Answer for yourself: Once one sees the facts of the matter for themselves, how can we hold onto the New Testament story that Paul had persecuted the followers of Yeshua because he was a good Pharisee?
Such is ridiculous. Even in Acts there is a tension between the Pharisees who, like Gamaliel, seem fairly well-disposed toward the apostles, and the High Priest who, along with his obedient minion Paul, is out to stop any Messianic uprising at any cost. The High Priest was in charge of keeping the peace among his people and any Messianic riot or uprising would get Rome's quick attention and sure harsh response. The Messianics had to be discouraged in order to prevent such an apocalyptic uprising; thus the mission of Paul and others. If Paul is a Pharisee, he is on the wrong side in this scenario! If it is believed that Paul had letters of arrest for home messianic groups of believers, then Paul, without a doubt, is a member of the Temple police, an operative of the High Priest, no Pharisee at all.
These are serious charges and if made must be backed up with facts and knowledge. It is my desire in this article to expose the literary creationism of the redactors and authors of the New Testament which write of Paul and make him to be something he in reality was not. After all the evidence is put forth then you, the reader, should be able to make an intelligent decision instead of having to rely completely upon the New Testament account of Paul which is flawed to say the least.
If we are to answer the question of whether or not Paul was a Pharisee, or even to understand the significance of his claim to have been one, it is necessary to have a fuller account of who the Pharisees were and what they stood for. Here we must not rely on the Gospel picture of the Pharisees, which is not only strongly hostile, but a perverse presentation of historical fact. Without unbiased personal study in this area you are not able to see the deception for yourself.
Because of this Gospel picture, the word 'Pharisee' has come to be synonymous with 'hypocrite' in the Western mind, and the defects attributed to the Pharisees - self-righteousness, meanness, authoritarian severity and exclusiveness have contributed to the anti-Semitic stereotype and have been assigned to Jews generally. This is not fair to the Pharisees and their great responsibility for the preservation of the faith once given to the saints.
Answer for yourself: Is the Gospel's representations of the Pharisees accurate? Unless you have consulted materials outside the Gospels you really cannot answer that question to either confirm or deny the Gospel's characterizations of the Pharisees. Let us not forget that scholars today reveal to us the hand of Gentile writers in the Gospels and this says volumes!
In recent years, many Christian scholars like E.P. Sanders, James Parkes, R.T. Hereford, George F. Moore, and many others have come to realize that this Gospel picture of the Pharisees is propaganda, not fact.
Our main source of authentic information about the Pharisees is their own voluminous literature, including prayers, hymns, books of wisdom, law books, sermons, commentaries on the Bible, mystical treatises, books of history and many other genres. Far from being arid ritualists, they were one of the most creative groups in history.
Moreover, the Pharisees, far from being rigid and inflexible in applying religious laws, were noted (as the first-century historian Josephus points outs, and as is amply confirmed in the Pharisee law books) for the leniency of their legal rulings, and for the humanity and flexibility with which they sought to adapt the law of the Bible to changing conditions and improved moral conceptions. Let me say that this leniency of the Pharisees will come to haunt us when we try to explain the rigid persecution of the Nazarene Messianics by Paul who himself is supposed to be a Pharisee!
Answer for yourself: How do you explain this leniency tendency of the Pharisees who have prayed for hundreds of years for the coming of the Messiah being persecuted, arrested, and killed by other lenient Messianic Pharisees like Paul who were likewise hoping and praying for the coming of their Messiah? Something is amiss about Paul but more on that in a second!
These Pharisees maintained such lenient positions because they they regarded the Bible as the inspired word of God and adaptable to various situations; they did not take a rigid literalist view of the interpretation of the Bible.
The pharisees knew that the word for religious teaching was Torah, and they believed that as well as the Written Torah, there was also an Oral Torah, which took the Written Torah as its base and expanded it by way of definition, commentary, questioning and exegesis, so that it became a living reality. Some of the Oral Law, they believed, was just as old as the Written Law, having been given to Moses by God; but this ancient origin was claimed only for certain basic elements of the Oral Law. Most of it had arisen in the course of time in response to new historical conditions; for example, it was not claimed that the prayers of the liturgy, such as the Eighteen Benedictions, were composed by Moses or by any of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible; it was acknowledged that these prayers were composed by leading Pharisees, who from time to time added or subtracted from these prayers, or even to the calendar of feasts or fasts, as seemed appropriate.
