Pharisees and Anti-Judaism

Modern Mormons often claim to be philo-Judaic through kinship claims and belief in a shared persecuted history. However, we have also inherited a Christian tradition of anti-Judaism which is pervasive in the church. Our insulation from larger trends in Christianity has also made us less reflective about our language about Jews and Judaism as other Christian denominations (though certainly not all) have reeled from the scandal of WWII and the role that Christian theology, supersessionism, and Biblical scholarship played in that scandal and propped up the scientific racism of the 19th and early 20th century.

Mormon anti-Judaism plays out in a number of different ways, but one of the most pernicious is the treatment of the Judaism of the New Testament, especially the Pharisaic rivals of Jesus in the Gospels. Sunday School is one anti-Jewish remark after another. In Mormon NT discussions, the Pharisees embody all that is wrong with Judaism (made worse when the Pharisees are seen as either the antecedents to or identical with Rabbinic Judaism). Jesus is depicted as the first Christian. He got rid of those silly laws. Jesus’s Judaism is maybe acknowledged, but the impact of this historical insight is rarely understood. Jesus is seen as having been born a Jew, but he died a Christian.

Mormon anti-Jewish language is used in the rhetoric for constructing “good” Mormonism. Liberal Mormons are most often guilty of depicting their conservative kin as “pharisaic,” or, too Jewish. The Jew represents what is wrong with some versions of Mormonism, a degenerate, backward form that misses the true light. But liberals are by no means the only ones guilty of this kind of language. Institute manuals, NT commentaries, and other LDS official and unofficial resources rely heavily on a particularly protestant narrative which is rooted in anti-Judaism. We need to start to be critical of the ways that we have inherited and continue to deploy such language in our self-construction and historical memory.

11 Replies to “Pharisees and Anti-Judaism”

  1. My father was raised by Romanian Jews. He joined the Church in 1950 and I remember when we went as a family to the temple in 1951. We continued to attend the Passover meal with my grandparents every year until my grandfather died. As children, we celebrated Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah with our cousins even as we ourselves were baptized, confirmed and ordained.

    Speaking as a Latter-day Saint Jew, I think you are wrong about anti-Judaism in the LDS Church.

  2. I don’t think you have much of an argument here; perhaps making a mountain out of a mole hill to sound more ecumenically politically correct. This isn’t saying you are wrong about the Pharisaic condemnations representing Jews as a whole. Perhaps it is something that should be looked at closer – as there are several different movements at the time of Jesus. In fact, there are a few Pharisees, Hallial (sp?) comes to mind, that had many of the same criticisms as Jesus.

    However, I think you will find no Christian group that bends over backwords to respect the Jews as much as Mormons. Even some influencial Jews have expressed that opinion. The Book of Mormon expresses almost outrage at anti-semetism of the kind that brought the horrors of scientific racism directed toward them. I would say that the “larger trends” of Christianity have been far behind the traditional Mormon attitudes toward Jews and even Jesus place among them. Only twenty or thirty years ago it was still considered blaspehemy or unthinkable that Jesus was ever a Jew; something that Mormon theology easily expressed was the case.

    On the other hand, I also feel those “larger trends” go way too far than acceptable. In so doing, many of them deny the very plain language of the New Testament as to the relationship of Jesus and the Jewish leadership. It would be like saying Christians had no hand in the murder of Joseph Smith and the treatment of Mormons. That would be as false as saying every Christian had a hand in the murder of Joseph Smith and the treatment of the Mormons. We might need to be more careful in our presentation of what the gospel writers said and why, but not by throwing the historical and theological baby out with the bathwater as some recent trends have tried. There WERE and STILL ARE, huge differences between Jews and Christians that are not reconcilable and even un-ecumenical.

  3. Uh, Matthew 23-24 anyone? I agree with the mountain out of a molehill comment. Jesus himself seemed anti-establishment and seemed to have no compunction about pointing out how bad the Jews were who accused him of this or that. I agree with Jetboy, and I myself go out of the way to say things like “the Jews who accused Jesus…” when discussing these folks. After all, to pin the guilt on all Jews necessarily ignores the bona-fide fact that Christianity at its inception was essentially a messianic-Jewish phenomenon.

  4. “pharisaic,” or, too Jewish

    Oh good grief. You can’t be serious. I would venture to guess that NOBODY but you in Mormonism equates the term “pharisaic” with “too Jewish”. (At least if anyone else does make this silly equation I am unaware of them.) Rather, “pharisaic” is used to mean too uptight, too rigid, too judgmental, too anal retentive, etc. While the New Testament and Book of Mormon are pretty hard on the apostate form of Judaism in the ancient world I don’t think that has translated into any special negative sentiment towards modern Judaism among Mormons at all.

  5. Geoff, that’s not exactly the point. Mormons aren’t inherently anti-Semitic, which TT aptly notes above by pointing our shared interest in Abraham and other things. What TT is getting at, I think, is that we come across sounding anti-Semitic when we discuss the NT, and that this is a point of concern.

  6. I understand David, I simply think TT goes overboard with his arguments and that this sentence:

    Liberal Mormons are most often guilty of depicting their conservative kin as “pharisaic,” or, too Jewish.

    is just silly.

  7. Modern Mormons often claim to be philo-Judaic through kinship claims and belief in a shared persecuted history.

    Doesn’t it also have something to do with certain eschatological beliefs regarding Zion? And aren’t these eschatologies those that the NT takes some pains to suppress or exclude?

  8. I have to admit that I’d never thought much about this issue until I took at Jewish-Christian relations class, and was really struck by how much of the traditional Christian rhetoric on the subject we’ve appropriated. For example, I grew up hearing about the excessive legalism of Jews, who needed to have everything spelled out for them (unlike we Christians who follow a higher law), and about how the OT God is mean and vengeful, as opposed to the loving NT God. I’ve also been more than one Sunday School class in which people expressed astonishment at the stupidity of the Jews for not recognizing that Jesus was the Messiah. And we certainly use plenty of supersessionist language.

    In addition, while it’s true that the Book of Mormon criticizes the persecution of the Jews, I find it rather unsettling to note that it also has statements that are more harsh-sounding than anything in the NT; for example, think of the assertion that the Jewish nation was the only one wicked enough to crucify their God. Nephi doesn’t pull his punches in his denunciations of the Jews. Though I do have to wonder how much his perspective is influenced by the fact that his family had to escape Jerusalem because of Jews planning to kill his father. I suspect that critiques of Jews in the Book of Mormon–like those in the NT–are probably best read in the context of an inter-family quarrel which has produced some rather heated rhetoric.

  9. I would concur with Lynnette regarding the use of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. It is also important to consider that Nephi (and Jacob, who is, if anything, meaner to the Jews in his rhetoric) are explicitly writing directly to Jews when they are making most of their statements in an attempt to demonstrate where Nephi and kin believe that Jews went wrong. They use the history of the persecution of the Jews primarily as a “wake up call.”

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