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Just posted to the homepage, our February 21 interreligious issue. Anchoring it is a four-part exchange on Catholic-Jewish dialogue, “Getting Past Supersessionism,” with contributions from Steven Englund, Jon D. Levenson, Donald Senior, and John Connelly. From Englund’s opening piece (subscription):

I believe that to foster a more productive Catholic-Jewish dialogue we need to pose two further questions, one backward-looking and one forward-looking. The first is “What harm have we done to the Jews?” and in addressing it I shall take a longer view than the three admittedly crucial decades covered by Connelly in his book. My reflections will present us with a contemporary situation rather more problematic than we tend to acknowledge—one that calls for stronger medicine as we answer the second question: “What more can we do to undo that harm?”

To begin with: How do we portray the ur-conflict, the “impossible relationship” between an old immovable object and a new irresistible force as they collided in antiquity? What shockwaves still reverberate from that Big Bang that was, for so long, an intra-Jewish religious schism, turning on the refusal of most Jews to adopt their neighbors’ view of the messiahship of Jesus? At the start we should observe that while Christians were wrong to see the Jews as “willfully blind”—the refusal to accept a contested claim is not willful blindness—it was nonetheless true that most Jews did not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

It would be hard to exaggerate the shock and distress this turn of events produced in the first Jesus-followers, as gradually but inevitably there developed a widening separation and deepening conflict between them and their fellow Jews. From the outset, the Jesus movement included talented apologists and evangelists who created a corpus of oral and written stories and myths about Jesus Christ—the basis of future dogma and doctrine—that inscribed the rejection of Christ as foreshadowed in the Jews’ earlier rejection of their covenant with God. In time the refusal to acknowledge the Messiah became equated with an outright denial of God and the forfeiture of all claims to address God as father. The viewpoint dispossessed the Jews as sole interpreters and guardians of their own sacred writings. Thus, Justin Martyr: “These words were laid up in your scriptures, or rather not in yours but in ours for we obey them, but you, when you read them, do not understand their sense.” Or as a modern Jewish theologian, Ben Zion Bokser, summed up the charge: “Authentic Judaism is really Christianity.”

See the entire exchange on Catholic-Jewish dialogue here (subscription).

Also in the new issue, Charles R. Morris on the paradoxes of income inequality; George M. Marsden on Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicism; Eve Tushnet on Kathryn Edin’s and Timothy J. Nelson’s Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City; and Rand Richards Cooper on Spike Jonze’s Her. Full table of contents right here.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Such an important topic as the Jews perhaps needs its own thread. It will always remain incredible how 7 million Jews were killed just because they were Jews in a Europe which was mostly Christian. Secondly, astonishing also are those  who still believe it was just or those who are not aware that it happened. I agree with Englund that the Anti-Semitic writings in the church set up such a tragedy. And to think that Benedict XVI would have no problems restoring the prayer for the Jews in the liturgy. Englund maintains that acknowledging that the Jews might be right in rejecting the Messiah would be a great way to atone for all the suffering the church has caused for the Jews throughout the ages. Is that the only way to make amends?

Somehow the disrespect for Jews remains a problem withing the church. 

I will depart from Englund where he maintains that the Pharisees got a raw deal in the NT. Even Catholic scholars are revising the way they look at the Pharisees. I disagree. I understand the Pharisees because their successors, the bishops, manifest the same attitude. It is a question of power corrupts. 

Prejudice towards Jews remains a problem. It is like the Latin Mass though not as atrocious. . Since it was done for centuries it must be right. The answers are not easy. Maybe an active campaign throughout the church would help. 

Bill, the scholarship on the Pharisees exists. You can read it. The primary sources for the Pharisees, such as they are, are there (e.g., Josephus, the New Testament, the rabbis) are there. I do not think that you will do any of this reading, because I think that you are unwilling to relinquish the Pharisees as a rhetorical tool for use in talking about a wholly unrelated group, the bishops. (for the only way you can continue to speak of the bishops as the successors of the Pharisees is by fully avoiding learning anything about them). I take some comfort in my belief that other Christian readers of the Bible are more open to increasing their knowledge.

