people. Quite the contrary. They are expecting something sublime, glorious and world-shaking to emerge from Jewish life.

Similarly (despite its partial inaccuracy), when Mark points out that “the Pharisees  . . . do not eat without carefully washing their hands” (Mk. 7:3), he is simply explaining a Jewish custom to people who may not be familiar with it.

More often than not, however, these phrases do have an anti-Judaic potential.

In most New Testament cases, the two phrases  are used in a way that denigrates the Jewish people and their leaders directly. To modern-day listeners (including in our congregations), hearing these phrases read from the pulpit, when their context is critical or antagonistic, can easily encourage an unfavorable attitude toward Jews.




In most instances, during Jesus’ life, the Gospels describe the Pharisees as among Jesus’ strongest, most tenacious opponents. They argue with him constantly (Mk. 8:11; Lk. 5:21), “test him” (Mk. 10:2), and plot to entrap him, both in his speech (Mt. 22:15) and in his actions (Jn. 8:13). In response to Jesus’ healing ministry, some Pharisees go so far as to say that he is trying to cast out demons by the prince of demons (Mt. 9:34). At last, they conspire with others of Jesus’ adversaries, plotting to put him to death (Mt. 12:14; Mk. 3:6)

Jesus doesn’t give an inch, but responds sharply and uncompromisingly, most pointedly in his listing of Pharisees’ alleged misdeeds: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”(Mt. 23:13-29). In Matthew 23, Jesus’ words sound especially harsh. He is portrayed as calling the Pharisees–along with other Jewish leaders– “children of hell,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “serpents,” “full of plunder and self-indulgence.” And much more.

Given this very negative New Testament portrayal, even from the mouth of Jesus, it is no wonder that the Pharisees are remembered only for their supposed faults. They are among the Gospel story’s main villains.

But do they deserve this reputation? And what is the impact of this villainous characterization on our feelings toward Jews?

What scholars know about the Pharisees

We do not know all we would like to know about the Pharisees. Our sources are limited. We do know that the Pharisees at the time of Jesus had their vision and program for what Judaism should be. Jesus’ vision and program, while sometimes agreeing with parts of the Pharisees’ point of view, differed, sometimes significantly, from that of the Pharisees and other groups of his day. There is little doubt that these differences would have led to debate, argument, and even polemic–on both sides. These heated exchanges–using the highly inflated language which was the style of argument in those days–are to a certain extent reflected in the Gospel accounts of the encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees.

After Jesus’ death, the struggle continued, as is evidenced in the New Testament texts, which, of course, were not written until decades after the Crucifixion.

After the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70 AD/CE, the other Jewish movements of the time (Essenes, Zealots, Sadducees, and maybe others) were either destroyed or faded into insignificance. The Pharisees became the only Jewish “party” remaining and so were the principal opponents of the early Jesus movement. They were the major competitors with the followers of Jesus as interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures. The Gospel texts were written after Jesus’ death and, for the most part, after the Temple’s destruction. Therefore, they reflect arguments which arose after those events and which tend to depict the opponents of the followers of Jesus as opponents of Jesus himself.

In other words, the Gospels’ heightened language about encounters between Jesus and some Pharisees was provoked by the intense rivalry between those Pharisees and the nascent and quickly-growing early Church about the shape Judaism was to take after 70 AD/CE.

The Gospels “were written at a time when, sadly, Christians and Jews were beginning to experience each other less as brothers and friends and more as enemies.” (Robert J. Daly, S.J., “Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit: Four Approaches,” in Kee and Borowsky, Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (N.Y.:Continuum, 1996), p. 56.)

Pharisees who were sympathetic toward Jesus and his followers

For so long, the Pharisees have been characterized en masse as among Jesus’ fiercest opponents that it may be surprising for members of your congregation to hear about “good guy” Pharisees who sympathized with Jesus. They don’t take a highly visible role in the New Testament, but they are there.

Nicodemus, for example, was a leading Pharisee (Jn. 3:1-9) who went cautiously to Jesus at night and asked him respectful questions about his teachings. It was he who, after the Crucifixion (and with some risk to his own safety and reputation) went with another prominent Jewish leader, Joseph of Arimathea, to make sure that Jesus had a proper burial (Mk. 15:43, 45-6).

Furthermore, Luke says that, as Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem, “some Pharisees” warned him to “get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Lk. 13:31).

