Test yourself: are you more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees?

September 4th, 2014 in Behaviour. Tags: , , , ,

Helping the homeless

It was done more than a year ago but I’ve only just seen it – a survey by the Barna Group about whether US christians more resembled Jesus or Pharisees.

Like Hans Solo said: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

[Note: A reader has pointed out that using Pharisees as a point of comparison may be unfairly stereotyping them. I think the comparison may be fair based on the views expressed by Jesus in the gospels. But I want to make very clear that in referencing this survey, I am not seeking to criticise Jewish people or infer that all Pharisees or all Jews are self righteous in a bad way. The main criticism is of christians, including myself.]

Actions and attitudes

The study recorded christians’ responses to questions on actions and attitudes. And found that about half gave answers that were more pharisaical, and only 1 in 7 gave answers judged to be like Jesus. Those in the middle were slightly more likely to have good actions but lack a ‘Christlike’ attitude.

More committed and less conservative christians were slightly less likely than conservative and other christians to have pharisaical tendencies.

These results confirm other research that found that 5 out of 6 young non-christians say they know a Christian personally, yet only 1 in 6 say the lifestyles of those believers are noticeably different in a good way.

Test yourself

Of course the validity of these conclusions depends on the validity of the questions. So here are the 20 questions, so you can judge for yourself – and judge your own answers.

Actions like Jesus:
  • I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.
  • In recent years, I have influenced multiple people to consider following Christ.
  • I regularly choose to have meals with people with very different faith or morals from me.
  • I try to discover the needs of non-Christians rather than waiting for them to come to me.
  • I am personally spending time with non-believers to help them follow Jesus.
Attitudes like Jesus:
  • I see God-given value in every person, regardless of their past or present condition.
  • I believe God is for everyone.
  • I see God working in people’s lives, even when they are not following him.
  • It is more important to help people know God is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.
  • I feel compassion for people who are not following God and doing immoral things.
Self-Righteous Actions:
  • I tell others the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules.
  • I don’t talk about my sins or struggles. That’s between me and God.
  • I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.
  • I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.
  • I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than those outside the church.
Self-Righteous Attitudes:
  • I find it hard to be friends with people who seem to constantly do the wrong things.
  • It’s not my responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves.
  • I feel grateful to be a Christian when I see other people’s failures and flaws.
  • I believe we should stand against those who are opposed to Christian values.
  • People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.

I’m sure there would be many who’d disagree with these measures of Christlikeness and self-righteousness, but I wonder whether their views are based on the church or on Jesus?

How do I rate?

To my chagrin, I don’t rate so well. My attitudes would be more on the Jesus side than the Pharisees’ side, but I score poorly on Jesus-like actions. I believe in doing the things listed, but at this time in my life, I’m not doing them much.

What do you think?

I’d be interested in comment from christians or non-christians.

  • Do you agree with the criteria?
  • Do you agree with the results?
  • How do you rate?

Next post I’ll have a go at what we might all do to change this.

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon via Compfight cc

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  1. Thanks. I’d be interested to hear more of your reaction. Also, please hang around because the next post, maybe 2, will be about what we might do to do better. (Still thinking about that.)

  2. Hi Ryan, that is a big question and one I feel uncertain about.
    On the one hand, I believe war is contrary to the teachings of Jesus and rarely accomplishes good. There are often better responses. I’ve read that some of the alleged atrocities may have been falsely reported. And I can’t help feeling western nations are awfully selective about which evils they resist (mostly in the Middle East, but also in the old Yugoslavia and elsewhere) and which they allow to continue (e.g. North Korea, Zimbabwe a few years ago, etc). I’m also suspicious of the US because it is almost always the country that responds, and in same cases (e.g. the invasion of Iraq) its motives were devious or even mistaken and resulted in more deaths and a worse result than was there beforehand.
    But on the other hand standing watching brutal genocide of defenceless civilians, and doing nothing, is not really defensible either.
    I’m inclined to think in this case that the present situation is partially a result of the previously failed US policy in Iraq, showing that war was definitely wrong back in 2003, but that wrong choice has made it necessary to make another terrible choice now. I think Obama has learned the lesson, and is being much more guarded than Bush was then, doing the best he can in an intolerable situation he inherited from his predecessor. So arming Kurds and Iraqis may be the lesser of all evils.
    Australia is almost irrelevant in this except in giving some legitimacy to this being an international action.
    But I have the terrible feeling that these actions won’t solve the problem, and in fact nothing will solve it, except perhaps evacuating everyone out and allowing IS to live in splendid isolation. And I can’t see that happening. Not a very satisfactory answer, I know, but I really don’t know enough to say any more.

  3. This test, and others like it, perpetuate anti-Semitic, negative stereotypes of Pharisees (whom almost all Jews are today). This test also implies the Pharisees are a type of Christian, whereas they are of course a type of Jew. Using the term “Pharisee” as an insult is no better than using the term “Jew” as an insult.

  4. Hi Aiden, thanks so much for this note. I’m really sorry that my post felt insulting to you. In my defence, I am just as critical of christians and Australians, two groups that I am part of.

