If you are a certain age, you will remember this commercial. Dressed in buckskins and wearing a feather, a weathered-faced native American paddles down a scenic river. At first, it’s a beautiful scene, but it changes quickly. We see that the river has trash floating in it. The camera pulls back; and now, we see smokestacks belching out pollution. Our friend beaches his canoe on some trash-filled shoreline and takes a few steps. The vista is disgusting—a highway of cars and grime and smog. A narrator says: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” In case you missed it, the “some people” here who do definitely include native Americans. As the narration continues, a passing car throws a large bag of trash out of its window. The bag splatters at the feet of our native American friend covering his moccasins with garbage. The announcer continues: “People start pollution; people can stop it.” The camera zooms in on the face of our friend, and we see a giant tear streaming down his face. The “Crying Indian” commercial was a huge success with some reports saying litter dropped by 88% in 38 states. And yet, even if you can remember the commercial, I bet you have no idea who the native American star was. You should know his name because he was everywhere. He appeared in over 200 western movies (always as the “Indian” opposite cowboys the likes of John Wayne, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, and Steve McQueen) and in over 100 TV shows (including the Cisco Kid, Rawhide, Mister Ed, and the Virginian). His name was Iron Eyes Cody. He was often hired because he brought authenticity to the role since he was an actual native American (his father was a Cherokee, and his mother was of Cree ancestry) as opposed to many white actors who simply “acted” native American (that list includes Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Chuck Connors and, more recently, Johnny Depp). And Cody wasn’t afraid of his heritage. In front of the camera or just out and about, Cody would always be found in the attire of his heritage. Certainly, Cody is not as well-known as other famous native Americans (think Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, or Geronimo), but he deserves a place at the table for his huge commitment to advancing native Americans in Hollywood. Except for one thing. He lied. Although he claimed to be a member of numerous tribes, he was actually the son of Sicilian immigrants. That’s right, my favorite native American is Italian.
Paul has returned to Jerusalem, and things have not gone well (see Acts 21). He was accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple, inciting a riot, and blasphemy. Now, Paul thought he could talk his way out of it; but after he gave an impassionate speech about how God had called him to go to the Gentiles, the crowd responded (Acts 22:22): “Rid the earth of him! He is not fit to live!” As a result, he was arrested by the Romans. In order to find out the truth of what was going on, the Romans used an interesting tactic. They flogged the prisoner. But just before the first lash was given, Paul asks the Roman guard (meaning a guard who worked for Rome, but one who probably was not a citizen of Rome) if it was legal to flog a Roman citizen (which Paul was from birth). Interestingly, Paul only claimed his rights as a Roman citizen twice, in Acts 16 and here in Acts 22. In Acts 16, he drops the fact that he was a Roman citizen after having been flogged (not before to prevent the beating). Here in Acts 22, Paul plays the citizenship card to prevent a flogging. Perhaps, there is a third instance. Perhaps, by appealing to Caesar to be tried, Paul is using his citizenship to create an advantage (in this case, not to be tried in Jerusalem where he would surely face frenzied opposition). In any case, Paul is not flogged but, instead, is turned over to the Sanhedrin. And yes, he has gone from the pot to the frying pan.
So, Paul stands to present his side of things to the Sanhedrin. His first line was designed to win the crowd over. It didn’t. He said (Acts 23:1): “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” For saying such a thing, the high priest ordered Paul to be slapped. Knowing that he was losing the crowd, Paul played the biggest card he had. Look at Acts 23:6-8:
“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.).”
Does anyone else think this is a little weird? It is one thing to play the “Roman citizenship” card, but doesn’t it sound really odd for Paul to play the “Pharisee card?” If you are unsure, please read Matthew 23 and then come back and tell me that it is not weird for Paul to claim to be a Pharisee here. What are we to make of this? I think we have five options. First, Paul is speaking the truth. He considers himself to be a Pharisee. In which case, Paul would fit into the category of a good Pharisee. Second, Paul was mixing truth with a little falsehood. Sure, at one time, Paul was a Pharisee, but that was a long, long time ago and certainly not the case now. It would be like me saying I was a Volvo owner even though that’s not actually true now (but I absolutely was at one time). Third, Paul was coining a new term and defining it in his own way: Christian Pharisee. In this case, Paul would gladly embrace such a title because he was meticulous about following the Bible, just like the Jewish Pharisees, only his approach would be to read the Bible as interpreted by Jesus. Fourth, Paul could be straight out lying. He knew he was in deep trouble. He knew the Sanhedrin was split down the middle with Pharisees on the right and Sadducees on the left. He knew he had to do something. He knew he was a Pharisee years ago and could say all the right Pharisee sound bites. And so, he used a ruse. He threw a bone into the center of the court and let the dogs go for it. In this case, the only reason Paul said this was to create a subterfuge so he could escape. He really wasn’t a Pharisee. And fifth, Luke lied. Paul was never a Pharisee, but Luke said he was.
