D. C. Thielmann - Biblical Scholar and Author

Paul the Heretic: The Controversial Truth (Part 1)

D. C. Thielmann - Biblical Scholar & Author

Paul the Heretic: The Controversial Truth (Part 1)

Apostle Paul
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Apostle Paul the Heretic of the New Testament : What Sort of a Jew Was Paul? (Part 1)

A great many of the scholarly claims, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of the Pharisees in the New Testament derives from the claim in Acts 22:3-6 that Paul the heretic was a Pharisee, and specifically, a student of the leading Pharisee, Gamliel. The meaning of the name “Pharisee” must first be explained in order to have a very clear understanding of the topic being discussed here.

Now, the very name Pharisee means, “separate ones,”[i] but it must be clearly understood that this meaning of “separate ones,” did not mean that they separated themselves from “the common people,” (or what far too many Christian scholars call, the am ha-eretz,”[ii]). For as the Pharisee Hillel stated in the Mishnah Abot 2:5,[iii] “Do not separate yourself from the community,” (yet see also what is stated in Sotah 5:7, 20c).

Also, as E. P Sanders writes,[iv] “We shall see that there is no evidence for full sectarianism, and the concerns which were peculiar to them were just enough to give them a feeling of group solidarity and distinction, not to make them isolated from the rest of Israel.”

The fact is though, that there were in actuality seven different factions, or types[v]of the philosophy known as the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, as noted in the Talmud, Berakhot 14b, and Sotah 22b. Yet, only two of these seven different factions of Pharisees were well respected and held in high regard by all, which is also noted in the Talmud, Eruvin 13b, and these two well respected factions being those from the school of Hillel, (the Pharisaic school to which Gamliel belonged),and those from the school of Shammai.[vi]

It is also quite true though, and this fact is even spoken of in the Talmud, that amongst the five other factions of Pharisees, there were some few Pharisees that at times were referred to as being, “hypocrites.”[vii] But no one, whether scholar, theologian, or general laity should think, or claim that this term “hypocrite” should be applied to all, or even to the majority of the Pharisees![viii]

Thus, the very fact that the Gospels do not in any way distinguish between any of these differing factions and schools of Pharisees[ix] leads not only those of the general church laity, but also many scholars as well, to erroneous conclusions and misrepresentations of not only the Pharisees in general, but also to first century Palestinian Judaism as a whole. Thus, this claim in Acts that Paul was a Pharisee and follower of Gamliel and the school of Hillel is highly doubtful as being historical truth, and in fact, this claim has already been thoroughly refuted.[x]

As Bart Ehrman points out about this matter,[xi] “Since Paul himself makes neither claim, a historian might suspect Luke of attempting to provide superior credentials for his protagonist. Tarsus was the location of one of the most famous schools of Greek rhetoric, that is, a school of higher learning reserved for the social and intellectual elite, something like an Ivy League University.”

There is the possibility though, that Paul the heretic, could have been one of the “heretical Pharisees” discussed above. Now, Gamliel at the time of Jesus was the most highly respected, renowned and influential Pharisee as noted in the Mishnah, Sotah 9:15; Gittin 4:2-3; Abot 1:16. Gamliel, in Acts 5:34-39 even protects the followers of Jesus[xii] by going so far as even chastising the Great Sanhedrin in defense of the followers of Jesus, whereas Paul the heretic, in Acts 8:1 clearly gives orders to kill Stephen and persecute the followers of Jesus.

This clear contradiction in the Book of Acts between the actions of the renowned and highly respected teacher (Gamliel) and supposed student (Paul the heretic) cannot, and must not be ignored, downplayed, or distorted by any competent scholar! In regards to this, it is essential for scholars, theologians, and even the general Church laity to clearly recognize that Gamliel, (in his defense of the followers of Jesus), clearly perceived of the followers of Jesus as being in the same category of movements as those of the “insurrectionist movements against Roman tyranny” as those of Theudas, and Judas the Galilean![xiii]

Furthermore, Paul the heretic is clearly educated in only using the Septuagint,[xiv] and he rarely ever cites from the actual Hebrew of the Torah or prophets, which no genuine student of Gamliel would ever have done! For the Septuagint was no longer accepted as having any authoritative use at the time of Jesus by any of the Pharisaic/rabbinic schools because of the many additions and alterations that were made to the Septuagint, (as even noted by Josephus, Antiquities 12.2.1-13), with even some of these additions and alterations to the Septuagint having been made by non-Jews![xv]

