Something I hadn’t read before – Acts 15.5 and the Pharisees

St Peter at the Beautiful Gate

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Last week or so, we were studying the book of Acts. While reading about the first Church Council, I was struck by something that had never stood out to before:

NAU  Acts 15:5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

NLT  Acts 15:5 But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.”

You see that? Pharisees were a part of the early Believing community. Later, you see Paul state that he was once a Pharisee, before he converted to Christianity from Judaism –

NAU  Acts 23:6 But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!”

NLT  Acts 23:6 Paul realized that some members of the high council were Sadducees and some were Pharisees, so he shouted, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, as were my ancestors! And I am on trial because my hope is in the resurrection of the dead!”

Oh, wait – that’s right. Paul didn’t convert. Nor was his membership as a Pharisee stopped. He said, ‘I am a Pharisee.’He was a Pharisee, however, that believed in Jesus Christ.

I bring this up because Rodney has a post up about the use of ‘Pharisee‘ which has created some discussion. If you are waiting on your usual Saturday round of posts were Rodney and I go after each other, well, maybe next Saturday.

Oh, and yes, Jesus was close to the Pharisaic community.

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Post By Joel Watts (10,109 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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53 thoughts on “Something I hadn’t read before – Acts 15.5 and the Pharisees

  1. As far as I know, a Rabbi was like a Catholic Priest…you’re ALWAYS a priest. Luther was still a Catholic priest, in the same way Pharisees were always Pharisees.

    • Ant, you can cease to be both a Rabbi and a Catholic Priest, actually. Further, Pharisees were a group of believers, like Baptists of Methodists. Membership was fluid among many of these Jewish sects, or even no sect at all.

  2. I think it was in The Mythmaker where Hyam Maccoby goes to some length to point out that all the times that the gospels have Jesus opposing the Pharisees, Jesus’ position is that which the historic Pharisees actually held. Of course, he then goes on to claim that Paul’s arguments are so poor that he could not have been a Pharisee at all.

  3. I felt physically disappointed when you said that ‘Paul used to be a Pharisee.’ I expected better of you.

    And then I realized you were jerking us along intentionally. Well done, sir. You fooled me good.

  4. The Scrolls were a major find of the priests writings, some of which were first century.

    The Pharisees are not mentioned in Philo.

    • Geoff, the thing about the dead sea scrolls, well, they are prior to the first century, like like several decades my friend.

      Philo lived in Alexandria Egypt. Guess what? Jews were persecuted, so no organized parties.

      You’re welcome.

  5. The iconsistency, which you have pointed out, between Acts 15.5 and Acts 23.6, arises because the editor has been too clever for his own good. Both passages are in areas of the same editor’s work. Acts 23.8 is in a passage about Paul’s trials before the Sanhedrin, Felix, and Festus, all fiction. This was to divert attention from James’ audience with Nero, not king Agrippa, in the “audience room” (Acts 25.23). James was a friend of Nero’s.

    Acts.15.5 is in a passage about a visit which the high priest Ananus made to Rome where James and many other Jews lived. Ananus came from Judea to Rome, not Antioch. Ananus came to teach Jews in the synagogue which James attended, “Unless you [are circumcised] {sacrifice}, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be [saved] {cleansed}.” So the passage was about sacrifice, not circumcision. And the reference in Acts 15.5 to “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” is a fabrication, brought in to make the text agree with the text of 15.1. All of 15.2a to 15.6 is a fictitious creation. The text runs-on from 15.2 at 15.7, only should read “I got up” and not the fictitious Peter. The dispute was an important theological issue over sacrifice. Circumcision was something that the Jews had done quite willingly, as had many Gentile converts. It was not the burden it is made out to be in Acts 15.10 which really referred to sacrifice about which the Jews had a troubled history. In James’s view, cleansing could be had by everyone who obeyed the Spirit. Sacrifice had no effect.

  6. And “Jacob Neusner has become reluctant to attribute even the earliest stratum of rabinnic literature to the Pharisees.” (p413 of Judaism, E P Sanders). On the same page Sanders writes: “Thanks largely to the work of Jacob Neusner, many scholars have now come to see that rabbinic literature must be used as evidence for pre70 Judaism with extreme caution.” Sanders ignores this warning.

    • Sanders isnt the only scholar that is relied upon for 2nd temple Judaism. He wasnt even mentioned in this post, really, we are just going by what the text says, and it says Pharisees were among the Christians.

  7. There is nothing bunk about Sanders. He is practically worshipped by some. Yet here I have found him out. He in effect quotes Neusner and and then proceeds to ignore him by not taking on board the implication of what Neusner says. Thus Sanders writes: “Neusner has become reluctant to attribute even the earliest stratum of rabbinic literature to the Pharisees”, and then writes immediately after, “but in many respects the old arguments for linking Pharisaism and rabbinism still hold”. To me this amounts to a blatant denial of what Neusner said. Sanders even has the gall to write (pp413-414): “In most of the following sections I shall make appreciable use of rabbinic literature, especially of passages identified as Pharisaic in Neusner’s Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70″. Sanders thus uses Neusner’s work after implying that Neusner was not right about Pharisees. What kind of scholarship do you call that? Hypocritical?

