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.
In 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.
Marshall, Mary. The Portrayals of the Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts. FRLANT 254; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. Hb; €89.99. Link to V&R
In this important monograph, Mary Marshall answers the “comparative neglect of the Gospels and Acts” in recent research on Pharisees. Most scholars studying the “historical Pharisee” observe that the tendency of the Gospels to vilify the Pharisees limits their value as sources. Too frequently it is assumed the Gospels and Acts have a uniform, negative view of Pharisees. On the contrary, Marshall contends the Gospels and Acts are complex and each writer has an individual view of the Pharisees. Her goal is not a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” but rather to fairly and accurately describe how each of the four Gospel author’s presented the Pharisee in the service of their own theological agendas. She points out the Pharisees appear in all four Gospels and Acts without any explanation as to who they are or why they are significant (23). Josephus, on the other hand, does have an excursus explaining what a Pharisee was to his Roman audience.
In order to achieve this goal, she begins with Mark as the earliest Gospel and argues Mark’s view of the Pharisees in “univocally negative” (66). The Pharisees oppose Jesus and his ministry at key points in the Gospel by challenging Jesus’ authority, either by questioning his behavior (Mark 2:15-3:6), by demanding a sign (Mark 8:11-15), or by engaging Jesus in a discussion on some particular practice (Mark 10:2-9, divorce; 12:13-17, payment of taxes to Caesar). Marshall thinks the challenge to Jesus’ behavior is not included to legitimate later church practice in Mark’s community (as is commonly assumed), but rather to convey his Christology and the Pharisee’s rejection of that Christology (41). Even the controversies over hand washing and korban in Mark 7 emphasize the “Christological implications of the Pharisees’ challenges” (51).
Assuming Matthew has used Mark in the creation of his own Gospel, Marshall examines Matthew’s redaction of Mark with respect to the Pharisees. Although Matthew includes all of Mark’s material on the Pharisees, it is possible to hear Matthew’s unique nuances by observing the changes he makes in his sources. For example, Matthew changes Mark’s “scribes” in Mark 12:24 in order to include the Pharisees in the request for a sign. She concludes Matthew, like Mark, is consistently negative toward the Pharisees and in no way reduces the negative implications of his sources. In most cases Matthew increases the visibility of the Pharisees in order to highlight their rejection of Jesus and the demands of the kingdom (123). For example, in Matthew 22:15-16 the Pharisees seem to have more authority than the Herodians (79). In 22:34-40, Matthew has omitted the scribe’s praise of Jesus and “portrays only unmitigated hostility” toward the Pharisees who only want to test him (89). After surveying several examples, Marshall argues a “motif of replacement emerges” in which the Pharisees are unworthy of a privileged position and are “easily replaced” (112). This is clear in the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14). Although she comments briefly on the parable, Marshal refrains from comparing the parable to the Lukan parallel in order to argue for (or against) a Matthean redaction. She also does not suggest who these “replacements” are in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, although in her conclusion to the chapter she suggests Matthew is “defending the legitimacy of ‘Judaism’ ad the inheritance of the law and the prophets by his own community” (125). For Matthew, there is still hope for the Jewish people, but that hope is through Jesus, not the Pharisees. This implies a post 70 CE situation for Matthew’s Gospel.
Although there are differences between Luke and Acts, Marshall examines several themes which run through both works with respect to the Pharisees. First, the Pharisees have forfeited their place in the Kingdom of God by rejecting Jesus as early as his baptism (131). She examines several meals in Luke and argues Luke highlights an eschatological perspective in these meal scenes. For example, the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) is given in response to a guest who assumes he will participate in the coming messianic banquet. Marshall correctly connects the Pharisee of Luke 14:15 with the prodigal’s brother, both of whom represent entitlement and an expectation of eating in the great banquet (135). A second theme appears more clearly in Acts: the reputation of the Pharisees serves Luke’s apologetic function (141). Gamaliel, for example, is a prominent Pharisee who appreciates the apostolic message (although he compares it to other failed messianic movements). In fact, Luke’s apologetic concern is to show that the Christian missionaries did not deviate from Judaism, but are in fact in continuity with it (154). A related third motif in Luke is that the Pharisees were most sympathetic toward early Christianity. Acts 15:5, for example, indicates some early Christians were from the Pharisees and were still concerned with the details of the Mosaic Law (160). Luke has redacted his sources to show the Pharisees some respect, although Marshall rejects the suggestion there is an affinity between Jesus and the Pharisees (179).
Finally, John’s unique presentation of the Pharisees presents several problems because scholars usually dismiss John as a historical source in general. With respect to the Pharisees, it is often assumed John lumps the Pharisees together with chief priests, scribes as “the Jews.” The Jews then represent the unreceptive world (229). Marshall challenges this assumption as an oversimplification. It is the Jews who are the objects of fear and attempt to kill Jesus. Pharisees are part of the crowd and are associated with the arrest of Jesus, but they are not the “real opponents” in John’s Gospel as is often assumed (231). In fact, they are not consistently hostile toward Jesus and some (like Nicodemus) are potential sympathizers. This observation causes her to reevaluate the popular view of J. Louis Martyn that John’s community was formally expelled from the synagogue about the time the birkath-ha-minim were introduced in the synagogues. She concludes the portrayal of opposition to Jesus in the fourth Gospel “may not accurately reflect any real life opposition to his community” (241).
