Is 'Pharisee' an antisemitic slur?

I ran across the following tweet:

The Pharisees were the progenitors of modern Judaism, and the maligning of them in the NT is an antisemitic mischaracterization

I replied:

Wait, the synoptic Gospel writers were supposed to know that the faction Jesus criticized would ultimately win out, so criticizing that faction would eventually be a slam on Judaism as a whole?

I got back this response:

No one’s arguing that the Gospel writers should have known anything in advance.

But w the hindsight of 1900 years, most of which were chock-full of Christian antisemitism, we should be able to see NOW that using Pharisee as a slur is bad. Especially when Jews are telling us now.

We’ll skip past the ‘no one’s arguing’ part, because that’s neither here nor there, AFAIAC.


  1. Do Jews identify with the Pharisees, think of themselves as the Pharisees, or anything along those lines?

  2. Do Jews actually get referred to as ‘Pharisees’ by people trying to crap on them? I’ve certainly heard lots of antisemitic insults over the years, but I’ve never heard ‘Pharisee’ thrown at them.

  3. Do Jews regard ‘Pharisee’ as an antisemitic slur?

This caught me totally off guard. If I’ve ever heard anyone referred to as a Pharisee (and I have, quite often - even done so myself many times), it’s always been conservative Christians of a moralistic/legalistic bent.

Also, the “especially when Jews are telling us now” part - they are?? Maybe I just haven’t been listening in the right places. So I thought the Dope might be a good sounding board for this question.

ETA: Mods, feel free to move this if appropriate. I wasn’t sure whether GD or IMHO made more sense.

Two Jews, three opinions, but…

I doubt it, but they’re certainly a part of the heritage of modern Rabbinic Judaism.

It’s more like, “You know who else was Jewish? Those Pharisees.”

I dunno. I feel like it’s more about using the Bible to legitimize and reinforce existing hatred of Jews than as a ‘living’ slur, if that makes sense? I would be bemused if somebody referred to me as a Pharisee. I’d expect to hear it in the context of, “Let’s be like Jesus, who was totally cool with criticizing those treacherous, hypocritical, bad bad bad Jews.”

I suppose it’s true that the New Testament is only giving a negative portrayal of the mainstream Jewish establishment of the time rather than every Jew in the world. So maybe it’s not anti-semitic, but only anti-mainstream-semitic?

This is irrelevant. If I use “gay” as a slur, that’s homophobic even if the person I’m slurring is not, in fact, gay. The implication of the way I use the word is that homosexuality is shameful or disgraceful.

Simlarly if I criticize a conservative Christian as a Pharisee, the implication is that Pharisaism is reprehensible. Whether that’s antimsemitic depends on whether or to what extent we identify modern Judaism with Pharisaism.

Well, that’s one of the key questions: to what extent do contemporary Jewish persons identify with Pharisaism? Do Jewish children learn about the Pharisees in their religious education when they’re children, or when preparing for their bar/bat mitzvahs?

They’d either be portrayed as the good guys, or be ignored. But if they’re portrayed at all, are they significant players, or only rate a brief mention, like someone like Zerubbabel would in Christian Sunday school?

Reform and went through a Reform education. I never heard the word Pharisee until I had to read the New Testament in college. If someone called me a Pharisee, I’d have no idea wtf they meant.

No, they don’t. The existence of the various sects that developed over the centuries is far too tiny a detail for children to learn about, let alone the names of those sects. It’s the kind of thing that a talmudic scholar would know, or an academic whose field was Jewish History or such. But not children.

It’s like asking if an American schoolchild knows the names of the various factions in the America of the 1700s. I know about the Federalists and the states-rights views, but I’m sure there were many other such groups. And that was less than 300 years ago.

I suppose one could identify a connection to the old “Jews (i e., the Pharisees) murdered Jesus” slur, but does that continue to exist?

That apart, I only know of the term “Pharisees” as applying to the “whited sepulchres” - the church/institutional establishments more concerned with “correct” ritual and the power/reputation of the institution than the delivery/demonstration of its professed message.

But then, I’m not Jewish and have no experience of being on the receiving end of anti-Semitism.

I’ve never heard of the term Pharisee to be meant in an anti-Jewish way, but rather, an anti-legalism, anti-hypocrite sense.

But Christian children DO learn about Pharisees, often quite a bit. Like, vacation Bible school is 20% Pharisees. So I think a legitimate question is also "do those children think of “Pharisee” as a synonym for “Jew”? I think probably quite a few do. So I’d avoid using it.

