Acts 23:6-10 (ESV):

6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.

Paul conveniently identified himself as a Pharisee, implicitly siding with the Pharisees against the Sadducees in the theological (and heated) debate that ensued moments later. But notice that Paul was already an Apostle of Christ at this point, and, as such, had probably received many teachings and revelations from his interactions with the other Apostles, from the Holy Spirit, and from the Lord Himself. When we talk about Paul, we are talking about someone who was called to Apostleship by the Lord in person in extraordinary fashion (Acts 9) and who even received private lessons in the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4).

Paul, having all these new revelations, and knowledge, and teachings and doctrines, that he learned and received along his walk as an Apostle of Christ, why did he continue identifying himself as a Pharisee?

Can a person self-consistently be regarded as an Apostle and a Pharisee at the same time? Are the two titles compatible? What if Paul had been a Sadducee instead? Would he then have been able to continue identifying himself as a Sadducee?

If Paul could be both an Apostle and a Pharisee without contradicting himself, then what are the theological implications? Does this mean that the Pharisees held accurate theological beliefs (as opposed to the Sadducees)? If so, would that apply to most Pharisaic beliefs? For example, what about the Pharisaic view of Sheol? (see Luke 16:19-31 Lazarus and the rich man - literal, allegorical or a mixture of both?)

Related: Who were the Pharisees?

  • I have a little problem here. Where does it say that Paul was NOT a Jew? Acts portrays him going to the temple to worship after returning from a mission. Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 5:09

6 Answers 6


Are there theological implications? Yes.

Perjury is a bad strategy

Paul is on trial (Acts 22:30) and his prosecutors are out for blood (Acts 22:22). If he makes a statement that can be falsified, he can be charged under both Jewish (Leviticus 19:11) & Roman law (Paul on Trial p.156).

By highlighting a difference in the theological views among his accusers (Pharisees & Sadducees) he gives himself a way out...but also goes on record in a court of law--a record to which his accusers will have access (ibid p. 156) when they try to impeach/discredit his testimony later (Acts 24:1-2)

Now that Paul is on record declaring himself a Pharisee, if there's a viable means of showing that testimony to be false, Tertullus can show Paul to have perjured himself when he accuses Paul in Acts 24 (see vss. 5,6,9)

Matters of in-house debate among Pharisees won't be too helpful to Tertullus et al here (e.g. varying levels of rigidity in interpreting the law), but the salient differences among the Jewish sects would. Luke calls out the most relevant differences in verse 8: the afterlife & non-mortal beings.

Paul's teachings are well-known and widespread (see Acts 24:5); if he's been preaching something that is a clear departure from Pharisaic views on the contested matter of the afterlife, the Sanhedrin can paint him into a corner. "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question" (verse 6) is a very risky thing to say in front of the authorities on Pharisaic doctrine. To get away with this (no accusations against Paul on this matter are raised before the Sanhedrin or in the appeal before Felix), Paul's Pharisaic credentials must be as impeccable as he himself suggests when writing to the Philippians a few years later:

5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;

6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6)


Paul's teachings

Paul's letters support his testimony of his Pharisaic credentials. He regularly quotes from the Writings & the Prophets. Origen of Alexandria reported that:

the Samaritans and Sadducees...receive the books of Moses alone (Contra Celsum 1.49)

Others suggest that perhaps the Sadducees held the Torah in a place of greater honor not afforded to the Writings & the Prophets, but still used most/all of them. Either way, Paul's extensive usage of the Tanakh (not just limiting himself to the Torah) suggests a Pharisaic leaning well after his conversion to Christ.

Indeed, Paul's method was to start proselyting in a city by going to the synagogue and teaching the message of the Messiah from the Jewish scriptures (see Acts 17:1-2, 18:4-6). Paul saw Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament promises, not the destruction of them. Paul was capable of 1) being familiar with Ecclesiastes & the Psalms without 2) believing in post-mortal unconsciousness.

There is no statement from him or his enemies suggesting that belief ever changed or engendered conflict.

Under Roman Law, Judaism had the significant distinction of "religio licita" (legal religion), a privilege granted only to the Jews & its own (Roman) Pantheon of gods (Paul on Trial p.13). In order for Christianity to receive these legal benefits it was necessary to present it as part of Judaism (or as the true Judaism), not a separation from it.

