Paul the Pharisee?

Paul claims to be a Pharisee in Philippians 3 and when brought before the Sanhedrin Paul claims to have been “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). This is a controversial topic, Scot McKnight interacts with N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God on the topic of Paul as a Pharisee, and Tim Gombis has written a few thoughts on the topic as well. (I will anticipate the objection Paul only claimed to be a Pharisee by stating my assumption that it is historically plausible he was in fact trained as part of the party of the Pharisees simply because the Law-Free apostle to the Gentiles has nothing to gain by claiming to be a Pharisee if he was not.)

paul-the-phariseeJust how much influence did his training as a Pharisee have on his thinking?

The Pharisees are well known in scripture and history. While Pharisees are the chief persecutors of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, especially in Matthew, some Pharisees appear to be interested in Jesus’s teaching (Luke 7:36-50) and the Gospel of John presents Nicodemus as a Pharisee who approached Jesus with respect both before and after the resurrection. Acts 15:5 indicates some Pharisees were associated with the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem.

Josephus has a more positive view of the Pharisees than the Synoptic Gospels. In the period before the Maccabean revolt there was a movement against increasing Hellenistic Jewish political leadership. This movement was known as the Hasadim. These Jews emphasized strict obedience to the law and observance of all Jewish customs, especially circumcision and Sabbath worship. All three of the major parties on first century Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) developed from the Hasadim.

By the first century, Pharisees became less involve in politics but grew in number and popularity with the people of the Israel. Josephus estimates that there were 6000 Pharisees in the early first century, (Antiq.18.16-17), although this number may be inflated.

Beliefs of the Pharisees were fairly conservative and very much in line with the whole of the Old Testament.  Scot McKnight has a lengthy post answering the common assumption the pharisees were hyper-conservative bigots in the first century, it is well worth reading. First, Pharisees struck a balance between freedom and human responsibility.  They believed in Divine providence, and the election of Israel, even the predestination of many vents of life, yet man has some freedom of choice that ensures his responsibility. Second, Pharisees placed supreme importance on the Law and their own oral traditions and interpretations of the Law. Third, unlike the Sadducees, they believed in resurrection and an afterlife.  This appears to have been a point of contention between the two groups, as is seen in Acts 23:6-8. Last, 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.

At least for these four points, Paul’s thinking is similar to his early training as a Pharisee. He also has a balance between determinism and human responsibility and has a strong belief in God’s election of Israel (Roman 9-11, for example). Paul has a view of resurrection consistent with the Pharisees and he obviously believes in a messiah. The difference, of course, is the messiah is Jesus. As one of my students once said in this context, “that is a pretty big difference.” Although Paul is clear Gentiles are not required to keep the Law, he does use the Hebrew Bible extensively and in ways which would resonate with the methods of the Pharisees.

There other ways in which Paul is consistent with the Pharisees in his letters, such as marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. This might come as a surprise to Christian readers of Paul who tend to read the letters as if Paul was a member of an American evangelical church (or worse seminary faculty member!) How will this understanding of Paul’s Jewish background effect our reading of Paul’s letters? Perhaps this leads to a more difficult question, how much of Paul’s thinking changed as a result of his Damascus Road experience?

18 thoughts on “Paul the Pharisee?

  1. As we discussed in our Acts class last semester, Paul’s upbringing as a Pharisee was all part of God’s plan. As Long stated, the Pharisees believed in resurrection and in the messiah, which prepared Paul mentally for when he later converted to Christianity (Longenecker calls it both a calling and a conversion on pages 32, 34). Paul had been persecuting the Christians as a Pharisee (1 Cor 15:9) and already knew, through careful study of the Christians and their claims, what the Christians believed (Quarles, 30). Paul would not have had this prior knowledge had he not been a Pharisee that was zealous for the law and its teachings (Longenecker describes this Zeal on pg 29, 31). Paul only writes in his letters twice of his conversion; in 1 Cor 15: 8-11, and Gal 1: 11-17, but in both he emphasizes the revelation of Christ, and the persecution he was originally going to execute before this revelation (Longenecker, 31). Paul’s Jewish upbringing is not deleted after his conversion; as Long stated in the post, it can be seen later in his letters (such as marriage in 1 Corinthians), and in acts 23:6 it is seen when he appeals to the pharisees by identifying with them, quoting his upbringing. This Jewish upbringing, which gave Paul his knowledge of the old testament and beliefs that aided his later conversion on Damascus road, was all part of God’s plan from the beginning.