Since the Pharisees acknowledged a human element in religious teaching- an element for which no divine inspiration could be claimed -they acknowledged also the right to disagreement or difference of opinion. Thus the Pharisees' writings are remarkable for the variety of differing opinions that they record: the Mishnah and the Talmud are largely records of these disagreements on every legal topic under the sun.
The Pharisees argued amongst themselves not only about matters of religious law but also about matters of theology. However, it was in matters of law that they felt that some decision had to be reached and, since they had no method for deciding such matters other than by discussion and debate, the decisions were made by a majority vote. Once a majority decision had been reached, the dissenting rabbis were required to toe the line and accept the result of the vote, not because they were regarded as refuted, but because of the principle of the rule of law, which was conceived in exactly the same terms as in parliamentary democracies today, where the opposition party may argue as strongly as it likes before a vote is taken and talk just as strongly about the foolishness of the decision after the vote, but must still accept the decision as the law of the land until it has an opportunity to reverse the decision by another majority vote.
Thus the assemblies of the sages (as the Pharisee leaders were called before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, after which they became known as 'rabbis') made decisions, but did not invest these decisions with divine authority. The opinions of dissenting minorities were carefully recorded and included in the records such as the Mishnah, so that it may become the basis of new decision in the future, if required (just as today the opinions of dissenting judges are recorded in the High Court and are cited as support if an attempt is made at a later date to bring in a new ruling).
Thus the Pharisees avoided the option, open to all religions based on a scripture believed to be divinely inspired, of adding the infallibility of the Church to the infallibility of scripture. Instead they developed the concept of a scriptural canon which was the center of human attention and was constantly being scrutinized in the light of the human intellect; and, even more important, they had the idea that God Himself wished this process of human reasoning to go on without interruption by Himself, and that He approved the struggles of the human mind to interpret His design for the universe, even if these efforts were not free of error: 'According to the effort is the reward.' Thus the Pharisees were able to disagree with each other without quarreling and without persecution of dissenting views; for difference of opinion was itself an essential ingredient of their concept of the religious life, rather than a danger to it.
Answer for yourself: That being the case then how do you explain Paul being a Pharisee with no religious tolerance which was characteristic of the Pharisees?
They did, however, occasionally resort to disciplinary measures against rabbis (such as the great Rabbi Eliezer), not because of their dissentient views, but because of their refusal to accept a majority vote that had gone against them.
It was only in the sphere of religious law, though, that such disciplinary measures (consisting essentially of social ostracism of the offender for a period) were taken. In the sphere of theology, where there was no urgent need for a practical decision, no such measures were taken. A wide variety of views was tolerated by the sages and their successors, the rabbis, without any accusations of heresy. Thus, in the matter of the belief in the coming of the Messiah, or the definition of the nature of his reign, it was possible for a respected rabbi to take the view that there would be no personal Messiah in the future at all, since all the biblical Messianic prophecies had been fulfilled in the person of Hezekiah. This was an unusual, even eccentric, view, but the rabbi in questions was not regarded as in any way a heretic. This contrasts strongly with the heresy hunts and bitter factionalism of Christianity, which burnt people at the stake for having unusual views about the nature of Christ (a name that is only the Greek form of the Hebrew word Messiah). The Pharisees distinguished between what they called halakhah ('going') and aggadah ('telling'), and whilst they demanded conformity, after full discussion, in halakhah, they allowed full scope to individual styles of thought in aggadah, which they regarded as poetry rather than as theology.
Though not addicted to heresy hunting, the Pharisees did regard certain groups as heretical, largely because these groups did not accept the concept of the Oral Law. The most powerful group regarded as heretical by the Pharisees was that of the Sadducees, of whom frequent mention is made in the Gospels, where they are described as opponents of the Pharisees, without any clear exposition of the point of conflict involved. The antagonistic relation between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is of the utmost importance in understanding both Yeshua and Paul, and the times in which they lived. They did not get along and social interaction was kept to a minimum.
