By Larissa I. Lopez
On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the foundation of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Pope Francis held an audience today, May 9, 2019, with the Professors and students of the Institute and with the participants in the Conference “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Inter-Disciplinary Revision.”
The Conference took place at Rome’s Gregorian University from May 7-9, and was organized by the said Institute. Taking part in it were Catholic, Protestant and Jewish experts from Argentina, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Low Countries and the United States. Pope Francis didn’t read the prepared address; he handed it out to the participants and greeted them all. Here are some of the ideas and extracts included in his text.
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Pontifical Biblical Institute
In his address, the Holy Father recalled the foundation of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, created by Saint Pius X, to be “a Center of Higher Studies of the Sacred Scriptures in the City of Rome, to promote with the greatest possible efficacy the biblical doctrine and studies related to it, in keeping with the spirit of the Catholic Church” (Apostolic Letter Vinea Electa, May 7, 1909).
The Pontiff also pointed out that the Institute has worked since then to be faithful to its mission and has contributed to promote academic research and the teaching of biblical studies for students and future Professors, who come from some 70 countries.
Over the last years, the Institute has intensified its collaboration with Jewish and Protestant experts.
The Holy Father highlighted the objective of the Conference: “to understand the accounts, at times polemical, on the Pharisees in the New Testament and in other ancient sources. It also addresses the history of the erudite and popular interpretations between Jews and Christians.”
As Pope Francis pointed out, despite the fact that for many Jews the Pharisees are their spiritual ancestors, the founders of Rabinic Judaism, for Christians and the secular society, this word is often used to refer to a hypocritical person.
Such interpretations have “fostered negative images of the Pharisees, even without a concrete basis in evangelical accounts. In the course of time, this view has often been attributed by Christians to Jews in general.”
Importance of Study
According to the Holy Father, recent studies demonstrate that we now know less about the Pharisees than those that preceded us. Therefore, he stressed that “the inter-disciplinary research on these literary and historical questions concerning the Pharisees, treated in this Conference, will contribute to acquire a more truthful view of this religious group, and will also help to combat anti-Semitism.”
Jesus and the Pharisees
The Bishop of Rome demonstrated with examples of the New Testament that, although “Jesus had many discussions with the Pharisees on common concerns,” they also shared questions such as faith in the resurrection and aspects of the Torah. In fact, narrated in the Acts of the Apostles 15:5 is the fact that several Pharisees joined Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem.
The Pope also pointed out figures, such as the Pharisee leader Gamaliel (5:34-39), who defended Peter and John, and Nicodemus who defended Jesus in the assembly (John 7:50-51), and was present at His burial (19:39).
Moreover, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus refers to a Pharisee scribe, saying to him “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (12:34), manifesting again His appreciation of these religious leaders.
To Know One’s Neighbour
In this connection, Pope Francis referred to the dialogue between Jews and Christians and the need to know one’s neighbour to love him. “Indeed, to love our neighbours better, we need to know them and to know who they are, we must often find the way to overcome old prejudices. Therefore, your Conference, relating creeds and disciplines with the intention of reaching a more mature and precise understanding of the Pharisees, will make it possible to present them in a more appropriate way in teaching and in preaching.”
Finally, the Holy Father hoped that the work of the participants would have “ample resonance within and outside the Catholic Church, and that your work may receive abundant blessings from the Most High or, as many of our Jewish brothers and sister would say, from Hashem.”
Today the Pope also addressed about 500 people, members of Rom and Sinti populations, who took part in a prayer meeting in the Vatican this morning. Later in his day he met with others from the Diocese of Rome. ZENIT will bring you his full remarks from both in the near future.
In the meantime, here is a translation of the Pope’s prepared address for the encounter with the Pontifical Biblical Institute.
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The Holy Father’s Address
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I receive you with pleasure on the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and I thank the Rector for his kind words. When Saint Pius X founded the “Biblicum” in 1909, he gave it the mission to be “a Center of Higher Studies of the Sacred Scriptures in the City of Rome, to promote with the greatest possible efficacy the biblical doctrine and studies related to it according to the spirit of the Catholic Church” (Apostolic Letter Vinea Electa, May 7, 1909: AAS 1 , 447-448).
Since then, this Institute has worked to remain faithful to its mission, including in difficult times, and it has contributed enormously to promote academic research and teaching of biblical studies and fields related to them for students and future Professors who come from some 70 countries. Cardinal Augustine Bea, for a long time Rector of the “Biblicum” before being created Cardinal, was the main promoter of the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, which laid the new basis for inter-religious relations, particularly for Jewish-Catholic <relations>. Over the last years, the Institute has intensified its collaboration with Jewish and Protestant scholars.