    I wonder whether you’d be interested in discussing a little more? I’m interested to understand what you think.

    Do you think all criticism of Pharisees or Jewish people is anti-Semitic? Do you think the gospels and Jesus were anti-Semitic?

    Do you think there is/was a difference between Jesus’ approach to ethics and religion and the approach of the first century Pharisees? Do you think modern day Jews have similar beliefs and attitudes to the first century Pharisees?

    How would you advise a christian like me to comment on first century Jewish beliefs and practices without falling into any comments you would object to?

    I am genuinely interested in hearing what you have to say here. It isn’t my intention to argue, though I may not agree either. 🙂


  5. The comments on this quiz do not criticize the Pharisees; I was referring to the test itself. Criticism of Pharisees is not necessarily anti-Semitic; many Jews were critical of the Pharisees, as the Pharisees were of other sects. However, using the term “Pharisee” as an insult, or to describe a type of Christian, is anti-Semitic.
    There is certainly a difference in Jesus’s approach to religion than that of the Pharisees, similar to the distinction between modern Judaism and modern Christianity, hence the debates between them. Most modern Jews have very similar beliefs to the Pharisees, as the believe in the authority of the Oral Torah, the resurrection of the dead, and so forth, as opposed to other sects such as the Karaites. Generally, it is advisable not to use the term “Pharisee” pejoratively, or to describe Christians, but rather it should be used to describe Jews.

  6. Thanks for sharing that with me. I certainly don’t want to be offensive to anyone.

    When I read the original article again, I didn’t see anything in there that looked anti-Semitic. Rather it seemed that the writer was drawing on the historic debates and differences between Jesus and the Pharisees, as recorded in the gospels, to say followers of Jesus ought to be more like Jesus and less like the Pharisees. The point being that the Pharisees (as represented in the gospels) tended to be more legalistic or conservative about the law than Jesus was. If we are following Jesus, we too ought not to be too legalistic. That seems to be a reasonable thing to do.

    But this does raise a couple of questions for me.

    (1) Do you think there is a way to make that comparison and that point without being what you feel is anti-Semitic?
    (2) There were some Pharisees who were less legalistic. For example, from what I read, Jesus tended to take a similar line to Rabbi Hillel on many mattersw, and I think he was a Pharisee. So maybe Jesus mainly argued with the followers of other rabbis. Do you know anything about that?

    Anyway, I’m glad you have raised the matter. I will see if I can put some explanation into this post to clarify things in response to your comments. Thanks.

  7. The Pharisees indeed placed a greater emphasis on the law than Jesus did. However, they did not place emphasis only on the law, but considered other values also very important. Furthermore, several of the “Pharisaical” characteristics listed here are not actually characteristic of the Pharisees. For example: “I don’t talk about my sins or struggles.” In the Talmud, several instances of rabbis sinning, or being tempted to sin, are recorded. Furthermore, the treatment of the terms “Pharisaical” and “self-righteous” as synonymous implies that all Pharisees were self-righteous.
    It is true that Hillel the Elder was lenient on many matters, as opposed to Shammai the Elder, but his views were not comparable to Jesus. Hillel certainly believed in the importance of the law as much as Shammai, but he simply differed as to what it was. Furthermore, Hillel’s emphasis on moral rules such as the Golden Rule was not disputed by other Pharisees. Many of them teach similar lessons.
    Hillel also exemplified a characteristic which is often thought of as of Jesus: not rejecting immoral people. There are various stories about people contemptuous of Judaism whom Hillel converted.

  8. Hi Aiden, thanks for continuing the discussion – I appreciate it.

    I think we both agree that the Pharisees weren’t all the same, but varied over time and amongst themselves. The gospels do show some pharisees in a good light, but generally they are viewed negatively. We have to assume that (1) the writers generalised and (2) maybe it was mostly the more legalistic pharisees who engaged with Jesus. (A bit like most people who engage on social media and blogs are strong supporters or strong opponents, and not many in the middle.)

    But you seem to agree that Jesus was more liberal in some respects at least than Hillel was, though that also had similarities. And he (Hillel) was more liberal than many/most pharisees. So it seems fair for the gospel writers to present the majority of pharisees as not agreeing with Jesus.

    I’m thinking then that the main issue is with the word “self-righteous”. Would you agree? What do you think about Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14? Do you think that is a fair representation, from Jesus’ viewpoint, of a pharisee?

  9. One of the problems with this test is that it appears to equate the legalism of the Pharisees with self-righteousness. The Pharisees certainly were legalistic, but this has nothing to do with self-righteousness.
    I do not think that Jesus’s views can be compared to those of Hillel as Jesus rejected Rabbinic interpretation and possibly all of Jewish law. Hillel, however, though his views differed from those of other Pharisees on many points, agreed with them on the major aspects of Jewish law, and certainly on the validity of the tradition. As for many of the Pharisees disagreeing with Hillel, it is true that they were divided into those who supported the stricter views of Shammai and those who supported Hillel. Eventually, the consensus was in favor of the views of Hillel.
    As for the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: it is true that some prayers are in thanks for having done well (such as the prayer after studying Torah), but many prayers, particularly on Yom Kippur, emphasize our sinfulness. Therefore, the prayer established by Pharisees also includes prayer like that attributed to the tax collector.