The essential point at issue between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the validity of the Oral Law, but this point was far from academic, for it led to enormous differences of outlook on social and political questions, as well as in the practice of religion. Rejecting the Oral Law, the Sadducees saw no need for a class of interpreters, sages or rabbis engaged in expounding the scriptures in accordance with new ideas and circumstances. The difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees is thus brought out clearly in the type of religious leader which they respectively revered. The Sadducees turned for leadership to the priests and especially the High Priest, while the Pharisees were led by very different personalities, whose character was determined by the demands of the Oral Law. The priests were a hereditary caste, descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. They had a special function to perform in the service of the Temple, and were supported by the tithes levied from the whole population, though not compulsorily. To look to the priesthood for leadership was thus to put the Temple into the center of one's religious life. Three institutions thus comprised the focus of Sadducee religion: the Bible, the Temple and the priesthood.
For the Pharisees, on the other hand, the priests and the Temple had only a secondary importance. They regarded the priests not as leaders or spiritual guides, but merely as ceremonial functionaries, who had the job of keeping the Temple sacrifices going and administering the maintenance of the Temple generally. Even the High Priest was regarded as a mere functionary and had no authority to pronounce on matters of religion. It was a Pharisee saying that 'a learned bastard takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest', and most High Priests were in fact regarded by the Pharisees as ignorant.
Instead of the priests, the Pharisees looked for guidance to their own leaders, the hakhamim (sages), who were not a hereditary class but came from every level of society, including the poorest. The hakhamim or rabbis were really lay leaders, who achieved their authority by their ability to master the extensive materials that comprised a Pharisee's education. This included not only the whole Hebrew Bible, which was regarded as merely the first step in education, but also the whole superstructure of law, history, science and homiletic exegesis (midrash) which had accumulated in the Pharisee academies. A Pharisee leader had to be both an expert lawyer and an inspiring preacher, for the Bible itself contains both the outline of an entire legal constitution and a conspectus of history with a theory of the spiritual mission of the Jewish people and its place in God's purposes for humanity. Thus a Pharisee sage might one day be acting as a judge in a complicated case involving the laws of damages, and the next day he might be preaching in the synagogue about God's love for the repentant sinner, using for his sermon not only instances drawn from the Bible but also moving, simple parables drawn from his own imagination or from the Pharisee stock of homiletic material. In performing these tasks, the sages did not at this stage of history become a professional class; the general pattern was that each sage had his own profession by which he made his living, some of these professions being humble in status, and he gave his services to the community without pay or, at the most, with compensation for the hours lost from his own profession.
In consequence of the shift of authority from the priests to the sages, the place of the Temple itself was different in the world of the Pharisees from that which it occupied for the Sadducees. The Temple was not a place of study, but of ceremonial and sacrifice, and, while the Pharisees acknowledged the importance of animal and vegetable sacrifices (since the Bible had instituted them), they did not consider these ceremonies as central to their religious life, which focused rather on the acquisition of knowledge about how people should live together in society, and on the carrying into practice the principles of justice and love. The institution in which this process of communal education was pursued was not the Temple, but the synagogue. The Pharisees were the creators of congregationalism: the fostering of the local religious community.
This decentralization and diffusion of religion into manifold local centers was typical of Pharisaism, and this meant that the common people regarded the priesthood in Jerusalem as rather remote and unreal figures compared with their local sage, to whom they could come with their problems and who gave them regular instruction in the synagogue. He came from their own ranks, and claimed no aristocratic superiority over them; nor did he claim any magical or mystical authority, but only a wider range of learning, which he encouraged them to acquire, since learning was regarded as the duty of every Jew and as the basis of all useful and virtuous living. Thus the Pharisees were not only the founders of congregationalism, but also the founders of the idea and practice of universal education, though here they claimed to be merely fulfilling the injunctions of the Bible itself, which stresses the duty of education in many passages.
