Were Paul’s Writings Influenced By Culture?

Many dismiss the authority of Paul as an apostle by accusing him of injecting cultural norms of the first century into his instructions to the churches? Is this a legitimate argument against his apostolic authority?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

Time and again, Paul argued that the message he proclaimed was divine. It came not from man as a source nor through humanity as a conduit. Instead, he received his instructions directly from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11-12).

The Lord’s apostle produced no “Pauline” theology. He presented the “commandment of the Lord” as received (1 Cor. 14:37).

It is common for liberal critics to allege that Paul was a product of his culture. They claim his personal feelings, historical inclinations, and cultural influences colored his writings.

Consider William Barclay’s approach to First Timothy 2:8f, where Paul restricted the public teaching role of women.

The Scottish scholar alleged that the apostle was influenced by Jewish and Greek culture in this context. Thus, the prohibitions cannot be bound today. Barclay concluded, “All the things in this chapter are mere temporary regulations laid down to meet a given situation” (78-79).

Do you think this is a correct approach to the passage? Did Paul import his prejudices into his epistles? Is there a way to know?

Paul, The Pharisee

There is a way to test this popularly advanced theory. What were Paul’s cultural influences?

Paul’s training had been in the disciplines of the Pharisees. He was a son of the Pharisees (Acts 23:6), and, at an early age, he left his native Tarsus (in Cilicia) and traveled to Jerusalem. There, he studied under Gamaliel, the grandson of the famous scholar Hillel. Gamaliel was one of the most prominent rabbis of the day (Acts 5:34; 22:3).

Paul could boast about his Pharisaic background (Acts 26:5; Phil. 3:5) and his standing as an expert in the law (Gal. 1:14).

If the thesis is true that the cultural dogma of his past flavored Paul’s teaching, we certainly would expect to find relics of Pharisaism in the apostle’s letters.

But is that the case?

No. Time and again we find the apostle’s teaching antagonistic to Pharisaism.

The Doctrines (Culture) of the Pharisees

What were some of the cultural influences of the Pharisees? And were these influences embedded into the writings of Paul?

Binding Traditions of Men

First, the Pharisees were “the straitest sect” of the Hebrew culture, binding not only the Torah (the written law) but oral “traditions” of the fathers as well (cf. Mt. 15:2; Josephus, Antiquities. 13.10.6).

Though Paul had been zealous for those traditions before he became a Christian, the apostle clearly viewed this zeal as a part of his past, not his present (Gal. 1:14). Instead, he rigorously warned his Christian brethren of the dangers of the “tradition of men” (Col. 2:8).

No Resurrection of the Wicked

Second, the Pharisees denied that there would be a bodily resurrection for the wicked.

Josephus noted that the Pharisees say “that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies” (Wars, 2.8.14).

By way of contrast, Paul, in his defense before Felix, the Roman governor, declared that he entertained the same “hope toward God” as did the prophets of old, namely “that there shall be a resurrection both of the just and the unjust” (Acts 24: 15).

The term “resurrection” is the Greek anastasis, “to cause to stand up.” It is used for the body, not the soul. Paul’s affirmation, therefore, of a bodily resurrection for the “unjust” is at variance with the cultural ideology of the Pharisees.


Third, some primitive Christians who were converted from Pharisaism brought their cultural and theological baggage with them into the church.

From Judaea, there were certain Pharisees “who believed” but who taught that unless Gentiles were circumcised, in addition to their gospel obedience, they could not be saved (cf. Acts 15:1, 5).

However, Paul and Barnabas resisted this movement. They debated the opposition intensely at Antioch (15:2). Later in Jerusalem, they contended that their ministry among the Gentiles, which required no circumcision, was divinely authenticated by the “signs and wonders” that God wrought through them (15:12).

Paul was not acting in concert with his Pharisaic Hebrew kinsmen.

Cultural Separatism

Fourth, the Pharisees were “separatists.” That is, in fact, the significance of their name.

The Pharisees practiced strict cultural segregation from the Gentiles. They even separated themselves “from the bulk of the nation,” i.e., from non-Pharisees. “Only the circle of the Pharisaic association represents the true Israel, who perfectly obey the law and have therefore a claim to the promises” (cf. Schurer, 11.20, 24).

This exclusive, cliquish philosophy had no place in the teaching of Paul.

On one occasion, while Paul was at Antioch, Peter visited the city. During this time, Peter openly associated with the Gentiles.

However, when certain Jewish brethren from Jerusalem arrived, the apostle" drew back and separated himself." His sinful influence affected others (including Barnabas).

But Paul “resisted” his fellow apostle because, as he later observed, “he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11f). There is no trace of Pharisaism here.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul said: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (2:28-29; cf. 9:6).

The apostle affirmed that those who surrender to the gospel and who are immersed into Christ are the seed of Abraham," indeed, “the Israel of God” (Gal. 3:26-29; 6: 16).

Disdain Toward Civil Authorities, Especially Gentile Governments

Fifth, the Pharisees were very antagonistic toward civil authorities. Josephus writes: “These are those that are called the sect of the Pharisees, who were in a capacity of greatly opposing kings” (Antiquities 17.2.4).

Paul evidenced no such animosity. In his epistle to the Christians of Rome, he urged them to “be in subjection” to the authorities (even those as vile as the reigning Nero) and to render “honor to whom honor” is due (13:1-7).


An honest consideration of the facts recorded in the New Testament reveals that Paul demonstrated no Pharisaic bias in his epistles.

Jesus Christ had conquered his partisan spirit. His writings were controlled by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:13).

Modernistic notions, therefore, that the New Testament documents are doctrinally tainted with cultural matters irrelevant to Christians today is subjective speculation, void of supporting data.

  • Barclay, William. 1960. The Letters to Timothy, Titus & Philemon. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press).
  • Josephus. Antiquities.
  • Josephus. Wars.
  • Schurer, Emil. 1891. A History of The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).