The High Priest, as we have seen (and as the New Testament bears witness), was the leader of the Sadducees and, as such, was in continual conflict with the Pharisees, not only on religious matters but also on the political question of how far to collaborate with the Roman occupation, where the main difference between them was that the Sadducees were willing to cooperate actively with the Romans, even if this meant handing over troublemakers to them for execution. As an appointee of the Romans, the High Priest was not just a ceremonial official with jurisdiction over the Temple; he was, in effect, a chief of police with his own armed force, his own police tribunal which was concerned with political offences, and his own penal system, including prisons and arrangements for flogging offenders. In the case of capital offences, however, such as serious insurrection against the power of Rome, he would hand over the offender to the occupying Roman power rather than attempt to impose sentence himself (so you see the Jews could not bring the death penalty during Roman occupation so the Romans, not the Jews, killed Jesus). The situation can best be understood by comparison with occupied France during the Second World War.
It is thus incredible that a prominent Pharisee, or indeed any Pharisee, would enter into close association with the High Priest, as Saul is reported to have done, for the purpose of dragging off to the High Priest's prisons persons whose only offense was to hope for the fulfillment of the Messianic promises of Israel and see in Jesus their hope possibly fulfilled. Any type of Messianic gathering or riot or movement could spell the destruction of Israel if not severe penalty. It was the High Priest's job to keep the peace and these Messianics were constant problems. These Messianics has to be kept in order and this was police work, for the High Priest was no grand inquisitor, concerned with pursuing heresy. Moreover, as a Sadducee, the Chief Priest was regarded by the majority of the Jewish nation as a heretic himself, and would have been the first to suffer if there had been an Inquisition among the Jews. Let us remember at that time the office of the High Priest was held no longer by those of Zadok line, but was often purchased by those who had the most money. The only reason why the High Priest could use force at all is that he had been provided with the means by the Romans for their own purposes; and, though the High Priests were not above using the machinery for their own benefit (the sources attest that they used police officers to collect the priestly tithes by force, though they were supposed to be voluntary), their main concern was to produce results required by their Roman masters.
Thus, if Yeshua's movement had been a heretical one, espousing theological doctrines that contradicted the traditional tenets of Judaism, the High Priest would have been entirely unconcerned, being no theologian. If the movement had been opposed to the Pharisees in matters of religion, the High Priest would even have been pleased, for that was his position also. As a matter of fact, the Gospel writers, in their anxiety to put heretical doctrines into Yeshua's mouth, occasionally give him things to say that are Sadducean in character, and have evidently been taken from Sadducean polemics against the Pharisees. The only circumstances under which the High Priest would employ his police force to arrest and imprison people would be if they had shown themselves in some way to be a political threat to the Roman regime. The Messianics were the chief concern as you can see for the High Priest. Something had to be done before it got out of hand and Rome responded with violence. If Saul was employed by the High Priest to arrest people and imprison them, it can only mean one thing: that Saul was a member of the High Priest's police force and his job was to arrest anyone who constituted a threat to the occupation. The last person who would be employed by the High Priest in such a capacity would be a Pharisee: thus the inescapable conclusion is that Saul was not a Pharisee.
This conclusion is so inescapable that even scholars who never envisage the possibility that Paul was not a Pharisee make admissions that bring them very near to it. Thus, Johannes Munck, in his book on the Acts of the Apostles, says that, in view of the evidence that the Pharisees were friendly to the Nazarenes, it must be concluded that Saul was the only Pharisee who joined forces with the High Priest to persecute the movement: 'The only Pharisee in the service of the chief priests was Paul, who had left Gamaliel and become an ardent persecutor of the Christians before an even more radical switch made him an apostle of Yeshua.' The argument has here turned full circle. Instead of Gamaliel, as traditional Christian interpretation has it, being the only Pharisee to support Yeshua's movement (despite one triumph of persuasion which was not repeated), now we have Paul as the isolated Pharisee- though in traditional Christian interpretation Saul was only following a typical Pharisee pattern when he persecuted the Nazarenes. To be forced to turn the story on its head like this just shows that there is something radically wrong with the story as it stands; and to substitute one improbability for another - a uniquely persecuting Saul for a uniquely tolerant Gamaliel - is no solution. The only solution that makes perfect sense is that Saul was not a Pharisee, but persecuted the Christians for exactly the same reason that the High Priest persecuted them - because they were opposed to Roman domination of the Holy Land.
