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This is not meant as a "yes or no" question. Rather I hope to learn what biblical texts/interpretations give us an insight into how Paul thought of himself in relation to pharisaic Judaism, whether Paul's letters show a different attitude than Acts, etc.

In Acts 23:6, Paul declares:

6 Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial. 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sad′ducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sad′ducees 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, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?

The question arises as to whether Paul really considered himself to be still a Pharisee, or whether he was merely trying to divide his accusers by siding the Pharisees against the Sadducees on the issue of the resurrection.

In the Gospels, the Pharisees, with the notable exception of Nicodemus and perhaps a few others, appear consistently as Jesus' opponents. But here they are Paul's defenders. Also, Acts 6:7 indicates that there were a large number of priests who had accepted Jesus.

the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Priests tended to be Sadducees, not Pharisees, but in Acts 15:4-5 we learn that Pharisees had also joined the church:

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses."

Clearly Paul was not a member of this party of Pharisees, but did he consider himself still to be another sort of Pharisee... a follower perhaps of the broad-minded Gamaliel rather than an adherent of stricter House of Shammai? Such a self-identity might be implied in Acts 22 when Paul defends himself by saying:

“I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cili′cia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gama′li-el, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day."

It has been argued that Paul is far less "Jewish" in his own letters than in the Book of Acts. But this does not necessarily mean that the Paul of Acts should be completely dismissed. So did Paul really still think of himself as a Pharisee in some sense?

An acceptable answer will provide textual evidence that helps us understand Paul's attitude to Judaism in Acts vs. his letters, as well as support from other historical sources and commentaries. It is hoped we will learn to better understand Paul's inner identity in relation to the Pharisees as he became "all things to all men."

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  • The topic of Paul and Judaism has a vast literature so I have opted for a simple straight forward answer. A more complete answer would discuss Paul's theology of covenants and the law. Many books have been written on this topic.
    – Dottard
    Sep 3 at 1:10
  • Does this answer your question? Acts 15:5 - Could Christians remain Pharisees?
    – Michael16
    Sep 3 at 2:09
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    No. Clearly they could, at least acc. to Acts. Not to mention that question was closed as off topic. My question is specifically about Paul, his his inner identity, including how we should evaluate the statements in Acts in relation to Paul's letters. Sep 3 at 2:27
  • 1
    I am hoping that someone's answer will consider the diversity of Pharisaic attitudes toward Jesus and the fact that Acts mentions Pharisees as apparently members in good standing in the Jerusalem church. Sep 3 at 21:47

4 Answers 4

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If Paul thought of himself as a pharisee (which I do not believe he did) he was a very bad one because much of what he taught was the opposite of pharisaism. For example:

(A) We do not earn salvation by the works of the law [Recall that Pharisees we punctilious about keeping the minutia of the Torah-law to earn God's favor. See Rom 9:32]

  • Rom 3:20 - Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the law. For the law merely brings awareness of sin.
  • Rom 3:28 - For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
  • Gal 2:16 - know that a man is not justified by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
  • Gal 3:10 - All who rely on works of the law are under a curse. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

(B) Paul was not Exclusive and Separate (Recall that "pharisee" comes from פְּרוּשִׁין, from פָּרַשׁ, 'to separate', because they separated their life from the general usage)

  • 1 Cor 9: 19 Though I am free of obligation to anyone, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), to win those under the law. 21 To those without the law I became like one without the law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
  • Rom 1:14 - I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.
  • 1 Cor 1:18, 23 - For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God ... we, however, preach Christ having been crucified, a stumbling block indeed to the Jewish and foolishness to Gentiles

(C) Paul believed in Lord Messiah, Jesus Christ [Pharisees did not]

  • 1 Cor 2:2 - For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him having been crucified.
  • 1 Cor 1:30, 31 - It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God: our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
  • 2 Cor 5:14 - For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, therefore all died.

In common with the pharisee, Paul shared beliefs in the resurrection, angels, the afterlife, etc. Also, in keeping with his ethics (expressed in (B) above), Paul was able to join the Jews in making and keeping vows (eg, Acts 18:18, 21:24).

Therefore, while Paul was no longer a practicing pharisee, he had been a keen pharisee before becoming a Christian evangelist and used this fact and the beliefs he briefly outlined to divide the council in Acts 23 to avoid the impending injustice. No unbiased decision could come from such a conclave.

