In Polhill’s second chapter there is an excellent overview of the Pharisees in the Second Temple Period.  I think that the Pharisees are generally mis-characterized in popular preaching and most people think of them as the “enemies of Jesus.”  While they were the chief persecutors of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, there were a number of Pharisees that were interested in Jesus in Luke and the gospel of John presents Nicodemus as a Pharisee who approached Jesus with respect.  For Pauline studies, the Pharisees are important because Paul claimed to be a Pharisee and it is possible to describe his theology in terms of Pharisaical Judaism.

Beliefs of the Pharisees were fairly conservative and very much in line with the whole of the Hebrew Bible.  The following items are the “usual description” Pharisee theology, and I would suggest, it is not that far away from Pauline Theology.

  • They struck a balance between freedom and human responsibility. God has ordained many of the events in life, but humans are completely responsible for their actions.
  • They placed supreme importance on the Law and their own interpretation of it.  In the New Testament Jesus is described as debating with the Pharisees fine points of Law, although always within the mainstream of Judaism.  The bulk of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees is over interpretation of Law not the Law itself.
  • Unlike the Sadducees, they believed in resurrection and an afterlife. This is well known and appears to have been a point of contention between the two groups, as is seen in Acts 23:6-8.
  • The Pharisees had messianic hopes. They were looking for the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.  This is the reason that they are among the first of the leaders of Israel to examine the teachings of John the Baptist and of Jesus.

Paul claims to be a Pharisee in Phil 3 and in Acts he claims the party when brought before the Sanhedrin.  Just how much influence did his training as a Pharisee have on his thinking? The usual age for beginning the study of Torah was between fourteen and sixteen,  about the time that a boy became a man.  (Josephus, Life, 9-12).  If Paul’s education followed this pattern, he would have moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel (cf 22:3).  Clearly there are differences between what we might call “mainstream” Pharisees and Paul, but the core seems quite similar.

Can we describe Paul’s theology as “essentially Pharisaical” in outlook?  Is it possible to describe Paul (simply) as a Pharisee who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah?  There were at least some Pharisees who became believers (Acts 15:1-2).  I do not think that we can say that Paul’s belief that Gentiles can be right with God is radical, since the Hebrew Bible makes that point frequently.  What is radical in Paul is his belief that he was called to be “the light to the Gentiles” and that this ministry was separate from that of the ministry of the Twelve. That the Gentiles can be right with God apart from the Law is certainly an non-Pharisee thought.