Anti-semitic? The Pharisees and the Jewish people in Matthew’s gospel

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

In yesterday’s post on Matthew, I looked at some of his key themes. Today I want to develop that further, by looking at what seems to be a fairly complicated relationship between what we would nowadays call Christians and Jews. In Matthew’s context, both communities are made up of Jews, one a community that believes in Jesus as the Messiah, and one that doesn’t. Matthew’s group of Jesus-believing Jews may include some non-Jews, but his book seems mainly directed to Jewish believers in Jesus.

Matthew – page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

As he writes, Matthew seems keen to refute any suggestion that Christianity is a more relaxed approach to God’s demands for a holy life. He is quite clear that the new covenant promised by the prophets, and sealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection, is a more perfect way of obedience to God.

In the polemics between Jesus and various Jewish teachers, we probably hear an echo of arguments between Matthew’s church assembly and his local synagogue. In particular, he includes a blistering attack on the scribes and Pharisees as part of the lead-in to the final events of the gospel (Matthew 23). He narrates Jesus’s most serious disagreement with them, where he argues that in practice their way of observing Torah actually misses the point of Torah.

It is difficult for contemporary Christians to know quite how to read some of these attacks, especially now we realise the evil to which Christian anti-Semitism has led. The first point to make is that we are reading stories about inter-Jewish disputes, between the Jewish teacher Jesus of Nazareth, and other Jewish teachers with a different vision. These disputes come to us first preserved in stories retold by Jewish disciples, and then written up by a Jewish evangelist.

The second point is that the communities that repeated and shaped the stories about Jesus were also initially Jewish groups under serious pressure from their fellow Jews to conform to the majority view. They needed to defend themselves and their conviction that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and part of that defence was to show the majority vision was wrong or inadequate.

It also helps if we can break the casual link Christian tradition has made – following Jesus’ accusation – between the words Pharisee and hypocrite. The Pharisees deserve better treatment. One way to look at the historical Pharisees is to see them as a renewal group within Judaism. Like many other Jews, including Jesus, they wanted to see the coming of God’s kingdom. They therefore want to be more thorough in their Torah observance, and extend the piety practiced by priests in the Temple into the everyday life of the laity. They want to take the purity regulations appropriate to temple worship into the home. Then, they hope, God will see a renewed and purified people, and reward them by bringing in his kingdom.

Jesus is equally concerned with the coming of God’s kingdom, but believes the exact opposite. Jesus teaches that the kingdom is already coming with his ministry, and that as it comes it will make the people pure and holy. He therefore mixes with all sorts and conditions of people without enquiring about their state of holiness. The reason the Pharisees and Jesus come together and clash so frequently is they both think the coming kingdom is important, and both think the other are preventing it.

While on the subject of Christian anti-Semitism and Matthew’s gospel, I should also say a word about the most notorious passage in the gospel, read mainly as part of the Passion Gospel.

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Matthew 27:24-26

Historically, Christians have used this to blame all Jews everywhere for the death of Jesus. This used to be so common a view that the Second Vatican Council found it necessary to rebut it in its declaration on non-Christian religions.1 My own view is that Christian tradition has misread Matthew badly here.

The evangelist shapes his gospel by portraying the ministry of Jesus as being to the Jewish people before his death, and to the whole world after his resurrection. So, while he includes some stories of Jesus interacting with Gentiles,2 what he chooses to emphasise is ministry to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, both in Jesus’s own mission (Matthew 15:25) and that of his disciples (Matthew 10:6). The focus changes only after Jesus is raised from the dead, when he sends them to every nation (Matthew 28:19). In his ministry, however, he has come to fulfil the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17)

It is in this context that we must read this very difficult passage from Matthew’s passion narrative. The prophets have pointed to a new covenant, and at the Last Supper Jesus describes the cup as “the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28). In the making of the first covenant at Mt Sinai, it is ratified by Moses sprinkling the blood of the sacrifices which accompany the covenant over the people (Exodus 24:8).

Matthew believes that to fulfil prophecy (as he understands it) the new covenant must first be ratified with the Jewish people before it can be shared with the Gentiles. Therefore, fully aware of the irony of the statement, he portrays the people accepting the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice upon themselves. The covenant is ratified unwittingly by the people who are rejecting Jesus as Messiah. But now that God’s prophetic promises have been fulfilled, the covenant can finally be shared with the nations.

Of course, it also helps the fledgling Jesus movement take their gospel to the Gentile world, if they can be seen as well to absolve Rome of its responsibility for Jesus’ death. But I read the story as Matthew’s deliberate and ironic ambiguity. It is a key part of his design to show the covenant God makes with his people is no longer exclusive to the Jewish people. It is the climax of his story to show it is now one that spreads beyond a particular people to the whole world.

But for Matthew the new covenant is more like than unlike the first one. Yesterday I noted Matthew’s emphasis on the call to perfection. The Jews at Sinai, after receiving the covenant, had to recognise that it entailed all the words of the commandments. Now those Gentile nations who will receive the new covenant Matthew is describing, will have to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20). Matthew is written to summon God’s people to be Jesus’s people. They are to seek on earth to live out the life of the kingdom of heaven.


  1.  Nostra Aetate 4: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
  2. For example the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13).

2 thoughts on “Anti-semitic? The Pharisees and the Jewish people in Matthew’s gospel

  1. Pingback: Retelling the Jesus story after long meditation: John's gospel – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: A radical faith in a faithful Messiah: some themes in Paul's letters – Liturgica

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