In the Book of Acts, we learn of another sympathetic Jewish leader, Gamaliel, “a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin” who was “respected by all the people” (Acts 5:34). When the Sanhedrin “became infuriated” at Jesus’ apostles and “wanted to put them to death” (Acts 5:33), Gamaliel made a powerful, persuasive speech, urging the other Sanhedrin members to let the apostles go–which they did. (5:35-39).

The main point here is that we should take care not to bolster the all-too-common view that the whole Jewish leadership rejected Jesus and wanted him killed, since such a view has been and still is an influential source of anti-Judaism.

Results of treating “the Pharisees” as all the same

In spite of these “good guy” Pharisees, the results of the generally negative, First Century characterization of all Pharisees has come all the way down to us in the 21st Century, influencing our language and our attitudes. In many of our dictionaries, the word “Pharisee” is defined as “hypocritical,” “self-righteous,” “outwardly but not inwardly religious.”

This very negative way of looking at the Pharisees has become imbedded in our very thought patterns. When we hear the word “Pharisee,” many of us immediately think “hypocrite,” “legalist,” “sanctimonious,” “one who preaches, but doesn’t practice.” If someone were called a Pharisee, they would not take it as a compliment.

It is all to common in sermons, both in Catholic and Protestant churches, to hear the Pharisees described as if they were “the bad guys” in contrast to Jesus and his disciples, the “good guys.”

According to many scholars, however, the Gospels’ generally unflattering portrayal of Pharisees is very one-sided and does not take into account their positive characteristics and their contribution to the spiritual life of their day.

The Pharisees in reality

The Pharisees, in fact, were a diverse group, not all of whom deserve such sweeping negative characterization. As far as we know, they were a lay movement, outside the Temple administration. They shared the goal of renewing and extending the observance of Jewish practice in their society. According to Josephus, the roughly contemporary Jewish historian, they were popular among the common people. After the destruction of the Temple, they helped the Jewish community make the transition from worship centered in the Temple to worship centered in the family in each Jewish home.

The Pharisees were the predecessors of the rabbis, who became Judaism’s primary religious leaders. They authored the Talmud, the spiritual classic still treasured in the Jewish community today. They produced extraordinary leaders like Hillel, who was admired for his brilliance and scholarship. (A famous story about him says that, when asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he is credited with answering, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.”)

Given this reality, it cannot be said of all of Pharisees that they “preached, but didn’t practice,” or put heavy burdens on people’s shoulders that they themselves were unwilling to lift (Mt. 23:3-4). This may well have been true for some Pharisees, but not all.

When preaching on passages in which the Pharisees appear, therefore, it is important to note their positive qualities and also the sympathy which some of them seem to have had for Jesus.

The generalization, “the Pharisees”?

The phrase “the Pharisees” implies that all of them were pretty much the same, but they were not. Scripture scholar Dr. Gerard Sloyan notes:

Whereas the Jewish world was taught to distinguish among its Pharisees as we are among our doctors, lawyers and businessmen, the Gospels blurred the distinctions and taught the Christian world to mistrust the Pharisees as a whole . . . The curse of Christian preaching has been to pummel the Pharisees indiscriminately as if all were like some of their sorriest specimens. (Gerard Sloyan, Preaching from the Lectionary, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg-Fortress Press, 2004, pg. 232)

Given this difference among groups, it is inaccurate and misleading to put them all in the same pot. That is why, in this website, when we come upon this phrase “the Pharisees” in antagonistic contexts, we frequently suggest modifying the text to read “certain Pharisees” or “some Pharisees.”

In sum

As a statement authorized by the U.S. Catholic Bishops said almost forty years ago: “An explicit rejection [should be made] of the historically inaccurate notion that that the Judaism of that time, especially Pharisaism, was a decadent formalism and hypocrisy, well exemplified by Jesus’ enemies.” (Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations, Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations, Recommended Programs (March 1967), 10e.)



As we mentioned at the very beginning of this article, not every instance of the phrase “the Jews” in the New Testament necessarily fosters an anti-Judaic interpretation. In many cases, the phrase is simply descriptive. There also are instances in which Jewish individuals are singled out as especially praiseworthy. Joseph and Mary, of course, are the foremost examples. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were “righteous in the eyes of God” and followed his commandments “blamelessly” (Lk. 1:6). Simeon, who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah, is described as “righteous and devout” and led by the holy Spirit (Lk 2:25-35). Other examples of exemplary Jews could be given.

