Acts 23 – Paul the Faithful Jew?

In Acts 23:1 Paul claims to have “lived his life in good conscience up to this day.”  In the context of a hearing before the Sanhedrin, it is possible to read this as a statement that he has been faithful to the Jewish Law.   This is very similar to what Paul says in Acts 24:16 when he describes his entry into the Temple as  “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”  He even points out that he was giving alms to the poor (the collection) and participating in a purification ritual when he was unjustly attacked.

PaulIn fact, Paul was in the temple “purifying himself” (ἁγνίζω, Acts 21:24, 24:18).  The verb is not normally associated with the Nazarite vow (which took thirty days, not the seven mentioned in Acts 21).  The verb is used in John 11:55 for Jews purifying themselves prior to the Passover (cf., Josesphus, JW 6, 425, Ant. 12, 145). Pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem from Gentile territory purified themselves in the Temple In Num 19:12 the verb is used to purify oneself after touching a corpse.  That Paul was willing to undergo this level of purity ritual at this point in his career indicates that he is still willing to “be a Jew among the Jews” (1 Cor 9:20).

Paul goes a bit further and claims to be a Pharisee.  After his exchange with the High Priest in Acts 23:2-5, Paul shifts the focus to the controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees (23:6-10). This maneuver has caused some commentators to criticize Paul. It is not an honest argument by Paul, he instigates a near riot between the two factions of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were a minority in the Sanhedrin, but a popular and vocal minority. They believed in the resurrection of the dead as well as angels and spirits.

Is this true? Can Paul be considered a “practicing Pharisee” at this point in his ministry?  For some interpreters, this is not at all the historical Paul who wrote Galatians.  At the very least, he has broken purity traditions by eating with Gentiles. Yet with regard to the issue of the resurrection, he was a Pharisee.  Paul is simply stating that he agrees on this major point, and for the Pharisees, at this moment, it is enough for them to defend Paul.

By making this statement, Paul gains the favor of the Pharisees while enraging the Sadducees. The argument that ensues was so fierce that the Roman official thought that Paul would be “torn to pieces,” so he takes him back to the barracks, leaving the Jews to their “theological dispute.”

While it was a crafty way of deflecting attention away from himself, it is possible that Paul was serious – with respect to the Law Paul has a clear conscience. James Dunn offers the suggestion that Paul’s statement was less for the Sanhedrin (which had probably already judged him as guilty), but for the Roman tribune and soldiers.  The word conscience (συνείδησις)  is a concept that does not really appear in Hebrew (Dunn, Beginning at Jerusalem, 974, n. 73, the word is only found in the LXX in Eccl. 10:29 and Wisdom 17:10).  If he spoke Greek and used this particular expression, it is possible that he was claiming to the Romans that he was not guilty of any crime.

What do we do with this incident?  Is Paul playing both sides in order to gain converts?  Did he really “keep the Law” while telling Gentiles to “not keep the Law”?  I can think of a number of issues I might hold loosely so that I can reach both sides.  Perhaps there is an application to Christian involvement in politics or some social issues.

18 thoughts on “Acts 23 – Paul the Faithful Jew?

  1. When you say “playing both sides” it sounds a little harsh, but there is really no other way to say it without bringing possible criticism to Paul. I think there is some truth behind this statement though. Paul does follow the law to a certain degree and that makes him a Jew among the Jews, but he also tells the Gentiles to reject the law and eats with them and this makes him among the Gentiles. There are probably arguments that would support both sides of this debate, but I would go with the side that he is playing both sides and I would base this on 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. In these verses, Paul plainly states that he was under the law for those who were under the law and was not under the law for those who were not. In verse 23, Paul plainly states that he did this for the sake of the gospel, “that he may share in it’s blessing. ” I think that Christians today can take this strategy from Paul and use it to reach out to those who are not saved. Just as Ed Dobson did in his book, Living a Year Like Jesus. He went to bars to reach out to those who socialized in the bars. However, he never got drunk, he drank a little bit. I think that Christians must be careful if they use this strategy to reach out to people. Romans 12:2 tells us not to conform to the patterns of the world. So I think there is a difference between conforming and putting yourself in a different situation.

