Paul the Pharisee

Paul the Pharisee October 3, 2013

The apostle Paul emerged into faith in Jesus as the Messiah out of the Pharisaic way of life. What was that like? This is one of the highlight questions Tom Wright asks in his new Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and to answer that question he prepares us with a lengthy and winding discussion of the “Story” at work in Judaism and the particular slant that Story was told by the Pharisees. Here is awesome summary, leading to this big question for us:

If this is Paul’s “background” and “past,” what do we now see in his letters we did not see before? or, what does this tell us about his theory of “justification by faith”? (More on that below, too.)

This begins with the major worldview questions for the Pharisees.

Who  we? We are a group of Jews who find ourselves dissatisfied with the way our country is being run and with our life as a people, at home and abroad. We are therefore devoting ourselves to the study and practice of Torah, as a kind of elite corps, intending to advance the time when Israel will finally be redeemed, when our God will reveal his faithfulness to our nation.

Where are we? Mostly, it seems, in the holy land, which is where we might prefer to be; but some of us live and work in the Diaspora. We are, however, mostly living under the rule of the Roman empire (some, perhaps, far out in the east, have other pagan overlords), and we have struck a deal that we will pray for the emperor, not to him as everyone else is forced to do.396

What’s wrong? There are not nearly enough of us who take Torah with proper seriousness, and even among those who do there are schools devel- oping which the tough-minded among us regard as dangerously compro- mised. What counts, after all, is absolute purity. We do not imagine that we never sin, or never incur impurity, but we deal with it at once according to the methods and means of atonement and purification given by God and prescribed in the law. That is what it means to be ‘perfect in the law’. Butwe cannot compromise or collude with the wickedness we see in the nations all around us, and that goes especially for the rulers of the nations. Ever since the days in Egypt, and then again from the time in Babylon (where some of us still are) to the present, we have known what pagan rulers are like, and what it’s like to live under them. We will not be content until we no longer have to live as, in effect, slaves under these pagans, paying them taxes. Behind the problem of Israel’s large-scale failure to obey Torah prop- erly is the much bigger problem: when will our God reveal his faithfulness to the covenant, by judging the pagans, liberating us from their wicked grasp, and setting up his ultimate kingdom? That’s what’s wrong: it hasn’t happened yet.

What’s the solution? To the smaller-scale problem: a campaign to per- suade more Jews to take upon themselves the yoke of Torah. To the larger- scale problem: to pray (prayer is especially important; the Shema alone is the very foundation of our existence) and to wait in purity, to keep the feasts and the fasts, to study scripture . . . and perhaps, so some of us think, to join up with those who are eager for armed resistance and revolution. We have as our great models of ‘zeal for Torah’ the heroes of old, Phinehas and Elijah especially. They were not afraid to use the sword in the service of God. Nor were our more recent heroes, the Maccabaean freedom-fighters. We vene- rate, too, the martyrs who died cruel deaths rather than defile themselves with pagan food and practices. We are waiting for a new exodus, and perhaps a new Moses to lead it. Some of us want to hurry that process along.

What time is it? Well, there is a lot of discussion about that, because nobody is completely sure how to calculate the Great Jubilee of Daniel 9. But it has to be soon. The ‘present age’ will give way to the ‘age to come’;397 the present time is the time of continuing exile and slavery, despite various false dawns; some of us did make it back to our own land, but whether we did or didn’t we are still in the long, dark period Daniel 9 predicted, the ‘exile’ of Deuteronomy 28. The coming age, however, will be the time of freedom, and some of us have begun to think that maybe that coming age is being secretly inaugurated as we develop and pass on the oral law and do our best to keep it. Maybe that’s the way God’s faithfulness is being revealed. Meanwhile, we are frustrated that the great biblical laws about jubilee have usually been honoured in the breach rather than the obser- vance. We who keep the sabbath very carefully week by week are hoping and praying for the great Sabbath, the time when our God will have com- pleted the work of rescuing Israel, and we can enjoy ‘rest’ like Joshua’s people did once the land was settled. It is time for ‘messianic time’, for a new kind of time, for the same thing to happen to our time and history as happens in space and matter when we go to the Temple: an intersection ofour world with God’s world, of our time with God’s time. That’s what happens every week, every sabbath. We want all those times of rest to come rushing together as the true Jubilee, the real freedom-moment, not just because we want a new exodus but because we want to share God’s ultimate rest, the joy of work complete. (177-179)