However, I do think there may be a distinction when it’s clearly an allusion to a specific story. Calling out someone for performative holiness as “reminiscent of Jesus and the Pharisees” seems more an allusion to a whole narrative than using a long-dead ethnic term. I don’t know how else one would refer to the story. I guess the question is if Jesus was inappropriate for generalizing all Pharisees based on behavior that was presumably not universal?


Yes, it absolutely continues to exist, sadly

I’ve never understood why - a believer must ipso facto believe the crucifixion was God’s will, as Jesus said: no crucifixion=no resurrection.

Humans have never needed much of an excuse to despise or murder someone different from them.

[Warning: wild speculation on the origins of antisemitism follows]

But honestly, a lot of the early roots of antisemitism seem like they stem from political reasons. Jewish people believe in one God that they place above all else. If you are the Seleucids that’s highly disruptive to the process of Hellenization that you are trying to encourage throughout the Empire.

Fast forward a bit and that’s why the Romans persecuted the Jews (and also that sect of weird Jews who are now calling themselves Christian). Of course, as it turned out, Christianity’s more universal and prostelyzing message made it far more dangerous, and within a few centuries the faith took over the Roman Empire.

From the perspective of the Empire, though, little has changed. Now the social bond that holds the Empire together and grants it legitimacy is Jesus, not Jupiter (though the early Church did lots to ensure that it was a “soft landing from Paganism”, shall we say). But the fact that there’s a group of people refusing to worship the way the State wanted them to was still a problem. Of course, you’re gonna need a new excuse for persecuting the Jewish people under a Christian framework than under a Roman Pagan one, and Christianity’s actual teachings don’t lend themselves to that very well. Hence, the “Jews Killed Jesus” idea developed.

I’ve never considered it an antisemitic term. The term is usually used in the context of religious corruption. More specifically, it usually relates to interpreting scripture in a way that is favorable to their agenda of power and then controlling the believers through that favorable interpretation. Anyone who is a problem is a “heretic” and is dealt with accordingly. That is, of course, “the will of God”.

Along those lines, was Judas Iscariot maybe a hero, as in the Gospel of Judas? Yet his very name is used as a slur meaning “traitor”. (The Jewish religion is named after a completely different Judas, of course, but it fits in with name-association)

This is a strange claim as all the authors of the New Testament were Jewish. Even the ones where there is debate AFAIK no mainstream religious or secular analysis has proposed non-Jewish authorship for any of the books bible (there might be some crazy anti-semitic 19th century theories that say the Jews had nothing do with the new testament, but those have never been anything but crazy out there rants).

But even when that slur was very prevalent in Christian community it was not associated with the Pharisees. I’ve only ever seen the Pharisees used as a criticism of other Christians for being too legalistic.

Me too. Although to be fair, I can only think of one example where I’ve ever seen it:

I’m an Orthodox Jew, and I definitely consider the Pharisees to be my ancestors, they are the strain of Judaism that survived the destruction of the second Holy Temple and proceeded to record the Talmud and pass on its teachings through the generations, until today. Even though only Orthodox Judaism still considers the Talmud’s Pharasaic teachings to be completely binding, the other modern strains of Judaism split off from the Pharasaic strain, they weren’t directly descended from the rival sects of that era, such as the Sadduccees.

That said, I never considered the Christian use of “Pharisee” to be an anti-Jewish slur, nor have I ever been called one (to my knowledge) with such intention. It was always my understanding that it was used by Christians to refer to people who prioritize legal technicalities over greater moral principles. When the authors of the Christian scriptures used the term “Pharisee” as an insult, it was not mainly non-Jews who were being praised for not being Pharisees, but Jews belonging to the other sects.

That being said, people in recent years have started taking offense at terms that I never before thought were offensive, so I might be behind the curve on this one.

I don’t know… it was always made pretty clear when I was a kid that there was a difference between normal Jews to which Jesus and many other New Testament characters belonged, and the Pharisees, who were basically a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou bunch who were very concerned with appearance/demonstrative religion and legalistic rule following, to the point of letting it get in the way of more important things - justice, mercy, etc…

And generally when I’ve heard the word used to refer to someone, it has always been more in that sense- someone who’s more concerned that appearances are maintained, the rules followed, and who does good deeds to be seen doing them, rather than for their own sake, than anything having to do with their religion, per-se. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard it used as a more general slur for Jews in general.

But I don’t doubt that some children/people could suffer from poor comprehension or whatever, and just wind it all together- Pharisees, scribes, etc… and take away a negative message about Jews, as opposed to specific groups within that particular faith. Just like we see today, where people on this very board make snide and hostile comments about “Christians” when they really mean Evangelicals/Fundamentalists, as if Evangelicals, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics and any other Christian denomination have much in common beyond the very most basic religious underpinnings.