Was Paul a Pharisee?

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?

19 thoughts on “Was Paul a Pharisee?

  1. Mr. Long, I really appreciate your thoughts regarding the apostle Paul. As a “Pauline dispensationalist” in regards to my overall understanding of the Scripture, there may be some things that we do not see eye to eye on, but the truth is that facts are facts. We all have the same facts to wade through and study ourselves.
    One most important thing that I remember regarding Paul’s ministry, is that the Lord spoke that “he is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel…” (Acts 9:15), and all that which Paul was before this time, his purpose in life drastically changed that day.

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    • This is true. But….People still confuse Jews and Judaism with Judean and Israelite. Judaism is the following of the Babylonian Talmud. Jesus calls these followers children of the devil! Serpents! Consigned to Hell! When the Messiah arrived i.e. Jesus Christ sent by the Father, they rejected Him. They arrested Him! They prosecuted Him and sought the death penalty.

      As such, whenever there is a separation from the norm. e.g. The Old Law, and behavior sours and becomes disjointed opponents will label the group negatively. For example calling a German a Kraut, An Italian a Whop, An Oriental a Chink!

      Well, this works also with Judeans who become seemingly sons of Satan; They’re called Jews!

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      • I think I would try to temper the equation of Jews and the Devil, since Jesus was a Jew and all of his followers were Jewish and all the earliest Christians were Jewish, it is wrong to say “all Jews reject Jesus” – that is simply not true. The Jews in the first century were trying to follow God in the way God had revealed himself to them.

        This sort of anti-Semitic rhetoric would be quite at home in the 19th century, but reflects a fairly ignorant view of Judaism in the first century (and today!)

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  2. I think there need not be any question as to whether Paul was a Pharisee or not, but how flexible he was in what he studied. Paul is a very interesting character and there are things about we can know yet remain curious as to how or what His story was prior to the road to Damascus. What we know is from glimpses in Scripture where Paul either talks about himself or the few chapters in Acts and how he was persecuting Christians.

    I love how you mentioned how the Pharisees were perhaps the chief persecutors of Jesus, yet even other Pharisees were attracted or left in wonder of who this man really was. Nicodemus was drawn to Him, and when Jesus spoke to him he was very attentive as well as confused at his teaching on being reborn.
    There are other incidents where other Pharisees sought Jesus and His teaching which illustrates a fallacy in the Pharisaical tradition and devotion. It is just another veil hindering one from the revelation of Jesus Christ.

    Knowing Pauls Jewish background doesn’t really affect me in a negative way. I read his letters and see God speaking through him. Whether it was his election emphasis in Romans 9-11, I don’t see Paul having a prejudice to his Jewish mindset. What’s interesting is that he used language well known to his audiences in order to communicate a Kingdom truth to His readers. Peter struggled with understanding Pauls letters and I think that says something of how 1) Paul was very close to God and 2) how it’s not so much a Jewish prejudice. I think Paul was humble and as a result, God gave him insights that are not that easy to understand. (2 Peter 3:16)

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  3. I think much of Paul’s thinking changed, if not personally, then definitely on how he viewed others. We know throughout Scripture the Pharisees are known to be rigid and unwavering in their beliefs. However, Paul comments multiple times about freedoms and not judging others in his letters; Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 just to name a few. Romans 14:10 lays it out nicely I believe. “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” Also in Acts 15 when people began preaching that one must be circumcised to be saved, both Paul and Barnabas are pretty upset. Paul may have been taught as a Pharisee, and may have even kept some of the Law after the Damascus Road experience, but given his ministry focus to the gentiles, not to mention, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:22b). His stance on how he views others is very non-pharisaical.

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  4. In knowing Paul’s Jewish background, I feel that I still read his letters in the way the way God wants them to be read. I think Paul, even though having views like Pharisees, brought forth a mission that continued to impact the growing Church regardless of his background. This seems to be what is most important because Paul builds this basis through his letters and writings for the Church, and we still continue to look at things like the missionary strategies he used to reach Gentiles. So, I would say Paul’s Jewish background is not a negative thing at all, but rather it gives a unique perspective to who Paul is. It seems that Paul was willing to reach further into the world because that is where he felt the Holy Spirit leading him. He may have a thought process like the Pharisees because that is what he was taught, but ultimately we see that he brings teachings and understandings to churches.