In combating the authority of the priesthood, the Pharisees did not regard themselves as innovators or revolutionaries, but rather as the upholders of authentic Judaism. Let me remind you that it was only the Pharisees who survived the destruction of Israel and the Temple in 70 A.D. In the Bible the chief teaching role in religion is given not to the priests, but to the prophets, who had no hereditary claims and might come from any section of the people. Moses, the founder of Israelite religion, did not make himself High Priest, but gave this role to his brother Aaron, a relative nonentity. The rabbis thus regarded themselves as the heirs of the prophets and especially of Moses, and as having the teaching role that had always been carefully distinguished, in Jewish practice and religion, from the sacerdotal role. The rabbis did not, however, claim to have prophetic gifts themselves; they thought that prophecy had ceased with the last of the biblical prophets, and would only be renewed in the Messianic age. Their task, as they conceived it, was to interpret the inspired words of scripture by a corporate effort, not unlike that of modern science, in which each rabbi contributed his own stock of thoughts and interpretations to a common pool. Consequently they developed methods of logical analysis and argument by analogy which produced in the Talmud one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, discussing with the greatest intelligence and professional ability matters of morality, business ethics and legal administration in a manner far in advance of their age.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, regarded themselves as defending the status quo against the innovations of the Pharisees. The Bible, the priesthood and the Temple were the institutions which they honored: the Bible needed no complicated apparatus of interpretation, the priesthood needed no officious class of lay scholars to supplement it, and the Temple provided all the atonement required without a proliferation of synagogues for prayer, study and preaching. Many modern scholars have taken the Sadducees as the representatives of ancient Judaism, standing out against Pharisee innovation; but this picture has serious defects. The Sadducees were indeed defending the status quo, but it was a status quo of fairly recent duration, dating from the third century BC, when Judaea was ruled by the Ptolemaic Greeks of Egypt. Under this regime, the High Priest was given central status and power by the Greek overlords, successors in the region to the power of Alexander the Great. The High Priesthood in this era was made the instrument of foreign rule, a role which it was to retain into the era of the Romans. When the Pharisees arose as a distinctive movement, around the period (c. 160 BC) of Jewish rebellion against foreign rule (which had meanwhile passed from the Ptolemaic Greeks of Egypt to the Seleucid Greeks of Syria), they were opposed to the priesthood not only for religious, but also for political reasons. They wished to free the Jews from the stranglehold of the priesthood not only in order to return to the old prophetic ideal of lay leadership, but also in order to return the priesthood to its proper biblical role as a guild of ceremonial officials, rather than a center of political power.
The political opposition of the Pharisees to the High Priesthood continued even after the victory of the Jews over their foreign Greek rulers; for the Hasmonean dynasty, which then took power over their fellow Jews, combined the monarchy with the High Priesthood, thus increasing further the political power of the High Priesthood. The Pharisees bitterly opposed this constitutional development, and consequently suffered persecution from the Hasmonean kings. The record of the Pharisees as opponents of power is utterly unknown to those who base their ideas of the Pharisees on the biased and inadequate picture of them given in the Gospels. Far from being oppressors, the Pharisees were continually the party of opposition. A far better picture of them, from the political standpoint, can be gained from the writings of Josephus, who in fact opposed them as troublemakers and thorns in the flesh of the political authorities.
It should be noted that, though the religious position of the Sadducees gave the highest role of authority to the priests, it would not be true to say that the priesthood on the whole supported the Sadducee standpoint. Most of the rank-and-file priests were Pharisee supporters and were thus opponents, both politically and religiously, of the corrupt High Priest. Like the majority of the Jewish people, these ordinary priests accepted the Pharisee leaders, the sages, as their spiritual guides, and did not presume to offer themselves as rival authorities merely on account of their Aaronic descent. They accepted that, as priests, they were merely Temple officials and not religious teachers; some of them even entered the Pharisee academies and trained to be sages themselves - for no one was debarred from becoming a sage, not even a priest.
Among the priests, it was chiefly a few families of great wealth and political influence with the reigning power who were Sadducees. The Sadducee party, indeed, formed a small minority among the Jewish people, comprising wealthy landowners as well as wealthy priests. People such as these were the natural allies of whatever authority happened to be in power, whether Ptolemaic Greeks, Seleucid Greeks, Hasmoneans, Herodians or Romans. The Sadducees were thus cut off from the sources of popular unrest. The Temple, as the visible center of Judaism, could be taken over by any ruling power and provided with a regime of collaborators. But the real centers of Jewish religious authority, the synagogues in which the Pharisee leaders presided, were too humble and too decentralized to be taken over, even if the Roman authorities had known that this was where the road to control of the Jews lay. In the time of Yeshua and Paul, the occupying power was the Romans, who actually appointed the High Priests, just as Herod had done before them. They imagined that by appointing some subservient quisling to the post of High Priest, they had assumed control of the Jewish religion, little realizing that Judaism was a religion in which the apparent spiritual head, the High Priest, was in reality of little account, being personally despised by the majority of the Jews, and even in his official capacity regarded as having no real authority.
