Paul claims to be a Pharisee in Philippians 3 and in Acts 22:2-5 he claims before the Sanhedrin to have been “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers” (Acts 22:3). 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.

The Pharisees represent a fairly conservative form of Second Temple Judaism although there concern for ritual purity put them at odds with Jesus on a number of occasions. Although Jesus questioned their interpretation and application of the Law and called the hypocrites, he did not object to some of their core beliefs nor indicate they were wrong on fundamental issues important to Second Temple Judaism. For example, the Pharisees believed God had chosen the people of Israel as his own but have been sent into exile as a consequence of their covenant unfaithfulness. They also looked forward to a coming messianic king who would rescue Israel from their oppressors and re-establish a Davidic kingdom. Jesus agrees with all of this (although he would claim to be that son of David and the kingdom is being restored in his own mission).

Just how much influence did Paul’s education as a Pharisee have on his thinking?

  • First, they 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.
  • Fourth, 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 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 (Romans 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?