Often, however, the words “the Jews” are used–most notably in the Gospel of John–to depict those who opposed Jesus vehemently and were responsible for his death.

“The Jews” in the Gospel of John
Just a few examples: John describes “the Jews” as persecuting Jesus (5:16), calling him “possessed” (8:52) and trying to kill him (5:18; 7:1; 11:53). “The Jews” agree that anyone who acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah will be expelled from the synagogue (9:22). They try to stone him (10:31). Jesus is reported as saying that their father is the devil, whose desires they “willingly carry out” (8:44) They ask Pilate to execute him (18:31) crying out, “Crucify him, crucify him” (19:6-7). When Pilate seems to hesitate, they shout, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!” (19:14-15). In John’s Gospel, it is “the Jews” who carry the main responsibility for Christ’s death.Out of this portrayal of the “the Jews” in John (and, to some extent in Acts) emerges the depiction of Jews as devils and “Christ-killers.”

How this negative characterization of “the Jews” emerged

Jesus was crucified in about 30 AD/CE. The disciples’ despair at his death was turned around by his Resurrection. They gained the vivid sense that he still loved them, forgave them and would be present with them as they went out into the world to spread the “Good News.” They told stories about him, retold his parables, recounted his sayings, testified to others about his saving power, experienced his presence once again in simple meals of bread and wine. As they spoke about Jesus, before any Gospels were written, an oral tradition about him developed.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70, the Jewish people experienced a calamity. How could one be a Jew without the Temple? One group of Jews answered that the key was now observance of the law and study of Torah — the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism. Others–e.g., those who produced John’s Gospel–answered that the key was faith in or loyalty to Jesus, the Christ/Messiah.

As each reached out to the larger Jewish community with their messages, tensions and intense arguments inevitably arose. Only then were the Gospels written down, Mark in about 70, John, the latest, in about 100. Not surprisingly, these tensions and heated debates are reflected in the Gospel stories, especially in those passages in which “the Jews” means, not the whole Jewish population of Israel, but “those Jews who reject our understanding of Jesus.” When they depict “the Jews” as Jesus’ enemies, they are writing about their own experience two generations after his death.

Why does the term, “the Jews” appear?

Why is the phrase, “the Jews” used to describe Jesus’ opponents? After all, Jesus himself, his mother, and his disciples were all Jews. Even after the Temple was destroyed, the majority of Jesus’ followers were as Jewish as their opponents. Why, then, should the opponents of Jesus be called “the Jews”?

One well-argued position among scholars is that the Greek phrase “hoi Ioudaioi,” which is usually translated “the Jews” in our New Testaments, is also accurately translated as “the Judeans” (the people of the province of Judea). Therefore, according to this theory, the opponents are Judeans, as contrasted to the Jesus movement, which was largely Galilean. This is not to suggest that there was no religious dimension to the dispute, but only that “the Jews”–as a translation of the phrase for Jesus’ opponents in John–is dangerously misleading. (See in the Bibliography the article by Malcolm Lowe, “Who Were the Ioudaioi?” in the section on the Gospel of John.)

Another plausible position is that the phrase refers to “the authorities” or “the leaders,” headquartered in Jerusalem (and thus also “Judean”)—as opposed to Jesus and his disciples, all of whom were “ordinary” Jews/Israelites, and not members of the “ruling class.” (See the writing by Urban von Wahlde, “The Gospel and Letters of John,” in the Bibliography’s section on the Gospel of John.)

Yet another approach is that of Daniel Boyarin (see the Bibliography). For him, the usage goes back to the return from exile, when the Israelite/Judaean returnees differentiated themselves from those who had never been deported to Babylon (and thus, not having experienced God’s “discipline,” and not being “real Jews.”) The returnees refused the help of the others in rebuilding the Temple and, in various ways and in various combinations, maintained the distinction down to the first century CE/AD, arrogating the name “Jews” to themselves and refusing it to other Israelites.

Each of these positions offers some help, but not solves the problem for every passage.