It is impossible to understand the events of the time of Yeshua and Paul without a clear understanding of the equivocal role and position of the High Priest in Jewish society - on the one hand, a figure of gorgeous pomp leading the splendid ceremonial of the Temple and, on the other, a person of no authority. The ordinary reader of the Gospels assumes, naturally enough, that the High Priest was a figure corresponding, in the Jewish religion, to the Pope in the Catholic Church or the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. This mistake arises from the fact that in the Christian religion the ceremonial role has always been combined with the teaching role: the Christian priest performs the mass and also teaches the people through sermons and lessons. Christians are thus unfamiliar with the fact that in Judaism these two roles have always been distinct: the man who performs the sacrifices does not pronounce on theology or religious law, or adopt the role of inspirer or prophet. The Jewish division of roles has been of inestimable benefit to the survival of the Jewish religion, for it has meant that the corruption or destruction of the apparent centers of the religion has had little effect on its continuance. The High Priesthood frequently became hopelessly corrupt, but as long as there were movements like Pharisaism to revive the sources of authority among the laity, the religion was not seriously affected. Even the destruction of the Temple, which in the eyes of non-Jewish observers spelled the death of Judaism, had no such result, since the vitality of the religion did not depend on the Temple worship or on its practitioners.
The corruption of the High Priesthood in the time of Yeshua and Paul is also attested by the literature of the Dead Sea sect or Essenes. This sect, however, was very different from the Pharisees in their reaction to their perception of corruption in the Temple and the High Priesthood. The Pharisees were able to cooperate with the High Priesthood precisely because they did not regard it as important. Since, to them, the High Priest was a ceremonial functionary, not a figure of spiritual power, it did not matter to them how inadequate he might be as a person, as long as he performed his ceremonial duties with a modicum of efficiency. Thus they saw to it that the High Priest was supervised by Pharisees in the performance of his duties, both to guard against his ignorance of the law and also to guard against any attempt on his part to introduce Sadducee practices into the order of the Temple service; once these precautions had been taken, they were satisfied, for the Temple service would be valid whatever the moral or theoretical shortcomings of the officiator. In practice, the High Priest almost always submitted to this Pharisee supervision, because of the pressure of public opinion.
The Dead Sea Scroll sect, however, took the office of the High Priest far more seriously than this and consequently, when they became convinced that the High Priesthood had become hopelessly corrupt, they withdrew from Jewish society altogether and formed a monastic community, dreaming and praying for the Last Days, when a pure Temple service would be restored. The Dead Sea Scroll sect actually had a far higher estimation of the role of the Temple and the priesthood than did the Pharisees, and recent scholarships' indicates that they were probably a breakaway branch of the Sadducees (they called themselves the 'sons of Zadok'). They represent the religious ideals of the Sadducee sect before it became politicized and corrupt- a sect which genuinely believed in the central importance of Bible, Temple and priesthood, and opposed the lay movement of the Pharisees.
When we read in the New Testament of incidents in which the High Priest figures, either in relation to Yeshua or in relation to Paul, we have to rid ourselves of preconceptions about the role of the High Priest and try to understand the issues in the light of the historical facts. In particular, a flood of light can be thrown on the New Testament story by bearing in mind the deep antagonism between the Pharisee movement and the High Priest of that period, not only a Sadducee, but an appointee of the Romans and a quisling collaborator with Roman power.
Before we examine Paul and the New Testament in detail, it was necessary to get this foundation, knowledge, and truth about the Pharisees. You will see the importance of this as we begin to examine Paul and what is written about him being a Pharisee in the New Testament. Let us summarize as we close:
As we close let us remember that if Paul was a Pharisee of the Pharisees then he sure was devoid of these two chief characteristics of the Pharisees which are attested in hundreds of places in their theological writings that survive today. One only needs to look at the Oral Law to see these principles in action.
Answer for yourself: Where do we have to look to find theological rigidity in Second Temple First Century Judaism? You got it; the Sadducees and this is where we find the Apostle Paul.
Let us continue our study in our next article. Shalom.