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.)
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?