I recently published a short piece on the Sadducees in Bible Odyssey.  It was fun to do, if for no other reason than it gave me an opportunity to stake out my (controversial) position on the origin of the Sadducees and Pharisees.

One thing about that piece that gave me trouble, though, was the framing.  Pieces for Bible Odyssey are not supposed to be encyclopedia articles; I was asked to lead with something gripping and preferably contemporary.  In the end I settled on Pope Francis’s recent use of the term “Sadducee” in order to castigate other Christians.

While my piece was not the place to go deeply into the Pope’s decision, I did indicate there some unease with this rhetorical strategy.  “Pharisee, pharisaic” has often been used as an insult, although as the graph below shows the frequency of its use has been relatively stable over the last century and maybe even dipping in the past few decades.  And that’s a good thing!  Taking a term that referred to a real, historical group of Jews and making it stand for something negative is offensive and potentially dangerous.   Its use has helped to promote negative stereotypes of Jews and one would hope that there would be some sympathy for retiring the term altogether.


Yet against this trend, Pope Francis – who by all measures is a liberal fighting what seems to many to be the “good fight” – strangely has decided to double-down on this language:

According to Vatican Radio, the pope looked at why so many people came to follow Jesus during his lifetime and not the many religious authorities at the time.

The Pharisees, the pope said, overburdened the people with laws and requirements that could often be contradictory and, therefore, “cruel” because it was impossible to adhere to every single moral rule.

The Sadducees, he said, “had lost the faith” and used their religious authority to strike “deals with those in power: political power and economic power. They were men of power.”

The Zealots called for “revolution to free the people of Israel from Roman occupation,” he said, and the Essenes were monks who “were far from the people, and the people couldn’t follow them.”

These four groups “were the voices that reached the people, and none of these voices had the strength to warm the people’s heart,” the pope said.

But with Jesus it was different, he said.

Jesus wasn’t a Pharisee upholding moral laws based on unsound reasoning; he wasn’t “a Sadducee who conducted political business with the powerful, nor a guerrilla who sought the political liberation of his people, nor a monastic contemplative. He was a pastor,” the pope said.

Elsewhere too he has appropriated the terms referring to ancient Jewish sects to castigate fellow Christians.  He has made these groups into abstract categories, each denoting a unique negative trait.

The problem with this strategy is two-fold.  First, it makes historical groups of real Jews, formerly living, breathing human beings among whom were both righteous and wicked, and makes them into nefarious caricatures.  Second, in the aggregate the Pope’s language distances Jesus from his Jewish roots.  Jesus becomes unlike each of these Jewish (negative) exemplars, and what he finally is – a pastor – seems less connected to the Jews.

Christians have always struggled with their relationship with Judaism.  The results of this struggle have often been tragic.  Now, fifty-one years after Nostra aetate, it is clear that the Catholic Church has turned a corner.  That is what makes the Pope’s language, if not quite worrisome, at least puzzling.