Was Paul an Apocalyptic Jew Before His Conversion?

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by Tim Widowfield

Earlier this summer while listening to a course from The Teaching Company, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, something struck me that I’d missed earlier. He alluded to the notion that the Apostle Paul, as a Pharisee, had an apocalyptic worldview even before he came to believe that Jesus was the Christ. That notion, I confess, came as a bit of a surprise to me.

He repeats this belief in his most recent book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, this time even more clearly and confidently. As proof, he reminds us that Paul called himself a Pharisee. Ehrman writes:

Like many other Jews of the time—including such figures as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth—Pharisees held to a kind of apocalyptic worldview that had developed toward the very end of the biblical period and down into the first century.

Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 44). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

As I indicated above, this notion struck me as a bit odd. First, if you’ve read anything at all about the Pharisees, you know that we have limited information about who they were and what they actually believed. The three main sources for first-century Pharisaism — the later records of Rabbis reflecting on earlier times, the writings of Josephus, and the gospels of the New Testament — all have a particular point of view and an axe to grind. In the end, we are certain of very little.

The small amount we do know requires a great deal of careful analysis and sober judgment. Too often what we thought we knew was simply the result of overconfidence and an uncritical approach to the meagre (and contradictory) sources at hand. Jacob Neusner, author From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism, put it this way:

While every history of ancient Judaism and Christianity gives a detailed picture of the Pharisees, none systematically and critically analyzes the traits and tendencies of the discrete sources combined to form such an account. Consequently, we have many theories but few facts, sophisticated theologies but uncritical, naive histories of Pharisaism which yield heated arguments unillumined by disciplined, reasoned understanding. Progress in the study of the growth of Pharisaic Judaism before 70 A.D. will depend upon accumulation of detailed knowledge and a determined effort to cease theorizing about the age. We must honestly attempt to understand not only what was going on in the first century, but also — and most crucially — how and whether we know anything at all about what was going on. “Theories and arguments should follow in the wake of laborious study, not guide it in their determining ways, however alluring these may look among the thickets and brush that cover the ground.” (Neusner 1972, p. xix)

The quotation at the end comes from G.R. Elton’s review of Fussner’s Tudor History and the Historians from the journal History and Theory.

Scholars who specialize in the history of the Pharisees have been arguing for decades over who they were, when they first appeared, what they believed, and even what their name means. Did it really mean “separatist”? If so, what were they separating from?

In Steve Mason’s 2001 tome, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: A Composition-Critical Study, he provides a useful list of scholars for and against various issues in Pharisaic history (see p. 2). For anyone interested, I will reprint it here with expanded details. Where possible, the links below will take you to the actual online text of the publication.

First, on the overall question of core, common beliefs, Mason lists one as “the repudiation of apocalyptic,” an element found in Kurt Schubert’s “Jewish Religious Parties and Sects”, in The Crucible of Christianity, ed. Arnold Toynbee [London: Thames and Hudson, 1969], 89).

It is still a widely held belief that until AD 70 the Pharisees, or at least some of them, sympathized with apocalyptic sects and themselves adopted an apocalyptic outlook, but that after the year 70 they abandoned such views and dissociated themselves firmly from them. The truth is exactly the reverse. Before 70 there is hardly any evidence (apart from a few hints in Josephus) that the Pharisees were at all concerned with ultra-eschatological and apocalyptic speculations. After 70 such evidence is plentiful. Not that one should build too much on this. After AD 70, in fact, Pharisaism had to embrace whatever apocalyptic tendencies there were, since, as we have just seen, Pharisaism had become practically synonymous with Judaism. (Schubert 1969, p. 89, emphasis mine)

Next, on the specific question of whether the Pharisees were inclined toward apocalyptic views, the following said they were not:

On the other hand, the scholars below said they were apocalypticists:

The above references refer only to the question of Pharisaic views of apocalypticism. Mason lists profound differences on a wide variety of other topics as well, remarking in a footnote:

In the literature cited in the notes above, the Pharisees appear variously as a large nationalistic movement and a tiny sect of pietists, enlightened progressives and narrow-minded legalists, an esteemed scholar class and an irrelevant sect. (Mason 2001, p. 3).

I’m just scratching the surface here, but from what I can glean from the material our uncertainty about the Pharisees owes as much to their own actual diversity over many centuries as it does to the less-than-honest interpretations by their enemies and competitors. I consider it quite likely that they tolerated much diversity regarding some features of Judaism. Further, modern scholarship does not appear to have reached any consensus on these matters.

