PAUL THE PHARISEE
by Brad H. Young, Ph.D.
Paul never called himself a Christian. The great missionary theologian, Albert Schweitzer, called Paul a mystic.-1- Erudite Harvard scholar Elaine Pagels referred to Paul as a Gnostic, or at least demonstrated how the Gnostics loved and re-interpreted the apostle. -2- More recently, Alan Segal has published his important book Paul the Convert. -3- In his view, Paul converted from Pharisaism to a new religion. But it is highly doubtful that the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles who wrote one third of the New Testament influencing the church and the synagogue for generations would have owned any of these titles. Although the apostle never called himself a Christian, he did define himself as a "Pharisee, the son of Pharisees."
According to Joseph Klausner, it is Paul who made the break with Judaism rather than Jesus.-4- For Segal, Paul is the convert who broke decisively with his Jewish roots and Pharisaic heritage. For Pagels, Paul is the Gnostic who paves the way to God through revelation knowledge. Schweitzer argued that Paul was a mystic, an approach which has been followed independently by Gershom Scholem.-5- Whether Paul himself is best understood as a mystic will continue to be debated by scholars, but no one may doubt that the apostle Paul has mystified all who have sought to understand his message in its historical setting. Here, I choose a different path. Paul is a Pharisee.
At the end of ministry, according to Acts 23:6, the Apostle Paul declares, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees..." In fact, in his letter to the Philippians during his imprisonment in Rome, the apostle speaks about his heritage as a source of pride, "Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also... circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee..." (Phil. 3:4-6). Today the prevalent theory of scholars is to view Paul as a Hellenistic Jew of the Diaspora with greater personal experience in the Greco-Roman world than in the Jewish realm in Jerusalem. These theories contradict Paul's own words. They believe that Paul is more from Tarsus then Jerusalem.
The eminent European scholar Martin Hengel has criticized these theories. He wisely observed:
"Let us plunge straight in and begin with Paul's origins. It must be stressed quite emphatically, against a current trend in scholarship which seeks to see Paul exclusively as a 'Hellenistic Diaspora Jew,' that in his own testimonies, in the letters, the Pharisee connected with Jewish Palestine stands in the foreground, to whom Jerusalem seems to be more important than anywhere else. Only from Luke do we learn that he came from Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, and that he was a citizen of both Tarsus and Rome. Paul the author of the letters no longer thinks this part of his past worth mentioning; it seems to him to be much more remote than his time as a Pharisee in Palestine.-6-
As Hengel observes, in writing his epistles Paul himself never feels that it is even "worth mentioning" that he is a Roman citizen who was born in Tarsus. But New Testament scholars have emphasized what Paul considered not worthy of mention. His cultural heritage as a Pharisee of the Pharisees, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, however, is prominent in the apostle's self image. The reference to Hebrew must surely refer to language.
Paul probably spoke Hebrew as his mother tongue all the while he gives evidence of his bi-lingual abilities by writing in Greek like a native. According to Acts 21:40, Paul spoke Hebrew to a Jerusalem crowd. Paul had been arrested in the Temple. He asked to speak to the noisy crowd described as the "multitude of people followed after, crying, Away with him" (Acts 21:36). Even though they were angry and shouting for the Roman soldiers to carry Paul away to prison, the multitude of people became quiet when Paul began to speak to them. Why did they suddenly want to listen? I believe that they wanted to hear what he had to say because he spoke to them in a beautiful Hebrew which sounded like the language of a native of Jerusalem. The Greek word in the text of Acts refers to the Hebrew language, in spite of the wrong translation in the New International Version where they have quite incorrectly rendered it Aramaic.-7- As far as I know, the NIV is the only translation which reads Aramaic instead of Hebrew which is the only possible way to render the Greek word in Acts. The Jerusalem crowd, moreover, seems to be surprised that he can speak Hebrew so well, in essence like a true Jerusalemite. In any case, they become silent and listen to what Paul had to say because he speaks to them in Hebrew.