I don't get it. We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God. We believe that it's not just true for Christians but true, period. So everyone who does not recognize Jesus as the Christ is mistaken, no? Far be it from me to advocate forced conversions of or killing those who do not convert or otherwise being prejudiced against those who are not Christians, but if listening respectfully to people from other religions  (or to atheists) is predicated on a willingness to not believe in the Good News, then I don't understand how that can work. 



I think Professor Levenson shares your puzzlement.

Abe, As usual you do not reproduce the words of Josephus but refer to his book. you give no evidence other than your own word..... Then in characteristic fashion you go ad baculum, ad hominem to ad absurdum. Out of your own mouth are you judged. Just chill. 

Bill, there was no ad hominem in what I wrote. You observe that there is a growing (if not full-grown) consensus among scholars that the New Testament presentation of the Pharisees is biased, yet you choose to ignore this scholarship because it clashes with your preferred way of understanding the bishops. What exactly is it that you would like for me to provide evidence for? That Josephus et al provide alternatives to the New Testament’s presentation of the Pharisees? Shall I likewise prove to you that Goodnight Moon provides a survey of a bunny rabbit’s bedroom? The material is there: take and read.

Allow me to point out an irony to you, Bill. You lament the lingering anti-Semitism in Catholic discourse on Judaism, but the choice you make concerning your perception of the Pharisees is part of that discourse. You say that the bishops are the successors of the Pharisees, but the fact is that the rabbis claimed that position for themselves; the Judaism fostered by the rabbis was developed under the impression that it was in some ways a continuation of the Pharisaic project. This means that when you denigrate the Pharisees, you denigrate those whom the rabbis lionized as models of what Judaism should be like. You think that the term “Pharisee” is an epithet useful for insulting bishops, but the collateral damage of that sort of rhetoric is that it reinforces Christian perceptions of Jews as hypocrites and legalists.


I never said all the pharisees were reprehensible. I do not criticize the position. Just those who served it poorly. By your argument one could not criicize Catholic clergy either because that would be prejudicial. Bishops are lionized also. Does not mean they are necessarily good. Same with Pharisees. Clearly Jesus was displeased with the religious leadership at the time. And he named them. Apparently the Pharisees were a large part of that criticism. He also praised particular Pharisees. You might say that this was the prejudice of the writers. They were not perfect and they reflect the experience of the community they wrote about. That does not mean that their experience of the Pharisees are not accurate. 

In any event it is a matter of exegesis. Not prejudice. Jesus usually gives the Pharisee as someone who neglects the spirit of the law.  Here is a case where the respected leader is not justifed, whereas the depised official is justified. 

"The Pharisee who goes up to the temple to pray represents the model of strict religious observance, while the tax collector can say only, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (18:13). Nevertheless, the humble prayer of the tax collector—who would have been suspected of dishonesty and disloyalty to the Jewish people—is heard by God, whereas the Pharisee’s list of his own spiritual achievements is rejected as not being a prayer at all. Jesus’ lesson here is “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14).


Harrington, Daniel (2011-08-30). Jesus: A Historical Portrait (Kindle Locations 1058-1063). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition. 

Bill, the point is not that you can't criticize the Pharisees (frankly, we know so little about them, that any sustained effort at criticism would be an exercise in awkwardness). The point is that you shoudn't use "pharisee" as a byword for hypocirite or corrupt religious official (which is precisely how the term is used in Christian rhetoric, and is precisely how you use the term when you apply it to bishops). Do you truly not understand the the New Testament's representation of the pharisees is primarily rhetorical, and not historical? If you say it is a matter of exegesis and not prejudice, then you need to take the rhetorical and social contextual dimensions of the text into account--and that means not accepting without criticism what the gospels say as being straight reporting. So, for example, Harrington's little analysis tells us about the basic rhetorical thrust of that section, without saying anything about what pharisees were really up to.