Here is how the Pharisees, according to NT Wright, saw their problem:

We have thus approached, from the theological angle, the topic we discovered at the heart of our study of the narrative world of second-Temple Jews. If Israel is chosen to be the people through whom the creator will put the world to rights, what happens when Israel itself needs to be put to rights? The answer given by the Pharisees was reasonably clear: Israel needs to learn how to keep Torah, how to keep it properly this time. If Israel wants the covenant God to be faithful to his promises and bring the restoration they longed for, Israel has to be faithful to this God, to Torah, to the covenant. Plenty of evidence in scripture itself indicated that something like this was the right answer. Since Paul the apostle basically agrees with this answer, though providing a radical and shocking fresh analysis of what ‘keeping Torah properly’ and ‘being faithful to God’ now looks like, we may confidently conclude that this was what Saul of Tarsus, the zealous Pharisee, had believed as well. (183)

Now what about justification by faith in this worldview?

 The point can be summarized thus. First, God will soon bring the whole world into judgment, at which point some people will be ‘reckoned in the right’, as Abraham and Phinehas were. Second, there are particular things, even in the present time, which will function as signs of that coming verdict. Third, those particular things are naturally enough the things that mark out loyal Israelites from disloyal ones; in other words (remember Mattathias!) strong, zealous adherence to Torah and covenant. Fourth, as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present. This, I believe, is what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by ‘justification by the works of the law’. (184)

So here’s Paul’s basic worldview coming into view on justification:

We may therefore suppose (supposition is all we have, in the absence of direct evidence, but this is where all the lines of evidence converge) that a first-century Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus would have seen the picture like this:

a. In the ‘age to come’, the creator God will judge the wicked (pagans, and renegade Jews), and will vindicate (= declare ‘righteous’) his people (i.e. will declare that they are part of his ‘all Israel’).

b. The present marks of this vindicated/justified people will be the things which show their loyalty to their God and their zeal for his covenant.

c. These things are, more precisely, the true keeping of Torah: (a) keeping the ‘works’ which mark out Jews from their pagan neighbours, and (b) keeping the ‘works’ which mark out good, observant Jews from non-observant – in extreme cases, the sceptics and the wicked, though there might be other more fine-tuned categories as well.426

d. You can therefore tell in the present who will be ‘vindicated’ in the future, because they are those who keep ‘the works of Torah’ in this way in the present time (*187).

Here’s Pharisees:

That is why, if we are to understand Paul the apostle, we must see him within this rich, many-sided world. To move through the different concentric circles: the Pharisaic worldview was about the whole business of being human; of being a Jewish human; of living in a Jewish community; of living in a threatened Jewish community; of living with wisdom, integrity and hope in a threatened Jewish community; of living with zeal for Torah, the covenant and above all Israel’s faithful God within a threatened Jewish community (196).

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  • It’s very interesting.

    I believe that the apostle Paul was a man of extraordinary love

    even tough he was wrong about homosexuality and women due to his cultural background.

    I wonder how N.T. Wright handles the problem of the distortions against the pharisees as a group in the gospels. For it is clear that many pharisees at that time don’t match the sweeping generalizations written about them by the Gospel writers.
    That said I see no reason to believe that the hostile encounters Jesus had with some of them were made up but they were probably not representative of most of this discussions with pharisees.
    Interestingly enough, we have at least one example of a pharisee several decades before Christ who critiqued pharisaism as a same way Jesus did.

  • Rick

    One thing that stands out is the lack of mentioning an interest in Israel’s relationship with God. Rather, it is all about doing things do get God to react.
    It seems like a Pharisees focused on a soterian “gospel”.

  • Rick

    I think Scot would contend that Paul, in fact, was for greater roles and treatment of women. Scot would say that it is a misinterpretation (by some) of Paul’s position that is the problem.

