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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 a Pharisee."

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.

NOTES:
-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) Return
-4- See Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (London, 1946) Return

-5- compare Gershom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah


Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1965) Return

-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. Return

-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)