Icon of Paul's 'Damascus Road' conversion.
Icon of Paul’s ‘Damascus Road’ conversion.

Josephus divided the Judaism of his day into four main philosophies: Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, and Essenes. In Ant. 18:23 he writes regarding the Zealots,

“But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty; and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kind of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man Lord…”[1]

The Zealots were Pharisees who advocated violent resistance against anyone who would claim to be a Ruler or Lord who was not Israel’s God. Josephus is not fond of the Zealots. He blames them for many of the terrible things that came upon the Jews as resistance to Rome increased. He says in 18:4b-5 that Judas and those with him that they, “…became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty: as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity.”[2] In other words, according to Judas, there motives were not pure, but they desired to be made famous by their actions. In 18:6-10 the Zealots are depicted as a riotous bunch whose, “…sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemy’s fire.”[3]

Joan E. Taylor makes an intriguing observation in The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism about Paul. She writes,

“Interestingly, when the apostle Paul refers to his ‘former life in Judaism’ (Gal. 1:13-14), he professes to have been extremely zealous (ζηλωτὴς) for the traditions of his ancestors. In Phil. 3:5-6 he describes himself in terms of the Law as a Pharisee and in terms of zeal (ζῆλος) as a persecutor of the Church. In other words, his zeal manifested itself in action, in his case the action of persecuting those who claimed that the Messiah had already come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”[4]

If the Zealots were Pharisees who advocated active, violent resistance to Rome, and if Paul was a Pharisee known for his violence against early disciples of Jesus, then it may follow that Paul was a Zealot. This provides for an interesting contrast with some of Paul’s fellow Pharisees. In Acts 5:34-39 we find Gamaliel, a Pharisee who was influential over his contemporaries as well as later generations (who is said to have been Paul’s teacher in Acts 22:3), addressing a Sanhedrin, warning against attacking the apostles. He is presented as saying,

“Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.

“For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.

“After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.

“So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” [5]

Now, it is not impossible to validate the historicity of this speech, nor can we separate Gamliel’s words from his Lukan depiction, but we do see that he is remembered as a moderate, cautious Pharisee. This places him in contrast with Paul, a violent Pharisee. Whether Paul was of the “fourth philosophy” before his “Damascus Road” conversion, as it is called, I do not know, but he seems to fit the description.

[1] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[2] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[3] Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

[4] Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 237.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update, Ac 5:35–39 (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).