Paul, The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought Part Three


Beginning on p. 28ff. there is a description of Pharisaic belief and practice. He lists the following derived mainly from Josephus— they believed in some form of the afterlife, they combined a belief in free will and determinism, they were legal experts who had some distinctive views on some issues, they accepted the ‘traditions of the elders’ which were non-Biblical traditions, and they were lenient in judgment unlike the harsh Sadducees. Sanders argues that the three major parties (Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees) differed on some practical things like the calendar, it is the sacrifices on Passover which caused the Essenes to separate and call such sacrifices as invalid. They didn’t have major theological differences except that the Sadducees did not affirm the resurrection (p. 32).

“Many Christians, including especially New Testament scholars think of the Pharisees in two ways: 1) they were somewhat weird zealots who were obsessively concerned with trivia; 2) they somehow had gained the ability to make all other Jews follow their trivial pursuits. Both points are completely wrong.” (p. 32 bottom). These are not trivial if God said to do them, and Jews who were eager to do exactly what God said should not be caricatured as obsessed with trivia. They were not the most zealous, the Essenes were far more zealous, but both Josephus and Acts agree that the Pharisees sought to be ‘precise’ or strict in their following of the Law. “It is odd to me that the greatest opponents of the ancient Pharisees have been modern NT scholars who spent their lives, as did the Pharisees, trying to understand the Bible precisely.” (p. 33). The halakot, from halakah and ultimately from the word for walk, indicating how to behave or practice this or that law.

Sanders deals with tithing and purity laws, the former of which involved observance only within Palestine, the latter could be practiced in various settings. Paul delivers no opinions on tithing and its Jewish debates. [N.B. Paul’s letters are written well after Paul was converted, well after Paul gave all his Pharisaic past up and counted it as skubbala according to Phil.3. It is once again an argument from silence to say Paul was not educated in tithing and purity laws just because later he doesn’t comment on such things. Absence of evidence is not evidence of ignorance and lack of previous training. Someone could conclude I never took physics because I’ve never really discussed it in the last 30 years (with exception of a review of the book God and the New Physics). In fact I had both an excellent high school and college Physics class, and did well in them, and enjoyed the learning.

Sanders notes p. 38 that the use of mikvehs began in the period 140-40 B.C. and it seems to have been common in the first century A.D. Palestine. He also admits that the Bible is largely silent about purity as it applied to the Diaspora (pp. 39-40). Why then is it surprising that Paul seldom discusses such things when all his letters are written to folk in the Diaspora and in particular mainly Gentiles whom Paul is addressing? Paul’s use of purity language in moral discussions does not stamp him as specifically Pharisaic, since all ancients were concerned with purity, says Sanders. Purity concerns were not Pharisaic concerns alone, so purity language does not necessarily indicate a Pharisee is talking.

Sanders thinks (p. 42) that because Paul does not seem to have given his churches more specific or concrete details about how to live, apparently not formulating rules of behavior and practice, and because he seems to be casting about in his letters trying to relate principles to practice, this suggests Paul was not brought up on these sorts of concerns and ruminations and teaching at the feet of Gamaliel. But again, Paul is addressing his largely Gentile audiences, many years after his conversion. And that conversion meant, according to Paul himself, leaving many such things behind, including the notion that there were taboo foods that were inherently unclean. Paul’s discussions in his letter do show a concern for behavior and practice (e.g. baptism and the Lord’s Supper) of a more specific Christian sort. He had left his Pharisaic practices mostly in the past.

On p. 43, one of the things that made Christianity stand out is its affirmation of what came to be called dogmas— required beliefs if one was to be a Christian. Sanders seeks to show this was not so much the case in early Judaism or other religions. He of course is very concerned to deny that Pharisees taught self-salvation by doing good works or by strict legal obedience to the Law. Sanders adds on p. 44 that Christianity began as a religion that was about ‘individual salvation’. Judaism has no dogmas about what individuals should believe to have eternal life.

The basic Jewish view was this (p. 45)—Jews are born in the covenant and are members of the chosen people. In order to gain eternal life they should obey the commandments as best they can, and atone for transgression. They are born into the covenant and must remain loyal to it. No supererogatory works are required. God is righteous and fair rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior but reward is not salvation and punishment is not damnation.