  2. I found this very interesting. Since I never really gave any thought of Paul’s Pharisee teachings influencing him after he converted to Christianity, I sometimes forget that he had that background, but it makes sense for him to still think about and be influenced by his past teachings. It is also interesting to see how God used that teaching for Paul to preach God’s truth to others. Pretty cool how God can use our past for Him.

  3. Paul’s education and standing as a Pharisee is hugely important to understand when reading his writings, as it lends tremendous credibility to his knowledge of Jewish tradition and scripture. His time under Gamaliel provided the groundwork for the way that he argues for his ideas and theology. It is important to keep in mind that Paul was a Jew who came to faith in the Jewish Messiah. If anything I think that his training as a Pharisee would make being called to the Gentiles a difficult calling to stomach at first, since they were not the elect of God and going to the Gentiles with God’s message might have seemed very backwards to him at first. However, I for one am glad that he did it.

  4. Everyone comes to theology (or any field of study) with at least some form of knowledge. It can be on any level from I hear someone say the word once to I’ve read every book I can find on the subject. It’s kind of like a freshman coming into Bible College and knowing only what their parents taught or like a freshman coming into Bible College with a background of Christian school, good church, and a love of studying for themselves. Both of these would have knowledge of some kind, but one is more extensive and probably more correct. The same thing happened with Paul he would have been the second of the freshman. His knowledge would have been more full, not on mere fragments of information. He had the training of Gamaliel (Longnecker 25) who would have given him a firm foundation. That foundation could help Paul read and interpret scripture. He would be trust worthy, at least in his fundamentals. It would have given him the tools to read into the scripture and see how Jesus truly fulfilled prophecy. However, that background gives a skewed perception, only giving that one side of thinking. Hopefully in Paul’s case he took that into consideration, did his own study, and came up with what he truly thought to be the correct ideas and not just base his thoughts on what he was told.

  5. In regards to the first question presented in the article, it seems evident that Paul, also known as Saul, lived in the identity of a Pharisee (before his conversion), the training of which influenced his thought life and actions greatly, before and after his conversion. Let’s dig into this claim.

    First, I appreciate the angle that Natalie P took on Paul’s training as a Pharisee. She said: “Paul’s upbringing as a Pharisee was all part of God’s plan.” That will be instrumental for the later parts of the post.

    The Pharisees are said to have believed in ‘the resurrection of the dead’ and in the Messiah, however, given that Paul was persecuting the church, he blatantly denied the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. He is actively persecuting the believers. His conversion in Acts 9, however, is interesting because it is Jesus himself who is addressing him, and not God the Father. It is important to note this, given the New Perspective (which we will talk about later). Paul was a Pharisee and already believed in God, a coming Messiah, and the resurrection from the dead. He thought he was serving the God of the OT by persecuting Christians. Given that backdrop, think about his conversion. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (v. 5).

    As described by Paul, his ‘conversion’ as we call it was never called a conversion, by him, or anyone else in Scripture. (This is a premise of the New Perspective). In short, one of the ideas is that Paul never abandon Judaism. “This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “establish a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.” (Long, The New Perspective on Paul, p.9) The article continues by saying that a possibility is “he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.” (Long, p.9) However, the options put forth by proponents of the New Perspective, in part, could not be true, as Long would go on to speak to. Paul was radically changed.