    Now the scholar I know about who really majors on Pharisees is Lawrence Schiffman. He is yet another scholar who buries his head in the sand. Vermes is another. And from what I have read of him, Hyam Maccoby is another. And there are more.

    No organised parties in Alexandria? What about the ‘essenes’ who Philo wrote about. And some of the scrolls were written around the turn of the first century when Herod the great was alive.

  8. “There is nothing bunk about Sanders. He is practically worshipped by some.”

    Oh really? Could you point me to some hymns dedicated to Sanders? that would be awesome.

    “What kind of scholarship do you call that? Hypocritical? ”

    No, it is called NUANCE AND QUALIFICATION! Ever heard of them in scholarship? Oh, I would doubt that you should.

    “No organised parties in Alexandria? What about the ‘essenes’ who Philo wrote about. And some of the scrolls were written around the turn of the first century when Herod the great was alive.”

    Essenes, closer to palestine. Scrolls are parties? Who knew?

  9. So Philo of Alexandria new about priests and the high priest. And he knew about ‘Essenes’ some of which probably met in the local synagogues of Alexandria. Thus he knew about the two kinds of Jewish priesthood, priests and prophets. There was no other ‘party’ because there wasn’t one.

    The ‘Essenes’ were legislated for by Moses and were thus the prophets. Philo wrote in Hypothetica 11.1 : “But our lawgiver trained an innumerable body of pupils to partake in these things, who are called Essenes, being , as I imagine, honoured with this appellation because of their exceeding holiness”.

    • And what have the Essenes to do with the Pharisees, pray tell, again?

      Again, the Essenes are only important to Philo in the translation of the LXX, they are not an actual party in Alexandria.

      That is what makes your comment, quoting philo, who connects them with moses, more about the source of the LXX as a canon, more than a Jewish Party in Roman Egypt.

      Thanks for playing.

    • In none of my research on ancient religion in Alexandria did any party of Judaism come up in Alexandria. Want to know why? They were all primarily immigrant populations that did not centralize, due to what? Oh yeah Persecution.

  10. You forgot this: The ‘Essenes’ were legislated for by Moses and were thus the prophets. Philo wrote in Hypothetica 11.1 : “But our lawgiver trained an innumerable body of pupils to partake in these things, who are called Essenes, being , as I imagine, honoured with this appellation because of their exceeding holiness”.

  11. Now whether or not the “Essenes” were in Egypt is not important to my argument. They were certainly in Palestine, and probably in Egypt too, where they would have fled the persecution of the priests. The important thing is that Philo said their legislator was Moses. And we know that Moses legislated for priests and prophets. So you are right to ask: “And what have the Essenes to do with the Pharisees”. Precisely nothing.

  12. “Now whether or not the “Essenes” were in Egypt is not important to my argument. They were certainly in Palestine, and probably in Egypt too, where they would have fled the persecution of the priests.:”

    Um, yes it does. Because you are trying to prove to me that there were parties of judaism in Alexandria, remember?

    That being the case, any more responses from this post will be spammed. You arent making a lick of sense because you havent obviously done your homework. You are just trying to change the topic because your goose is cooked.

  13. Actually I read this passage that the ones who stood up were a sect of the pharisees, not a sect of Christians who were pharisees.

    They were a sect of pharisees who were particularly legalistic and focused on “works” – perhaps the JW/Mormons of the Judaism.

    That does not stop other pharisees from believing in Jesus and his mission, there were obviously many. It is important because not all Pharisees were “legalistic” to this extent. They were, according to this, a sect.

  14. My goose is certainly not cooked. You have not answered my challenge. Does Philo say ” “But our lawgiver trained an innumerable body of pupils to partake in these things, who are called Essenes, being , as I imagine, honoured with this appellation because of their exceeding holiness”, or not? This was a quotation of Philo which Yonge put in a section titled Fragments of Lost Works. These fragments appear in Eusebius’ Preparation of the Gospel. Whether the works were lost of vandalised we will never know. But Philo could have written, and probably did write, a great deal more about ‘Essenes’. The writings attributed to Josephus contain detailed accounts of the ‘Essenes’, but only a small amount on Pharisees. It is obvious where the writer of Josephus interests lay.

  15. There is a history of Jewish prophets going to Egypt and fleeing persecution. The various Onias’s are examples. They even set up a sanctuary for worship.

  16. Where do most scholars go wrong? They trust the writings attributed to Josephus implicitly. They criticise the writings and say they are unreliable, and then go on to quote him blindly. Pharisees in the writings are all interpolations. They did not exist during the time of the original writings.

  17. And here is another laugh from your own words:

    “Only when we do not fear the tongue of fire and the storm it brings with it does the Church become the icon of the Holy Spirit.”

    You are typical of a breed of Americans who believe that when they speak, it is with the voice of God.

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