  2. I believe that Paul was playing both sides with the purpose of bring others to Christ. In no way is he looking to achieve benefit by playing both sides. Paul’s sole purpose is to bring other to follow Christ and take part in its blessings. As Jake pointed out there is no better place to go to than 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, where Paul plainly says he is playing both sides. He became like one under the law to win those under the law. He became like one not under the law to win those not under the law! It is plain to see that Paul was trying to reach everyone he came across: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). It makes sense that Paul would continue to follow the law because that is what he had been taught growing up. He was not all of a sudden going to stop following the law, which was there to show him what was right “so that Grace would abound!” (Romans 6:1) He continued to follow what he knew what was right but mainly because it would allow him to reach the Pharisees that held the law so high. But then he would not follow the rituals or extreme views of not eating with gentiles because he had to reach the gentiles too. I think this is very practical to evangelizing today; a missionary couple from the US can’t go to a Muslim country and wear what they want. If they want to gain the respect and attention in order to reach these people groups they would have to dress modestly. How can you reach people who are sports addicts, you connect with them by participating in their hobbies. I really like Paul becoming all things to share the gospel but also staying strong in his core beliefs.

  3. I do not think that this move of dividing the Pharisees and Sadducees is something to lose respect for Paul. It is true, Paul describes himself in Philippians 3:5 as “circumcised on the eighth day…in regard to the law, a Pharisee.” Although he has eaten with Gentiles and has broken certain elements of the Law, he clings fiercely to the belief that God has extended His Kingdom to the Gentiles and Paul is not going to stand in the way of the Lord’s work. It seems that Paul has kept the Law except for times where it would interfere with his ministry to the Gentiles. Paul is following Jesus’ examples: Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath as well as ate with tax collectors (Luke 13:14, Matt 9:10). Paul clearly taught that salvation was by faith alone through the gift of grace and not through works (Eph 2:8). Although others may believe that Paul was wishy-washy here, it seems that Paul understood the big picture in that he would keep the Law when possible, but it was not important enough to interfere with his work among the Gentiles.

  4. You can clearly see, as p. long pointe out, that Paul was playing both sides but why wa he? I think he was trying to gain converts by doing this. Also I did not know, but find it interesting that the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection an that their are neither Angels or spirits. Now a days I walk around and I see amazing things happen everyday. I see the beautiful creation that God has made and I see my past and how far I have come and I always think ” how can people not believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose again?” But I see in tho text that even back then people like the Sadducees didn’t believe it either and it was durin their time. Moral of the story, there will always be someone there saying it’s not real and it’s on us to show them that it is. Plant the seed.

  5. Did he really “keep the Law” while telling Gentiles to “not keep the Law”?

    This is a real possibility, no? It would be right in line with what James and the elders say to Paul in Acts 21:20-25. James certainly seemed to see no conflict between a Jewish disciple of Jesus adhering to the law while telling Gentile disciples that they do not have to do so. Whether this can be reconciled to Galatians (I think it can) or not, Acts certainly seems to present it as a very real possibility that Paul could have faithfully adhered to the law even while teaching Gentiles that they did not have to do so. Perhaps Paul was not only still willing to “be a Jew among the Jews” but perhaps he was also a Jew among the Gentiles? Otherwise, why did he take a Nazarite vow and cut his hair in Cenchreae?

  6. It does appear that Paul was “playing both sides” of the issue betweens Jews and Gentiles. Now it is extended between the division of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. However, I am unsure to what extent. You could certainly use the argument of 1 Corinthians 9 as a possible mode of strategy for Paul says that ” I have become all things to all people, that by all means I may save some. (Corinthians 9:22b) However, as I pondered the different circumstances within this post, it appears to be somewhat contradictory to “become all things to all men” and if we take this approach in our modern world today, we need to be careful that we do not cause others to stumble by saying one thing while doing another. It does not appear that Paul caused anyone to stumble but that detail is not given. However, I do not think it is inherrently wrong for Paul to be a “cultural” Jew and maintain his Christian faith. In doing so, he has become an effective witnes for the Gospel in the midst of the people who are in his sphere of influence during this time.