The litigation strategy of Paul's accusers was to charge that he was creating an illegal religion thereby disrupting society. Although Christianity had a persuasive claim to legality as a sect of Judaism, it was caught in the cross-currents between Jerusalem and Rome. In the midst of this legal/political/religious cauldron, Acts was written (ibid pp. 13-14).

Men like Peter, James the brother of the Lord, and Paul were Jews from the beginning to the end of their lives; and it is no wonder that Luke is at pains to present them as such in Acts. The separation of Judaism & Christianity into clearly distinct religions did not occur until the Flavian era, after all 3 of these men were dead (see discussion by Edmundson here).

If Paul has taught (or can credibly be accused of teaching) a view of the spiritual realm foreign to all major sects of contemporary Judaism, Paul (and Luke) have no religio licita leg to stand on.


When in doubt, check with the doctor

Let's consider the history preserved in our 3 earliest surviving sources documenting that the Gospel of Luke was written by Luke (the physician).

Muratorian Canon:

The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name (translation by Metzger)

Irenaeus of Lyons:

Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him (Against Heresies 3.1.1)

Anti-Marcionite prologue:

Indeed Luke was an Antiochene Syrian, a doctor by profession, a disciple of the apostles: later however he followed Paul until his martyrdom, serving the Lord blamelessly...moved by the Holy Spirit he wrote down this gospel in the parts of Achaia (translation by Pearce)

It is quite consistently reported that the author was Luke, a companion/student of Paul--and it is clear that the early church accepted the Gospel of Luke on Paul's apostolic authority (this is precisely the point Irenaeus is making in Against Heresies 3.1). Indeed the Gospel of Luke appears to have been written for Pauline Christians (my work on the subject here).

This creates a very interesting conundrum -- the one Gospel that includes the parable of the rich man & Lazarus (a representation of Pharisaic views on the afterlife)...is not the Gospel written on the authority of the tax collector, nor one of the Gospels written on the authority of the fishermen...but the Gospel written on the authority of the Pharisee.

Why would Paul the Pharisee support the inclusion of blatantly Pharisaic views in Luke's account if he (Paul) believed those views were wrong? This is something he could not have done ignorantly; he would be deliberately misleading his audience. Paul is nothing short of scathing in his denouncements of false doctrine in his own letters--it is quite the claim (and an enormous unsupported assumption) to suggest he's willfully guilty of the practice himself.


Reductive Argument

Paul was familiar with the teachings of the Pharisees--if there were points of disagreement between him and them, they would have featured regularly in settings such as Acts 19:8-10. Paul's letters give us a pretty good idea what the controversies were in the churches he wrote to; the absence of debate/dissension over Pharisaic views of the afterlife suggests this isn't one of those controversies -- rather it would be a matter where no major correction to prior beliefs was needed.

If post-mortal consciousness were a point of disagreement between Paul and the Pharisees, his support/authorization/endorsement of the Gospel of Luke--the only Gospel to include the parable of the rich man & Lazarus--would work against Paul's efforts to teach his theological views.

I suggest on the basis of reductio ad absurdum that Paul did not do this.


Inductive Argument

  • Paul was the son of a Pharisee
  • Paul studied under Gamaliel
  • Paul presents himself as a Pharisee while on trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 23)
  • Paul presents himself as a Pharisee when writing to the Philippians (Phil. 3) -- not a brilliant move if this is a claim that already got him into trouble in Jerusalem and/or Caesarea

Conclusion: the written record supports the claim that Paul never stopped being a Pharisee.


Abductive Argument

Paul's enemies wanted him dead, and catching him in perjured testimony before the Sanhedrin would have been devastating to Paul's case. I suggest that the inference to the best explanation is that Paul's enemies didn't use this tactic because there was no evidence of perjury: Paul's claim to be a Pharisee was incontrovertible.



Paul was a Pharisee who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah; he continued to employ a Pharisaic understanding of the Tanakh throughout his life.

His points of divergence with the leaders of the Pharisees are documented in the disagreements he had with them; on other matters--such as the afterlife--we can reasonably conclude that Paul's theology was broadly consistent with first century Pharisaic Judaism.