In Mishnah Soferim 1:7 it states that the original Septuagint contained only the Torah, (i.e. the first five books of Moses), and in Megillah 9a it clearly states that it was only permissible to translate the Torah into any language other than Hebrew while all of the other books must be written only in Hebrew. Furthermore, the students of Gamliel and the school of Hillel were even forbidden from using the Aramaic Targums as noted in the Yerushalmi Talmud, and Mishnah Megillah 4!

Jules Isaac rightly points out,[xvi] “In the last analysis, nothing allows us to believe and assert that the Pharisee master’s, Judaism’s true religious guides, the nation’s spiritual elite, who alone may rightly be said to have been Israel’s qualified representatives in certain respects, fought against Jesus, and even less that they wanted, demanded, and plotted his death.”

This contradiction between the true character of Paul the heretic found in the New Testament and the true character of Gamliel mentioned in the New Testament, and from what is known about Gamliel from what is written about him in the Mishnah and Talmud must be recognized as to what it really indicates in historical reality, and this being, that Paul the heretic was not a student of Gamliel from the school of Hillel as is claimed in the Book of Acts.[xvii]

Now, there have been some scholars who have tried to put forth claims that Paul the heretic was, in fact, a Pharisee, yet not a Pharisee from the School of Hillel and Gamliel, but instead a Pharisee from the rival school of Shammai.[xviii] Yet, such claims have likewise already been thoroughly refuted as well.[xix]

As Samuel Sandmel states concerning Paul the heretic,[xx] “He was deeply meditative, and his viewpoints about the nature of man and the nature of sin, and an impending end of the world which, mistakenly, he thought was soon to come, are based on assumptions which are diametrically opposed to the views which traditional Judaism has bequeathed to us. Indeed, to move from the rabbinic Jewish mode of thought to Paul’s requires a radical shift.”

W. D. Davies refers to the teachings of Paul the heretic regarding the difference between “flesh” and “spirit,” and Davies refers to the Hebrew word basar, (which does generally get translated into English as “flesh”), and Davies cites as his proof texts for his opinion on this matter with such verses as Isaiah 31:3; 40:6; Psalm 56:5 as well as several other verses, as to where Paul the heretic derived his interpretations regarding the difference between “flesh” and “spirit.”[xxi]

But the fact is that the Hebrew word basar, does not always offer such a meaning in its contextual usage as Davies infers. For at times this Hebrew word basar means, and is referring to, “a perceptive person,”[xxii] as it is found being used in Isaiah 40:5, (just one verse prior to one of the verses Davies cites for his proof texts), and as it is used in Psalm 65:3. Therefore, scholars must be cautious about ascribing to Paul the heretic any rabbinic interpretations derived from Scripture just as Samuel Sandmel stated as noted above.

Now, the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for more than two and a half years whether or not it was good that man was created, as can be found in Babli Eruvin 13b; Exodus Rabbah 48, which even Davies rightly notes.[xxiii] In each of these Talmudic tractates referred to this matter is being interpreted in regards to “regular people,” but not in regards to a zadakim, or one who is referred to readily as “a perceptive person,” (a possible meaning of the word basar),[xxiv] and something to which Davies even notes. Davies points out that there was a division of Jewish opinions upon this very matter,[xxv] which thus, Davies ends up contradicting his own assertions about Paul the heretic.

A further point of proof in regards to the matter of Paul the heretic not actually being a Pharisee, and this being what one finds in Philippians 3:5, a verse which generally gets translated out as, “… a Hebrew descended from Hebrews according to (emphasis mine) the law a Pharisee.”[xxvi]

But the problem with such an interpretation surrounds the Greek word kata that so often gets translated as “according to.” For this Greek word kata does also offer a meaning of, against” something, or “opposed” to something.[xxvii] Thus, one can actually render out Philippians 3:5 as, “… a Hebrew descended from Hebrews opposed to the law of the Pharisee,” meaning opposed tothe “oral Torah” of the Pharisees exactly as the Sadducees were!

