Using artificial intelligence, Dutch photographer Bas Uterwijk created this hyper-realistic rendering of what Jesus might have looked like. (Photo: Bas Uterwijk)

Topics: September 2022, Spirituality | Theology

Was Jesus a Pharisee?

A long tradition of anti-Semitism has taken Christ out of context


At 12 years old, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem after his parents went home to Nazareth. He spent his time in the temple, and “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). The Gospels record him and others around him listening, learning and asking questions. Discussing the Torah and how it should be interpreted and lived out was a very common action among the Pharisees, whose practice would eventually become the basis for Rabbinic Judaism.

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We understand that Jesus was Jewish, but when we disconnect him from the Pharisaic tradition he was clearly part of, we disconnect him from his community and his family, from his ancestors and his place of birth. The western Christian church separates Jesus from the educated Jews of his time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Those leaders are seen as the villains in every story.

Jesus has been Christianized, stripped of his roots. This same western tradition has also stripped the women in the Bible of their power and position. Women, for instance, supported Jesus financially: Martha opened her house to Jesus (Luke 10:38), while Joanna and Susanna supported him “from their means” (Luke 8:3). We make this an extraordinary thing. These women who supported Jesus would later hold positions of authority in the emerging church.

Paul writes their names in his letters, including that of Junia, who, along with Andronicus, was “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). Early theologians from Origen to Peter Abelard recognized Junia as a woman. During the Reformation, however, she became Junius, a man. In the Second Temple period, women owned property. In the medieval period, the church made women property.

The early church worked to separate itself from Judaism, changing the Sabbath and the celebration of resurrection. The later church would continue on this path, vilifying Jews and expelling them from Europe with clockwork regularity.

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That, too, is the context for the church’s ability to acknowledge Jesus’ Jewishness while disconnecting him from the educated Jews who were his peers. We imply that he wasn’t that kind of Jewish, not like them. Jesus was a “good one.”

As an Indigenous woman, I can tell you that this hits me in a particular way. From the moment of contact, the church has seen Indigenous peoples like Second Temple Jews. We are incomplete and in need of teaching and correction. This is, of course, what drove missions and residential schools and the conception of good Indians who adopted Christianity and bad ones who refused it. I have been told that I am not like other Indians, that I’m smart or articulate — a “good one.”

What if the church saw us as complete and capable of relationship and not just correction? What if it asked what good news we had for them? It wouldn’t need to vilify the ones who disagree with it; it wouldn’t need to make us the bad ones. 


Patty Krawec ( is Anishinaabe from Lac Seul First Nation. She lives in Niagara Falls, Ont. Her first book, Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future, will be released by Broadleaf Books in September and is excerpted in Broadview’s September 2022 issue.

This column first appeared in Broadview’s September 2022 issue.

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  • says:

    First of all, is that picture rendering what Christ looked like, showing a white man?

    If Christ was a Pharisee, He was a lousy one. He was a great Rabbi, but not a Pharisee.
    The Pharisees lived in Jerusalem, Christ tried to avoid Jerusalem at all costs. From Biblical readings He only was in Jerusalem during Passover, this means He was a very good Jew.
    The Hebrew word for Pharisee means "one who separates himself". He didn't do a very good job at that, in fact Christ took it to the other extreme, eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.
    A Pharisee went to school, it is assumed Christ worked for His father earning a living as a tradesman. (Mark 6) (Please note that it says "is this not the [carpenter's] son?" They note Mary as the mother, but not Joseph as the father.)
    There is no mention that Christ went to Rabbinical school.
    Pharisees lived under the Torah and traditions, Christ (as God) lived under His own authority. This marveled the common people and frustrated the religious leaders.
    The Pharisees made life a burden living under the law, Christ took our burdens by offering a free gift.
    Christ started a new movement that disregarded a heavily guarded sect, this meant trouble for the Pharisees.
    Finally, Christ claimed He was God.
    The writer missed a story, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were Pharisees. (John 19 and Mark 15) In fact both were members of the Sanhedrin.
    Does the author not seem to notice that the Man who started Christianity was Christ? Christian meaning Christ's disciples. (Acts 11:26)

    Why the move to compare Christ being a Jew to women in the New Testament? Is comes across as an agenda.
    Women in the New Testament supported the movement, but there is never a mention of them holding authority.