Despite eschewing a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” Marshall concludes her chapters with a comment on the relationship of each Gospel to historical Pharisaism. She points out that Mark did not write a book about the Pharisees, but about Jesus (68), so some of the questions which interest scholars with respect to the Pharisees will not find a solution in Mark. Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisee cannot be understood apart from his view of Judaism. Although Marshall sees Matthew as representing legitimate Judaism, the Pharisees are out the outside of Matthew’s definition of what Judaism should be in a post-70 CE world (125). For Luke, it is not certain his audience had any contact with Pharisees (183), so the Pharisees in Luke and Acts function to convey Luke’s literary themes. For John’s Gospel she evaluates and rejects popular views of a recent ejection of John’s community from the synagogue because John’s portrayal of the Pharisees is not homogeneous (241).
Conclusion. Marshall’s monograph is an excellent contribution to the study of the Pharisees. The unique contributions of each Gospel are clearly presented. This approach is refreshing since the Gospels are not uniform in their presentation of the Pharisees. Popular studies tend to make the Pharisees the arch-enemy of Jesus, but Marshall demonstrates that in Luke (and perhaps John) this is not the case. This book should be part of any discussion of the Pharisees in the New Testament.
NB: Thanks to Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
In a previous post, I re-visited Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity and found myself in agreement with the idea that the Christian church is rooted in Judaism. While it is popular enough to emphasize the “Jewishness” of Jesus or Paul, there is dissent in describing the roots of Christianity as “Jewish.”
Jacob Neusner, for example, does not believe that there is a common foundation for both Judaism and Christianity. Neusner states that “Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect” (p. xi). He contrasts Christians and Pharisees as an example of this absolute disconnect. Both Pharisees and Christians “belong to Israel,” Neusner says, but they had completely different definitions of “Israel” to the point that they could not even have dialogue. Christians say “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life (3-4). Christianity is all about salvation (in the next life), while the Pharisees is all about sanctification (in this life).
His point is well taken, since Judaism is not as much interested in salvation “out of this world and into heaven” but rather living out God’s will in this life. But in a typically Neusnerian fashion, he makes this dichotomy so strong that the two cannot be said to have any common ground. In my view, he is taking Christianity as we know it from the fourth century and later as his model of what “Christianity is” and (rightly) judging it as having little or nothing in common with Judaism.
This is a problem for many studies of the first-century church. There is an assumption that the earliest believers in Jesus were somehow more correct in their doctrine and practice than later generations. I cannot agree with this, since the earliest believers hardly worked out the implications of who Jesus claimed to be let alone the what effect the Christ Event would have on “Israel.” They were Jewish people who believe Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation only comes through him. In practice, there was as much diversity as there was in Judaism at the time. While James was welcome in the Temple courts, Peter and John were tolerated there, but Stephen and the Hellenists likely were not welcome. All were Jewish and would likely consider themselves the correct continuation of Jesus’ ministry.
It is not until Paul’s letters that there is a serious attempt to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection and the implications that these events have for Israel. For Paul, the people of God are a family (like Jesus taught), but also the Body of Christ. Neusner correctly picks up on this and sees this as a dividing point between Christianity and the Pharisees as well. Paul says that whatever the people of God are, they are a unique group apart from Israel.
Bibliography: Jacob Neusner, Jews and Christians: The Myth of the Common Tradition. Classics in Judaic Studies. New York: Binghamton University, 2001. Originally published by Trinity International, 1991. The 2001 edition has a 40 page preface written for that printing.
In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.
The group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).
It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.
Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.” (Imagine how Paul would have reacted a few years earlier!)
Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.
As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!
It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James and his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.
Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?
In Polhill’s second chapter there is an excellent overview of the Pharisees in the Second Temple Period. I think that the Pharisees are generally mis-characterized in popular preaching and most people think of them as the “enemies of Jesus.” While they were the chief persecutors of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, there were a number of Pharisees that were interested in Jesus in Luke and the gospel of John presents Nicodemus as a Pharisee who approached Jesus with respect. For Pauline studies, the Pharisees are important because Paul claimed to be a Pharisee and it is possible to describe his theology in terms of Pharisaical Judaism.
Beliefs of the Pharisees were fairly conservative and very much in line with the whole of the Hebrew Bible. The following items are the “usual description” Pharisee theology, and I would suggest, it is not that far away from Pauline Theology.
They struck a balance between freedom and human responsibility. God has ordained many of the events in life, but humans are completely responsible for their actions.
They placed supreme importance on the Law and their own interpretation of it. In the New Testament Jesus is described as debating with the Pharisees fine points of Law, although always within the mainstream of Judaism. The bulk of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees is over interpretation of Law not the Law itself.
Unlike the Sadducees, they believed in resurrection and an afterlife. This is well known and appears to have been a point of contention between the two groups, as is seen in Acts 23:6-8.
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.
Paul claims to be a Pharisee in Phil 3 and in Acts he claims the party when brought before the Sanhedrin. Just how much influence did his training as a Pharisee have on his thinking? The usual age for beginning the study of Torah was between fourteen and sixteen, about the time that a boy became a man. (Josephus, Life, 9-12). If Paul’s education followed this pattern, he would have moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel (cf 22:3). Clearly there are differences between what we might call “mainstream” Pharisees and Paul, but the core seems quite similar.
Can we describe Paul’s theology as “essentially Pharisaical” in outlook? Is it possible to describe Paul (simply) as a Pharisee who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah? There were at least some Pharisees who became believers (Acts 15:1-2). I do not think that we can say that Paul’s belief that Gentiles can be right with God is radical, since the Hebrew Bible makes that point frequently. What is radical in Paul is his belief that he was called to be “the light to the Gentiles” and that this ministry was separate from that of the ministry of the Twelve. That the Gentiles can be right with God apart from the Law is certainly an non-Pharisee thought.