This fact just noted goes hand-in-hand with teachings of Paul the heretic regarding circumcision, which directly contradicted Pharisaic teachings on this matter.[xxviii] Now, it is true that under both Greek and Roman law, becoming circumcised was a violation of the law,[xxix] which thus, since Paul the heretic was a Roman citizen, (as will be discussed in Part 2), this fact quite possibly could have been a major factor in the teachings of Paul the heretic regarding circumcision.

Therefore, there have also been scholarly claims that Paul the heretic was actually a Sadducee.[xxx] For it clearly states in Acts 22:5 that Paul the heretic was dispatched by the High Priest, (i.e., a Sadducee). It is important to point out here that at that time of this supposed dispatching of Paul the heretic by the High Priest, the High Priest did not have any jurisdiction over affairs that occurred in “Damascus” (of Syria), especially since at that time Damascus (of Syria) was under the control of the Nabateans[xxxi] as noted even in 2 Corinthians 11:32; Galatians 1:15-17.

Even Josephus points out in Antiquities 14.10; 24.5.2-3 that such matters were under the jurisdiction of the local Sanhedrin of Damascus Syria, just as Alexandria of Egypt had its own local Sanhedrin, (the Talmud, Tosefta Sukkah 4.6 states that the Sanhedrin set up in Alexandria had 71 seats, the same number as had the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem).

Furthermore, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were in fact, mortal enemies who never collaborated together as clearly stated in Mishnah, Qiddushin, 66a; Talmud, Sotah 22b; Pesahim 57; Niddah 4:1-2; Niddah 31b; Tosefta Teruma 4:12; Berakhot 14b, but also by the historian Josephus, Jewish Wars 1.107-114; Antiquities 13.372-383; 13.288-298; 13.399-418; 18.11-17, and also as is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls 4QpNah 1.[xxxii]

There ismultiple attestationto this fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees were mortal enemies, and it must be clearly stated that,multiple attestationis one of the most essential criteria used by scholars as being one of the most important tools in determining historical truth of a matter.

Therefore, it is essential to emphasize again that the Pharisees and Sadducees never collaborated together for any reason after the Hasmonean-Seleucid war ended and the Maccabees reneged on their promises to put in place a legitimate Zadokite priesthood and a legitimate Davidic king.[xxxiii]

The Hasmonean-Seleucid war brought about a vast breakup of the Jews at that time into the three distinct philosophies, (the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essens),as noted by the Jewish historian Josephus, (Jewish Wars 2.119-166), and as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin states concerning this matter,[xxxiv] “One of the sadder ironies of Jewish history is that the Maccabees led a successful revolt against King Antiochus’s anti-Semitic oppression only to turn into oppressors of the Jews themselves.”

The main point of contention between the two different philosophies of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was in regards to the validity of the “oral Torah,” or in essence, how to interpret the Torah given to Moses at Sinai.[xxxv]

Hyam Maccoby writes concerning this that,[xxxvi] “The essential point at issue between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the validity of the oral Law, but this point was far from academic, for it led to enormous differences of outlook on social and political questions, as well as in the practice of Religion.” Maccoby goes on to point out that the Pharisees regarded the Sadducees as “heretics.”

This fact that the Pharisees considered the Sadducees as “heretics” is proven by the creation of the prayer known as the Birkat Ha-Minim, or Ha-Zaddukim, which has for far too long been thought and taught by far too many Christian New Testament scholars that this was a curse by Jews against Christians that was instituted at the Council of Jamnia. But, the historical fact of the matter is that this was originally a prayer created as a curse against Jewish “heretics,” or in essence, a prayer specifically directed against the “Sadducees,” (i.e., “traducers,” “informers,” and/or “traitors”).

To be even more specific, the Birkat Ha-Minim was a prayer directed against those who collaborated with “foreign powers” against their own Jewish brethren. The usage of this prayer began during the Hasmonean-Seleucid war and was directed against those particular Jews who became “Hellenized”![xxxvii]

Thus, the Birkat Ha-Minim was never originally directed at Christians, (for this prayer was in use long before the time of Jesus), nor was it even directed at gentiles! This prayer was directed only at “heretical” Jews who collaborated with “enemy foreign powers” against their own Jewish brethren. In the Mishnah, Horayot 3:8 it is found being stated by a Pharisee that, “A learned bastard takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” All of these facts put the claims that Paul the heretic was a Pharisee in serious doubt!