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  5. Roth Smith:

    I think it is important for us to understand Paul’s Jewish background so that we can more fully understand the context in which Paul is writing. Almost two millennia after the time of Paul’s writing are we, in the twenty-first century, reading what he wrote; our culture today is totally not the culture of Paul’s time. It is very easy for us to read our own culture back into Scripture; but doing so often gives us a tainted and somewhat inaccurate interpretation of Scripture. Thus, learning about who Paul was as a Jew and as a Pharisee will help us unlock his personal and cultural contexts in which he wrote his letters. Paul was a Jew who grew up in both the Jewish and Roman world. “Thus the evidence points to a Greek-medium Jewish education, in which the broad spectrum of Hellenism entered Paul’s mind only through the filter of his conservative Pharisaic environment” (TTP 26). Because Paul was a Pharisee, he seemed quite comfortable preaching and teaching in any environment. Even as soon as he was able to see again after his encounter with Jesus, he was preaching about the Son of God. “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Acts 9:20

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  6. While there are many similar key beliefs that the Pharisees shared with Christians, there were also some major differences that changed Paul’s thinking. One major way is obviously his accepting of Christ as Lord, but also the Holy Spirit. Paul writes a lot about the works of the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit, especially in Ephesians (1:14-15). To think that the Jews had a problem with accepting Christ as God, how much more then did Paul have to open up his mind to accept God as 3 persons but still one God? Especially when Paul talks about the Holy Spirit living inside of us and being a mark of salvation, I would think most Pharisees would see that as the ultimate blasphemy if every Tom, Dick, and Harry went around proclaiming they had God inside of them to secure their spot in heaven (although this is a rough representation of what The Holy Spirit really is). This belief alone affected a number of core Jewish beliefs; no longer did Paul have to live his life as a slave to the law, rather he lived according to the Spirit and was filled with the spirit, relying on His help for discernment in his life. By abandoning the law ( in the sense of no longer letting it rule his life), he abandoned the core of what it meant to be a faithful and dedicated Pharisee. Just from looking at some of the changes that took place in Paul after his conversion, it would be hard to say that not much of his thinking was affected.

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  7. “Was Paul a Pharisee?”
    Understanding Paul’s Jewish background does influence how we, as modern-day Christians, read Paul’s letters. Paul (Saul) was brought up in a Jewish household in Tarsus (TTP, 20). Paul was a follower of the Law and he became “both a Pharisee and a persecutor of Jesus-followers” (TTP, 20). Gamaliel was Paul’s tutor during his adult Pharisee education. Gamaliel was a Pharisee in the council, described as a “teacher of the law held in honor by all the people” (Acts 5:34). Paul described his upbringing and education under Gamaliel later on in the book of Acts (Acts 22:3). As Dr.Long mentioned, Paul used the “Hebrew Bible extensively and in ways which would resonate with the methods of the Pharisees”. Paul was zealous for the law and persecuted the Way to other’s death and imprisonment. It would be during this time that Paul gained his intimate knowledge of God’s word through the Pharisaic environment (TTP, 26). John Barclay suggests that Paul’s “Pharisaic education must have taken place in Jerusalem, in a school of Torah interpretation, probably in Paul’s case in the Greek language” (TTP, 26). Paul’s letters indicated that he was a “relatively well-educated and remarkably well traveled artisan-apostle, who was vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a mobile existence” (TTP, 27). It is important to understand Paul’s Jewish background and how it influenced his writing and knowledge both before and after his trip on the road to Damascus.

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  8. Paul being a Pharisee really opens my eyes to a lot of new ideas. It makes me truly think about his ministry in a different light. In 1 Corinthians 9 it talks about becoming different things to reach others. “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. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some of them,” (1 Corinthians 9:21-22). When I think of Pharisees, I think about men that are stuck in their ways and they are not going to waiver. So, for Paul to talk about becoming different, to have an open mind, is almost shocking. I think we can see hints of his traditional ways, but he truly had a radical way of thinking for that time. It is great insight from our book when it states, “he became both a Pharisee and a persecutor of Jesus-followers,” (TTP 21). He had many different roles in society, even coming down to his home roots. “Paul was a citizen of both Rome and Tarsus,” (TTP 25). Having all these different roles in society, opened his eyes to different hurts going on in this world. He was able to reach what was considered the unreachable. This shows me that God can use you from all walks of life. Where you end up is not a mistake, it is how you use your circumstances that makes the difference.