    He would go on to state in Galatians 1:13 “For you have heard of my former (emphasis on former) life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many…so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers…”

    Herein lies my proposed answer to both questions. Paul’s training as a Pharisee was the identity through with his persecutory actions were taken against the church. But as Natalie said “Paul’s upbringing as a Pharisee was all part of God’s plan.” That is true, because after Paul had a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:16), his identity changed to that of a servant of Christ, from which his new actions came. The law was instantly written on his heart. His training as a pharisee came to use when he was able to adamantly denounce ritualism and arrogant law keeping and point the Gentiles to Jesus Christ so that they may have a revelation of their own.

  6. I am of the opinion that the Bible hints clearly at Paul having been a Pharisee before his conversion to Christianity. I know that Longenecker and Still wavered over calling it a conversion, but I think it couldn’t have been anything other than a conversion. It is highly plausible that Paul was a Pharisee for a time before his revelation from Jesus Christ on his way to Damascus. My reasons coincide with a couple of Professor Long’s reasons, stated in his article, such as: “Pharisees placed supreme importance on the Law and their own oral traditions and interpretations of the Law,” and “Paul has a view of resurrection consistent with the Pharisees and he obviously believes in a messiah.” For anyone who reads into Paul’s past, whether through reading the Bible, or what others have found out about Paul, they would see he was educated and grew up zealously following the Law. As Longenecker and Still pointed out in their book, Paul was a Jew who “valued the ancestral customs and convictions of his people,” (TTP, 26). Before his conversion he grew up believing strictly in the teachings of the Old Testament, and as Paul mentioned in Acts 23:6, he was a “son of Pharisees” which would most likely have given him a slight advantage in the amount of educating he received (especially from his relatives). I personally think that would have given him some of his connections. Plus, growing up with members of his family who were Pharisees would have influenced him, since most Jews back then followed in their parent’s and elders “career” footsteps. The authors of Thinking Through Paul mentioned it, but in Acts 22:3, Paul clearly explains to his fellow Jews how thoroughly and seriously he had been educated regarding the Law in the past, and had been just as zealous as they were. Going back to the second point I quoted from Long about how Paul’s views on the Messiah and the resurrection from the dead, Paul had very much been in line with those views until Christ appeared to him. He had even gone as far as persecuting those following Jesus, and had been on his way to catch more Jesus-followers in the act of meeting up in Damascus, when he changed his views. However, just because his views changed, and for a very good reason, doesn’t mean that Paul’s position as a Pharisee prior too never happened. He just changed from that zealous position into an apostolic position when he became an apostle of Christ. He obviously felt compelled to switch gears and was no longer a Pharisee, but rather ended up ministering about Jesus to the surprise of many who had previously known him. All in all, I think all of this evidence and reasoning point towards Paul having been a Pharisee despite his later conversion to Christianity.

  7. It was written above, quote:
    “……..the Law-Free apostle to the Gentiles has nothing to gain by claiming to be a Pharisee if he was not.”

    Actually, in short-term worldly sense, Paul did have something to gain. Luke’s editorial comments record Paul’s reason for publicly claiming ‘I am a Pharisee’, and that Paul immediately gained the reaction he was intending – division among his enemies. [Acts 23:6-10]

    Paul was a master at grandstanding and playing divisive power politics, dividing people and creating problems, division, resentment, misunderstandings, and bad feelings that he could personally benefit from.

  8. “(I will anticipate the objection Paul only claimed to be a Pharisee by stating my assumption that it is historically plausible he was in fact trained as part of the party of the Pharisees simply because the Law-Free apostle to the Gentiles has nothing to gain by claiming to be a Pharisee if he was not.)”

    But after the Sadducees ceased to exist and the Pharisees were libelling them as having been a party of irreligion it might have been embarassing to the church to have Paul a Sadducee (despite the Sads being the more conservative and lawkeeping party in the gospels and even Acts) due to the Jewish attacks on the historical Sadducees, so they might have changed Paul to a Pharisee to save his reputation as a strict lawkeeper. Since the Paul of the Epistles clearly only believes in a resurrection for the saved or those “in Christ” and “who belong to Christ at his coming” and not for the unsaved (the wages of sin is death not bad resurrection followed by hell), and since he speaks of hoping he will “attain unto the resurrection” its obvious he is not a Pharisee in beleiving in a resurrection of the just “and the unjust.” Further, his “hope of the resurrection” for those “in Christ” is clearly only based on analogy to Jesus’ resurrection (the firstfruits thing, 1 Cor 15) and not on a belief that the OT teaches a general resurrection of the just “and the unjust” which puts Paul in the ex-Sadducee camp not the ex-Pharisee camp.