Abe, I am willing to refrain from using the word if it offends Jews. But even Josephus confirms some things that the NT talks about. Josephus notes the conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees:

"It was this Jonathan who chiefly irritated him, and influenced him so far, that he made him leave the party of the Pharisees, and abolish the decrees they had imposed on the people , and to punish those that observed them. From this source arose that hatred which he and his sons met with from the multitude: but of these matters we shall speak hereafter. What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side. But about these two sects, and that of the Essens, I have treated accurately in the second book of Jewish affairs."Josephus (2012-10-14). Antiquities of the Jews (p. 468). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

Although Jesus sided with the Pharisees on the resurection he apparently went after them on the things they imposed  that were not in the Law of Moses. So there appears support here even from Josephus. We cannot so easily conclude that things are rhetorical when they well may be historical. 



What does that section from Josephus tell us in particular that supports the way the Gospels depict the Pharisees? That they were in dispute with the Sadducees? That they were proponents of oral Torah? Those are pretty basic components of any account of the Pharisees. The gospels do not simply present jesus going after the Pharisees “on the things they imposed that were not in the Law of Moses.” (I wonder if you think Jesus didn't try to impose things not in the law of Moses? Or that anyone can read the Bible withe an eye toward applying it to life without “adding something”) I think you should be able to recognize the viciousness of the rhetoric employed in the Gospels (typically in the mouth of Jesus) directed toward the Pharisees. I don't really get the point of your last statement about the rhetorical versus the historical. Are you saying that, historically, the Pharisees were hypocrites? That just brings us full circle to the question of how your determine that. If it is on the basis of the gospel depiction, then you again run smack into the question of the rhetorical nature of your evidence. Are you saying that, historically, Jesus really did speak about the Pharisees in that manner? Well, in that case you then you have a historical case of the employment of rhetoric.

I don't judge an ancient text for employing slanderous rhetoric. (what would be the point?) Sects in competition with one another were inevitably going to talk smack about each other. I do, though, think that there are moral implications to how contemporary people appropriate and adapt the rhetoric of ancients, especially when that rhetoric is impacted by centuries of water under the bridge (such as, for example, Christian antisemitism).

It is amazing to me that you almost put me to the point where it looks like I am defending anti-Semitism. I acknowledge that the Gospels have some anti-Jewish remarks. Especially john. Yet the writers were Jews so that should be considered. Clearly Jesus had problems with all the religious leaders at the time. I don't really think Josephus paints a pretty picture of the Pharisees. He describes their power and politics. But there is not much admiration there. 

But what I object about your responses is that you give an opinion all the time. Without giving the words and reasoning on ancient texts and writers. 

Well, yes, Bill, I think that you repeatedly employ a rhrtoical trope that is implictly anti-Semitic. I do not think that that means you are anti-Semitic; I think that it means that when you talk about Pharisees, you are demonstrating carelessness and an unwillingness to critique your own approach. And that's what's at issue: your rhetorical use of the material, contemporary Christians' use of the material. The originators of the material had their own context: you do not share it, and you cannot use their rhetoric without considering its wider implications.

And, seriously, you know how to internet, Bill. I have no intention of quoting blocks of primary source material here. You are obviously capable of locating the material from Josephus. he point is not that any of these texts are unreservedly enthusiastic about the Pharisees (though the Mishnaic material basically is); the point is that the material should quite handily destabilize any uncritical reliance on the gospel account as , well, the gospel truth.

As an addendum (and final note), let me just toss this out as a take-away: Using "pharisee" as a synonym for religious hypocrite is something that Christians do constantly, and it is really irritating. Think about updating your bag of tricks.