I welcome the participants in the Conference “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Inter-Disciplinary Revision,” which intends to address a specific and important question for our time, and is presented as a direct result of the Nostra Aetate Declaration. Is objective is to understand the accounts, often polemical, regarding the Pharisees in the New Testament and in other ancient sources. In addition, it addresses the history of erudite and popular interpretations between Jews and Christians. Among Christians and in the secular society, the word “Pharisee” often means in several languages a “hypocritical” or “presumptuous person.” However, for many Jews, the Pharisees are the founders of Rabinic Judaism and, therefore, are their spiritual ancestors.
The history of the interpretation has fostered negative images of the Pharisees, including, without a concrete basis, in evangelical accounts. And often, in the course of time, Christians have attributed this view to Jews in general. In our world, these negative stereotypes have become, unfortunately, very common. One of the oldest and most damaging stereotypes is, precisely, that of “Pharisee,” especially when it’s used to put Jews in a negative light.
Recent studies acknowledge that today we know less about the Pharisees than what previous generations thought. We are less certain of their origins and of many of their teachings and practices. Therefore, the inter-disciplinary research on literary and historical questions concerning the Pharisees, treated in this Conference, will contribute to acquire a more truthful view of this religious group, and will also help to combat anti-Semitism.
If we analyze the New Testament, we see that Saint Paul affirms that before knowing the Lord Jesus, one of his reasons for pride was the fact of being “as to the law a Pharisee”(Philippians 3:5).
Jesus had many discussions with the Pharisees about common concerns. With them He shared faith in the resurrection (See Mark 12:18-27) and He accepted other aspects of their interpretation of the Torah. If the Book of the Acts of the Apostles assures that some Pharisees joined Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem (See 15:5), it means that there must have been much in common between Jesus and the Pharisees. The same Book presents Gamaliel, a leader of the Pharisees, who defends Peter and John (See 5:34-39).
Among the most significant moments in John’s Gospel is Jesus’ meeting with a Pharisee called Nicodemus, one of the Jews’ leaders (See 3:1). Jesus says to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). And Nicodemus defended Jesus before an assembly (See John 7:50-51) and was present at His burial (19:39)). Whatever the way we consider Nicodemus, it’s clear that the different stereotypes about the Pharisees cannot be applied, and they don’t find confirmation in any other part of John’s Gospel.
Another meeting between Jesus and the religious leaders of His time is narrated in different ways in the Synoptic Gospel. It has to do with the question of the “great” or “First Commandment.” In Mark’s Gospel (See 12:28-34) the question is asked by a scribe, not identified in any other way, who establishes a respectful dialogue with his teacher. According to Matthew, the scribe became a Pharisee who tried to put Jesus to the test (See 22:34-35). According to Mark, Jesus ends saying: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (12:34), which indicates the great esteem Jesus had for the religious leaders who were really “close to the Kingdom of God.”
Rabbi Aqiba, one of the most famous Rabbis of the second century, heir of the Pharisees’ teaching, indicated the passage of Leviticus 19:18: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” as a great principle of the Torah. According to tradition, he died a martyr with the Shema on his lips, which includes the Commandment to love the Lord with one’s whole heart, soul and strength (See Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Therefore, to the degree that we can know, he would have been in substantial harmony with Jesus and his scribe or Pharisee interlocutor. In the same way, the so-called Golden Rule (See Matthew 7:12), although in different formulations, is attributed not only to Jesus, but also to his most elderly contemporary Hillel, generally considered one of the principal Pharisees of his time. This Rule is already present in the Deutero-Canonical Book of Tobias (See 4:15).
Therefore, love of neighbor is a significant indicator to recognize the affinities between Jesus and His Pharisee interlocutors. Without a doubt, it constitutes an important basis for any dialogue, especially between Jews and Christians, also today.
In fact, to love our neighbors better we need to know them, and to know who they are, we must often find a way to overcome old prejudices. So your Conference, relating creeds and disciplines with the intention of reaching a more mature and precise understanding of the Pharisees, will make it possible to present them in a more appropriate way in teaching and in preaching. I’m certain that these studies, and the new ways they will open, will contribute positively to relations between Jews and Christians, in view of an ever more profound and more fraternal dialogue. I hope it will find ample resonance within and outside the Catholic Church, and that your work may receive abundant blessing from the Most High, or, as many of our Jewish brothers and sisters would say, from Hashem. Thank you.
 S. EUSEBII HIERONYMI, Commentarii in Isaiam, III, 8: PL 24, 119.
 Sifra on Leviticus 19:18; Genesis Rabba 24, 7 in Gen 5:1.
 Original text and Italian version in Talmud Babilonese, Trattato Berakhot, 61b, Tome II, edited by D. G. Di Segni, Giuntina, Florence, 2017, pp. 326-327.
By Larissa I. Lopez