Address of the Holy Father

Dear brothers and sisters,

The history of interpretation has fostered a negative image of the Pharisees, often without a concrete basis in the Gospel accounts. Often, over the course of time, that image has been attributed by Christians to Jews in general. In our world, sadly, such negative stereotypes have become quite common. One of the most ancient and most damaging stereotypes is that of a “Pharisee,” especially when used to cast Jews in a negative light.

Recent scholarship has come to realize that we know less about the Pharisees than previous generations thought. We are less certain about their origins and about many of their teachings and practices. Your Conference’s examination of interdisciplinary research into literary and historical questions regarding the Pharisees will contribute to a more accurate view of this religious group, while also helping to combat antisemitism.

If we look at the New Testament, we see that Saint Paul, before his encounter with the Lord Jesus, counted as a reason for pride the fact that he was “as to the Law, a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5-8).

Jesus had numerous discussions with Pharisees about common concerns. He shared with them a belief in the resurrection (Mk12:18-27) and he accepted other aspects of their interpretation of the Torah. Jesus and the Pharisees must have had much in common, for the Acts of the Apostles tells us that some Pharisees joined the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem (15:5). Acts also presents Gamaliel, a leader of the Pharisees, defending Peter and John (cf. 5:34-39).

Among the more significant moments in the Gospel of John we find Jesus’ encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, one of the leaders of the Jews (cf. 3:1). To Nicodemus Jesus explains that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Nicodemus would then defend Jesus before an assembly (7:50-52) and subsequently be present at his burial (19:39). Whatever view one takes of Nicodemus, it is clear that the various stereotypes about “the Pharisees” do not apply to him, nor do they find confirmation elsewhere in John’s Gospel.

Another encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is reported in different ways in the Synoptic Gospels. It has to do with the question of the “great” or “first commandment”. In the Gospel of Mark (12:28-34), the question is asked by a scribe, otherwise not identified, who initiates a respectful exchange with a teacher. In the Gospel of Matthew, the scribe becomes a Pharisee trying to test Jesus (22:34-35). In Mark’s account, Jesus concludes by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34), thereby showing the high regard Jesus had for those religious leaders who were truly “close to the kingdom of God”.

Full text at Holy See Press Office.