If the apostle had spoken to them in Greek, the crowd would not have been spellbound because so many were acquainted with the common language of the Roman empire. Speaking to the crowd in Aramaic, moreover, would not have made an impression because numerous people spoke Aramaic in the East. But Hebrew was the language of the Torah. It was the language of prayer in the Temple. I belong to a group of scholars who believe that it was widely spoken in the land of Israel among the Jewish people during the first century. Chaim Rabin has suggested that Hebrew was more prevalent in Judea than in some areas of Galilee -8- When Paul declares that he is a "Hebrew of the Hebrews," we should acknowledge the meaning of his proud declaration. He grew up speaking Hebrew. In Acts 22:3, the apostle tells the crowd of people gathered in the Temple that although he was born in Tarsus, he grew up in Jerusalem and studied as a disciple of Gamaliel. He knew the Hebrew text of the Bible as well as its Greek translation. Paul is much more at home in the city in which he grew up and received his education than the place where he was born. The apostle is more of a Hebrew from Jerusalem than a Greek from Tarsus.-9-
Paul's Pharisee heritage is alive for the apostle who dedicated his life to Jesus the Messiah. In fact, Paul was probably much less a Pharisee when he persecuted the early church than when he sought to convince the Gentiles that they should abandon idolatry and believe in the one God of Israel who is revealed to them through the coming of the messiah. At least Paul's teacher, according to the book of Acts, opposed the persecution of the apostles. Gamaliel saved the lives of Peter and the apostles when they were accused before the Sadducean priesthood (Acts 5:33-39). Gamaliel is called the leader of the Pharisees. The New Testament indicates that it was Caiaphas the leader of the Sadducees who cooperated with the Romans. Imperial Rome ardently pursued a policy of suppressing messianic movements. Paul received letters from the High Priests, namely the leaders of the Sadducees, when he left for Damascus. Clearly he had broken with the wishes of his mentor Gamaliel and had begun to work with the Sadducees in his persecution of the early Christians before his Damascus road experience with the risen Lord.
Paul's preaching of the resurrection is rooted in the strong belief of the Pharisees. After all, the Pharisees believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead.-10- Unlike the Greek mindset which tended to view the world as a creation of evil where the human body was a prison of the soul, Pharisees believed that God's world was good. The material world would be transformed by God's power. The physical body would be resurrected in a glorified state and be reunited with the spiritual reality of the human soul. In one respect, Jesus' physical resurrection, therefore, was a confirmation of Pharisee doctrine and proof of God's promise to reconcile the physical world with his spiritual realm. For the Christian believer, Jesus conquered death in the higher redemptive plan of God. In the future, God would restore his creation to its original pure state and transform the human body by the force of God's resurrection power.
The Pharisees found support for the doctrine of the resurrection in all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Jesus himself argued for the resurrection from the Torah. When the Sadducees ridiculed the belief by asking, to whom would a woman be wed on the day of resurrection if she had been married to seven men during her lifetime, Jesus said that God is a God of the living and not the dead because the Torah teaches that He is the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,"-11- In the Mishnah, the rabbis who are surely representing the teachings of the Pharisees on this point, declare, "And these are they that have no share in the world to come: he that says that there is no resurrection of the dead taught in the Torah" (m. Sanh. 10:1).-12- The Pharisees would exclude the Sadducees from the joy in the world to come because they denied the doctrine of the resurrection. In contrast to the Sadducees, the apostle Paul, as well as all the early Christians, ardently maintained the belief in God's power to resurrect the dead in new glorified bodies. In the writings, Daniel proclaims, "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2). The Pharisees believed in reward and punishment in the afterlife. Their beliefs greatly influenced Christian thinking.
Paul's teaching on the engraftment of the Gentiles is actually represented in the vision of the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah prophesied that the Gentiles would see the light of God, and Zechariah envisioned the day when the Gentiles would go up to the House of the Lord to worship the one true God of Israel. In Romans 9,10, and 11, the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles struggles with the mystery of God's divine plan. The Gentiles are being grafted into the olive tree through faith in Jesus. While God has not rejected his people or the covenants he has made with Israel, the fact that many did not believe in Jesus as the messiah paved the way for the Gentiles to come to faith in God. Paul glories in his ministry of teaching the Gentiles about the Lord. This is the goal and purpose of Torah, namely that all peoples would come into a meaningful relationship with God. This type of vision seems to flow from a stream of Pharisaism which envisioned the day when Gentiles would believe God.