  10. Hi Aiden, it seems we have zeroed in and agree on the main issue here. As you say: “One of the problems with this test is that it appears to equate the legalism of the Pharisees with self-righteousness.”

    I wonder if we can agree, or not, on this: In the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee in the temple, do you agree that the behaviour of that fictional Pharisee was “self righteous”? I understand and accept your point that not all Pharisees were necessarily legalistic and self righteous, but I’m wondering whether you accept that this one was.

    Then we might further ask ourselves, what does self righteousness mean? The dictionary says: “having or characterized by a certainty, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior.” Would you accept that definition, and would you think that is a danger that anyone trying especially hard to by holy (like the Hasidim) could fall into?

    Is Jesus’ characterisation of that fictional Pharisee therefore not unreasonable, would you say? Does the gospel writers’ general (not total) negative view of Pharisees have some reasonable basis? I’m not trying to put words into your mouth, but wondering where we may part ways on this.


  11. Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is depicted as being self-righteous. However, we cannot conclude from this that all, or most Pharisees were self-righteous. Though they believed that they knew what was right, they recognized that everyone sins. Self-righteousness is in fact a danger for people who are attempting to be holy, but I do not think that Hasidim are generally self-righteous (though they do consider the ideal Hasidic practice to be morally correct).
    There are many statements made by the Pharisees about avoiding self-righteousness. For example, Hillel says, “do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” Similarly, Joshua ben Prahiah says, “judge everyone in their favor.” Undoubtedly some Pharisees were self-righteous, as some people always are, but they generally were not.

  12. Hi Aiden, I’m not sure where to go with this now. I can understand your objection, and I can see some validity in that. I am happy to be more careful in things I say about Pharisees, just as I would be careful to avoid racial stereotyping. I appreciate the opportunity to learn that. And I will put a note at the start of this post to clarify my sensitivity to the issues you raise.

    But I also feel that you may make more of the objection than may be fair. I’ll just make two brief comments.

    The dictionary defines “self righteous” as “believing that your ideas and behaviour are morally better than those of other people”. I think that probably DOES describe the Pharisees as depicted in the gospels, though to be fair, it probably describes me, and maybe you too. After all, if I thought my ideas were wrong, I should change them. Now there may be connotations of being smug or proud that this definition doesn’t pick up, but still I’m not sure the term is as critical or unfair as you may think.

    I think the other issue is that I presume you are Jewish, whereas I am christian. It is obvious that we are going to understand the gospels, Jesus, the Pharisees and the disagreements between them in a different way. You yourself have said that Jesus was more liberal than Hillel, who was in turn more liberal than Shammai. That means Jesus, and hence all christians, would be in disagreement with the Pharisees generally, presuming there weren’t many if any that were more liberal than Jesus and in the same teachings. Fundamentally, the Pharisees accepted the Torah, and the rest of the Tanakh, Jesus certainly accepted them too, but said he was coming to fulfil them and set up a new covenant. Thus the Pharisees thinking they were right in God’s eyes is a key barrier to accepting the new covenant. So in a robust manner which I gather was quite normal for first century rabbis, Jesus critiqued the old way the Pharisees represented.

    So I respect your view and I appreciate the manner in which you have expressed it. But I think we are going to disagree about the extent that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were self righteous and on the wrong path.

    Do you have more to say on this matter? I have appreciated the opportunity to discuss, and I would enjoy discussing wider issues with you if that was possible. Thanks.

  13. If self-righteousness is so defined, Jesus is no less self-righteous than the Pharisees, since he certainly believed that he was acting correctly (and the same could be said for adherents of most religions). It is unfair to attribute self-righteousness specifically to the Pharisees, particularly when they believed that their rulings were subject to debate and change. Whether the Pharisees should have accepted the “new covenant” remains a matter of debate. Though rabbis often debated then and now, they never insulted each other, and certainly not to the degree that Jesus did in the Woes of the Pharisees.

  14. Hi Aiden, I have appreciated this conversation for it has helped me think through the issues you raise. I will certainly be more careful in the future in the terms that I use (and the articles that I quote). And I have already said what you say here, that anyone who believes they are “right” about an ethical question may be called “self righteous”.

    But I think I still have to say that, in my reading of the gospels, there is a significant difference between Jesus and most of the Pharisees, while he was somewhat in agreement with Hillel and some who followed him. Importantly, they were part of the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenant (I’m not sure if I have expressed that correctly, but I trust you will know what I mean) that was built on Torah, and particular ways of applying it. Jesus emphasised the kingdom of God over Torah (which he still valued), forgiveness over justice and law, and a new covenant over the “old” one. (Some historians would contest some of that, but that is my reading.)

    The Pharisees were criticised, not always for their adherence to Torah (some were praised for it – Luke 10:25-28 and other places), but for not recognising him as Messiah, that God’s time of change had come in him, and the kingdom or reign of God was being established in a new way.

    I wonder how much of that you would accept as historically factual, even if you believe he was mistaken?

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