  9. Paul was Satan in the flesh.

    Satan first misquoted Gods word to Eve.

    Next, Satan misquoted Gods word to Jesus during the 40 days/nights in the desert.

    Satan has since been twisting Gods word through his servant “Paul, Constantine, Catholic and Protestant churches” with the sole purpose of causing people to disobey Gods word and commandments of love.

    Brief example;
    “As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭3:10-11‬ ‭NKJV‬‬ (3:10-20 in full).

    Satan is writing to Christ followers in Rome and misquotes to them Psalm 14, but conveniently leaves out 14:1, because psalm 14 was written to describe “the FOOLS” who do NOT believe in God.

    “THE FOOL has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, They have done abominable works, There is none who does good.”
    ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭14:1

    2nd example;
    “which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would NOT HAVE CRUCIFIED the Lord of glory.”
    ‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭2:8‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

    and Jesus would have rebuked Satan just like He did when spoke the same words through Peter.

    “Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall NOT HAPPEN TO YOU!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.””
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭16:22-23‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

    The above examples are just a hint of the MANY MANY lies of Satan written in Pauls letters starting with Acts and ending with Rev. the biggest lie that binds or help Satans lies from being exposed is 2 Tim 3:16.

    New Testament epistles are only a satanic distraction meant to keep people FROM reading, believing and OBEYING GODS truth. And most of you “Scholars, Pastors & Bible teachers” are blind leading the blind.

    Jesus came to bring people back to God, not to “grace” or the “gospel of grace” which states that “it’s not by works but by faith ALONE”.

    In the process of living by “grace” many are falling into and continuing life in sin, because “grace” cannot help the “FOOLS” that DON’T believe GOD, for to believe is to OBEY.

    Jesus always dismissed Satans lies by quoting His own words spoken to Moses, read Deuteronomy.

    Jesus said;
    “If you love me, obey my commandments”

    ““Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who LOVE HIM and KEEP His commandments;”

    “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments”.

    Satan tells the “FOOLS” the opposite and that Gods commandments of love leading to life are evil and that they only bring death to us.

    These are just few examples of the many lies in all of the epistles, Peter, James & John are mostly legit, as these actually saw and the Lord Jesus teach, Paul
    And his entourage of political mercenaries did NOT.

  10. “The law-free” apostle and all of his followers will hear the Lord Jesus declaring to them loud and clear;

    “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice LAWLESSNESS!’”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:23 NKJV

    Wake up you lost sheep!

  11. That’s your response to my posts???

    Or do you simply not care to address the lies of Pauls letters as that would put an end to biblical and religious profiteering?

    FYI, I have no idea as to which “Mathew Perri” you are referring to, nor do I care.

    But to make your day, sure why not, call me Mathew, if that will help you any.?

    • Yes, that is my response. Same as to the other anti-Paul martyrs who turn up here from time to time. It is not good to feed the trolls.

  12. I now understand your position, thank you.

    I will never reply to any of your comments on this or any site again, as I am not a troll, but a person who loves God and His truth rather than the lies of “Paul”.

    I pray God will help you and your students to eventually see the light of Gods truth, and not the same light which blinded Paul on “the road to Damascus”.

    Good day to you!

  13. Very well said, Mathew Perri.

    I totally agree with your statement. Please continue to allow the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you into all truth as He is obviously doing. God will bless and keep you!

    But beware, as Satan will work overtime on anyone(spiritual warfare through lies and deception) to discourage and keep them from receiving Gods truth.

    There’s a great documentary on Prime “tares among the wheat” in case anyone has not Yet watched it.

    Dan B.

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