Paul Before the Sanhedrin: Part 3 of 4 (Lessons on Acts)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

He had already seen that the council was made up of Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees were known for careful adherence to Scripture and were less comfortable with the high priest’s abuses of power. He had been raised a Pharisee—“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” (Philippians 3:5). It would be likely that his father joined the sect after moving from Tarsus. It was much easier for a Pharisee to become a Christian than for a Sadducee, who denied miracles and the resurrection. Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and saw it as the great hope of the nation. A resurrection of the dead constituted a major part of their hope in God’s final deliverance of His people. “The hope and resurrection” were central to Judaism, and many martyrs had died staking their hope on it. Paul’s views did not violate any central tenets of Phariseeism; he was now a “Pharisee plus,” who taught that the resurrection had already been inaugurated in Jesus. They (Pharisees) were thus theologically “ripe” for the Christian gospel that Christ had risen from the dead and that this proved him to be the hoped-for Messiah. They were already half-way along the road to Christianity. It needed but a step for a Pharisees to see that the hope of Israel lay in the Lord Jesus, who had conquered death. Paul believed he could recruit some allies in the council from the Pharisee party if he appealed to them along that line.

To Paul’s mind, the Sadducean denial of resurrection would make Christianity utterly impossible, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.” (1 Corinthians 15:16). The early Christians had met their first opposition from the Sadducees when they proclaimed in Jesus the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead (4:1, 2). Now Paul asserted that he was a Pharisee, that the fundamental question at stake was that of the resurrection of the dead, and that it was really because of this doctrine that he was on trial. Commentators note Paul’s shrewdness in playing the afterlife card, a key point of division between the two parties.

Paul knew that the Romans would lean over backward to support Ananias since he was a devoted quisling. With his back to the wall, the apostle’s only recourse was to introduce an element into the discussion which could divide the group. So, on the spur of the moment, Paul tossed a charge of high explosive into the council by identifying himself as a Pharisees. That charge detonated at once in a most violent fashion. Some commentators believe this was not a spur of the moment decision, that it seems unlikely that he did this on a sudden impulse, which is the impression we get from our text. And it is even less likely that he only now became aware of the presence of Sadducees and Pharisees in the council. Rather, something must have happened to bring these two parties to his attention. In this connection we should keep in mind that the narrative is probably highly condensed and that Paul may have been speaking for some time. Verse nine gives the impression that he had again related the events of his conversion in which his encounter with the risen Jesus brought to the fore the whole question of resurrection. At this the Sadducees may have grown agitated and restless (notice the phrase “he cried out” which means he attempted to make himself heard above the hullabaloo), and so he brought the speech to a sudden conclusion described here—not dishonestly, by claiming to be what he no longer was, but as still one with the Pharisees with respect to the hope of the resurrection of the dead. He made practically the same assertion before Agrippa in 26:5 (Also see Philippians 3:5).

7And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided.

Having been a Pharisees, Paul was aware of the tension which existed between Pharisees and Sadducees over the teaching of the resurrection of the dead. They were notorious for their disagreements; Pharisees taught that Sadducees had no part in the world to come, because they did not believe in life after death (at least not in a form acceptable to most other Palestinian Jews). Paul had judged the temper of the assembly correctly. The two parties began to squabble among themselves. There is no strife as bitter as that generated by party politics, especially when it is fueled by religious animosities. In a moment the two parties were at each other’s throats, and Paul could stand back and see the result of his hasty words.

The Sanhedrin consisted largely of the high priestly aristocracy and the ruling elders, who were primarily Sadducees. The Pharisees were in the minority and were represented among the scribes who sat in the Sanhedrin.

8For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.

No love was lost between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, as he well knew, and an appeal to the Pharisees on these grounds could well have won them to his side, for the Sadducees rejected the doctrine of resurrection, with its kindred belief in spiritual beings inhabiting a spiritual world. The Sadducees only accepted the books of the Law as Scripture, and they saw no reference to resurrection in these. Angels and spirits, however, are found in the Pentateuch; and the Sadducees denial of them is not confirmed anywhere other than in Acts 23:8. It is most unlikely that the Sadducees rejected the existence of angels and spirits as such. To what then was Luke referring? He may have meant that the Sadducees rejected the eschatology{1] of the Pharisees, which involved an elaborate hierarchy of good and evil angels. Or perhaps it was the idea that an angel or a spirit can speak through a human being as an agent of revelation that Luke depicted the Sadducees as rejecting (v. 9). A final possibility is that the reference was a further elaboration of their rejection of the resurrection—they rejected an afterlife in an Angelic or spiritual state. This would be much in keeping with Luke 20:36, where Jesus described the resurrection existence as “equal to the angels.” Those beliefs held by the Pharisees were closer to Christianity than those of the Sadducees. Significantly, the Scripture records the conversion of Pharisees (15:5; John 3:1), but not of Sadducees.

Luke wrote down for posterity the position taken by each party; liberals against conservatives, agnostics against fundamentalists, the left against the right. The gulf between them was as deep and as wide then as it is now, but as the animosity between the two groups grew in volume and venom, Paul began to have regrets about what he had done.

{1] Any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.

9 And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees' part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.

The effect of Paul’s outcry was dramatic. The volatile nature of the Jews of the day revealed itself at once. Immediately there was a sharp division within the council, though he did not carry all of the Pharisees{2] with him, for only “some of the teachers of the law” who belong to their party defended the possibility that “a spirit or an angel” had spoken to Paul, and even then they were far from accepting his own account of what had happened on the road to Damascus. The Sadducees rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead because the teaching was not found in the Pentateuch, the only section of the Old Testament which they accepted as Scripture.

The Pharisees took Paul’s part and demanded his acquittal. The scribes{1], their legal experts, threw the weight of their learning and logic behind Paul. The Sadducees however, were more infuriated than ever by Paul’s ploy. Soon the shouting and disorder turned violent. Probably the Pharisees came over to Paul’s side and arranged themselves alongside him, determined to protect him, while the Sadducees, in a body, sought to pluck him away so that they might vent their spite on the man who had insulted their high priest, endorsed Pharisaic absurdity, and championed the detested Christian sect.

How shall we classify this skillful maneuver by Paul? Apparently, Luke did not think there was anything unworthy about what Paul did. On the surface, it does appear that the apostle’s motive was less than noble. However, when we understand that his belief in the spiritual Messiah and Lord was predicated on the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:14), we should become less critical of the apostle’s action in this case. Furthermore, it must be noted that the Pharisees took Paul’s side with the clear understanding that his view of the resurrection was based on the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, we should not accuse Paul of deception. So far as he was concerned, the real issue was over the resurrection rather than a disturbance in the Temple.

{1] “Scribes”(Teachers of the law) were experts in interpreting the Jewish law.
{2] In Luke’s time (but not in Paul’s), the Pharisees were the sole surviving group, representing Judaism as such.

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