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?

Approved by God and Entrusted with the Gospel

In 1 Thessalonians 2:4 Paul says he spoke to the congregation as someone who was approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel. This is an important claim and is related to Paul’s apostleship.

Gold or Pyrite?

First, Paul says he was “approved by God.”  This verb (δοκιμάζω) has the sense of being tested for the purpose of determining the genuineness (BDAG). For example, an ore which appears to contain gold can be tested to determine if it is in fact gold as well as the quality of the gold. Only after the test is finished can the ore be described as real gold (as opposed to iron pyrite, fool’s gold). Paul is claiming he has been tested by God and has been given approval for his mission to the Gentles. Ironically, it is his suffering persecution for that is the “proof” he has been tested and approved!

Second, Paul was “entrusted with the Gospel.” He was given a revelation that God’s grace was being extended to the whole world without distinction. Gentiles are now able to be right with God without keeping the Law or converting to a form of Judaism. He says something similar in Galatians 2:7. There Paul describes his commissioning as the “apostle to the Gentiles.” His commission is a trust given him from God and he takes this commission very seriously.

To be “entrusted” with something is perhaps a financial metaphor. When someone invests money they expected the financial manager to wisely invest the money and provide some kind of return on the investment. If the manager loses the money, they have not taken their commission seriously and have failed. The fact is that God tested Paul and approved of him to be entrusted the ministry of the evangelization of the Gentiles, and Paul took that commissioning so seriously that he would not do anything that might possibly hinder that trust from yielding fruit.

There are a number of obvious applications to the modern church that can be drawn at this point.  Each church is given by God a commission, a purpose, a ministry.  You are called to do something in this community.  A church that wants to succeed tries to understand what their purpose is, and evaluate their ministry to get that purpose done.

If you know why you exist and you have a pretty good idea what it is you can do to fulfill that purpose, then you must not doing anything that might detract from that purpose. Paul is saying that his ministry is a success, and it is a success because he is honest and genuine while doing his ministry, that he is not out for money or power, or anything else that might motivate other people.

Are churches (or individuals) “entrusted with the Gospel” in a similar way today? Can (or should) we apply similar tests to churches today in order to decide if they are in fact genuine? I think this might even be applied to individual programs within a church – what do we do as part of church which fulfills our “trust” of the Gospel?

Paul the Persecutor

In several letters Paul confesses that he once persecuted the followers of Jesus and caused the death of some. In Acts Luke associates this violent persecution with the preaching of Stephen, a deacon who delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7 arguing that Jesus is superior to the Temple.

The response of the Hellenistic Jewish synagogue is in fact violent: Stephen is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and executed.  Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1), but if he was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear. Saul is described as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534).  What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

It is important to observe that Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not standing int eh Temple courts speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there.  Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship.

While we cannot know this for certain, it is not unlikely that Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue because he was from Tarsus (Cilicia is specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9).  Stephen’s powerful argument that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53) pushed the crowd to attack Stephen, Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.

Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and importing them into Acts 7.  For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.

Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws.  This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  This is an issue in Galatians, but that is perhaps 15 years after the stoning of Stephen and concerned Jews and Gentiles eating together.

A more likely motivation is the possible political/social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah/savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.

Rabbi Saul is therefore opposing the Stephen as an attack on the central institution of Second Temple Judaism (the Temple) and a particular view of the messiah held by the Pharisees. For Paul as a Pharisee, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was absurd since he was crucified, “hung on a tree.” Jesus was under a curse rather than the source of salvation. Saul likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.

But is this the whole story? Would a disagreement over who the messiah might be result in such a violent response from a Pharisee? Are there other factors which may have motivated Paul’s persecution of Stephen and the other Christ followers?

Old and New Perspectives on Paul’s Conversion

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.” Romans 7:25 is a key part of the classic account of Paul’s conversion: Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death. Acts 26:14 describes Paul as “kicking against the goads” prior to his conversion, as if he knew the truth about Jesus but he refused to believe.

Saul DamascusThis reconstruction of Paul’s pre-Christian spiritual state is popular and makes for good preaching. It has, however, been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul, especially by Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders. Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification. In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology leading to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism. For many students of Paul, Jews were proto-Pelagians akin to Catholicism in the early sixteenth century. Paul sounds more like Luther bashing his Catholic opponents than a Jewish rabbi hoping to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles with the culture of the first century.

In the traditional view of Paul and his letters, Judaism was the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity. Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism, freeing Christians from the restrictions of the Jewish Law. Sanders challenged this as a mischaracterization by arguing the questions posed by the Protestantism in the Reformation have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period. For Sanders, the Protestant version of Paul obscures what was actually happening in the first century and misses how Christianity developed out of Judaism. In addition, Sanders points out that the traditional Protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Samuel Sandmel, for example). The traditional Paul was either incoherent or inconsistent for them because they understood Second Temple Judaism better than Post-Reformation scholarship.

According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into Paul.  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

What difference will it make in our reading of Paul if we think of him as a “reform movement” within Judaism? I am not saying this is the case, but if Paul has more roots in the Hebrew Bible than are usually recognized, what is “radical” about Paul?

The Problem of Paul’s Conversion

For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) is the classic story of the conversion of the chief of sinners. Jesus himself appears to Rabbi Saul and confronts him with the truth of the resurrection and completely turns him around. For many preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. His conversion is therefore an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.