These thoughts are inspired by:

  • Paul on Trial by John Mauck
  • Spirit Realm Investigator's post here


Is this an argument from silence?

Note the force of the statement by Irenaeus of Lyons (see above): "Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him".

This is not an argument that Paul may have passively encountered discussion on the afterlife during the 18+ months of disputing the kingdom of God in Corinth & 27+ months in Ephesus (see Acts 18:11 & 19:8-10) -- Paul actively taught the Gospel as recorded by Luke, the Gospel that contains the parable of the rich man & Lazarus. Paul's subsequent correspondence with the Corinthians shows that the state of the dead was not a doctrine on which Paul had to correct his students because they misunderstood his previous message (contra 2 Thess., for example, which addresses a misunderstanding of 1 Thess. 4).

For a review of the evidence that Paul was already using the Gospel of Luke in preaching in Corinth during his 2nd missionary journey, and in Ephesus during his 3rd, see John Wenham's Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke p.223, 230-237, and my (still in process) video series Who, When, and Why - the Writing of the Gospels. This is not an argument from silence.


Could someone be both Jewish & Christian?

Yes. In Paul's own words:

But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? (Galatians 2:14)

Paul called the (mortal) leader of the Christian movement a Jew...because he was a Jew. He was also quite clearly a Christian. Paul recognized the existence of the distinction Jew/Gentile, and often used the terms circumcision/uncircumcision as a proxy. One of Paul's primary goals, however, was to bring these historically-separated groups together in faith in Christ (this is one of the major themes of his epistle to the Romans). At no point did Paul have to stop being a Jew to do this.

There have been various efforts historically (sometimes with awful ulterior motives) to make Jesus, Peter, Paul and others un-Jewish. This is anachronistic. They believed in Christ & they were also Jewish. It was not until a later date that "Jew" and "Christian" would come to be seen (by some) as mutually exclusive categories.


Is Paul on trial in Acts 23?

It is possible to argue that Paul's trial before the Sanhedrin was irregular or even illegal--but this does not make it any less of a trial than was the illegal trial of Jesus. Both broke the rules & norms, but both of these "shadow trials" were carried out by the governing body and had legal consequences.

Of Jesus' illegal trial Chandler wrote:

The pages of human history present no stronger case of judicial murder than the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, for the simple reason that all forms of law were outraged and trampled under foot in the proceedings instituted against Him (The Trial of Jesus from a Lawyer's Standpoint vol. 1 p. 216)

And yet through the misuse of judicial might Jesus was sentenced for a crime He did not commit. Had the Sanhedrin had their way, Paul would have been as well.


Capital punishment

For a lengthy treatment, see this post on the site regarding the jurisdiction over capital punishment during the relevant interval. The post concludes:

The only ways a person could be executed were to obtain the imprimatur of the Roman prefect (the legal method) or gather up a lynch mob and do it yourself (the illegal method)

Note that both Stephen and James the brother of the Lord were executed by lynch mobs for this very reason. The Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, John 18:31, and Josephus' account of the death of James (Antiquities 20.9) all suggest the Sanhedrin did not have the power to execute anyone (legally) without Roman approval.

Josephus in fact acknowledges this in the words he attributes to Titus:

Have not we [Rome] given you leave to kill such as go beyond it (Wars of the Jews 6.2.4)

Legal executions were performed only with Roman permission.

