I would like to tell you that these are my favorite quotes about lying, but that would probably be a lie; but it sure sounds better than “here are ten quotes of limited appeal.”

  1. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” – Winston Churchill
  2. “A truth that’s told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent.” ― William Blake
  3. “I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.” ― S.E. Hinton
  4. “Better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.” ― Khaled Hosseini
  5. “The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” –Lucille Ball
  6. “We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” ― Rudyard Kipling
  7. “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.” ― Al Pacino
  8. “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves.” — Eric Hoffer
  9. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” — Pablo Picasso
  10. “It is always the best policy to tell the truth, unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.” — Jerome K. Jerome

We are continuing our discussion from last week about Paul’s comment in Acts 23:6-8 where he claimed he was a Pharisee. There, we read: 

“Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.).” 

Here’s our big question: Did Paul really consider himself a Pharisee or was he just lying to get out of a jam? Now, the implications for this are rather significant. If Paul is telling the truth here, then Paul should be classified as a good Pharisee; and that changes things (to start with, it tells us that not all Pharisees are Matthew 23 Pharisees). It is also possible, however, that Paul mixed some truth with a little falsehood to help divert attention away from him and onto the well-established division within the Sanhedrin (they were divided over all sorts of things, status, economic well-being, power, spirituality, visions about the future, just to name a few, but the presenting problem concerned the resurrection; Pharisees believed in one, but the Sadducees, did not).

Now, some may think I am just blowing smoke here; and I know that the right answer is number one (of course, Paul didn’t lie!). But in all honesty, I am not so sure. Paul speaks of his Pharisee background three times. He mentions it in Acts 23:6 (our passage), 26:5 (Paul explaining to King Agrippa what happened in Acts 23) and Philippians 3:5. It is the Philippians 3 passage that interests me the most. He begins the chapter with a warning against those who believe that in order to follow Jesus one must be circumcised. It is a strong warning (Paul calls them “dogs,” “evildoers” and “mutilators of the flesh”). What is interesting here is that circumcision is most definitely a Pharisee belief, but Paul is clearly speaking against it.  But then, Paul, almost out of nowhere, changes the game. He claims that we who serve God by his Spirit and who boast in Christ are the true circumcision party (in other words, the Pharisees, who believe in literal circumcision, aren’t truly members of the circumcision party, but we who have confidence in Christ and are marked by the Spirit, are.). It is almost as if Paul is claiming to be a new type of Pharisee where all sorts of things are redefined in Christ so that now there is a Christian Pharisee (and it is a good thing). 

But Paul goes on. He contrasts his previous lifestyle with his current life in Christ. In other words, he contrasts life as a Pharisee with life in Christ. But note, it is not just any Pharisaic lifestyle he is contrasting, he is looking at life as a perfect Pharisee with life in Christ because Paul is adamant about one thing: if anyone has reasons to boast in his own goodness before God; it was the Pharisee Paul who excelled at good works, in zeal and in passion for God’s law. He writes (Phil. 3:4-6):

“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”

Now granted, Paul is being autobiographical here and a tad removed. He is taking the ridiculous position of boasting about all the things he had achieved as “the perfect” Pharisee. He made similar claims in 2 Corinthians 11; but there, Paul prefaces what he says by telling us he is speaking as a fool. Consider these verses from chapter 11:21-23: 

“Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.”

I am guessing that Paul has the same attitude in Philippians 3 that he does here in 2 Corinthians. He is boasting as a “fool.” He is boasting of his past life from the perspective of how his opponents would view it (and from how he viewed it at one time). But then, Paul does something unexpected. He disowns his past. Back to Philippians 3:7-9:

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him. . . . “

It sounds like Paul is distancing himself from his past. That’s a polite way of saying his past is garbage. But in Acts 23, there is no trace of this scorn. In fact, Paul seems happy to announce that he was a Pharisee. And that is a problem. How could the Paul who wrote Philippians 3 turn around and boast about being a Pharisee in Acts 23? Honestly, I can’t see how. You can’t dismiss Phariseeism as worthless in Philippians 3 and then rescind that statement in Acts 23 because it offers you an advantage. I just don’t see how Paul could speak so negatively about being a Pharisee in Philippians and then speak so positively about it in Acts 23. It can’t be done. 

But does it make any sense to say that Paul “lied” to the Sanhedrin, that he claimed to be something he was not? That doesn’t sound like Paul either. And any way you nuance Paul’s statement in Acts 23, it always ends up in the same place; Paul sounds like he is being deceitful. Face it: claiming to have once been a Pharisee, but leaving out that you are not a Pharisee anymore is misleading (but maybe “once a Pharisee, always a Pharisee” applies, or “You can take the boy out of the Pharisee, but not the Pharisee out of the boy” is functioning here). No matter how you look at it, it looks like Paul is lying here. He is using subterfuge to escape a terrible situation. But that does not sound like the Paul we know. 

In other words, none of my options fit.

There is one other consideration that I hinted at earlier, and I am being hard pressed here to consider it. Would Paul perceive himself a “Christian Pharisee”?  And what would that look like? I think a Christian Pharisee is someone who . . .

  • Is driven to obey the law of Christ
  • Is a member of the circumcision party, rightly understood
  • Is fully committed to his people and his nation (a true patriot)
  • Is zealously pursuing God’s will in every area of his (or her) life
  • Is visibly living out the righteousness of Christ in his (or her) own life
  • Is steadfast in his (or her) belief in the resurrection
  • Is unwavering in his (or her) hope in all of God’s promises
  • Is fervent in his (or her) love for, study of and delight in God’s word
  • Is a passionate follower of Jesus the Messiah

Now, without a doubt, there is a huge difference between Jewish Pharisees and Christian Pharisees, a difference that would set the two in opposition to each other. But the difference would be not in how each group approached their faith (because their approach would be very similar, i.e., very committed, very zealous, very driven), but in what they believed. Everything changed for Paul the Pharisee on the Damascus Road in regards to who he followed, but maybe not in how he followed. And Christian Pharisees are all about who they follow.

Paula Fredriksen, in her chapter on “Paul, the Perfectly Righteous Pharisee” in the book, The Pharisees, writes:

“In none of his letters does Paul say that Jesus should stop circumcising. He insists, rather, that ex-pagans in Christ not start. In Philippians he says that knowing Christ is supremely important and that by comparison with that knowledge, all else is radically devalued. Devalued by comparison; but abandoned absolutely? Why would he? His law righteousness had been flawless. It was that trajectory that had brought him to Christ, the law’s telos. Of all the identifiers that Paul lists in Philippians 3–eighth-day circumcision, Israelite, Benjaminite, Hebrew lineage, Pharisee, persecutor, blameless with respect to law-righteousness–it is ‘persecutor’ alone that he renounced and rejected. But did he undo his circumcision? Does he ever cease identifying as an Israelite and a Hebrew? Why then should he not have continued, as a Christ follower, to live as a Pharisaic Jew?”

If this is true, there are three huge implications and one huge question.

  1. First, it seems possible that there is such a thing as a Christian Pharisee and that Paul was one of them. 
  2. Second, if that is true, then there are good Pharisees. 
  3. Third, Matthew 23 must not mean that all Pharisees are bad, only that some were; and those who were bad deserved the harshest of criticism because, of all people, they should’ve known better. They should have known their Scriptures and welcomed Jesus with open arms, not with hatred and suspicion. In fact, it seems that their rejection of Jesus was more willful than anything else. They knew the truth, but they refused to believe it. 

And now, the question: Given these comments, how should we define what a Pharisee is? 

We need to look at one more Pharisee, and then, we will answer that question.  More next week.