Pharisees and religious authority

There was a religious group in Israel around the time of Jesus. It played an important role in the contemporary theological and legal climate. Its teachings were very influential on later Christianity and Judaism. However, Jesus didn’t like that group. Knowing this and nothing else about them, most Christians proclaim that the Pharisees were hypocrites.

The logic is simple. Jesus was God. God can’t be wrong. Therefore anything Jesus says is true and requires no further investigation. Chapter 11 of Luke describes his attitude. A Pharisee invited him to dinner. He expressed surprise when his guest didn’t wash his hands before eating. Jesus proceeded to launch into a tirade against his hosts, calling them “full of greed and wickedness” and claiming they “neglect justice and the love of God.” A legal scholar pointed out to Jesus that he was tarring a bunch of people with a broad brush, and Jesus then added legal scholars to his rant. In other words, he burst into a rage like a five-year-old because he was asked to wash his hands before eating.

Substitute “Catholics” or “Baptists” for “Pharisees,” and you might get a better picture of what Jesus was saying. That is, if he actually said it. We don’t know how much, if any, of the Gospels is factually accurate. His tirade against the Pharisees is rather uncharacteristic, though his driving the money-changers out of the Temple shows a similar spirit. He may have had a burst of temper, or the author of Luke may have invented the story.

People aren’t always consistent, and if you consider Jesus a human, you can acknowledge he was wrong there while admiring other things he said. But if he’s God, you have to turn off your mind and accept everything he says as true. Your evaluation of a historically important religious group becomes off limits to reason. Religious authority damages people’s minds and pushes them into irreconcilable conflict by requiring its followers to accept its evaluations.

There is a direct link between Jesus’s denunciation of the Pharisees and institutional Christian anti-Semitism. The Pharisees set much of the direction for later Jewish traditions. Antisemitism has used the language of denouncing “Pharisees,” letting the term stand for Jewish religious teaching as a whole. It’s far more politically correct to denounce “Pharisees” than “Jews.”

Jesus claimed that the Pharisees “neglected justice,” but in this case it was Jesus and the people blindly echoing him who have neglected it. Justice requires examining the evidence and thinking, not denouncing everyone an authority figure denounces.

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