Christian Pharisees (Acts 15:1-5)

Christ curses the Pharisees“. Etching by F.A. Ludy after J.F. Overbeck, 1843. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.

“Christian Pharisees” may sound like an oxymoron, but is it really? If your initial thought is that the Pharisees opposed Jesus, I hear you. The traditions in which I was raised were filled with anti-Pharisee teachings, as well, but let’s consider Acts 15:1-5.

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the gentiles and brought great joy to all the brothers and sisters. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

Acts 15:1-5, NRSVUE

The Sect of the Pharisees

It’s important to keep in mind that “the Pharisees” describes a school of thought within Judaism. It’s not it’s own religion, and it’s not something set in stone. We’re not talking about specific creeds but sects of religious leaders who debate within the Jewish religion about things like authority and interpretation of religious texts. This is an oversimplification, but the important point, here, is that the Pharisees were Jews, just like other Israelites; “Pharisee” describes what they believed about certain issues, similar to sects within Christianity, today.

One of the big things that characterized Pharisaical beliefs was an emphasis on the Mosaic law. The author of Acts refers to this in their debate with Paul and Barnabas: “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” The law of Moses was a fundamental part of God’s relationship with God’s people. My understanding is that this is largely related to their perception of the exiles.

The Mosaic Law Post-Exile

The Israelites were exiled repeatedly for their infidelity to God, which was essentially a turning away from the law of Moses — the covenantal guidelines for that relationship. At the end of 2 Chronicles, King Cyrus of Persia allows the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. These events are marked by a recommitment to the Mosaic law, which we see all throughout the book of Ezra and into the book of Nehemiah, where Ezra reads “the book of the law” in front of the Water Gate (Nehemiah 8). We see a similar story in 2 Kings 22, where Hilkiah finds “the book of the law,” and the Israelites recommit themselves.

These are pivotal events in Israel’s narrative, and it seems to me that the Pharisees recognize this. It isn’t clear to many first century, Jewish Christians that the gentiles are even part of the Mission of God as revealed through Jesus, let alone how that reality is supposed to mesh with the Mosaic law.

Before “Christianity,” proselytes to the Jewish faith were expected to adhere to the law of Moses and other Jewish traditions, which I assume included circumcision, so why would that change? If anything, the revelation of Jesus as Messiah would reinforce the significance of Israelite’s narrative, wouldn’t it? A narrative within which the law of Moses seems central.

Christian Pharisees

All that to say that Christian Pharisees were Jews who subscribed to a particular school of thought within Judaism and believed that Jesus was the Christ. Much like Paul and the other apostles, they didn’t stop identifying as Jews or as part of what we call Judaism. In fact, accepting Jesus as the Christ was an extension of Judaism, not a new religion.

In Acts 15, the author states that some of these believers from the sect of the Pharisees still hold to the centrality of the Mosaic law, including circumcision. I think the “certain individuals” in verse 1 are also Christian Pharisees, although the writer doesn’t specify.

I could say, here, that Paul and Barnabas set the Pharisees straight, but I think that would only perpetuate the anti-Pharisee cultures that I mentioned above. Instead, let’s remember that Paul also considers himself a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), which makes sense, since he trained under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who we’re told was a Pharisee (Acts 5:34).

My point is that it’s easy for us to view passages like Acts 15:1-5 through an anti-Pharisee lens, but in reality, this passage illustrates that even within the sect of the Pharisees, not all were in agreement. This is doubly true when taken in the broader context of the New Testament, since we see that some Pharisees believed in Jesus and some didn’t. It may be tempting to lump all Pharisees together and say, “The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the law — the religious elite of the day — had Jesus crucified,” but it’s not that simple.

Language Matters

This is something I’m still struggling with, because I grew up with anti-Pharisee, and anti-Semitic, language in church. While no one would have come right out and said, “Jews are bad,” they definitely said things like, “The Jews crucified Jesus.” They might have clarified: not all Jews, but the lines are easy to draw between “the Jews crucified Jesus” and “the Pharisees hated Jesus.” Pharisees are Jews, Jews killed Jesus, and Christians aren’t Pharisees or Jews.

Acts 15 is a great example of how that sort of language disregards scripture. The first Christians were also Jews, as Christianity began as a sect of Judaism. Some of those Jewish Christians were also Pharisees, including the apostle Paul. Not all Christian Pharisees agreed about how gentile Christians were expected to engage the Gospel or how the law of Moses would play into their relationship with God.

Language is important, and recognizing Christian Pharisees as a reality in scripture is one small step toward leaving behind anti-Pharisee and anti-Semitic language. It needs to be done away with.

Christian Pharisees in the New Testament

I already mentioned two of these, but here’s the list of Christian Pharisees in the New Testament. Let me know if you come across any that I’ve missed.

  • Nicodemus
    First approaches Jesus at night (John 3:1-21), then suggests an investigation rather than immediate arrest of Jesus (John 7:50-52), and finally, helped Joseph of Arimathea (a secret believer) bury Jesus (John 19:38-40); doesn’t explicitly say Nicodemus is a believer, but I think he was.
  • Paul (Saul)
    The apostle, self-proclaimed Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), studied under the Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)
  • Unnamed believers
    Talked about above (Acts 15:1-5)

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2 thoughts on “Christian Pharisees (Acts 15:1-5)

  1. I believe a strong case can be made that Jesus was a Pharisee in thought if not in name. His answer to the questions of what a person must do to be saved are surprisingly similar to a pharisaical answer. The Pharisees were reformers. He sided with the Pharisee against the Sadducee on the issue of life after death. In Luke 13 we read that it was Pharisee who warned Jesus to flee for his life. In addition, he had a friend named Nicodemus. Finally, the focus of a relationship with God for the Pharisee is the law, and one might say the Spirit of Christ is the living law.

    Liked by 1 person

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