  • Maybe if you drop off the pastoral epistles, this could work…

    2013/10/3 Disqus

  • Rick

    He has dealt with those letters as well.
    See his books Blue Parakeet and Junia Is Not Alone (and other writings) for his view that the NT, including Paul’s work, supports women in ministry.

  • Thanks, those are now on my (long) list of books to be read 🙂

  • Rick

    I know the feeling.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, not sure how to respond except to say Wright’s question/answers are the opposite of the soterian gospel.

  • Dan

    I’d have to read more of his treatment of the Pharisees as found in the gospels. Seems like Wright’s profile is painfully lacking the many negative traits (convictions, creeds?) Jesus and others pointed out.

  • JohnC

    Scot, thanks so much for this series. I have a question about how this argument of Wright’s fits with Romans 4:2-4, where Paul’s usage of “works” seems to have more of the flavour of performance language than of covenantal boundary markers. It seems to fit more with the traditional view of ‘justification by faith (alone)’, because it compares justification by works as merit with justification by faith as a gift. To make Wright’s view fit, I feel like I would need Paul to be comparing works of the law as OT boundary marker and faith in Messiah as NT boundary marker, which seems to break down the metaphor Paul is using. What am I missing?

  • scotmcknight

    John, I suspect the way to answer that is to go to Wright’s commentary on Romans and see what he says… my reading of the NPP folks is that they do not deny that at times works is performance in the NT, in spite of critics saying they do. I know Dunn and Wright (I include myself here) … the works stuff is mostly about how to understand Judaism as a religion.

  • scotmcknight

    In other words, there’s no “gotcha” moments when someone finds “works” meaning effort (Rom 4; Eph 2) for the NPP folks. There is however a commitment to seeing Judaism as not a works-based or merit-earning religion.

  • This may be more “comment” than you were looking for, but I have truly enjoyed Wright’s books for several years and so enjoy thinking, through writing, about this new one!

    To your previous questions here, Dr McKnight–Most influential? Hopefully, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, and I have seen it being used in Bible study groups. Favorite? NTPG. I especially like the fact that he is attempting to approach the issues raised in a post-modern society.

    Here’s some more thoughts on your previous introductory post:

    “Nor does this mean that ‘the people of God’ are defined, smugly as it were, simply as the beneficiaries of salvation. The point of the Jewish vocation as Paul understood it was that they were to be the bearers of salvation to the rest of the world. That, in turn, lies at the heart of his own vocation, issuing in his own characteristic praxis.” (Wright’s words from previous post here.)

    This sounds to me like NPP but with a evangelistic, vocational praxis?

    “God calls Abraham’s family, and rescues them from Egypt. That is how the story works, and that is the story Paul sees being reworked around Jesus and the spirit.” But this sentence is a shift from NPP, I think, putting Rom 8 front and center, though Wright speaks of Rom 10.

    As to Wright’s Philemon emphasis–“all to show that instead of hierarchy and power and benevolence we’ve got brotherhood and family and love and forgiveness. In other words, a “world apart” (6).”–now this sounds to me like a corrected liberation theology.

    As to your “Paul the Pharisee” question today here about what’s new for Paul considering this his background—

    The Pharisees were looking for the great Sabbath, which Paul sees fulfilled by entering into it now by faith, Heb 4.

    The Pharisees saw the old Torah study as the yoke, but now Paul says the Spirit as the new way to fulfill Torah (Rom 8:4 ) and the new yoke is the family of God, Phillipians 4:3, “Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of
    life. “ Trueblood said, “Early Christians were fellow members of the order of the yoke.”