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    A larger issue is whether Paul considered himself to be a Jew. The answer is yes. He understood Judaism correctly saw Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. His belief did not mean a renunciation of Judaism; it meant he replaced wrong beliefs with correct ones while retaining those which were, and remained, correct. Likewise it is possible he understood those aspects of being a Pharisee which were, and still are, correct while replacing those which were incorrect. The meaning of any label is not forever fixed, especially for an individual. Paul’s acceptance of salvation by grace does not justify… Sep 3 at 15:03
  • 1
    …support the conclusion he no longer held to beliefs which were, and remained correct. Just because he is not under the law does not mean the law vanishes. One still does not kill, commit adultery, lie, steal, etc. With respect to Jesus, the Pharisees were wrong but with respect to resurrection, they were right. Despite their errors, their sect of Judaism was “more right” than the Sadducees. There is no evidence Paul did not continue to label himself as a Pharisee, but a Pharisee who accepted salvation by grace through faith in Jesus as the Christ. Sep 3 at 15:10
  • @RevelationLad - well stated. Agreed. he was a "modified pharisee". However, it could be argued (as above) that the central tenet of phraisaism is their separateness which Paul did not practise.
    – Dottard
    Sep 3 at 22:02
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The question arises as to whether Paul really considered himself to be still a Pharisee, or whether he was merely trying to divide his accusers by siding the Pharisees against the Sadducees on the issue of the resurrection.

No, Paul did not consider himself as a Pharisee still as Philippians 3:5-9 ASV shows.

5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; 6 as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless 7 Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ.

Did Paul try to divide his accusers by siding with the Pharisees against the Sadducees on the issue of resurrection? Yes he did as Acts 23:6-9 ASV shows

6 But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees: touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. 7 And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. 9 And there arose a great clamor: and some of the scribes of the Pharisees part stood up, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: and what if a spirit hath spoken to him, or an angel?

Paul claimed to be a Pharisee in Acts 23:6, but the claim was a way for Paul to connect and associate himself with the Pharisees because they both believe in the resurrection. By raising the issue of resurrection, Paul caused divisions and was able to gather support from some members of the Sanhedrin.

1 Corinthians 9:20-22 gives us an idea what means Paul would use to win some for the gospel.

1 Corinthians 9:20-22 ASV

20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; 21 to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the gospel's sake, that I may be a joint partaker thereof.

The means that Paul used to achieve this end is another question.

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I'll offer a response broken into 2 sections:

  1. Was Paul a Jew?
  2. If yes, what kind of Jew?

1. Was Paul a Jew?


There is a risk here of imposing anachronisms on Paul: we are accustomed to thinking of Judaism & Christianity as separate and distinct entities; this was not the case during Paul's lifetime.

To Paul and his contemporaries, one could be both a Jew and a Christian and there was no inherent contradiction (for example, see Acts 18:2 in which Aquila, a Christian, is referred to as a Jew). The full separation of Judaism & Christianity into distinct religions did not happen until the Flavian era (70s-90s), and was closely tied to the destruction of Jerusalem (source).

Paul makes it very clear that he is a Jew:

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 (Philippians 3:5)

(note that verse 7 does not say he gave up these parts of his identity, but that he gave up some advantages these attributes might otherwise have given him)

Although there was substantial effort in 19th & early 20th century German scholarship to argue that Jesus and those close to Him were not Jews, this was more a political move than anything else. Jesus, Peter, Paul, and almost every major character in the New Testament were Jews. They were born Jews, they received a Jewish education (to varying degrees), their teachings are culturally Jewish, and they relied heavily upon the Jewish scriptures.

Yes, Paul was a Jew.


2. What kind of Jew?


Josephus records that there were 4 principal sects/philosophies of Judaism in the late 2nd-temple era:

  • Pharisees
  • Sadducees
  • Essenes
  • Zealots

(These could certainly be sub-categorized further. For Josephus references, see e.g. Antiquities 18.1.1-6).

Paul certainly was not a Sadducee, Essene, or Zealot. The Pharisaic views of the 1st century were not monolithic--plenty of in-house debate there--but I will make the case below that Paul had no reason to stop identifying as a Pharisee. As noted in the OP and other answers, some Pharisees accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but many (leaders in particular) did not.

