“DID PAUL QUIT BEING A PHARISEE WHEN HE ACCEPTED JESUS [Heb. Yeshua] AS HIS LORD, MESSIAH, AND SAVIOR?” This is an extremely important question, because how we answer it will determine what overall context we will use to interpret and understand Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] and his writings. If we place Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] and his writings in the wrong context, then we open the door to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and error. So to answer it, we need to see what information the New Testament provides us about how Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] viewed and identified himself.
NOTE: In this series, I am using both Paul’s Hebrew and English names so not to offend any of my readers, whether they identify themselves as “Rabbinic Jews,” “Messianic Jews,” or as “Christians.” I don’t want to place any unnecessary “stumbling-blocks” or “walls” up between me and my readers, whether potential or already established.
PAUL’S OWN CONFESSION OF FAITH
There are several times in the New Testament that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] publicly proclaims to being a Pharisee [Heb. P’rushim]. First of all, in Acts 23, Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] is on trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem for the alleged charges that have been brought against him. During his trial, he notices that the room is filled with both Pharisees and Sadducees. It is at this moment that he utters this statement.
Men and brethren, I AM a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called into question. (Acts 23:6; emphasis mine)
In his defense, notice that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] is addressing the other Pharisees in the group as “brethren;” therefore, clearly identifying himself with them. Also, notice that Paul says, “I AM a Pharisee,” NOT “I WAS a Pharisee.” His confession of faith as being a Pharisee is in the present tense – not the past tense. And by making this confession of faith (which is what this is), we learn from Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) that his father and, maybe even, his grandfather were Pharisees and, therefore, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) has continued to live and practice as they had and did. It was the beliefs and practices of his family, and it was the environment in which he grew up.
If Paul had indeed stopped being a Pharisee when he had accepted the Messiah Yeshua [Jesus], he would not have made this confession. Therefore, Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] is clearly identifying himself as still being a believing and practicing Pharisee. He did not see his faith in Yeshua [Jesus] as being the promised Messiah to be at odds with his life as a Pharisee, but instead, it was something that gave his life as a Pharisee deeper meaning and fulfillment.
WAS PAUL A “LIAR” AND A “HYPOCRITE”?
Unfortunately, there are many Christians who try to impugn Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) confession and his integrity here at this trial before the Sanhedrin by saying that he only said that “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” to cause a riot between the Pharisees who were there and the Sadducees, knowing that he could then get out of this trial. Therefore, those that argue this are saying that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was the type of person who would lie or say something that was not true simply to get himself out of trouble.
However, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) did not practice hypocrisy, for he condemned Peter in Galatians 2:11-21 for acting in a way which he viewed as hypocritical, but most Christians want people to believe that this same man who condemned Peter for hypocrisy, then turned around and committed hypocrisy himself twice? Once for saying “I am a Pharisee,” when he really wasn’t, and two by practicing what he himself had condemned. No, instead, I must stand against Christians on this point. Instead, I believe that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) saw other Pharisees in the room, and cried out, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee,” because he hoped that they would come to his aid in his defense since he saw himself and believed that he was one of them, and not for the reason most Christians try to argue.
PAST TENSE OR A CONTINUING REALITY?
Another reference where Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) argues that he is still living his life as a Pharisee is in his trial before King Agrippa. In his trial, Paul states,
My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest [or strictest] sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. (Acts 26:5)
Some will point and say, “See, the word ‘lived’ here is in the past tense; therefore, it was part of his past, not part of his new present life in Messiah [Christ].” However, the Greek verb tense of the word translated “lived” is in aorist tense, which means that it’s an “action that was accomplished in the past, but it still has ongoing, continuing effects into the present.” Therefore, this final line would be better translated and understood as saying,
that after the most straitest [strictest] sect of our religion I lived [and continue to live as] a Pharisee.
So rather than saying that he had given up his life as a Pharisee, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is actually saying the direct opposite. And the third confession by Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) of being a Pharisee can be found in his own epistles.
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinks that he has whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
Many Christians will point out that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is discussing his past here, not his present; therefore, his confession to being a Pharisee should likewise be understood to be part of his past. However, the phrase “I more” is looking at what has been true his entire life, including his present life. To confirm this, let’s go back and read his statements, and if we do, we discover something very interesting.
- He states, “He was circumcised the eighth day.” Has that changed? Did he do anything to physically “uncircumcise” himself? No, even though he accepted Yeshua (Jesus) as his Lord and Messiah, he is still “circumcised.”
- He states, “He is of the stock of Israel.” Has that changed? No, one cannot change what group of people one is physically descended from. Therefore, he is still “of the stock of Israel.”