Now, I know that last option sounds absolutely Iron-Eyes-Cody ridiculous. Why would Luke lie about such a thing? However, in context, maybe it is not as far-fetched as we might originally think. Let’s go back to Paul’s Roman citizenship. A lot of scholars doubt that Paul was actually a Roman citizen. Remember that Paul never claims Roman citizenship in any of his letters (although Philippians 3:20 may hint at it). Also, it would be strange for someone simply to claim citizenship. Citizenship was far more of a social thing, than a political thing. Todd Penner writes:
“While it is not impossible that Paul, a Jew from Tarsus, could have had Roman citizenship bestowed on him, it is unlikely that citizenship would have had the influence described in the book of Acts. While Roman citizenship did indeed confer legal status on the bearer, citizenship’s largest impact was social. Whom you knew, whose patron you were, and any other overt markers of social status were more common emblems of citizenship than any legal or political status.”
In other words, instead of Paul simply dropping the fact that he was a Roman citizen, he would have been much more likely to have dropped the name of some influential person. To further this point, many feel that Luke wrote Acts to bolster Paul’s defense before Caesar. As a result, Luke’s goal was not to provide history (as we would understand history), but to paint Paul as an ideal person who has social standing, cultural awareness and intellectual acumen. Luke also may want to say that the charges brought against Paul were the result of an intramural debate among Jews and not anything to do with Rome (hence, the reason Luke focuses on the violent dispute that broke out in the Sanhedrin as a result of Paul’s claim that he was on trial because of “the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”). There’s a lot to consider in this claim (option #5); but as of yet, I am unconvinced it is the correct answer. It is important also to hear Todd Penner’s concluding statement:
“Given the improbability of the descriptions in Acts of Paul’s claims to citizenship, it is more likely that they were meant to help idealize Paul, rather than to reflect actual historical reality. This is not to say that Paul could not have been a Roman citizen. It simply means we will never know.”
Option 4 has some merit, saying that Acts 23 was a purely Pauline ruse and he wasn’t actually claiming he was a Pharisee. He was simply using all the subterfuge he could to save himself. If he could gain allies by claiming to be a Pharisee in this one regard and only this regard (namely, that he too believed in the resurrection), he would gladly do so. Why not turn the ire of the Sanhedrin away from yourself, when you can say something that will turn the Sanhedrin against itself? It sounds like Paul made an incredibly shrewd move here. Yes, he was lying, but it was for a good cause (see situational ethics). I don’t think there is any doubt that what we read in Acts 23 is a strategic move by Paul to turn the Sanhedrin against itself and away from him. Option 4 is pure Iron Eyes Cody.
Option 3 asks if there was such a thing as “Christian Pharisees.” I think Paul would agree that there most certainly were. I would argue that we see them in Galatians, in Romans and in several other books. We most certainly see them in Acts 15 when the church meets in Jerusalem to discuss how the Gentiles fit into the new covenant. This version of Pharisees believed that you could not be a Christ follower unless you were circumcised and kept the law of Moses (Acts 15:1). These Christian Pharisees were not only included in the discussion, they played an important role. However, at the end of the day, the church, led by James and Peter, disagreed with the Pharisees and gave the Gentiles clear direction on how to live out their faith. It seems from this point on, Christian Pharisees became a thorn in the side of the church and opposed to the way of grace. As such, Paul has harsh words for them in Galatians (1:6-10, 3:1-14, 5:2-12) and in Philippians (3:1-4, 3:17-21) and in Romans (2:25-29). I can see no explanation for Paul to self-identify as a Christian Pharisee. For Paul to do so, would be a form of apostasy. Just for the record, even Iron Eyes Cody, in the middle of his career, jumped sides and became a cowboy. He may have been a liar, but he wasn’t a traitor.
And that leaves us with options 1 and 2. I know this is hard, but we are going to leave those two points for next week. I can already see a tear forming in your eye. Some people have a deep abiding respect for an argument in a blog. And some people don’t.”