Paul's claim in Philippians "as touching the law, a Pharisee" can be read to mean that he identifies as a Pharisee and/or he was educated as a Pharisee (like someone today may claim to be a X_University-ite not because they currently attend, but because they received an education there); it does not mean that he accepts all statements made by the leaders of the Pharisees.

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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 (see above).

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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.

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).

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.

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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, and disputes of Pharisaic teachings do not feature prominently at all.

If Paul's history as a Pharisee led to doubts about his sincerity as a Christian, Paul's failure to guard against this, combined with statements like those found in Philippians 3:5-7 & Galatians 2:2-15, would be absurd.

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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.

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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.


Conclusion


Yes, Paul still really was a Pharisee. He was also a Christian; during his lifetime these were not mutually exclusive. In claiming this, Paul would not be expected to agree with all of the teachings of the leaders of the Pharisees any more than they were expected to agree with each other.

If he wasn't a Pharisee, he has nothing to gain by claiming--during a trial--that he is. If Paul's identity as a Pharisee were a point of controversy, we should reasonably expect this to come up in his letters, especially in his letter to the Romans wherein he introduces himself to this audience and corrects against misleading statements they've heard about him.

Paul's letters are "occasional" documents--they were written to respond to specific controversies and questions, not to preach Christian theology from the ground up (he may at times appear less Jewish here when he's speaking to Gentiles and applying the method he describes in 1 Cor. 9). Paul's Pharisaic credentials do not appear to have been one of these controversies that needed to be addressed.

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To determine if Paul was still a Pharisee, we need to define the current state of being a Pharisee in comparison with Paul's behavior.

In the topic of "Pharisees" in the Insight on the Scriptures, we are presented with scriptural verification of the Pharisees during the first century:

The Christian Greek Scriptures reveal that the Pharisees fasted twice each week, tithed scrupulously (Mt 9:14; Mr 2:18; Lu 5:33; 11:42; 18:11, 12), and did not agree with the Sadducees in saying that “there is neither resurrection nor angel nor spirit.” (Ac 23:8) They prided themselves on being righteous (actually, self-righteous) and looked down on the common people. (Lu 18:11, 12; Joh 7:47-49) To impress others with their righteousness, the Pharisees broadened the scripture-containing cases that they wore as safeguards and they enlarged the fringes of their garments. (Mt 23:5) They loved money (Lu 16:14) and desired prominence and flattering titles. (Mt 23:6, 7; Lu 11:43) The Pharisees were so biased in their application of the Law that they made it burdensome for the people, insisting that it be observed according to their concepts and traditions. (Mt 23:4) They completely lost sight of the important matters, namely, justice, mercy, faithfulness, and love of God. (Mt 23:23; Lu 11:41-44) The Pharisees went to great lengths in making proselytes.​—Mt 23:15.

So if this is the typical Pharisee of the time, was Paul still classified as such after his conversion?

The Watchtower of July 1, 1954, had a question posed asking "Was it not compromise on the apostle Paul’s part when he said before the Sanhedrin: “I am a Pharisee”? The response gives us more understanding:

The Sanhedrin knew Paul was not a member of the Pharisees. He had been very zealous as a Christian, and he could never have made the Sanhedrin believe he was a practicing Pharisee. It would have been useless to try it, even if he had wanted to compromise and misrepresent himself in that way. So it is in the setting of his statement that this matter must be viewed. His claim to be a Pharisee must have had limitations, and by examining the context we can determine what the limited meaning of his remark was. When he said he was a Pharisee he linked with that the explanation that he was being judged over the hope of the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, but the Pharisees did, and so did Paul. In this respect Paul agreed with the Pharisees. He was a Pharisee in viewpoint on the subject he introduced, the resurrection, and in introducing it he showed his position coincided with the Pharisee belief. In any controversy on this subject Paul was to be identified with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees. Before becoming a Christian Paul had been a Pharisee, and after becoming a Christian he still was in agreement with them on some points, such as resurrection, angels and some points of law. (Acts 26:5; Phil. 3:5) So in these respects, within these narrow limits, he could associate himself with the Pharisees, and it was within this restricted meaning that his hearers took his claim, for they certainly knew he was no Pharisee in the sense of belonging to that sect, and it would have been useless for him to try to make them think otherwise.

Seeing the attitude and actions of the first century Pharisees compared to Paul's, we see a clear distinction. Furthermore, the Watchtower article goes on to state that Jehovah God would not have given Paul divine approval (Acts 23:11) if he was still a practicing Pharisee.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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