  • 1
    I'm honestly curious about the reasons behind the downvotes. This answer looks well thought out and argued, so, if downvoters are seeing logical flaws in the arguments, please by all means let us know, either in the comments or by posting a detailed rebuttal to this answer.
    – user38524
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 14:55
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    Not a downvoter but I would say perjury is not an issue, legal or otherwise in Paul's arrest or trial. Arguably, "perjury" in the sense of the accused giving a false statement to avoid the death sentence, is expected. No one who is convicted of a crime receives additional punishment because they gave false statements in an effort to be set free. The "legal" issue, which Mauck fails to fully flesh out, is that if Paul is Jewish, he is in fact subject to the Jewish legal system. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 19:05
  • 1
    @RevelationLad the purpose of trapping Paul would not be to convict him of perjury, but to impeach his testimony and discredit his defense. Indeed, a defendant may often lie to avoid punishment--the aim of the prosecution is to show that the defendant is lying. Paul (if not truly a Pharisee) gave the Sanhedrin a golden opportunity to show he was lying (see the abductive argument). The Sanhedrin could indeed punish Paul, but could not (legally) execute him without Roman sanction. Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 19:12
  • "...the aim of the prosecution is to show the defendant is lying." This is Mauck's anachronistic view. Before ever getting to that point, the "prosecution" must present their charges, which was never done here. The legal charge is straightforward: "Paul violated Jewish law and should be handed over and tried. His status as a Roman citizen does not exempt him from discipline." Mauck ignores Paul's previous punishment from the Jews was done legally. The "legal" issue to be decided is if Paul is Jewish. If yes, go stand trial, as he has done before. Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 21:22
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    Good job, HTTR, I gave you an upvote. I especially liked how you put in an "Addendum--Rebuttal" section. It's too bad that a branch of Messianic Rabbinical Pharisees, complete with a Seminary, was not established in the early church for Jewish believers in Jesus.
    – Jess
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 18:04

Paul also identified himself as 'a citizen of no mean city' regarding his Roman citizenship. I take it that his appointment, training and qualification as a Pharisee were a matter of a lifelong right, as was his citizenship.

Yet he was not a practicing Pharisee and he no longer lived in Tarsus.

In both cases he only evoked the rights as an expediency, in regard to the actions of authorities against himself.

  • Regarding the theological aspect of my question, would you then say that Paul kept most of his Pharisaic beliefs, changed his mind on several points, or there is not enough data to tell?
    – user38524
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 18:53
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Paul 'sat at the feet of Gamaliel' so there may be historical evidence of what Gamaliel taught but that would not prove that Saul agreed with it (only that he was tutored in it) , or that, as Paul, he did or did not accept it. Paul's doctrine, expressed in his epistles, all comes out of the life, sufferings, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. And his expressions of the OT are coloured by that knowledge, also. He never mentions his former teaching. All is of Christ.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 8:40
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    "Yet he was not a practicing Pharisee..." I think it's anachronistic at best to assume a sort of universal, binding Pharisaic practice. In Paul's day, different Pharisaic schools of thought had significant differences with each other. Paul refused to bind Gentiles to specifically Pharisaic or even Jewish customs such as circumcision. Yet according to Acts he did circumcise Timothy because his mother was a Jew (precisely on the return trip to Galatia after his own position had won out at the Jerusalem "council")! Moreover, Paul himself later took customary Jewish vows. Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 9:16

why did he continue identifying himself as a Pharisee? Can a person self-consistently be regarded as an Apostle and a Pharisee at the same time? ....If Paul could be both an Apostle and a Pharisee without contradicting himself, then what are the theological implications? Does this mean that the Pharisees held accurate theological beliefs

From Matt 3:7 NET Bible notes says:

sn Pharisees were members of one of the most important and influential religious and political parties of Judaism in the time of Jesus. There were more Pharisees than Sadducees (according to Josephus, Ant. 17.2.4 [17.42] there were more than 6,000 Pharisees at about this time). Pharisees differed with Sadducees on certain doctrines and patterns of behavior. The Pharisees were strict and zealous adherents to the laws of the OT and to numerous additional traditions such as angels and bodily resurrection.

sn The Sadducees controlled the official political structures of Judaism at this time, being the majority members of the Sanhedrin. They were known as extremely strict on law and order issues (Josephus, J. W. 2.8.2 [2.119], 2.8.14 [2.164-166]; Ant. 13.5.9 [13.171-173], 13.10.6 [13.293-298], 18.1.2 [18.11], 18.1.4 [18.16-17], 20.9.1 [20.199]; Life 2 [10-11]). See also Matt 16:1-12; 22:23-34; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38; Acts 5:17; 23:6-8.

Paul kept identifying himself as a Jew, from the Pharisee sect, because it was the truth. The Pharisee sect was the strictest in terms of the law and religion:

[Acts 26:5-8 ESV] They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

The Pharisees did hold accurate theology (on paper), though their interpretation and practice may have been inaccurate in the sense of legalistic, hypocritical, fanatical and arrogant. We are talking about the religious leaders, the mainstream sect of Judaism.