Yet there is a great deal about Paul’s experience which is open for discussion. Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road in Acts 9 (TTP 31). First, the terminology use to describe Paul’s experience varies within Acts and even within the Letters of Paul. Did Paul experience a vision in Acts 9? How is that vision related to his 2 Corinthians 12?

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A second problem is the chronological relationship between Paul’s “conversion” and his “mission.” Perhaps it is inappropriate to describe Paul as converting from Judaism to Christianity in the modern sense of the word. Did Paul experience a conversion experience similar to a person who attends a modern evangelistic meeting, raises their hand and walks forward to “accept Jesus”? Or was his experience more of a calling to a particular mode of ministry, the mission to the Gentiles?

The relationship between conversion and mission raises a third problem for Longenecker and Still, how should Acts be used to unpack what happened to Paul? For some scholars, Luke’s story of the early church is suspect: he is a later writer trying to emphasize the unity of the church and (perhaps) promote Paul as a more significant leader than he really was. For other more conservative interpreters of Acts, Luke tells his story with a theological agenda but he does not create events out of nothing. He tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times in order to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.

Yet it seems clear Paul had some kind of experience that really did cause him to rethink everything, even if he did not reject all aspects of Judaism in favor of Christianity. By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is and what he claimed to be.

Over the next few posts I will take up these topics and examine a few of the texts in which Paul describes his own calling to ministry. Perhaps this is a discussion that ought to stay in the academy, but I wonder if it is surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do?

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?

Luke 18:9-14 – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Since I am preaching on this parable this weekend at Rush Creek, I have been reading quite a bit on Luke 18 lately.  Jesus makes a clear contrast between two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Everyone knows Pharisees are  good, religious people and the tax collectors are desperately sinful and greedy traitors.  The twist in the parable is that the Pharisee does everything right from a religious perspective, yet does not “receive grace.”  The tax collector is inept at religious duty and rather embarrassing in his inability to pray the right prayers.  Both men in this story have a chance to receive grace from God, they have a chance to receive forgiveness and “go away justified.” Why does the Pharisee not forgiven? Jesus is not condemning the spiritual discipline and devotion of the Pharisee in this parable (or anywhere else, for that matter).

In Verse 9, we are told that the parable is a response to “those that were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The prefect participle πεποιθότας (pepoithotas) indicates they have been (already) convinced they are right with God.  But they are not simply self-confident:  they “despise” others. The verb ἐξουθενέω (exoutheneo) has the connotation of disdain, “to show by one’s attitude or manner of treatment that an entity has no merit or worth” (BAGD). Imagine a very wealthy person who treats the “help” poorly. The poor servants are not worthy of consideration at all, they care mistreated or simply ignored as people.  This is the attitude of those Jesus targets with this parable.

Jesus’ ministry is focused on these despised people, the outsiders and outcasts who are beneath consideration in polite society of religion of the first century. It is obvious that other Jewish teachers would love to see these outsiders return to covenant faithfulness and “get right with God.” The difference between Jesus and most religious groups in first-century Judea was that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, showed them some respect, and forgave their sins. If the stories of rabbi Shammai reflect his character, he might have taken a stick to a person who came to him and asked “what must I do to be saved?”  If someone did want to repent and they asked an Essene what was required, they would be given a fairly hefty Manual of Discipline and put on probation for three years!

We are not told who the self-righteous in Luke 18 are, but the first group that comes to mind are the Pharisees. Jesus is questioned by a Pharisee in Luke 17:20, but the persons being taught in chapter 18 are the disciples. Jesus does not answer the Pharisee, but teaches his disciples in 17:22. In 18:1 the disciples are still the focus of the teaching.  There may be no connection at all between the Pharisee of 17:20 and this parable.

If this is true, then it is likely that there were a few disciples who were self-righteous, perhaps a bit arrogant because they knew since they were following Jesus, they were “right” and the Pharisees were wrong. The parable is not aimed at “those arrogant Pharisees over there,” but at Jesus’ closest followers, the inner circle of disciples who were appointed by Jesus himself.  Instead of the imaginary legalistic Pharisee, Jesus is pointing his finger and Peter, James and John.  He is telling them that they are not right with God just because they joined the right teacher or (finally) understood that Jesus is the  Messiah.  They too have to ask for mercy and experience the grace of God.

Jesus’ parable also points a finger at us.  Modern (American) Christians can be an arrogant lot. We think that we have been so close to God for so long that we (obviously) are the closest to God. Sinners need to shape up and be more like us if they want to be right with God.   Instead of a Pharisee, or “those disciples back then,” put yourself in this parable – are you the Pharisee?

You are not right with God because you gave up your sins, as if that is even possible.  You are not right with God because you endured a particular religious ritual.  You are not right with God because you kept the ten commandments for most of your life.  You are not right with God because you are a good person.

You are not “right with God” because you signed the right doctrinal statement or can quote the proper creed, or because you attend the right church, or because you have the best worship music, or because your book sold 20 million copies.

You are not right with God because you don’t drink coffee at Starbucks, or because you do eat a particular chicken sandwich, or because you shoot guns, or you do not own guns, or you voted for the right candidate.

You are right with God because you asked for mercy and experienced his grace.