  7. I completely agree with Brad K. Paul can be a “Jew among the Jews” as well as a Jew among the gentiles. He did not tell the Jews not to keep the law, and himself being a Jew would be included in that statement.
    I feel like it has a lot to do with being in the culture and what is appropriate within the culture. Following and obeying God’s commands are number one and Paul understood that but he realized that he could reach out to the gentiles and to the Jews but that they needed different ways of approach.
    So while I do think that he tried to get a lot of the pressure and attention off of himself by creating an argument among the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he genuinely meant what he said.

  8. I don’t know if I would refer to what Paul was doing as “playing both sides.” To me, that phrase makes it seem like Paul was trying to get something out of saying that he was a Pharisee at the moment. It makes it seem like he was saying that to get the Pharisees before him on his side at that time. I think he was being genuine and honest when he spoke to the Gentiles about not keeping the law because he truly believed that it would intimidate them and it wasn’t necessary to stick to the law in order to have a relationship with God. If it is put as “playing both sides” it seems to me that maybe that would mean that he said that in order for them to believe him or believe in Christ. In reality, Paul genuinely believed that they did not need to practice the law. He knew that of himself as a Jew as well. He was very aware that Jews did not need to practice the law in order to have a relationship with Christ, but they had been practicing it for so long and were so zealous towards the law that it would almost be offensive to tell them not to. It is like they have been practicing a tradition that they just don’t really want to break. When Paul identified as a Pharisee, I believe he was being genuine and honest once again because he believed what they believed. I don’t think he was “playing sides” in a sense that he just said that so they would believe him or take his side. He truly meant it!

  9. Paul’s shrewd comments to the Sanhedrin point to his understanding of the situation. To many Romans, the Sanhedrin was a Jewish theological center that they did not understand. However, it did have some power over Jews and could get the Roman officials to carry out punishments if it worked hard enough to do so; see Jesus. Paul knows that the Sanhedrin will not like what he has to say about the Gospel of Jesus Christ so he instead appeals to the Romans sense of understanding; speaking in Greek to communicate his innocence. By doing this, Paul not only establishes a connection between himself and the Romans but a distance between himself and the Sanhedrin; who soon descend into chaos. Hearing Paul’s claims of innocence and the dispute in the Sanhedrin probably guaranteed that the Romans would favor Paul in a dispute between himself and the Jewish leaders. This move, while a bit uncharacteristic of Paul can be seen as another way in which he works around possible punishment for the advancement of the Gospel.

  10. I think we as Christians would do good to be similar to Paul in this situation. While it can come off as wishy-washy to some to not be decisive on some issues, sometimes it’s better to take a step back objectively, and look at how both sides see a particular point. It’s not because one doesn’t know how they feel about something, but rather so that they can reach both sides. What Paul is doing is not because he doesn’t know what he believes, but so that he can minister to both Jew and Gentile. It’s why he continues to keep the Law, but tells the Gentiles that it isn’t for them.

    Sometimes some Christians get very caught up in their stance on a topic, to the point where they think that their faith is an integral part of it. For example; some people think that being a good American means that you’re a Christian and go to church every Sunday, and other Christians would think that being that invested in patriotism is wrong, bordering on idolatry. I tend to think that we need to put our identity in Christ first before we think about tying patriotism into it all. And being so caught up in that argument means that the over-patriotic side wouldn’t be able to minister to those who might not know Christ, and might not be that big a fan of America. For me, it’s important to respect the country and culture, while not hurting my faith in the process, which I think is what Paul is doing during this time. He’s keeping himself able to minister to more people by partaking in the culture that he’s trying to reach.