[Matt 23:1-3 NASB] Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say [things] and do not do [them].

Jesus instructed to learn everything (religion, law, doctrines) from them, but do not become like them. For you will have no other option but to go to the theologians and scholars of the religion, if you want to learn about it. Probably, Jesus himself learned from such corrupt teachers in school.

We must be careful not to assume any absolutes about the sect of the Pharisees. We often see disagreements among them, thus there were obviously some good or better Pharisees. The evil depiction of them is a general statement. Secondly, you cannot find an exhaustive doctrinal creed or points of their beliefs by which you may qualify Paul as a Pharisee. The trials proved that none of the enemies could disqualify his Pharisaic background. Paul's theology did not change after believing in the Messiah. His heart and interpretation changed. His overall creed or points of faith remained the same. The best way to understand would be to use the analogy of the Baptist sect of the Christians. If a Baptist Christian somehow turns into a Hebrew roots believer, he will not cease to be a Christian, even though the Baptists may expel him from their group, but he may show his Baptist history and degrees in his defence. He discovered the spiritual truth that made him deem his religious pride and status as worthless. And this was the message of Christ and all his apostles, that religion or faith (alone) is worthless, but heart and works matter to God. So, again, your attempt to find technical theological points to compare with Paul's is in a wrong direction.

[Phil 3:3-8 ESV] For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

Of course, he was no longer a typical Pharisee after his conversion, as apparent from the fact that the Pharisees wanted to kill him. The reason he was appealing to his Roman citizenship and his Pharisee sect was apologetic. He was accused by the religious leaders of violating the law by bringing gentiles in the temple. The Jews accused him as a dirty gentile who was defiling the temple laws. The tribune thought he was an Egyptian, and was surprised that he was speaking Greek (Acts 21:38). The natural answer of his should be to state his Jewish background (he was himself a Pharisee like the accusers), to prove that he was a Jew, and he was being persecuted for believing the basic Jewish beliefs. That the accusations upon him were baseless, and he was always respectful to the authorities.

There is no contradiction between being a Pharisee and a Christian. Your question indicates that you suspect of such a contradiction; in that case you need to specify why and how, in order to get a complete and specific answer. According to Paul, being of the Jewish heritage was of honour, since all the covenant, election & promises belong (primary) to the Jews. See the references of Paul, "the Jew first, and to the Greeks" (Rom 2:9-10). He wrote that he was a Jew by birth, and not an unclean sinner, Gentile (Galatians 2:15). Now if he adds his sectarian background as a detail, there shouldn't be any surprise or contradiction anywhere. Though it is a fact that many Jews as well as Christians find it hard to believe that Christianity is strictly of the Jewish religion.

  • For me, this is on the right track, though your description of Pharisees being legalistic is outdated (See Sanders, E.P. 1977: Paul and Palestinian Judaism). Of course Paul was a Jew. All apostles and disciples were Jews. The Jesus movement was a movement within Judaism (Paul always turned to the synagogues, according to Acts). Things changed, of course, and the movement became a state supported religion eventually. An exciting field of study. Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 17:39
  • @DanielRidings EP Sanders is himself terribly outdated and wrong, as well as NT Wright. New perspective on Paul is a new ignorance of Paul and the Bible. My negative characterization of the Pharisees is from the Gospels itself. The modern orthodox and rabbinic sects are their descendants. I believe they are legalistic, and I also believe various Christian sects are too.
    – Michael16
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 17:43
  • Oh yes, I know. But your remark about legalistic Pharisees gave me the impression that you had not read him. Yes, he is outdated. He didn't go far enough. I lean towards the radical perspective, not the new perspective. Still. I appreciate your answer. Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 17:48

Paul was very adept at becoming all things to all people in order to use any advantage to make a connection and perhaps save some (1 Cor 9:19ff): “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law.” Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to facilitate their ministry together, which typically began in synagogues (Ac 16:1-5). There was no theological significance to Timothy’s circumcision—it was expedient to the job that needed done. However, Paul was also shrewd and perceptive. When false brethren required Titus be circumcised for salvation, Paul adamantly refused to surrender his liberty in Christ to them by having Titus circumcised (Gal 2:2-5). Yielding to them in the matter would have compromised the truth of the gospel. He knew when a matter was “theologically significant” and when it wasn’t. He would do nothing to compromise the truth.

