September 29, 2008
A Pharisee of Pharisees
By Thomas Smith *

By Thomas Smith *

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we cannot hope to understand St. Paul without first exploring his B.C. (before Christ) timeline. He was a tri-part person - a Jew (from the tribe of Benjamin and a member of the Pharisee movement), a Roman citizen raised in a Hellenized (Greek) culture, and a disciple of his Resurrected Rabbi, Jesus.

This week we will look at St. Paul in the context of his Pharisee background. If someone called you "a Pharisee of Pharisees" today, it would be one of the worst insults you could receive. In our time, a Pharisee has been reduced to a self-righteous hypocrite. Although Christ reserved some of his harshest criticism in the Gospels for the Pharisees, he also encouraged obedience to their teaching, while challenging the hypocrisy of some. In Matthew 23, Jesus highlights this fact, "practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (23:3). And all Pharisees were not the enemy of Christ and his Church. In the Gospels, some Pharisees warned Jesus of Herod’s murderous plans (Luke 13:3), and one of the greatest Pharisees in history, Gamaliel, urged Jewish leaders not to persecute the followers of Christ (Acts 5:34).

St. Paul wasn’t embarrassed to be a "Pharisee of Pharisees," and he never considered it something he must lay aside to follow Christ. Decades after his conversion, when he proclaimed the Gospel before the Sanhedrin, he declared, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" (Acts 23:6, author’s emphasis). At the same time, the moment he met Christ on the Damascus Road, he would have to revisit everything he believed, and radically expand the boundaries of his belief. I believe this is why he went to Arabia (possibly even Mt. Sinai), to re-orient his ideas about the God of Israel (not unlike Moses and Elijah).

After meeting the Resurrected Christ, the Pharisee of Pharisees would spend most of his energies converting the Gentiles, yet this was not inconsistent with his Jewish heritage. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6), language that the Lord will use of his servant Paul (Acts 13:47).

Pharisaism, in general, was consistent with the revelation in Christ, by preaching the resurrection of the dead (something the Sadducees rejected), and Paul’s writings, although influenced by Greek rhetoric, also show his knowledge of Jewish hermeneutics and halakah.

One of the ways Pharisees did become problematic is by creating "fences" around the Law. Pharisees recognized that the Jewish people were still under a kind of Exile. Although they had returned to the land, they were still under foreign occupation - a curse reserved for those who had broken covenant with God. The Pharisees believed that the only way to lift this occupation was by absolute holiness and obedience to the Law. Fearing that an average Jew may break a single commandment of the Mosaic Law, they created many additional laws around a single law (like a fence) to reduce the possibility of disobedience to God’s Torah. Unfortunately, this multiplication of laws became a burden. This is precisely Jesus’ critique of them in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 23:4). A Rabbi or teacher’s "yoke" was his interpretation of Torah. The Pharisees yoke became impossible to bear, and Jesus did not hesitate to challenge their approach and to offer a different interpretation of Torah that could bring life (Matt. 11:29).

Judaism today is a descendent of Pharisaism, and although there are clear differences in our beliefs, we can continue to learn from what John Paul II called our "elder brothers and sisters." I like how the Catechism puts it, "A better knowledge of the Jewish people's faith and religious life as professed and lived even now" can help us better understand our life of prayer, liturgy and approaching God’s Word (see Catechism, No. 1096).

I was thrilled to see Benedict XVI announce that Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen (the Grand Rabbi of Haifa, Israel) would address the upcoming two day Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. For more information about the Synod keep an eye on a site I am collaborating with www.ScriptureSynod.com .

The original column and recommended resources on St. Paul and other scriptural topics can be found at Thomas’ blog.

Thomas Smith was a Protestant minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 1996.  Thomas is a repeat guest on EWTN and Catholic radio as well as a sought after parish mission and conference speaker, and an international presenter for the Great Adventure Bible Timeline.  Smith is the former Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catechetical School and now lives on his family ranch in southeastern Idaho where he farms and writes.
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