“The Jews” in the early Church

In the early Church, out of which came so much that is good, beautiful and true, this negative representation of “the Jews” was picked up and embellished. The very influential St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), bishop of Antioch, “doctor of the Church,” and among the greatest of Greek Fathers took it upon himself to write “Eight Homilies Against the Jews.” Calling Judaism “a disease” which has implanted itself in the body of the Church, he writes:

“They [the Jews] really are pitiable and miserable. When so many blessings from heaven came into their hands, they thrust them aside and were at great pains to reject them, The morning Sun of Justice arose for them, but they thrust aside its rays and still sit in darkness. . . . From their childhood they read the prophets, but they crucified him whom the prophets had foretold. . . . If then the Jews fail to know the Father, if they crucified the Son, if they thrust off the help of the Holy Spirit, who should not make bold to declare plainly that the synagogue is  a dwelling of demons?”

Many of the principal Fathers of the early Church wrote in the same vein, describing the Jews as a “rejected people,” collectively responsible for Jesus’ death and therefore accursed by God and condemned to a life of marginality and misery. They were to wander the world as a despised people. St. Gregory of Nyssa (331-396 AD/CE), to mention just one more of the Fathers, described the Jews as “slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies of God . . . advocates of the devil, brood of vipers . . . congregation of demons.” (Edward Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, New York: Macmillan, 1965, pg.47)

Historical impact of portraying Jews as devils and Christ-killers

This depiction of the Jews became a part of Christian preaching, art and popular teaching for centuries to come. In some countries, it led to civil and political discrimination against Jews and deadly physical attacks. Participants in the Crusades attacked Jews on their way to Jerusalem. In 1242, Louis the IX of France confiscated Jewish property to help finance his crusade; in 1243 in Paris he burned some 12,000 manuscript copies of the Talmud and other Jewish books. The Spanish Inquisition made Jews one of its targets. At the time of Columbus’s voyage to America, the whole Jewish population of Spain was expelled from the country.

Holy Week, a most sacred time for Christians, often was fearsome for the Jewish community. Often, down through the centuries, many Christians, after listening to how the Passion narratives blame Jesus’ murder on the Jews, became mobs pouring out onto the streets to harass and kill these “Christ-killers.” In connection with the first Crusade in 1096, for example, beginning with Good Friday, Christians killed an estimated 10,000 Rhineland Jews. To their minds, they were avenging the death of the Lord.

“Pogrom” is a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” The first recognized pogrom refers to anti-Jewish rioting in Odessa in 1821. This was followed by extensive anti-Jewish riots that swept the Ukraine and southern Russia in 1881-1884. During these attacks by local non-Jewish populations, Jews were raped and murdered and their property was looted. Eventually, pogroms spread to Poland, Belarus and elsewhere. Eventually, under the Nazis, entire Jewish communities were systematically massacred.

Since the genocide of the Holocaust, with its annihilation of six million Jews, is well-known, we will not say more about it here. Suffice it to say that most Christians are shocked when they learn that nearly every anti-Jewish edict in Nazi Germany–e.g., forbidding Jews from holding public office, requiring Jews to wear an identifying badge, forcing Jews into ghettos–had an exact parallel in Church laws and pronouncements. Many scholars believe that the Holocaust would not have happened were it not for the centuries of Church teaching defaming the Jews and charging them with Christ’s death.

As recently as 2004, the movie, “Sister Rose’s Passion,” tells of a Catholic nun who spent much of her life working against antisemitism. In one scene, an interviewer holds a microphone in front of passers-by on a city street and asks, “Who are the Jews?” Again and again, they replied, “They are the ones who killed Christ.”

Christian efforts to address this dreadful history

In recent years, thankfully, Christians have begun to dismantle this deadly legacy. In Catholicism, Pope John Paul II made strenuous efforts in this regard, building on the Church’s formal renunciation of the “Christ-killer” slander in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council. In a well-publicized meeting in 1997, he observed: “In the Christian world . . . erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people.” (“Speech to Symposium on the Roots of Anti-Judaism,” October 31, 1997, in L’Osservatore Romano, Nov. 7, 1997, pg. 6)

On March 12, 2000, John Paul took the unprecedented step of praying for God’s forgiveness for Christian behaviors that “in the course of history have caused these children of yours [the People of Israel] to suffer.” (“Service Requesting Pardon,” in Origins,  March 23, 2000, 647) Other Christian bodies have made similar statements and taken similar stands.