    I especially like Gordon Fee on this idea of Paul seeing the fulfillment of Torah in Spirit-filled Christians who said:

    “Likewise, and again similar to Galatians, the Spirit plays a leading role in this argument (in Romans), which is not primarily a matter of sanctification following justification or of the empowering dimension of Pauline parenesis. Rather, in keeping with Paul’s theology elsewhere, the Spirit is seen as the fulfillment of the promised new covenant (Rom 7:5-6), wherein Torah is now “fulfilled” in those who walk by the Spirit (Rom 8:4). Just as in Galatians, Paul’s way of responding to the fear that being done with Torah will lead to unrighteousness is to remind his readers of the central role of the Spirit in Christian life. Indeed, the vast majority of explicit reference to the Spirit in this letter are in some way related to this central concern of the letter, that along with Christ’s death and resurrection the Spirit has brought an end to torah observance by empowering its “fulfillment” under the new covenant, thus opening the way forJew and Gentile together to be God’s people, to have and do his righteousness,
    but apart from Torah. Most of the other references to the Spirit occur in passages where Paul is referring to his own Spirit-inspired ministry through
    which “the sanctification of the Gentiles” (15:16) has been accomplished. (Fee,
    God’s Empowering Presence, 474-5)

    Paul the Pharisee thought “God will soon bring the whole world into judgment,” but Paul the Christ-follower saw Christ as the Judge in the judgment seat of Christ (Rom 14:10, 2 Cor 5:10).

    Thanks for the conversation and getting us thinking!

  • Rick

    “We are a group of Jews who find ourselves dissatisfied with the way our country is being run and with our life as a people, at home and abroad. We are therefore devoting ourselves to the study and practice of Torah, as a kind of elite corps, intending to advance the time when Israel will finally be redeemed”

    Elsewhere you described the soterian gospel: “The sign of this approach is that we are always itching to hear this: What’s in it for me?… the conversion of all things in the Bible’s message to what benefits us…I get to go to heaven when I die or I have life eternal (ie. salvation)…emphasis is what I’m calling the selfish.”
    In the soterian gospel, is the selfishness the problem, or is it the combination of selfishness and individuality that is the problem?

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, read my book and Wright’s descriptions again… soterian is about personal, spiritual redemption to go to heaven… not national redemption.

  • Rick

    Loved your book. I guess I am too hung-up specifically on what appeared as selfishness to me. I am ignoring those other aspects. My bad. Thanks for the correction.

  • Scott Watson

    Please check out the article Bishop Wright published in JSNT this year to give you some idea how it is treated in his NPP scheme, which has to do with a close reading of the OT biblical allusions in the chapter. Below is a link to the abstract:
    My take away from his projecct is that a lot of what people call a “common sense” reading of St. Paul is actually people reading him through the mental grid of various kinds of Reformation-based theology which is suppositional and invisible to many. St Paul the first century Pharisee is not being allowed to speak. This is why Bishop Wright’s worldview analysis is so very important. In terms of the language of anthropology, he is trying to give an emic (“insiders”) account of St Paul rather than an etic (“outsiders,” who come with their own interests, concerns, questions, etc) perspective.

  • Mark Pixley

    My goodness this was an incredibly eye-opening read for me, not in context of Paul and the first century Pharisees, but instead the current flavor of Charismatic evangelical movements I have been a part of…you could replace “Israel” with “USA” and “Torah” with “Holiness” and it would preach from just about any charismatic “prophetic” house in this country…the “AHA” moment is the engine of the Pharisee is alive and well and I have driven in that train for many years myself…into that context the challenge of “universal-ism”, “same-sex marriage” and political activism seem like fires to heat up the pot…we need Pauls gospel and when it shows up I expect it will get much the same response now as it did then…the preachers of his radical inclusive grace will be called heretics, beaten with words and ship-wrecked for sport…

    your mileage may vary…

  • Bev Mitchell


    Your two responses get to the heart of the matter, IMO. There is not much distance between ‘works’ as something we do and ‘works’ as the need to be certain that we are right. Placing our faith in our rightness (doctrine for example) is missing the point of the gospel just as much as placing our faith in the things we do. The pharisaical attitude and approach was perhaps a large bit of both, but being absolutely right in one’s beliefs, and relying completely on that rightness, was probably the foundation.

  • Rick

    Maybe, in fact, I was not so far off-base, but did not phrase it well enough. I just happened to be reading Surprised By Hope today, and read this:
    “…to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question- to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world- may be the mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century…that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process, but not as the point of it all?”