  11. Paul’s right standing with the law was likely vastly true. Yes, he shared meals with gentiles, which is against the law, but he may have kept the rest of the law. However, Paul knew that salvation was no longer based on the law. While he might have observed the vast majority of the law, because he grew up in the law and it was more than habit at this point. Being a zealous Jew would have ingrained the law deep into Paul’s personality. Since Paul that knew salvation was not law based, he could uphold most of the law and in good conscious say that he upheld the law.

  12. I don’t see any problem of contradiction in anything Paul said here!

    Paul didn’t merely “claim” to have lived his life in good conscience as a Pharisee – that was absolutely true. He was a faithful and devout Jew, not only observant of the Law but – more importantly – living his whole life under good conscience to God. There is nothing he ever wrote which would lead us to doubt that.

    Yes, he broke some of the “rules” of the establishment, but some of those rules were just unbiblical oral/Talmudic traditions, never part of God’s law.

    Other rules which Paul seemed to “break” only seemed to be broken when viewed from a strict, legalistic, Old Covenant perspective. But from a spiritual perspective, Paul wasn’t disobeying any of God’s commands. Just as Jesus wasn’t disobeying any of God’s commands by healing on the Sabbath.

    In fact – at that point in time – Paul was one of the most faithful, devout, and observant Jew on the planet. Mainstream Judaism had become corrupted and descended into almost a false religion. In contrast, Paul was now filled with the Holy Spirit of God – his heart filled with the spiritual truth of God’s Law, and his mind enlightened to understand God’s ways. Paul and the Apostles could now read the Scripture and understand its true meaning to the fullest. So when Paul said he was a Pharisee, he absolutely meant it! He was the ultimate Pharisee and the ultimate Jew!

    Paul certainly was not “playing both sides”. You make it sound somehow sneaky, but Paul was a totally sincere man. Paul had dual citizenship and was therefore simply reaching out to all kind of people based on common grounds.

    Take me, for example. I’m a fan of Star Trek, and I’m a fan of Superman. But when I go into a Superman forum to witness the Lord, I don’t announce myself as a “Star Trek fan”. And when I go into a Star Trek forum to witness the Lord, I don’t announce myself as a “Superman fan”. I draw upon what I have in common with the people I’m dealing with at the time.

    Finally, you say that Paul taught the Gentiles to “not keep the Law”!? Someone else said that Paul taught Gentiles to “reject the law”!

    GOOD GRIEF! Paul never said any such thing! He would never tell anyone to disregard the Law, only that salvation is no longer based on keeping the Law.

    But as for the validity of the Law, the Lord Jesus made it quite clear:

    Matthew 5:17-19
    “17 ​”Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. … Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

  13. Paul made the effort constantly keep others in mind. I think of in 1 Corinthians 9:20, when he explains the important of becoming like a Jew to the Jews, but also one under the law to those who were under the law. It seems as if he is trying to fit the different cultures around him to effectively witness to them. It is not that he is bound by the law, but if they respect the law, he wants to earn trust by action.

    Paul was doing effective ministry of sharing culture with them but making sure he was sticking to his core values. He speaks to them in terms and examples that they would understand. This is important wherever we bring the gospel of Jesus. We must understand who we are talking to and the culture that surrounds them.

    I believe it is important to be involved with politics and social issues so that we can gain God’s heart for them and shed light on them. I also see importance in sitting back, and taking a more neutral position, because maybe it isn’t something huge to dispute over. As Christians, I think we can do a better job of letting go of our opinions for the sake of reaching the lost, or even being more unified as the church. Core values are non-negotiable, but opinions of different issues may cause more disunity than showing love to those who know or don’t know Jesus.