Answer for yourself: Otherwise, what possible motive could a Pharisee have to persecute a group of people whom the entire body of Pharisees, headed by their revered leader, regarded as pious Jews, whose belief in Yeshua as Messiah might possibly be vindicated by time?
Answer for yourself: What kind of Jew, then, might have taken up this political police work in the service of the High Priest?
The police force of the High Priest was no doubt a motley crew, consisting partly of junior priests with an allegiance to the Sadducee party or belonging to those few families from whom the High Priest was traditionally selected, combined with foreign mercenaries of various kinds, including Jews or even non-Jews, who were relatively indifferent to Jewish patriotism and were prepared to endure the unpopularity which was the inevitable lot of those wielding power in the interests of a hated military occupation.
There exists an account of Saul's origins which was given by the Ebionites, the community of Jewish Christians, who regarded him as the perverter of Yeshua's message and as the founder of a new religion which Yeshua himself would have rejected. According to the Ebionites, Saul was not a Pharisee and not even a Jew by birth. His parents in Tarsus were Gentiles, and he himself had become a convert and had thereupon journeyed to the Holy Land, where he found employment in the service of the High Priest. This is a very different story from that found in the New Testament, which has Saul as a prominent Pharisee, not so much entering the service of the High Priest as deigning to enter into an alliance with him. The account given by the Ebionites has always been rejected contemptuously both by Christian writers and by some modern scholars as mere scurrilous polemics, intended to denigrate Paul, and based on nothing but spite and hostility. But the Ebionites deserve more consideration than this since they are the earliest Jewish followers of Yeshua and should know best the events that transpired in their time that involved Yeshua, their Messiah.
We must abandon the traditional contempt for the Ebionite account of Saul's origins and give it serious consideration. That Saul was a Pharisee is rendered most unlikely both by his persecution of the Nazarenes and by his association with the High Priest. But a person of foreign, non-Jewish extraction is just the kind of person that could be expected to enter the service of the High Priest and engage in police activities which a native-born Jew, resentful of Roman hegemony and of the Sadducean quisling regime, would regard with hostility and scorn. It would be natural for Paul, writing to communities for whom he was an inspired figure, to attribute to himself a more glamorous origin than was in fact the case and to explain his phase of serving in the High Priest's police force as actuated by religious zeal rather than by humdrum motives of earning a living by whatever unsavory means were open to an immigrant. The communities to whom Paul was writing were unaware of the politico-religious situation in Judaea, and might well think that the Pharisees and the early followers of Yeshua were at odds, and so not find it implausible that Paul's early opposition to the movement was actuated by Pharisaism. This explanation, first advanced by Paul himself in his letters (in which he did not even reveal that he was born in Tarsus, but carefully fostered the impression, without actually saying so, that he was a native-born Judaean) was afterwards incorporated by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.
Answer for yourself: But how can we even consider such a theory, when so many scholars have found incontrovertible evidence, as they think, of Paul's training as a Pharisee in his own writings?
The style of argument and thought in the Epistles of Paul, we have been repeatedly told, is rabbinical; Paul, though putting forward views and arguments which 'go far beyond' rabbinical thinking, uses rabbinical logic and methods of biblical exegesis in such a way that his education as a Pharisee is manifest. Beloved as this view is by some scholars, it is entirely wrong, being based on ignorance or misunderstanding of rabbinical exegesis and logic. It will be necessary, therefore, to prove this point, before going on to deal with other objections to the view that the Ebionite account of Paul is nearer to the truth than the New Testament account.
It is to these issues we turn in the next article. Shalom.