Now, in regards to this matter in Acts 22:5, there are some scholars who try to utilize 2 Maccabees 1:10, 18; 2:214 to claim that legal rulings made by the Jerusalem Great Sanhedrin extended out to cover all diaspora communities.[xxxviii]

But the fact is that not only are these portions of 2 Maccabees debated amongst scholars as to whether or not they are forgeries, there is also nothing stated in 2 Maccabees that actually says anything to indicate that a legal ruling made by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin required that all diaspora communities, such as Damascus and/or Alexandria in Egypt for example, abide by a Jerusalem Pharisaic/Sanhedrin practice or legal ruling.[xxxix]

The place name, “Damascus” though, was also used as a “code name” for the community now referred to as Qumran and to the philosophy of the Essens,[xl] and Qumran was located within Judea, and therefore, Qumran would have been under the jurisdiction of the High Priest and the Jerusalem Sanhedrin!

Furthermore, only the High Priest and his fellow Sadducees as a whole had their own “police force” with the High Priest serving as “Chief of Police.”[xli] As Jacob Neusner writes concerning the High Priesthood at the time of Jesus, referencing the story in Tosephta Kippurim 1:12; Tosephta Shavuot 1:4; Mishnah Yoma 2:2; Babli Yoma 23a,[xlii] “One kills the other, showing that the priesthood was hot-headed and violent, just as Josephus says of the Sadducees.”

D. C. Thielmann, (excerpts from my book, You Say So: The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth)

[i]  See the comments in Jesus before Christianity, Albert Nolan, p. 12; The Life and Teachings of Hillel, Yitzhak Buxbaum, pp. 161-162.

[ii]  See the comments on this term in A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Samuel Sandmel, p. 201.

[iii]  See the comments on this in The Life and Teachings of Hillel, Yitzhak Buxbaum, pp. 193-196.

[iv]  Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, E. P. Sanders, p. 236.

[v]  See the comments on this by Reverend Jack Barr, “There were seven types of Pharisees; Claim: Pharisees and Sadducees were not Priest and Levites and Scribes,” and see also the comments in Jesus and the Laws of Purity, Roger P. Booth, pp. 190-194.

[vi]  See the comments in Jesus, D. Flusser, p. 53.

[vii]  See the comments on this in Jesus and Israel, Jules Isaac, pp. 39 and 270; Jesus and the Laws of Purity, Roger P. Booth, p. 191.

[viii]  See the comments on this in the excellent article by the Yashanet Staff, “Not Subject to the Law of God: Part 7. Historical Reality Concerning What Yeshua and His Followers Believed”; A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, Jacob Neusner, pp. 100-115; A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Samuel Sandmel, pp. 24-25.

[ix]  See the comments in The Jews and the Gospel, Gregory Baum, pp. 25-26

[x]  See the comments in Kosher Jesus, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, pp. 112-116; The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine, pp. 79-81; Christianity: A Jewish Perspective, Rabbi Moshe Reiss, Chapter 9 Conclusions; the entire book The Mythmaker, Hyam Maccoby.

[xi]  The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p. 292.

[xii]  See the comments on this in The Partings of the Ways, James Dunn, p. 119; Solomon Schecter and Wilhelm Bacher, “Gamaliel I,” Jewish Encyclopedia; Rabbi Louis Jacobs, “Rabban Gamaliel,” My Jewish Learning.

[xiii]  See the comments in Jesus of Nazareth, Dale C. Allison, pp. 43-44.

[xiv]  See the comments on this in The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p. 292; A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Samuel Sandmel, p. 44; Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, W. D. Davies, p. 12; Kaufmann Kohler, “Saul of Tarsus (known as Paul, the Apostle of the Heathen),” Jewish Encyclopedia.

[xv]  See the comments of Crawford Howell Toy and Richard Gottheil, “Bible Translations: Septuagint,” Jewish Encyclopedia; The Apocalyptic Imagination, John J. Collins, pp. 70 and 85.

[xvi]  Jesus and Israel, Jules Isaac, pp. 271-272.

