Rethinking Pharisee and Paul II

One reason why I chose to talk about Pharisee and Paul in the same light is because Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees and Hebrew of Hebrews. This background ought to have some significance in thinking about some of the epistles which he wrote (or at least in parts of the passages which he wrote). So, we will want to examine deeper into Paul's Jewish background (and not so much into other aspects of his upbringing)

Before we go into that, we need to ask ourselves, what do we know about Paul based on the available evidence which we have (mainly from the Scripture)? From Galatians 1:13-16, 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Philippians 3:5-6, we learn that Paul was brought up to be a Jew of Jews from his birth. He was of solid Israelite stock, tracing his lineage through the tribe of Benjamin which produce the first Israelite king, after whom Paul was named. His parents piously inscribed him within the covenant through circumcision when he was eight days old, the appointed time for this rite. The self-description "a Hebrew sprung from Hebrews" may refer to the purity of his genealogy or more likely to the language spoken by his parents and himself at home, a mark of their commitment to preserving their ancestral way of life.

In Acts 22, Luke talked about Paul receiving formal education in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, a respected teacher whose name is also well attested in rabbinic literature. Such an education would be in keeping with Paul's parents' dedication to piety as well as to Paul's own witness to his training as a Pharisee and his intense zeal for the traditions of the elders.

Paul also characterised himself as passionately zealous for the Torah prior to his encounter with Christ. He devoted himself to the Pharisaic way of life, being fully dedicated to Torah as interpreted and extended through the oral traditions that eventually multiplied and became associated with rabbinic Judaism. He calls to mind his devotion to the covenant at Galatians 1:14 where he remembers that his own passion for the law outstripped many of his comrades of the same age. He also claims that he lived in perfect conformity with the demands of the Torah and he would have shared the hope for resurrection and the life of the world to come as the reward for fidelity to the covenant.

Why do we go through all these history? Because it showed that Paul was indeed a Pharisee at his very core. He was zealous enough to follow the ways and traditions of the elders, and he might very well be on his way to be included into the Sanhedrin, as suggested in Acts. In local language term, he was a high-flyer destined for greatness in Judaism. And because of this, there are reasons to argue that he was previously married before he wrote 1 Corinthians. This was what 1 Corinthians 7 said of himself:
8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
In this passage, Paul attempted to address the confusion in the Corinthian church regarding marriage. In verse 7 before this, Paul clearly laid out his preference for being celibate, highlighting it as a 'gift' or a charisma (which means grace/favour in Greek). but I am noting that this only tells us one thing - that Paul was single at the point of writing Corinthians. I think one mistake that a lot of us as lay people often like to make is to extrapolate biblical data without taking account of historical context (that's why you should go and learn history). For me, it is almost unreasonable to state that Paul remained single for all his life, simply because we have no record on the circumstances behind his singleness.

That is where our historical investigation comes in. We do know that as a Pharisee, there was a heavy emphasis on marriage in the tradition of the Jews. It was the cultural norm for every Jewish man to be married by the time he reached his mid-twenties at the latest. Marriages for Jewish young people were arranged by their parents, and it was a matter of shame for the family if a marriage could not be arranged. There are no grounds for thinking that this would not have taken place in Paul's family, who were strict Hebrew Jews (Phil 3:5); Paul says (Acts 23:6), "Brothers, I am a Pharisee and the son of Pharisees." Moreover, Paul expressly states (Acts 22:3; Phil 3:4-6; and especially Gal 1:13-14) that he followed the traditions of his people. When he says, "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors", he is telling us, amongst other things, his situation as far as marriage is concerned: for what he says of his zeal for the traditions of his ancestors would not be true if he had failed to conform to the very significant Jewish tradition about marrying.

There are other evidence which I found (but haven't had the time to look through the explanation in more details) that can help to support this hypothesis. If the fact that Paul was married before he wrote 1 Corinthians is true, then it makes sense to note that he was very well familiar with the struggles of married couples. It should further imply that Paul did not prefer singleness because that is the state of affair in his entire life but because he found the benefit of being single in the context of his ministry and hence found it beneficial as well to encourage those singles to embrace singleness.

To push our interpretation a bit further, this means that we should never use 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 to tell people to remain single because Paul was single his entire life. This is simply a simplistic way of interpreting the Scripture and it brings wrong theology into our church. Paul was being contented with his singleness at that point in time and it has helped him to serve the Lord wholeheartedly, but he was never against marriage in the first place. Moreover, in view of the interpretation that his celibacy was a gift, we can see it as God giving him the grace to bring him through that season of singlehood, regardless the reasons behind his seemingly devoid marriage.

I hope that through these two posts, I have reasonably demonstrated that research into historical context is essential in our studying of the word. When it comes to the Word, we cannot afford to be lax and simply read our own meaning into the Scripture, which is what a lot of us do in the first place. The Scripture is given to us and we remain responsible for studying it and sieving out the plain meaning of the text. I once heard from a friend who asked what about those who are illiterate. I would argue that this is a non-existent question because if you are literate, then you are responsible to study, regardless how 'chim' you think it is. If you are so considerate about the illiterate, then may I suggest that it is thus the responsibility of the literate to bring the Word to the illiterate in the most responsible way so that they can be protected against false doctrines.


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