- He states, “He’s of the tribe of Benjamin.” Has that changed? No, again, one cannot change the genetic group you and your family were descended from, so again, he is still “of the tribe of Benjamin.”
- He states, “He’s a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” Now some might argue that this could be changed. It’s a statement that reflects one’s views, perspectives, values, beliefs, and lifestyle. However, based on what we see of his life, teachings, and confessions presented in the book of Acts, chapters 9 – 28, we see –
- His own confession of faith regarding his belief and obedience to the law [Torah] and the prophets [Acts 23:1, 3-5; 24:4; 25:8; 26:22-23]
- His repeated observance of the Sabbath in the synagogue [Acts 9:19-20; Acts 13:5, 14, 15, 42, 44; 14:1; 17:1-2, 10-11, 17; 18:4, 19-20; 19:8]
- His observance of the biblical feasts [Acts 20:6, 16]
- His participation in a Nazarite vow [Acts 18:18], as well as participating in the Temple sacrifices involved in a Nazarite vow, as well as paying for four other believers participating in this as well [compare Numbers 6:13-21 and Acts 21:24-27];
- Him conducting a Havdolah service (a concluding service for the Sabbath that welcomes in the first day of the week, Acts 20: 7-12);
- His circumcision of the half-Jew Timothy, in accordance to Jewish practice [Acts 16:1-3];
- Based on all of this, I see no reason in the biblical account of his life to believe that this statement has in any way changed. He is still “a Hebrew of the Hebrews.”
From his statement so far, there hasn’t been anything said that has changed. What was true of Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) before his acceptance of the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) is still true now. However, in the next point, it is here that Christianity believes has changed in the life of Sha’ul Paulus (Paul), but has it?
- He states, “as touching the law, a Pharisee.” Christianity maintains that this has changed in the life of Paul; however, based on Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) own testimony and life, seen throughout the book of Acts, and based on Yeshua’s [Jesus’] disciples’ own testimony about him (coming later in this study), and the fact that there’s not one denial from another Jew of him being a Pharisee, there’s NO EVIDENCE to believe that this part of Sha’ul Paulus‘ life has changed.
In the following statement, however, there is biblical evidence of a change. Although part of the statement has not changed, the other part did change.
- He states, “concerning zeal, persecuting the church.” In this statement, the part that has remained the same is that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] is still as zealous for his faith as he was before. What has changed is how he demonstrates that “zeal.” Rather than “persecuting the church,” Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] now goes about proclaiming the very message he once tried to stomp out and to go about establishing churches.
Finally, in this last statement, I believe this is another area many Christians would say has been a change in Sha’ul Paulus’ [Paul’s] life.
- Finally, “touching the righteousness which is of the law, blameless.”
However, I believe this depends upon how you look at it. Most Christians only define the word “righteousness” as being “one’s right standing with God.” They would argue that “our right standing with God” has to do with what Yeshua [Jesus] did for us by His death and resurrection on the cross, and not based on our obedience to the commandments handed down to Moses. In response to this, I would say “Yes” and “No.”
THE TWO MEANINGS OF “RIGHTEOUSNESS”
The word “righteousness” in the Bible is a word that has two levels of meaning, not one. It has a “judicial meaning” and it has an “experiential meaning.” Judicially, yes, we are made “righteous” because of what Yeshua [Jesus] did for us on the cross by His death and resurrection. But once we receive Yeshua [Jesus] into our lives and Lord, Savior, and King and accept His gift of salvation, and we are declared “righteous” before God, we still need to walk out in our life what God has declared us to be. And this is where the “experiential meaning” of “righteousness” comes into play. When we obey God’s commandments, including those given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, then we are “experientially righteous” before God.
For example, when God sent Moshe [Moses] to the people of Israel, He told him to tell them that God had given to them the land that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now when Moshe [Moses] told the people this, they were still in Egypt as slaves. The land had been “declared judicially theirs,” but “experientially,” it was not theirs. They had to be freed from slavery, leave Egypt, cross the Red Sea, continue to cross the desert, go to Siani, and then finishing crossing the desert to get to the Promised Land.
In the same way, we have been made “righteous” by Yeshua’s [Jesus’] death on the cross and His resurrection. As a result, we have been liberated from the slavery of sin, but we still need to “cross the sea” in water baptism and leave our “Egypts,” our old life of sin behind. Then we need to each go to “Mt. Sinai” (receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit). There’s a reason the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost, the same feast that celebrates the Giving of the Torah (God’s commandments to Moses); the two are connected. And as we walk out our obedience to God’s Word each day, including the Torah, then we are made “experientially righteous” before God.