Speaking to the Romans, Paul said he magnified his ministry among the Gentiles “if somehow I might move to jealousy my own people and save some of them” (Romans 11:14). He knew how to use human nature to bring about self-examination. He also knew how to leverage religious politics when it would promote the gospel cause. When he stood before the Council in Acts 23, he took advantage of religious sectarian biases and shrewdly poked the bear, disturbing the tenuous unity of the Council’s purpose by bringing their internal disunity to the surface. His actions exposed the Council for what it was: a tool of religious politics within Judaism only nominally convened in God’s name. Luke knew exactly why Paul brought up the resurrection and his “membership” in the party of the Pharisees, and it was not because of any theological significance.

Being a Pharisee within Judaism was a fact of his personal history. He was not ashamed of that. It gave him certain advantages and disadvantages, aligned him with certain people and caused dissention with others. It did not define him in relation to Christ—in Christ, we are all simply born-again humans—but being in Christ did not erase his temporal identity, and so also for all believers. As someone who has become anti-sectarian after 30 years of intensely “conservative” sectarian religion, I draw strength from Paul’s approach. I see the advantages and disadvantages of my own personal history and am learning how become all things to all people. I will forever identify as a member of the sectarian ___ church because of my history, but in Christ, that is nothing. When that identity opens some doors for me, I will take that advantage for the Lord. But when it closes doors, I will set it aside as not important enough. If ever I am in a situation as Paul was, where I can use it to expose the ugliness of religious politics, I hope I can do it with the same bold grace that characterized Paul’s work. That, I think, are the theological implications of the scene we read about in Acts 23. As Jesus lived faithfully before his Father entirely without regard to the religious politics of his day, so Paul learned to do the same and so also must we.


Paul acts as a tactician here to rescue himself from the murderous intent of a part of the Jews in Synagogue. Does he say lie when he says that he is a Pharisee? Not, in fact, because he can freely believe that any good and consistent Pharisee will be persuaded, just as himself, that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and Lord. Because, what is to be a Pharisee from a perspective of a Pharisee? It is to be a devote Jew who interprets Holy Writing in a specific way, that implies existence of angels and demons, belief in resurrection of dead - this three things adhered by any Christian - and expects Messiah, now, he, Paul, is a Pharisee who is granted a special knowledge through divine intervention on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) that assures him of the Messiah-ship and Lord-ship of Jesus Christ, thus, for him all other Pharisees will readily accept Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord given he is granted a chance of persuading them.

Thus, he is a Pharisee who has a completion of his faith through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, he is simultaneously a Christian and will not deny that others who have not been Pharisees or even Jews and believed in the doctrine and preaching of Jesus Christ are in no way lesser Christians than he, a Pharisee, is, albeit, they will have the teachings on existence of angels, demons, belief in resurrection not through any Judaic tradition preceding the advent of Christ, as he had, but directly from Christ or His apostles and even in a more clear and rectified way than it was in Pharisaic tradition per se, without Christ giving them too a perfected version of their correct theological glimpses and intuitions, like He perfected Paul's correct glimpses and intuitions too.

An analogy: if a North Korean guy holding Juche ideology is attacked in New York by agitated crowd among whom there are Marxists, the others - proponents of free market capitalist economy. A police comes and the crowd's agitation is so strong that the North Korean guy, say, Sin Cho Gun, sees that even the policemen are unable to stop the crowd from killing him. And then, eureka! he sees Marxists in the crowd and shouts to the them: "Brothers, Marxists, I am attacked on behalf of my Marxism by bloody capitalists!" And this has magic effect on the Marxist part of the crowd: they start protecting him and even start fighting back the capitalist part of the crowd. Did Sin Cho Gun say lie? No, because he sincerely believes that Juche is a crowning achievement of Marxism and that all those New York Marxists supporting now him will definitely become themselves Jucheans had he had a chance to educate and preach to them great ideas of Eternal Leader Grand Marshal Kim Il-sung, himself a true Marxist.


Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes
The three main sects of Judaism in Paul's day were the Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Essenes. Of these, only the Pharisees held the belief of a bodily resurrection. So, considered narrowly on this one issue, a Pharisee had correct "Christian" doctrine.

