Pope Francis says negative image of Pharisees unwarranted

Tells conference that stereotype of Pharisee as “a self-righteous or hypocritical person” may not have concrete basis in the Gospel

Pope Francis celebrates Mass for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple in St. Peter’s Basilica, Feb. 2, 2015. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

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.


  1. Eight woes of the Pharisees are listed in Matthew. The woes mostly criticise the Pharisees for hypocrisy and perjury.

  2. Clinton R. says

    The negative image of the Pharisees is indeed warranted. While Pharisees such as St. Paul and Nicodemus were converted to Christ, there were many who were jealous and hated Our Lord, attributing His Miracles to works of the devil. Of them He said: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them…

  3. I say: the words of the Holy Father are a good antidote to the still-lurking evil of anti-Semitism among some of those who call themselves “Catholic.” The sad and disgraceful words of the beloved SSPX’s Fellay who said that the Jews are among the enemies of the Church, and words by former SSPX-er Williamson who denied the holocaust have no place in the Catholic Church. The friendliness of the Second Vatican Council documents to our Jewish “elder brothers in the Covenant”–as St. John Paul II called them–is despised by the uber-fanatics of the religion called “traditionalism.” So, the HolyFather has been sent to us to help the Church rid itself of this anti-semitic blight. God bless Pope Francis.

    • Yes, find a minuscule problem and blow up the universe over it. Isn’t that the Marxist way? A pre-ordained solution to a manufactured problem. Socialism as the universal cure-all for individual faults. The elimination of criminal law in favor of societal lock-down. Let’s deal with a “lurking evil” by disorienting the body Catholic by turning upside-down everything they ever knew or read in scripture about the grave admonishments of the Pharisees by God Himself.

      • Your premise that Catholics are “disoriented” by the Holy Father’s words is a MISTAKE. No one is disoriented, except perhaps your sort. Have you actually read what Francis wrote here? He has effectively struck at the roots of anti-semitism among those who call themselves Christian: the mischaracterization of the whole of the Pharisaical class, and using that mischaracterization to launch hatred for the Jewish people. I say, Pope Francis is unsettling (disorienting) the right sort of people. God bless the Pope! Anti-semites have no place in the Catholic Church!

  4. Manuel Jaime says

    St Paul was indeed a pharisee before his conversion. A proud pharisee, so proud that he was actively hunting Christians to arrest and kill them.

    • Does our Peronista Pope think he is some kind of theologian instead of a lefty United Nations follower? Pope Francis is doing all he can to destroy Catholic teachings in favor of his Vatican II can’t we all get along pablum.

  5. helen wheels says

    PF on the Pharisees:
    it takes one to know one ??

  6. Anonymous says

    Of course, anti-Semitism is always wrong. However, Our Lord had good reasons for reproaching the Pharisees! It is very useful, to read daily from the Gospels, and try to understand the lessons of Christ– including the lessons He taught about the Pharisees! We must seek not to be like the Pharisees, who were unkind, proud, religious pretenders, two-faced hypocrites.

  7. Anonymous says

    How about other religious historical figures, with bad reputations— such as Herod? Judas? Pontius Pilate?? Or— how about some of today’s proud, two-faced religious hypocrites — such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Cuomo– or the recent “Catholic” hypocrite governors of California (Schwartzeneggger, Brown, and Newsom)?? How about clergy who are two-faced, proud religious hypocrites on abortion and contraception, such as Notre Dame president, Fr. John Jenkins, and his mentor (who also strongly opposed “Humanae Vitae”– and highly praised Pres. Obama, when he came to Notre Dame) Fr. Ted Hesburg??

    • You’re exactly right Anonymous! What about most of the Democrat Party?

    • Danijela Brekalo says

      Right on, Anonymous. Francis should call out these modern day Pharisees, instead of picking through Catholic teachings and trying to dismantle them one by one.Is he afraid of loosing his popularity with the modern day Pharisees? Is his reputation more precious to him then the truth of the Gospel and the words of Jesus?

  8. Well, Holy Father, Jesus’ words are good enough for me:
    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Mt. 22:27

  9. Now what his favorite insult going to be?

  10. helen wheels says

    among the many examples pointed out
    by Anon (5/11 8:45 pm), Fr. Ted Hesburg
    stands out. The US govt issued a postage
    stamp a couple years ago “honoring”
    Ted Hesburg.
    “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not
    that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?
    whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world
    is the enemy of God.” James 4:4

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