[xvii]  See the comments on how Paul’s teachings so much go against the teachings of Gamliel and the School of Hillel in Hillel, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 131, n. 2, p. 224, and n. 1, pp. 230-231; The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, pp. 78-83; Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 126.

[xviii]  See for example Paul and the Torah, Lloyd Gaston, pp. 18-19.

[xix]  See the comments in The Mythmaker, Hyam Maccoby, pp. 54-55 and all of his scholar’s notations to these pages.

[xx]  A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Samuel Sandmel, pp. 37-38.

[xxi]  Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, W. D. Davies, p. 18.

[xxii]  See Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, p. 33.

[xxiii]  Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, W. D. Davies, p. 13.

[xxiv]  See the comments on this of Rabbi Pesach Feldman of Kollel Iyun Hadaf, “Yerushalmi on Eruvin 13.”

[xxv]  Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, W. D. Davies, p. 53.

[xxvi]  See for example Problems of New Testament Translation, Edgar J. Goodspeed, pp. 175-176.

[xxvii]  See the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance Greek Dictionary #2596; Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 402-403; BDAG Greek-English Lexicon, p. 511, #2.

[xxviii]  See the comments concerning Pharisaic teachings regarding “circumcision” of Emil G. Hirsch, Kaufmann Kohler, Joseph Jacobs, Aaron Friedenwald, and Isaac Broyde, “Circumcision,” Jewish Encyclopedia; Matthew Thiessen, “Genealogy, Circumcision and Conversion in Early Judaism and Christianity,” Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Religion in the Graduate School of Duke University, (2010).

[xxix]  See Joseph Offord, “Restrictions of Circumcision under the Romans,” Proc R Soc Med 1913;6 (Sect Hist Med): pp. 102-107; Frederick M. Hodges, “The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme, The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 75, Fall 2001, pp. 375-405.

[xxx]  See the comments of Samuel Belkin, “The Problem of Paul’s Background,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54.1, (1935), pp. 41-60.

[xxxi] See the comments on this in How Jesus Became Christian, Barrie Wilson, p. 140; The Other Side of the Jordan, Nelson Glueck, pp. 19 and 193; Deities and Dolphins, Nelson Glueck, p. 40; The Mythmaker, Hyam Maccoby, pp. 85-86; Caiaphas, Helen K. Bond, p. 81.

[xxxii]  See Kosher Jesus, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, pp. 19-20.

[xxxiii]  See the comments in The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, pp. 232-234; Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah, George W. E. Nickelsburg, pp. 117, 122-123; A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, Samuel Sandmel, p. 21.

[xxxiv]  Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 110, but see also his further comments on this matter on p. 112.

[xxxv]  See the comments in The Death of Jesus, Joel Carmichael, pp. 105-107; The Partings of the Ways, James Dunn, p. 99.  

[xxxvi]  The Mythmaker, Hyam Maccoby, p. 22.

[xxxvii]  See Cyrus Adler and Emil G. Hirsch, “Shemoneh ‘Esreh: Petitions against Enemies; Modifications in Birkat Ha-Minim,” Jewish Encyclopedia; David Instone-Brewer, “The Eighteen Benedictions and the Minim before 70 CE,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Volume 54, N.1, (2003), pp. 25-44; Ben-Zion Binyamin, “Birkat Ha-Minim and the Ein Gedi Inscription,” Immanuel 21, (Summer 1987), pp. 68-79; Jesus the Pharisee, Harvey Falk, pp. 42-46, 70-78.

[xxxviii]  See for example Shmuel Safrai and M. Stern, :Relations Between the Diaspora and the Land of Israel,” The Jewish People in the First Century, pp. 184-215.

[xxxix]  See the lengthy comments on this matter in Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah, E. P. Sanders, pp. 255-308.

[xl]  See the comments on this in The Apocalyptic Imagination, John J. Collins, p. 61; On Earth As It Is In Heaven, D. C. Thielmann, p. 581 and the corresponding scholar’s notations to this page.

[xli]  See the comments in The Mythmaker, Hyam Maccoby, p. 58 and n. 3, p. 214; Caiaphas, Helen K. Bond, p. 42.

[xlii]  The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism, Jacob Neusner, p. 77.

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