Abe, still your opinion without any backup." What you gratuitously assert I gratuitously deny." You do not add to the coversation. You stop it because you are dismissive instead of dialoguing. It looks like I know what is in Josephus. While for you it is hearsay. Because you are lazy, without facts, I am "good at internet."  All you have is opinion---that is a bag of tricks. You did not read any of the articles in Commonweal. You chose to be superficial about the use of the "Pharisee" as if your opnion is true. The articles were reasoned and well referenced. Your words were like something from the corner bar. Until you can come up with facts you cannot be taken seriously. . You wrote: " I do not think that you will do any of this reading,.." The facts are that I did the reading while you did not. That is hubris.

Is this to be the whole conversation about the entire complex of issues raised in the set of articles in the current edition of Commonweal?  I found them very challenging, and am hoping for some illuminating discussions from people better trained than I to help me understand how a sinful man in the 21st Century should adress the theological and social issues between Christians and Jews.

On the other hand, maybe the heat of the argument over a single point, indeed over whether such a single point is significant, beautifully illustrates that, and why, there remain such probelms.  We have only language with which to express our understandings and beliefs.

Mark L.

The irony is that the gospels give us substantially more facts about the Pharisees than Josephus does.

Mark L, 

There has been so much progress. It is not so much the religious message that divides us as much as the human behavior. There is just no excuse that the official condemned the Jews as second class or lower and prepared the way for all the atrociities. The wounds are still fresh. Hardly seventy five years since the Shoah. It has only been 50 years since the great Vatican II. Progress has been immense. Yet as the four articles bring out, we have a ways to go. If we learn to love the other matters will take care of itself. When the church of dogma lets the church of the Good News take over all things are possible. 

Bill Mazzella,

Here is something you should consider. The Pharisees did not come into prominence until after the destruction of the Temple.  In Jesus' day the Sadducees were the prominent party.  One can reasonable ask whether Jesus entered into controversies with the Pharisees.  It is very likely that the view of the Pharisees in the Gospels comes form the gospel authors and not from Jesus.  So that the  Pharisees do get a bum rap in the Gospels.  They happend to be very pious, conscientious, Jews who tried to practice their religion impeccably.  You need to give them a break.


All thing are possible, we are taught.   Presumably, we Christians shall be led by the Holy Spirit.   And yet:

Why did the guidance of the Holy Spirit not suffice during the two thousand prior years?  The Gospel is no different today.  Is it not likely that the human behavior we decry was mediated by the religious messages?  Are we confident that the old messages have disappeared?   I certainly am not. 

I suspect that I need to spend much more time listening to our Jewish brothers ad sisters speak from the heart about how they see the world, and less time listening to myself talk about Christianity.  I cannot see any usefulness at all to my own spiritual journey coming from contemplation of supersession, or concern over another person's unwillingness to acccept Jesus as Messiah.  I can see good reasons to better understand Judaism's emphasis on justice, equality and freedom on Earth in our own time, whether or not I shall achieve salvation in Eternity.

Mark L


 "It is very likely that the view of the Pharisees in the Gospels comes form the gospel authors and not from Jesus."



I appreciate your weighing in as I know this is your field. Although the Pharisees were not prominent at the time of Jesus they were still a powerful group and as Josephus says the masses believed in them. Why would Jesus not encounter such a group especially when it is such a theme of the gospels that internal trumps the external? Or are you suggesting that the Gospel writers differ with Jesus. Isn't it one thing to say that Jesus did not say this or that or to say that Jesus differs from the Evanglists on this? 


" The Pharisees did not come into prominence until after the destruction of the Temple."


Could you give more specifics supporting the statement above? Are you saying that Josephus is only talking about the time after 70AD? He certainly talks about them being very powerful before that.Further, I am not saying that there were not sincere Pharisees. 


I wonder if the fact that Rabbinic Judaism and really all Jews,  stemmed from the Pharisees drives the movement to rehabilitate the Pharisees. 





Apropos of nothing, yesterday I stayed at the Leo House in Manhattan and saw copies of both Commonweal and American magazine in their lounge.

However the issue of Commonweal was dated from early January and the postage was, I think, addressed to "Sisters of St Agnes". Maybe some of them stopped there and left their copy of Commonweal behind when they left.


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