  14. “Is Paul playing both sides in order to gain converts?” We see an answer to this question in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, in which Paul states, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some,” (ESV). Paul took the time to understand the culture and background of the audience that he was ministering to, in order to relate to them and spread the Gospel message. In order to win the Jews, he became as one under the law, and to win the Gentiles, he became as one outside of the law. I don’t believe that Paul rejected the Law when he was with the Gentiles, he was just trying to appeal to all people in order to spread the Gospel. He adapted his behavior slightly, while still remaining true to who he was, depending on who he was with in order most effectively serve others, and to gain their trust and build relationships with them for the sake of the gospel.
    Paul sets a great example of what Christians should be doing today when sharing the gospel. Instead of entering into another culture and forcing our beliefs on them, we should first seek to understand their culture and what their beliefs are. We have to be willing to meet people where they are at and be non-judgmental as they share their thoughts with us. Instead of forcing our beliefs onto others, it is important to take the time to first listen and understand them. Taking the time to listen to their beliefs will build up trust and rapport in our relationship with others, which will likely lead to them being more receptive to hearing our beliefs.

  15. I can’t help but think that Paul had a soft spot of sorts for the law. It reminds me of Peter and the vision he received earlier in Acts about eating unclean food. While ultimately, he does obey God, Peter seems shocked. Is God really telling him to break the law? After all the law was given by God and they were keeping it for God (because they were good Jews).
    When Paul speaks here, it seems that he is trying to convey a similar idea. The law was important to him and it was something that he still held in high regard. As we have discussed in class, keeping the law was something that they liked to do. It wasn’t as though Jews became Christians and yelled, “Yay! We’re finally freed from keeping the law!”. Perhaps some did (i.e. Paul’s writings to not use their freedom as a license to sin). But overall the law was still important. Was this what Paul was trying to relay?
    In the matters of the law, Jesus was blameless (though this would have been a highly contested idea). Jesus was often accused of breaking the Sabbath, to which he explained that he was actually fulfilling it.
    Could we say the same of Paul? Is this part of what he is claiming? Did Paul mean that he did not discard the law in its entirety? And, at its core, he never actually broke the law or stopped following it (but followed the law as fulfilled and reoriented by Jesus)?

  16. I like that you use the word “crafty” because I think he used it intentionally, not necessarily to stir up trouble between the two but to gain an appreciation from one side at the very least. In the context of scripture though, the word crafty also makes me think of the serpent in the garden. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast in the field…” (Gen. 3:1). In this way the serpent intentionally told a half truth in order to meet his desired end. Can we say that Paul was still a Pharisee since his experience on the road to Damascus? Was he crafty like the serpent? Was he just simply crafty in order to gain favor? Based on Paul’s track record so far, this was not done maliciously, but rather as a way to prove to his Roman captors that he was exactly who he said he was. How the Jewish people keep the law is different than how Paul seems to keep the law which is evident in their anger towards him. This same anger was directed towards Jesus when he “broke” the law but really, he was expanding their understanding of the law. In Matthew 5:17 he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” I think that Paul is using the example that Jesus set before him, not the example of his Jewish education has set before him.

  17. Paul standing solid with the Law was very true and rightfully so, It said in Acts 23 that he was sharing his last meals with the gentiles to show that he was going to do the right thing 24/7 and to show the law. Paul most definitely knew that salvation wasn’t law forsure. I think Paul pushed the law because he came up on the law. The Law was more than just a law to him. He wanted people to feel the same thing he was feeling with God taking over his life daily so I think that Paul was right for standing with the Law because that is what he truly believed.

  18. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 that he is willing to do anything or join with any group to successfully spread the word of God. He writes that he has “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I [Paul] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). In this case, Paul is simply “playing the field” in order to obtain an attentive crowd. As Long explains, because of Paul’s apparent siding with the Pharisees, the Sadducees become enraged (2019). The tribune brought Paul away from the people because a fight broke out among them, which was apparently very intense (Acts 23:10). Paul may have been “playing both sides,” but as explained above, he testified that he would do so in order to teach the Gospel. However, there are modern day implications here. Christians are also seen as hypocritical for this very reason. Teaching others to not lie, steal, cheat- then turning around and doing those exact things. I can think of various examples of people using their power/authority to get out of things that others would have to see all the way through.

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