‘The Pharisees,’ edited by Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Levine – A Brief Review

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” If your upbringing was anything like mine, then perhaps you heard those words spoken from the pulpit from time to time. In my home church, it was usually uttered by some fiery evangelist directing his ire at people using an NIV or NASB or RSV or NKJV or any translation of the Bible that didn’t read “King James Version” on the spine.[1] If the context of those words, taken from Matthew 23:13ff, was ever given, it was done so in passing before the pulpiteer moved on to the central thrust of his sermon. And never were we offered historical context, specifically an examination of who the Pharisees were based on all our available ancient sources. Instead, what the canonical Gospels reported concerning the Pharisees was (pun intended) taken as gospel. Consequently, for much of my life I had a one-sided view of the Pharisees, and it was only when I encountered historically informed critical scholarship that I began to understand not only the polemical context of the Gospels’ language but also the socio-historical context of the Pharisees themselves.

Yet navigating those contexts can be difficult. Thankfully, a recent volume edited by Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Levine offers interested readers a guide to the Pharisees. Published in 2021, the 506 page The Pharisees contains over two-dozen essays by a diverse and noteworthy group of scholars. As Sievers and Levine note in the preface (pp. ix-xviii) the individual pieces are revised versions of papers presented in 2019 at a conference hosted by the American Jewish Committee in conjunction with the Pontifical Biblical Institute. [2] On the final day of the conference, Pope Francis himself addressed the attendees, and his remarks can be found in the Appendix of the volume (pp. 441-444). Such ecumenical cooperation is admirable, especially given the troubled historical relationship between Christianity and Judaism. 

The Pharisees covers a wide range of topics. To open the volume, in ch. 1 Craig Morrison examines the name “Pharisee” and investigates its ultimate etymology. He surveys the ways in which its etymology has been discussed in lexicons (pp. 6-8), encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries (pp. 9-11), and in more scholarly circles (pp. 11-14) including commentaries (pp. 14-17). In the end, Morrison recognizes that figuring out where the name “Pharisee” came from is perhaps moot: “Though the name Pharisee had an original lexical meaning, today that meaning is lost” (p. 18). Our focus should instead be on “how the name is used in particular texts and genres and by different authors” (p. 19). 

Other essays in The Pharisees cover historical questions surrounding their mysterious origins (ch. 2), the difficulties created by archaeological evidence related to ritual purity (ch. 3), supposed anti-Pharisee rhetoric in the literature of the Qumran community (ch. 4), and Josephus’s portrayal of the Pharisees in his corpus (ch. 5). In ch. 6, Paula Fredriksen, a scholar whose many works have influenced me significantly, looks at the apostle Paul and his purported relationship to the Pharisees. After examining the Pharisees in the works of Josephus and the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, she writes, “We come, finally, to Paul, the only self-identified Pharisee. Boxed in by later tradition, the historical Paul is hard to see” (p. 125). She goes on to note the ways in which centuries of misunderstanding (not to mention, poor translation) have created a version of Paul that is at once anachronistic and eisegetical. 

Space does not permit a full consideration of every essay in the volume, as there are many that stand out (at least to me): Jens Schröter on the relationship of Jesus and the Pharisees (ch. 12), Matthias Skep on how early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus of Rome understood and used the Pharisees in their works (ch. 14), Randall Zachman on the Pharisees in the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin (ch. 18), Angela La Delfa on artistic depictions of the Pharisees (ch. 19), and Adele Reinhartz on “The Pharisees in Film” (ch. 21). Particularly helpful was Amy-Jill Levine’s contribution on how ministers and teachers should address the subject of the Pharisees (ch. 24). She discusses the “cultural tone deafness” exhibited by many who unwittingly promote anti-Semitism in their rhetorical depictions of the Pharisees (p. 407). (See my fiery evangelist in the first paragraph of this review.) She advocates for a more historically informed reading of them, writing that “when the historical context is insufficiently emphasized, corrections to the [Gospel] text’s negative presentation of the Pharisees may be insufficiently emphasized as well” (p. 410). And this is not the only guidance she offers. Christian preachers and teachers would do well to purchase this volume for Levine’s essay alone. 

As someone whose education was rooted in conservative Christian traditions, traditions that often avoided discussions surrounding the history of the Pharisees or refused to even consider that their depiction in the canonical Gospels produces more heat than light, The Pharisees is a vital addition to my library. It functions as a crash course on the history and reception of this ancient Jewish sect that is both readable and scholarly. It should appeal not only to those interested in Second Temple Judaism but also for those who want to better understand the complex relationship Jews and Christians have had, a relationship that was strained (in part) due to misunderstanding of the Pharisees. 

[1] For a sneak peek into my childhood and its relationship to the KJV (i.e., Ruckmanism), see part 9 of the introduction to my ongoing series “(Re)Considering Christianity: A Skeptic Looks at the Christian Religion.

[2] A decade prior, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, the predecessor of Pope Francis, declared that year to be the “Year of St. Paul.” One of the products of the pope’s declaration was the creation of a volume on the apostle Paul written by various contributors including Jewish scholar Mark Nanos who wrote an essay entitled “Paul and Judaism.” This brief but helpful essay can be found in Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism, Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), 173-177. 

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