For example, did Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) view his “righteousness, which is in the law, blameless” changed as a result of his faith in the Messiah Yeshua [Jesus]? No, he didn’t. Notice Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) confession during his trials before Felix and Festus (Acts 25:8):
But this I confess unto you, that after THE WAY which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, BELIEVING ALL THINGS WHICH ARE WRITTEN IN THE LAW [TORAH] AND IN THE PROPHETS. (Acts 24:14)
Neither against THE LAW OF THE JEWS, neither against the Temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I OFFENDED ANYTHING AT ALL. (Acts 25:8)
Many will say, “See Paul confessed to being part of THE WAY, not the Pharisees.” This is true; however, also note that he said that he “BELIEVES ALL THINGS which are written in the Law [Heb. Torah] and in the prophets.” But most Christians could not make that same confession since they believe that the Law ended at the cross, and some that the whole Old Testament ended at the cross and, therefore, for them, none of it is valid any longer for them. If it is not valid for them, then obviously, they cannot say they believe all that is written in it is for them.
PAUL – A PHARISEE AND A FOLLOWER OF THE WAY
Secondly, it must be remember that when the New Testament was being written, the Yeshua [Jesus] Movement was still seen to be a “sect” of 2nd Temple Judaism; it was NOT a different religion then. And there’s absolutely no textual biblical evidence that Yeshua [Jesus], His disciples, or even Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] saw themselves as being outside the mainstream of the Judaism of their day.
But what many Christians do not know or realize is that one could be a Pharisee AND a member of another Jewish sect at the same time. In fact, this was quite common during this time. For example, there were Pharisees who were also Essenes, or Pharisees who were also zealots, as well as Pharisees who also believed in the new sect, THE WAY or who were also known as NAZARENES (see Acts 24:15; not any relation to the Christian denomination by the same name). So does this quote of being a part of “The Way” prove that Sha’ul Paulus was no longer a Pharisee? No, it doesn’t.
Finally, notice Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) confession before Festus, “Neither against THE LAW OF THE JEWS, neither against the Temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended anything at all” (Acts 25:8). What is he saying about himself? Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is saying that as far as his “righteousness according to the law,” he is STILL “blameless.”
Also, many try to prove that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) gave up his life as a Pharisee by focusing on his statement in the following verse.
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them as dung, that I might win Christ. (Philippians 3:6-7)
Most will say, “See, Paul says he counted them ‘as dung’ and as ‘all loss for Christ’; consequently, he gave them up.” Actually, he’s making a comparative statement. He’s saying that in comparison to “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus,” he considers those things he previously esteemed as “loss” and as “dung.” But does this mean he gave them up and does not make use of them anymore? No, it doesn’t.
I could say in comparison to “the knowledge of knowing Christ,” everything I have and own I consider “dung,” but that doesn’t mean I have gotten rid of anything that I presently own or have. I am merely trying to illustrate how important Christ is to my life in comparison to the other things within my life, and that is exactly what Paul is doing here in this passage. So again, Paul is not saying he gave up his Pharisaic lifestyle at all. And as we will see, Paul does make use of his training and experience as a Pharisee in his ministry.
THE WITNESS OF THE APOSTLES
Perhaps, the greatest witness that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] maintained his life as a Torah-observant [“Law obedient”] Pharisee comes from James and the other Apostles in Jerusalem. In Acts 21, after Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] shares what God has been doing through his ministry and they all rejoice, James shares a rumor that was being circulated about him.
they have all been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What then is to be done? (Acts 21:21-22a)
James then suggests that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] join four other men in a Nazarite vow, but not just join them, but also pay for all their expenses. If you read Numbers 6, the completion of this vow involves the giving of every type of sacrifice offered at the Temple, including a sin offering. If at any point, Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] thought the Mosaic Law or the Temple sacrifices were no longer valid or important, he could have said so right here. But not only does he not say anything, but he does join them and pay their expenses, as we see in Acts 21:26.
And what is the point of James having Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] do this?
and all will know that there is NOTHING to the things which they have been told about you, but that YOU YOURSELF ALSO WALK ORDERLY, KEEPING THE LAW. (Acts 21:24b)
James is clearly saying that he and the other Apostles know that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] would NEVER teach another Jew to not practice circumcision of their children, nor would he ever tell them not to keep the Torah [God’s commandments given to Moses and the children of Israel]. Therefore, for any Christian to say that Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] believed that circumcision was no longer important or that the commandments should not be kept is in direct opposition to the testimony of James and the other Apostles. These men knew Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] “face-to-face,” but we only know what we’ve been told by others and how we’ve been taught to interpret the New Testament. So why do Christians feel their interpretation of Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] is superior to James and the Apostles’ actual personal knowledge of Sha’ul Paulus [Paul]?