P. 46– What were the means of atonement? While the temple stood, it was sacrifices in the Temple, but after it was destroyed there were still some means of atonement: 1) God simply forgives those who repent; 2) the Day of Atonement is effective even without the prescribed sacrifices; 3) sufferings especially those which precede death atone; and 4) death atones. [N.B. about these auxiliary means of atonement the OT says nothing. It requires sacrifices].
God graciously chose Israel and graciously provided various means of atonement for every transgression (some rabbis taught that different means were for differing kinds of sins). He suggests p. 47 that Paul affirms the notion that suffering and punishment through suffering that leads to death atones for sin and allows the person to enter eternal life and avoid damnation (1Cor. 4.4-5; 1 Cor. 11.28-32). “Distinguishing reward from salvation and punishment from damnation is crucial to the understanding of both Paul and non-Pauline Judaism.” (p. 47). Members of the ‘in group’ will be saved in both cases. They may have to endure punishment at the judgment or before, but this is not the same thing as damnation. The difference is, Paul no longer believes you are born into the covenant. He believes everyone starts life in need of salvation, and that all must convert, put their faith in Jesus to be saved. But once in the new covenant the system of rewards and punishments works the same as in Judaism (p. 48). Paul’s view of righteousness by faith in Christ is not in opposition to Paul’s views about rewards and punishments which is not the same as salvation and eternal damnation (p.49).

P. 50—Sanders makes the point that while resurrection was a Pharisaic belief, it was also affirmed by other Jews such as the Essenes, so the fact that Paul affirms it does not make him a Pharisee [it makes him a non-Sadducee, which seems to be the only party not affirming resurrection]. Sander suggests (p. 51) that when Paul says he was extremely zealous for the traditions of the fathers, this does not refer to the ‘traditions of the elders’ which the Pharisees upheld, but rather to the more broad Jewish customs and traditions not found in the Bible. [But this does not match up well with Paul’s claim that as to the Law he was a Pharisee. This sounds like special pleading to me, and attempt to avoid the conclusion that Paul was a Palestinian Pharisee who knew their traditions well and upheld them as part of his Jerusalem training.]

Sanders goes on to point out that not just the Pharisees but also the Essenes believed in affirming both divine providence and free will, so Paul’s affirmation of both doesn’t make him a Pharisee (p. 52). The Palestinian Pharisees were known for their Biblical expertise, and so is Paul, but it was not a Pharisaic specific trait. But I seriously doubt the conclusion “All Jews knew the contents of the Bible fairly well, thanks to weekly meetings of the local synagogue…” (p. 53) or even the more limited claim “Numerous Jews had a very precise and detailed knowledge of the Bible— as did Paul” (p. 53).

Where exactly is the hard evidence of this? Especially when the literacy rates seem clearly to have been not above 20% in oral cultures of the day? Sanders concludes (p. 54) that he doesn’t see anything in Paul’s letters that suggests he knew distinctive or exclusive Pharisaic views and practices. And yet Paul not only identifies himself as a Pharisee, he makes the claims about his advancing in Judaism (where exactly was he advancing in it??) and upholding the ancestral traditions in a discussion in Gal. 1-2 where he compares himself with the pillar Jerusalem church leaders.

And one must ask—who precisely gave Paul the permission to persecute Christians, since Paul was not the high priest or the head of the Sanhedrin? In the end, Sanders argues that the one point that counts against Paul being a Palestinian Pharisee is his lack of education in how to apply general principles to specific situations. But this involves a judgment on all the ethical sections of Paul’s letters, and indeed it involves the elimination of some of the Pauline letters from consideration, due to a belief that they are unPauline. An unconvincing judgment. Sanders seems to forget again and again that Paul’s letters seldom reflect on his personal past or the views he held in the past, and when they do sum up, Paul indicates he has moved on from such views, left them behind. The basis of ethics is different for Paul than it was when he was simply a Pharisee. There is a Christological basis for it he did not have before. Instead, Sanders will vie for the view that Paul persecuted Christians in the Diaspora, and argues that Luke had to make up things about Paul’s early years, and knew little of Paul’s theology. He then says that he is not hostile towards Acts, he calls it good Hellenistic historiography (or perhaps historical fiction?). He then turns to making his case for Paul as a Diaspora Jew. The problem here is the either or. Paul is both a Palestinian Jew for much of his growing up years, and also a Diaspora Jew born in Tarsus, and returning to the Diaspora for most of his ministry, not least because he is the apostle to the Gentiles.