At any rate, one thing is clear to me: We have no way of knowing for sure whether Paul was an apocalyptic Jew before he converted, and appealing to his supposed credentials as a former Pharisee to prove that he was simply won’t do.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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9 thoughts on “Was Paul an Apocalyptic Jew Before His Conversion?”

  1. If the first “Christians” were a Jewish sect, what was there for Paul to convert to? He would have still been a Jew, but a Christian one, similar to being a member of several other extant Jewish sects – Essenes, Ebionites, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, etc. That’s why Paul never writes about Jesus being anything other than a pre-existent angelic being, consistent with (some) Jews’ acceptance of the Logos character described by Philo.

    In the same manner, Martin Luther was not a Lutheran, he was a Catholic who held to and instituted a deviation in theology that later was deemed by others to constitute a new religion.

    It was Paul’s new theology and the accommodations it made to the God-fearers that later became the new religion of Christianity. No?

    The word Christian appears only three times in the NT, and two of those three are in Acts, which wasn’t written until 40 or 50 years after Paul.

    1. Boyarin, Daniel (2010) [now bolded]. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 119. ISBN 0-8122-0384-4.

      I think, that worship in the incarnate Logos [λόγος] is a novum, a “mutation,” …introduced by Jesus people, but the belief in an intermediary, a deuteros theos [second-god], and even perhaps binitarian worship was common to them [Jesus people] and other Jews.

      1. The word Christian appears only three times in the NT, and two of those three are in Acts, which wasn’t written until 40 or 50 years after Paul.

        At the time there were no “Christians” per se, rather:

        • sects revering the Jesus angel as having died (cf. Paul)
        • sects still revering the Jesus angel as not having died (cf. Philo)

        Various permutations of these per apocalypticism, Middle Platonism, Greco-Roman mysteries syncretism, etc.

  2. Reasonable post! Dr. James Tabor, a Pauline specialist who has published 2 impressive books on Paul, comments that:

    The earliest document we have from Paul is his letter 1 Thessalonians. It is intensely apocalyptic, with its entire orientation on preparing his group for the imminent arrival of Jesus in the clouds of heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-5, 23). One might imagine Paul the former Pharisee with no apocalyptic orientation whatsoever, but it is entirely possible, if Jerome is correct about his parents being exiled from Galilee in an effort to pacify the area, that Paul’s apocalyptic orientation was one he derived from his family and upbringing. Luke-Acts tends to mute any emphasis on an imminent arrival of the end and he characteristically tones down the apocalyptic themes of Mark, his main narrative source for his Gospel. see https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/the-quest-for-the-historical-paul/

    1. One can also imagine a pre-conversion Paul who virulently opposed political zealots and the “excesses” of apocalypticism. His vision of the resurrected Christ, then, would have been a turning point that reversed his polarity, so to speak. The general resurrection and final judgment must be closer than he had thought. “The time to act is now!”

      1. Yep – Multiple reasonable interpretations with no reason to choose one over the other, so I guess the issue of Saul’s possible apocalyptism is agnostically consigned to the dustbin of speculation rather than the file folder of history.

  3. I don’t know about the Pharisees, but I also make the case that Paul held an apocalyptic worldview. I provide examples from his writings, as well as apocalyptic literature to show that Paul’s concept of Jesus basically stems from apocalyptic literature.

  4. The conversion was from the Jewish god to The Father. When they were forcefully identified by Catholicism, many glosses were added and wreaked havoc.

  5. “Like many other Jews of the time—including such figures as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth—Pharisees held to a kind of apocalyptic worldview that had developed toward the very end of the biblical period and down into the first century.“
    I personally don’t see Pharisees as hostile toward apocalyptic excesses. Two points.
    1. Josephus spent three years, 16-19, with Banus, obviously an Essene, or a apocalyptic “John the Baptist” type. Then Josephus became a Pharisee.
    This would put Josephus at 16-19 in the range of 53-56 AD, a contemporary with Paul. Josephus had nothing negative to say about Essenes.
    2. Why would Paul as a Pharisee be “converted” from non-apocalyptic to apocalyptic by a “vision” of Jesus? If he objected to apocalyptic excesses before his conversion, why didn’t he persecute Essenes as well as Proto-Christians? Not a smoking gun, but clearly Paul would have been more likely an apocalyptic supporter than a anti-apocalyptic.

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