    There is some Greek interpretations that are lost in Romans 16:7, punctuation placement changes the meaning of the verse. I would not argue that Junia is a woman. But what if the verse read, "highly regarded by the apostles."? The passage is not clear.
    Regardless, an apostle is someone who is commissioned to carry out the instructions of the agent that sent them.
    It appears that they were sent as a husband and wife team. They were not "leaders" of the Church if they are commissioned.
    The authors point of women being property in the medieval period, men were as well, they were called "serfs" to soften the blow.
    Oddly enough in spite of persecution, the Jews thrived during the medieval times, they were great middlemen between the warring Christians and Islamic groups. The Jews made terrific gains in manufacturing and trades, much the same as the Christians did during the Industrial Revolution.
    Unfortunately, Christianity can be pirated to ungodly means, it doesn't mean that "Christians" are all in it for their own pride and status.
    Having said that Christianity does make an exclusive claim and many find it offensive, there is only one way to Heaven and that is the belief that Christ was God, and that He died and rose again on the third day to defeat eternal death. "I Am the Way the Truth and the Life". There is no other Spiritual or physical way to get to Heaven. (God's Words not mine)
    This is true for me, the "down-and-outer" sleeping in the gutter, or Prime Minister Trudeau. It is also true for the Native Americans, blacks, LGBTQ and the Hindus to name a few.

  • says:

    Jesus' mission and message needs to be placed within the context of debates between Jewish leaders of the time, Hillel and Shammai included. He debated Torah often with Pharisees who lived throughout the land. He extended Torah to include attitude not just actions (Matthew 5: 21-48). He challenged his followers to live a life of righteousness more perfectly than did those who were members of the Pharisaic movement. He encouraged his followers to follow Pharisaic teachings (Matthew 23:3) but not to follow them. in their self-righteous and self-important attitudes. Jesus' issue with Torah was not Torah itself but the way in which some people observed it.

    Commanded by God, Torah obedience is a lifestyle, a combination of values, choices, decisions and actions. To simply say Torah was a set of rules is a stereotype, no more reflective of Torah than saying faith is just assent to belief propositions. Both are wrong and contribute nothing to understanding.

  • says:

    @gary - I think you are confusing Pharisees with Sadducees. the Pharisees lived in the Jewish triangle north of the Sea of Galilee, the Sadducees lived in Jeruselum. Jesus likely wasn't a part of bet sefer talmud and bet midrash because He was born out of wedlock. Though it is probable that He did go through bet sefer just like everyone else. However, the gospels do record people asking what semikhah (authority) Jesus taught under, meaning that He likely did have semikhah, meaning He could have studied under a rabbi, though we don't have evidence of it. You can't teach the way Jesus did without semikhah.

    Secondly, Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. This means that He kept the law perfectly (the ones He could keep anyway, not the laws regarding women, etc. since He is not a woman). The ones that He did criticize such as the shabbat were part of the halakhah (oral law), which had generated endless debates between the school of Hillel and Shammai in the first century such as the debate of rescuing a donkey on shabbat, which Jesus addressed. He didn't come to start a new movement. He didn't start a new tree. The gentiles were grafted onto the existing tree. The gentiles are the wild olive branch, grafted onto a cultivated olive tree, an absolutely crazy picture for those who tend to olive trees. In fact, first century church was still very much Jewish. Jesus came to correct people's understandings. The Pharisees kept the law perfectly, but they were missing the heart. The Sadducees were absolutely corrupt and unrepentent.

    Thirdly, your claim that Christianity makes an exclusive claim is indeed offensive. The "I am the way..." claim was made by the Greek goddess Athena, which would have been well known in the first century. In fact, the seven I AM statements in the Gospel of John were all made by false gods and goddesses in the first century. The two audiences in John's Gospel - the gentiles and the Jews, would have both been familiar with each of the seven statements and linked them to their respective backgrounds (Torah versus the false gods), and John was trying to show them that all these things that they are looking for are found in Jesus. In other words, God wasn't trying to say "if you don't have the right theology you don't get to go to heaven, too bad for you", but God meets each of us where we are, whether its stooped in our idol worship, or anything else, and shows us that He is the answer, not these false idols.