In modern discussion, sadly, Paul has been turned into a Greek Jew who is more at home in the Stoic philosophy taught in Tarsus than sitting at the feet of Gamaliel immersed in the teachings of the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Paul is a Pharisee. In fact, the Pharisees are the strong spiritual leaders of the time. Christians have wrongly attacked the Pharisees. While every religious movement may have hypocritical members or renegades like the Pre-Christian Paul who broke with the leadership of the Pharisees to link up with the Sadducean persecution of the early church, the Pharisees and the Christians really share many common beliefs. The Bible is the foundation of both Christian and Pharisee teachings. They both uphold the doctrine of the resurrection. In the future, God will provide reward and punishment. They believed in angels, demons, and God's supernatural power in daily living. The messianic idea in Judaism, moreover, is rooted in the Pharisaic doctrine of the goodness of God who longs to bring healing and deliverance to his people whom he loves. In addition, their oral interpretations of the Torah have greatly influenced Bible interpretation in the New Testament. Today's Christians should break with past Christian tradition and actively cultivate a positive attitude toward the Pharisees. A proper understanding of the contribution that the Pharisees made to early Christian thought creates a firm stepping stone for better relationships between Christians and Jews. A new awareness of the positive attributes of the Pharisees would open up the world of first century Judaism and give us a greater appreciation of the Jewish roots of Christian faith. In fact, we Christians of today should learn to love and respect the Jewish people like close family relations in seeking meaningful dialogue and learning experiences.
But it must be remembered that for the apostle Paul, the doctrine of the resurrection is much more than a nebulous theological doctrine of the future. Paul teaches that the believer is able to experience something of the resurrection power in daily living. In his letter to the people at Philippi, he shares that the elements of his life of which he was most proud he counted as loss for the supreme experience of walking with the Lord, "that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and share his sufferings" (Phil. 3:9). This does not mean that Paul rejected a holy way of living according to the Hebrew heritage of his faith. It does mean that he experienced an inner strength in facing the challenges of his ministry and in seeking to live a life pleasing to God. In Romans, the apostle boldly declares, "If the same Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you he will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you" (Rom. 8:11). For Paul the resurrection is so much more than a dogma; it is his dynamic experience as he feels a power greater than himself giving force to his life's work. So while the resurrection is the hope of the Christian which gives comfort during times of bereavement and promise of something better in times of physical pain associated with illness and age, resurrection power is also a source of strength now.
Paul's belief in the resurrection reveals his Pharisaic background. It is not a doctrine acceptable with typical Greek thought, Gnostic beliefs, or Hellenistic mystery religions. The Pharisees saw the essential unity between the physical and the metaphysical. They maintained that God would transform the frail human body into a glorified one, accomplishing a full restoration of the physical nature of humanity with the intensity of the spiritual quality of divine power. The reality of the resurrection would bring about a transformation of the physical and spiritual characteristics of every human being. The Jewish roots of Paul's teachings emerge when the apostle teaches, "So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:42-44). So, in the face of the last enemy, death, Paul the Pharisee apostle to the Gentiles possesses intense hope for the future resurrection.
-1- See Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London, 1956) Return
-2- Compare Elaine Pagels, Paul the Gnostic (New York, 1981) Return
-3- See Alan Segal, Paul the Convert (New Haven, 1993)
-4- See Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (London, 1946)
-5- compare Gershom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1965)
-6- Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul (London, 1991), pg 1. Return
-7- See the marginal note in the New International Version where they mention Hebrew. Return
-8- See Chaim Rabin, "Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century," The Jewish People in the First Century (Amsterdam, 1976), vol. 2, pgs 1007-1039. Compare also my study of the language of Jesus, Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables (New York, 1989), pgs 40-42, 51-54. See also Dr. Roy Blizzard and David Bivin, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus (Arcadia, 1983), pgs 19-103. Dr. Blizzard has contributed greatly to the debate concerning the original language of Jesus. Return
-9- See W. C. Van Unnik, Tarsus or Jerusalem (London, 1962), pgs 38-45.
-10- Compare the somewhat controversial treatment, P. Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis, 1983), pgs 44-65. Return
-11- See Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27, and Luke 20:27-40. The Sadducean priests did not believe in the resurrection. They were asking this question because they knew that Jesus was much like the Pharisees in doctrine, faith, and practice. Jesus actually defends the belief through exegesis of the Torah which forms a beautiful example of midrash in the synoptic gospels. Return
-12- See especially b. Sanhedrin 90b. Return
Brad Young received his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1987. His dissertation, written under Professor David Flusser's supervision, was titled "The Parable as a Literary Genre in Rabbinic Literature and in the Gospels."
Dr. Young is now teaching at the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University, where he is the Associate Professor of New Testament Studies.
Yavo Digest, September 1997
Bible Scholars: Question the Answers
BACK to Beit HaDerekh/Yavo
To Beit HaDerekh
Questions? Comments? Broken links?
Please e-mail me at johnt204(at)inbox.com.
Please put this %%--$$--PTP--$$--%% in the subject line of your email
in case it goes to my spam folder so that I can notice it easier. Thanks.
Last updated 22 February 2020