Yet the derogatory, stigmatizing texts remain in the Lectionary. Possibly no reading has done so much harm as the Palm Sunday recitation of Matthew 27:25 (in Year A) which puts in Jewish mouths, “His [Jesus’] blood be upon us and upon our children,” for it nurtured the idea, passed down by Christians over the centuries, that Jews admitted that they were responsible for the Crucifixion and, therefore, the Christian shedding of Jewish blood could be justified

Today, very few laypeople will know this shameful history and its dreadful impact on the Jewish community. Few preachers ever address it in  their homilies. Yet an uninterpreted reading of antagonistic or polemical verses containing “the Jews” from the pulpit can do nothing to foster better Jewish-Christian relations. Just the contrary.

One scholar of Christian-Jewish Relations asks this pertinent question: “How can the church take responsibility for its sacred scriptures so that the gospel is not put in the service of hatred?” (Dr. Christopher M. Leighton, director of the non-profit Institute for Christian-Jewish-Studies, Baltimore, MD, in Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity in the 21st Century, NY: Crossroad, 1994, pg. 14).

Some ideas on how to respond to this ugly history and its impact

1.  Modify the wording of the reading

Reduce the possibility of an anti-Judaic interpretation by using a modifying phrase before “the Jews,” such as “some Jews” or “certain Jews.” OR, replace the phrase with what it actually means in the context of the passage, e.g., “the leaders,” or “the officials,” or “Jesus’ opponents.”

2.  Point out that there is no warrant for the assertion that all Jews of Jesus’ time rejected him

After all, his mother and father, his original disciples and others of his followers were all Jews. Whereas it is indisputable that some members of the Jewish community rejected Jesus, many others did not. Even John’s Gospel recounts many instances of a positive Jewish response–of various kinds and degrees–to Jesus and his message. The following are just a few examples:

Matthew 5:1: Jewish “crowds” gather to hear the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 14:13; 15:30-32; 19:2; 20:29, and 21:8-9: All refer to “crowds,” “great crowds,” “a very large crowd” and “a vast crowd,” who follow Jesus or assemble when he teaches. All, or most of the crowd, of course, was made up of Jews.

Mark 2:15: “Many [Jewish] tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.”

Mark 14:1-2: “The chief priests and the scribes sought to arrest him . . . [but they demurred] for fear that there may be a riot among the people.”

Luke 21:38: “All the people would get up early each morning to listen to him.”

Luke 23:27: (On the way to Golgatha): “A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him.”

John 4:45: “ . . . the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast.”

John 6:15: After Jesus feeds the five thousand, the people want to make him king.

John 7:31: (In Jerusalem) “many of the crowd began to believe in him.”

John 12:10-11: “The chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.”

3.  Use your sermon to raise consciousness

Point out how the phrase, “the Jews,” is a generalization that brings to mind, not individual people, but an amorphous throng. From generalization, it is a short step to stereotyping, i.e., attributing negative characteristics to a whole group of people, who then can be treated with contempt, discriminated against, or persecuted.

Note how stereotyping Jews as “Christ-killers” has come down through history, strengthening anti-Semitism, fostering prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish people, giving ammunition to bigots, manipulative politicians and dictators and, in the extreme, contributing to the torture and death of millions of Jews by purveyors of hatred. Note that surely John and the other New Testament writers–followers of Jesus, the Lord of love–did not intend to unleash upon the world such defamation and horror.

A minister might say something brief and simple, such as: “As we hear the phrase ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel reading, it is important to remember that it does not refer to some group different from and hostile to Jesus. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew, as were Mary and Joseph, all of his family and all the Apostles. We should not let words like “the Jews” take on an anti-Judaic connotation in our minds, nor contribute to anti-Semitism. Instead, we might see this as an opportunity to acknowledge and give thanks for the Jewishness of Jesus and for the Jewish roots of our own Christian faith.”


For further ideas on how to address this subject, please see “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” on the left sidebar of this website’s Home page.

See also, in the same location, “ESSAYS ON NEW TESTAMENT ANTI-JUDAISM”



One Response to Potentially Perilous Phrases

  1. The Rev'd Margaret Weiner says:

    Thank you so much for this important work! I just found you through the website FaithNotFault.org This is so much overdue and in my denomination, is being addressed at only a slower-than-slothlike pace so far.

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