The Pharisees in the Book of Acts

Luke presents the Pharisees in a sympathetic light, as defenders of the nascent Christian movement.

by Marc Turnage

The Book of Acts offers an important picture of the Pharisees and their relationship to the early Jesus movement. Luke’s testimony in Acts concerning the Pharisees challenges anyone who identifies the Pharisees en masse as the opponents of Jesus and His movement. Luke presents them in a sympathetic light, as defenders of the nascent Christian movement.

In Jerusalem, the opposition to Jesus’ followers came from the chief priests, their scribes, and the Sadducean authorities (Acts 4:1,5–7; 5:17,18,27,28). This was the same group that, according to the Gospels, handed Jesus over to Pilate (Luke 19:47,48; 23:1,10; Mark 11:18; 15:1; Matthew 27:1,2; John 18:28; 19:6). On more than one occasion, the Pharisees defended the apostles against the Sadducees (Acts 5:34; 23:9). The Jewish historian Josephus also described the Pharisees’ defense of Jesus’ followers before the Roman governor of Syria against Sadducean attacks that killed James the brother of Jesus (Antiquities 20.200–203).

The Book of Acts mentions Pharisees on four occasions (Acts 5:34; 15:5; 23:6–9; 26:5). In two instances, the Pharisees acted as advocates for Jesus’ followers against the Sadducean leaders. In another, some Pharisees composed part of the Jesus movement. Finally, Paul, toward the end of his life, identified himself as a Pharisee. When compared with what we know about the Pharisees from other ancient sources, like Josephus, Luke presents an accurate portrayal of this movement and its relationship to Jesus’ movement.

A Pharisee Named Gamaliel

In Acts 5, the “high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees” imprisoned the apostles because they filled all of Jerusalem with their teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (Acts 5:17). The temple guard brought the apostles before the Sanhedrin without using force “because they feared that the people would stone them” (Acts 5:26).

The people of Jerusalem sympathized with the apostles, as they had with Jesus (Luke 19:48; 20:19; 22:2,53). The preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem could not avoid identifying the active role of the Sadducean high priests in handing Jesus over to the Roman governor Pilate. These Sadducean high priests knew that the crowds of Jerusalem sympathized with Jesus’ followers, so they feared the identification of their culpability and sought to silence Jesus’ disciples by threatening and imprisoning them (Acts 5:27,28).

Against the Sadducean high priest, who became enraged at the apostles and wanted to kill them, stood the Pharisee Gamaliel, who was “honored by all the people” (Acts 5:33,34). The Book of Acts mentions Gamaliel twice (5:34; 22:3), but he is known throughout rabbinic sources. In the first century, the Pharisees consisted of two schools, or houses: the school of Shammai, which was conservative and rigid and viewed God, not man, as the aim of their religious life; and the school of Hillel, which believed that because humanity bore the image of God, love for one’s neighbor (cf. Leviticus 19:18) was the essence of faith and the way to God (cf. Matthew 5:43–48).1

Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel. His defense of the apostles in Acts shows the humane spirit of the house of Hillel, which stood against the cruelty of the Sadducees.2 He cautioned those in the Sanhedrin that their actions toward the followers of Jesus might be opposing God (Acts 5:39). His passive, wait-and-see approach represents a common Jewish response to messianic movements: “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38,39). The council saw the wisdom of Gamaliel’s counsel and let the apostles go (verses 40–42).

Believers Among the Party of the Pharisees

The early followers of Jesus wrestled with the “Gentile Question” of whether Gentiles must first convert to Judaism to join Jesus’ movement. This question swirled among the followers of Jesus because Judaism grappled with the status of the Gentiles during the first century.

In Acts 15, social tensions over the Gentiles led to a council in Jerusalem. In part, this arose because of “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” (verse 5) who taught that Gentiles should keep the law of Moses, including circumcision. In other words, these Pharisees wanted the Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes.

Two things stand out about Luke’s description of these believers. First, their status as Pharisees did not preclude them from being part of the community of Jesus’ followers. They apparently continued to participate socially and theologically within the party of the Pharisees without any problem from the followers of Jesus. The apostles did not demand that they remove their inner Pharisee or their outward affiliation with that party. Second, and perhaps most shocking, their status as believers within Jesus’ movement did not cast them out of the party of the Pharisees. The Pharisees accepted them and their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. This certainly seems odd if the Pharisees were the mortal enemies of Jesus, but it fits within what we know about the Pharisees in Acts and Josephus.

Paul the Pharisee and Their Defense of Him

When Paul came to Jerusalem (Acts 21:17 through 23:22), his presence in the temple led to his arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin. Paul, after three of his missionary journeys, stood in front of the council and proclaimed, “I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23:6).

Paul’s use of the present tense verb indicates that even after his experience on the Damascus road, after writing many letters as the apostle of the Gentiles, and after traveling thousands of miles proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, he still identified as a Pharisee. Later in the Book of Acts, when he stood before Agrippa II, Paul again identified himself as a Pharisee: “That I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5).

Until the end of his life, Paul saw himself as a Pharisee and did not see this as incompatible with his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He, like the believers who were of the party of the Pharisees in Acts 15, found no incongruity with his faith in Jesus and being a Pharisee.

As Paul stood before the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees came to his defense against the Sadducees (Acts 23:7–9) as Gamaliel did for the apostles. The Pharisees proclaimed, “We find nothing wrong with this man …. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (verse 9).

The Pharisees defended Paul, their fellow Pharisee.

The Pharisees and the Death of James, the Brother of Jesus

Josephus conveyed the story of the death of James, the brother of Jesus (Antiquities 20.200–203). The high priest at the time, Ananus, a member of the Sadducees, used a transition among Roman governors in the region to accuse James and other followers of Jesus and have them stoned. According to Josephus, those in Jerusalem “who were considered the most fair-minded and were strict (κριβες) in observance of the law” challenged this action of the Sadducean high priest before the Roman governor and Agrippa II, who removed Ananus from the high priesthood.

Josephus’s description of those who opposed Ananus as “strict in observance of the law” identified this group as Pharisees. Within Jewish writings in Greek, the Greek word κριβής became a technical term describing Pharisaic piety. Josephus stated that the Pharisees “interpret the laws with strictness” (accuracy: μετ᾽ἀκριβείας;War 1.162; cf. Antiquities 20.17–43).

Paul described his education before the Jerusalem crowd as “brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors” (Acts 22:3).

In other words, Paul received a Pharisaic education from the Pharisee Gamaliel. When Paul stood before Agrippa II, he explained that he had lived as a Pharisee according to the “strictest (κριβεστάτην) sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5).

Josephus, then, like Luke, related how the Pharisees defended the followers of Jesus against the cruel attacks of the Sadducees led by the high priest. His external testimony corroborates Luke’s presentation of the Pharisees in Acts.

This picture, however, does not accord with traditional Christian interpretation of the Pharisees and their relationship to Jesus and His movement. Furthermore, it makes no sense that the Pharisees sought to kill Jesus and then defended His followers, even allowing followers of Jesus membership in their party. Perhaps Acts provides the window to read the interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels. Instead of blaming the Pharisees and using their name as a label within inner Christian polemics, seeing them as something to root out and remove, maybe we should recognize the influence the Pharisees had on Jesus, His movement, and Christian theology.

Jesus’ humaneness grew from the soil of the school of Hillel,3 the grandfather of Gamaliel. Through Gamaliel’s student Paul, the school of Hillel influenced the growing Jesus movement, including the Gentiles.4 And let us not forget that the Pharisees embraced the hope of the Resurrection (Acts 23:6–9), and without that hope, all our belief and hope is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:16–19).