ROME – When William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he wasn’t speaking specifically about religion – though, it should be noted, the line occurs in his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun.

Faulkner easily could have been, however, because in no other sphere of life does the weight of the past hang quite as heavy as in religious traditions.

Perhaps that helps explain why, in 2019, Rome’s prestigious Jesuit-run Pontifical Biblical Institute is sponsoring an international conference on an ancient Jewish religious movement that more or less died out almost 2,000 years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans under Emperor Titus in 70 C.E.

In its relatively short life span, that movement – known by the somewhat obscure name of “the Pharisees” – managed to become a protagonist in the New Testament story of Christ, and, as a result, the Pharisees are a permanently inescapable point of reference in Christian-Jewish relations.

Historically speaking, the two main survivors within Palestinian Judaism of the destruction of the temple were the early followers of Jesus, who became the Christians, and the Pharisees, who today are seen as having laid the intellectual, legal and ritual basis for modern Judaism.  Other groups, such as the Temple elite, the Sadducees and the esoteric Essene sects disappeared soon after the Temple’s demise.

The May 7-9 conference taking place at the Gregorian University, titled “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal,” aims to challenge negative stereotypes that have built up over the centuries about the Pharisees, inviting Christians to take a more appreciative look based on the results of modern Biblical scholarship.

There’s a certain irony in such an event taking place at Rome’s Jesuit university, since perhaps the world’s foremost exponent today of a less-than-flattering perspective on the Pharisees is history’s first Jesuit pope, Francis.

Francis often uses the term “Pharisee” as a synonym for “rigid” and “legalistic,” contrasting them with the approach of Jesus.

During an October 2018 homily, for instance, commenting on a New Testament text, the pope described Pharisees as follows: “They were truly an example of formality. But they lacked life. They were, so to speak, ‘starched.’ They were rigid … The people didn’t matter to them: The Law mattered to them, the prescriptions, the rubrics.”

On Tuesday, Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, a longtime veteran of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, told the conference that by striving to rehabilitate the Pharisees, it’s in effect asking Catholics to catch up with their own official teaching.

Rosen said that when he spoke with Professor Joseph Sievers of the Pontifical Biblical Institute two years ago, the two men “lamented that important milestones – some from the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews [the Vatican’s office for Christian-Jewish dialogue],” including a 1982 document titled “Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church,” haven’t had the desired effect.

“It’s not widely known, even at the highest levels, and not taken with the seriousness we would have hoped,” he said. “In some places it never existed, and in others it’s been a little muted with time.”

As a sign of hope, Rosen pointed to the reaction in the United States when Democratic presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, accused Vice President Mike Pence of being a “Pharisee.” After criticism of that rhetoric from Jewish groups, Buttigieg’s campaign announced on April 17 that he would stop using the term.

“It testifies to the impact of both scholarship and advocacy in North America, which is something to aspire to for the world,” Rosen said.

In his own introduction to the conference, Sievers, a German priest and member of the Focolare movement, quoted a line from St. Augustine: “No one can be truly known, except through friendship.”

Sievers then asked: “Can we see the Pharisees as friends?”

Opening the academic presentations, Carmelite Father Craig Morrison began by citing a 2018 edition of the popular Italian circular La Domenica, which is handed out in virtually every parish in the country on Sundays with the texts for that day’s Mass. On that particular day, the Gospel reading was the parable of the wicked tenants, with a mention of the Pharisees, and the Prayers of the Faithful contained a plea that Jews may “search for the fullness of redemption.”

“It would be easy to think that the wicked tenants are the Pharisees, and to collapse them into today’s Jews,” Morrison said, offering the episode as an example of the need for greater sensitivity.

“Often in preaching and teaching, we’re unaware of the caricature we create about this most interesting group of religious people,” Morrison said.

Steve Mason, an expert on Hellenistic-Roman Judaea at the Dutch Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, suggested that one way to rehabilitate the Pharisees is to look beyond their New Testament profile in Matthew, Mark and John to the way they’re presented by the first century Jewish historian Josephus.

Ironically, Josephus himself wasn’t a big fan of the Pharisees, but the profile that emerges from his description is strikingly different from the usual images. According to Josephus, the Pharisees were indeed “legalists,” but in the sense of experts in the law, not authoritarians imposing heavy burdens.

In fact, Mason said, according to Josephus, the Pharisees were more akin to defense lawyers adept in using oral tradition to mitigate the harsh punishments prescribed in the Mosaic law for crimes such as dishonoring one’s parents and violating the Sabbath. That reputation for mercy and lenience, he said, earned them strong popular support.

The distinct literary tradition in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Mason said, is closer to the image of the Pharisees as described by Josephus. When a group of Christians was facing a death sentence in Acts 5, for instance, the great Pharisee Gamaliel is described as having urged tolerance.

The conference on the Pharisees, which features scholars from both the Jewish and Christian traditions, will reach a crescendo on Thursday with a private audience with Pope Francis. The event is also intended to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Biblical Institute by Pope Pius X in 1909.