The doctrinal differences with the Sadducees went beyond the belief in bodily resurrection. The Sadducees only accepted the books of Moses as "Scripture." They rejected the Prophets and the Psalms as cannon. In addition, they rejected the oral traditions which the Pharisees not only accepted, but placed on the same level as the written law. It should be noted, the clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees were over the issue of the oral traditions: there was agreement on the points of bodily resurrection and what constitutes Scripture.

Finally, generally speaking the Sadducees were priests and aristocrats; the Essenes were monastic, and the Pharisees were "commoners." This means some of the original believers likely considered themselves to be Pharisees. The Fourth Gospel reports Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and while there is reason to doubt he was a believer, other than coming in secret, the Gospel describes him in favorable terms. Extra-Biblical tradition holds Joseph of Arimathea chose to be a Pharisee after investigating the three main sects. If this is true, Jesus received a proper burial because of Pharisees.1

Finally, Acts states the Church had believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees:

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
(Acts 15:5 ESV)

Note the issue here centers on the written Law, not the oral traditions. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude believing Pharisees, who largely held to correct doctrine to begin with, gave up the belief in the oral traditions when they accepted Jesus as the Christ.2Whereas confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees focused on the oral traditions, the disputes with believing Pharisees within the Church was over interpreting Scripture.

Paul's Position on True Judaism
For Paul the distinction between Judaism and Christianity was not what we see today:

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2 ESV)

11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10)

A person was truly Jewish if they had faith like Abraham:

13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4)

When someone believed as Abraham did, they were Jews, regardless of their natural ancestry. Therefore, when Paul had the same faith as Abraham, it is at that point he became "truly" Jewish:

1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11)

In terms of the three sects of the time, Pharisees held the belief of resurrection, which is an essential belief to be saved by faith and to become "truly" Jewish like Abraham:

9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10)

There is no conflict between Paul's continued identification as a Pharisee because he now sees himself as one who is truly Jewish. He believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and, as is clear from Acts and his letters, he no longer accepted the oral traditions as law.

Addendum - The "Trial"
Reading Acts carefully, shows this particular event could not be called an official trial, under either Jewish or Roman law. In both Jewish and Roman legal proceedings, the party bringing the charges goes first. This is brought out in Stephen's trial:

11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6)

After the charges are made the accused party is told to respond:

And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1)

In Paul's case, he was brought to the Sanhedrin by a Roman official who wanted to know what Paul was being accused of:

30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them. (Acts 22)

But no one brings the charges, instead, Paul is told to go first. He does and, since he is a Christian by means of believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he correctly points to this fact, as the real reason he was attacked.

The "formal" Jewish charge against Paul, as with Stephen, concerned violation of the Temple rules:

27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (Acts 21)

These charges are officially brought up when Paul goes before Felix:

1 Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul. 2 And when he was called upon, Tertullus began his accusation, saying: “Seeing that through you we enjoy great peace, and prosperity is being brought to this nation by your foresight, 3 we accept it always and in all places, most noble Felix, with all thankfulness. 4 Nevertheless, not to be tedious to you any further, I beg you to hear, by your courtesy, a few words from us. 5 For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to profane the temple, and we seized him, and wanted to judge him according to our law. 7 But the commander Lysias came by and with great violence took him out of our hands, 8 commanding his accusers to come to you. By examining him yourself you may ascertain all these things of which we accuse him.” 9 And the Jews also assented, maintaining that these things were so. (Acts 24 NKJV)

After the charges are brought, Paul must respond:

10Then Paul, after the governor had nodded to him to speak, answered:

Finally, the punishment for defiling the Temple, was death. In addition to Stephen's execution, Josephus records the Roman's gave the Sanhedrin the right to execute anyone who went past a certain point in the Temple.

1. This is not a trivial consideration. Had Jesus not been buried in a tomb, His body likely would have been dumped and burned. In other words, it was the "legalism" of Pharisees which saw to it Jesus received a proper burial.
2. Using Pauline terminology, they should have abandoned oral traditions to be led by the Spirit.

  • Thanks - can you include the Josephus citation? Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 16:29
  • 1
    @HoldToTheRod The Wars of the Jews 6.125-6 Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 20:18

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