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  9. “Paul was a zealous follower of the Lord and of the law. Over time, he became both a Pharisee and a persecutor of Jesus-followers” (Longenecker, 21). In his being a Pharisee a lot of Paul’s thinking had to of changed in the result of his Damascus Road Experience. Paul started out persecuting those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and after his experience he was then one of those believers. That is a huge change in one’s life. As you and Eric state there are some Pharisees that respect Jesus and others like Paul, at the time before his experience, who reject him and do away with those who accept him. It is odd that there can be both types as one would think all Pharisee’s would have the same outlook on Jesus as the Messiah, but then again there are many different denominations of Christianity so it just all depends on how an individual is going to respond to what they are being taught. The same goes for Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. He could have easily rejected the voice of Jesus and gone about his deed mentioned in Acts 9:2 “and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (ESV). He did not though even with his background in the ways of the Pharisees. I do not think that with this information of Paul being a Pharisee should change one’s outlook on him. If anything, it should strengthen one’s belief in God. God used a man, Paul, who was persecuting His loved people. If God can change someone’s total outlook of life and then use him for the glory of God, imagine what He can do with those of us who already believe Jesus is the Messiah and already love Him. Paul is a great example of completely trusting in Jesus no matter what our initial thoughts of Him are. One’s background should not change the mind of one who is reading about what that person did in the latter years of their life.

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  10. I don’t doubt one bit that Paul was a pharisee, in both a literal way and a mindset. It’s ironic when we read about pharisees persecuting Jesus but also having ‘messianic hopes’ — and how Paul, as Saul, exhibited that. After the road to Damascus incident, Saul is basically obliterated (to my understanding) in his transformation to Paul. Jesus making himself clear to you as a Messiah is pretty life-changing, I guess.

    I think that, in Paul’s letters, he still maintains a very scholarly look at most issues concerning morality (or lackthereof) in certain societies, or how to deal with certain issues. However, there is that big difference in that he speaks with the sources of equality between Jews and Gentiles, and the over-arching message that the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor/one another. Yanno, something Jesus talked about, and underlined as being very important. We know for certain that Paul believes in an afterlife, as he addresses in his second letter to the Corinthians, which is something the Pharisees believed in — the big difference being, Jesus is the resurrected, in the case of believing in a resurrection. In the long run of things, Paul is in a post-pharisee state when he begins his ministry and writes his letters. His eyes have been opened to Christ, so his life as a pharisee is behind him, but his education that he received under that remains. A mindset develops overtime and over events, and I think Paul leaves his beliefs as a pharisee at the door when he begins his Christian ministry.

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  11. This is exactly what im talking about:

    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.”

    Paul does require gentiles to follow the law. Once you are in covenant you are no longer considered gentile. This has ALWAYS been a foundation in Judaism. Whenever you see a convert in the Torah (Abraham, Obidiah, Ruth, Rahab). When you have the laws of female captive women coming into covenant do you see any of these people remaining as gentiles or not keeping the law?

    The Issue is that Shammi school says no gentiles can come into covenant and be saved while Hillel does. This is why Paul can never be from Shammi.

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    • Abraham was certainly a pagan who was “converted” to the worship of God, but you are not going to be able to prove from the Hebrew Bible he kept any (much later) Torah requirements. That is the point of Jubilees, a fictional retelling of Genesis to make Abraham into an ideal Jew.

      Other than the kinsmen redeemer law, there is no internal evidence Ruth converted, perhaps she and Rahab fell under the sojourner laws (but I am perfectly OK with those two becoming law-keeping Jews, no argument there).

      “Paul does require gentiles to follow the law.”

      Galatians 3:1–6 (ESV) O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

      Galatians 5:2–4 (ESV) Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

      Perhaps you left the NOT out of your sentence?

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      • Have you studied near eastern covenants? Yes he converted, his name changed and he is refereed to as a Hebrew. Dont try to christianize the Torah. lets keep the book based in the near east.

        So yes hes following the law. I thought you knew “mainstream Judaism” because that is an aspect that is taught to kids in shul. The law was only codified at Sinai because the world was in chaos and he chose Israel to start the redemption.

        Clearly the law was in effect because he TOLD NOAH to get a pair of all animals CLEAN AND UNCLEAN. Show me anywhere in the text before Sinai what clean and unclean is.It doesnt say he taught him, so this is already common knowledge regarding the people of Abraham.

        Why dont you actually read the Torah in Hebrew or get a concordance? Yes all converts in the Torah have to live by the law. Theres even laws for captors and servants coming into covenant that they had to observe the law.

        Youre still not answering the fact that Paul gave converts coming into the faith purity and kosher laws to adhere to. Which is the law because you cannot go into the synagogue or the temple (death) defiled.

        I do not acknowledge ESV only the original languages and concordance. I will see if I can copy and paste without word press messing the texts up.

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  12. Acts 15:29 states food scarified to idols, abstain from blood, strangled animals and abstain from sexual immorality are clearly from Torah.

    1.This is clearly Kosher (Kashrut) dietary guidelines from Exodus 22:30 regarding trief meats and the concept of tamei and tahor as well. After his ruling he tells them to go back into the synagogue. If Paul is telling them not to keep the law he is essentially creating a secondary class within the synagogue and actually damning people and himself. Paul is setting up a system for gentiles to come into the faith,to move from tamei to tahor and eventually convert and worship in the temple. Paul never preached against the law only against corrupt oral law and he never told gentiles to not obey the law. Infact he never called them gentile once they came into covenant. Even in my yeshivas ive attend both Messianic and Orthodox consider gentile converts as native born.

    A.When you eat Halal meat, that is foot sacrificed to idols. Allah is not YHVH

    B. When you eat at the Chinese buffet and they have their kitchen gods with insence, golden cat, buddha etc. Those are idols, and all of the food is under the authority of those idols.Some are even prayed to for people to come in to bring them money for their businesses.

    C. Are you saying its ok for gentiles to be gentiles but no follow the law eventhough Jesus himself did and said it wont pass away until heaven and earth do. Is it ok to eat Halal meat and meat scarified to idols in these markets and restaurants?

    D. I see Yeshua, Paul and Peter following Torah. I dont see anyone else or their disciples doing the opposite

    Word: pniktoj

    Pronounce: pnik-tos’

    Strongs Number: G4156

    Orig: from 4155; throttled, i.e. (neuter concretely) an animal choked to death (not bled):–strangled. G4155

    Use: TDNT-6:455,895 Adjective

    Heb Strong:

    1) suffocate, strangled
    1a) what is strangled, i.e. an animal deprived of life without the shedding of blood
    1b) of cooking: our “smothered” as a culinary term

    Word: eidwloquton

    Pronounce: i-do-loth’-oo-ton

    Strongs Number: G1494

    Orig: neuter of a compound of 1497 and a presumed derivative of 2380; an image-sacrifice, i.e. part of an idolatrous offering:–(meat, thing that is) offered (in sacrifice, sacrificed) to (unto) idols. G1497

    Use: TDNT-2:378,202 Adjective

    Heb Strong:

    1) sacrificed to idols, the flesh left over from the heathen sacrifices
    1a) it was either eaten at the feasts or sold (by the poor and the miserly) in the market

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  13. Definition:

    Non-kosher food, food not in accord with Jewish dietary laws, is called treif.

    Treif derived the Hebrew word teref which means TORN, and originally referred to non-kosher meat only. In Exodus 22:30 it is written “Do not eat meat from an animal torn in the field.” Thus Jews were forbidden to eat meat from an animal that was torn or mortally wounded.

    Over time the meaning of the term treif expanded from one category of non-kosher meat to anything non-kosher.

    More Kosher Vocabulary Words: Glossary of Kosher Terms
    Common Misspellings: trayf, traif, trafe

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  14. General question:

    Have you studied Miqsat Ma’ase HaTorah (4QMMT)?
    Works of the law, custom of Moses and the Law of Moses are three different things.

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