Divide and conquer?

I’ve been teaching seminary students for over three decades now. But I can still remember bits and pieces of the interview process, especially the part known as the “theology exam.” Candidates respond in writing, article by article, to the seminary’s Statement of Faith. Later, a committee of current faculty members gets to ask the candidate any question it wishes related to the response.

I was not quite thirty years old at the time. The exam was a grueling and anxious experience. I still remember some of the questions. “Do you believe in a literal Adam?” “What’s the difference between propitiation and expiation?” “What’s wrong with a man having an affair when his wife has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t even know who he is anymore?”

There was no way to anticipate questions like that, which seemed to come out of the blue. But one of my mentors gave me a savvy piece of advice: if the conversation on a particular article of faith seemed to be heading south, I could always try to get them to argue with each other.

As it turned out, they didn’t need my help to start a disagreement.

And yes: I passed.

. . .

In a single trip to Jerusalem, his last, Paul had nearly been beaten to death by an angry mob, then threatened with a flogging by the Romans. The next day, standing before the Sanhedrin to testify, he was struck across the mouth.

It wasn’t the most encouraging environment.

Knowing there was little use trying to tell his story to the council, he tried a different tack:

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (Acts 23:6-7, NRSV)

We know little for certain about the Sadducees, unfortunately, in part because unlike the Pharisees, nothing of their tradition survived the destruction of Jerusalem. What we do know is that they differed vehemently from the Pharisees on the matter of a future resurrection of God’s people.

Think of Jesus consoling Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha’s response reflected what the Pharisees believed: “I know that he will rise again on the last day” (John 11:23-24). But the Sadducees did not believe in such a resurrection, because it was not mentioned in the books of Moses. Also unlike the Pharisees, they did not believe that people became spirits or angels after they died (see, for example, Acts 15:15).

Paul’s move, therefore, can be seen as a shrewd one. Among the members of the council, the Pharisees were probably in the minority. By identifying with them and calling out the issue that most clearly separated them from the Sadducees, he divided the council against itself.

Some of the Pharisees even came to his defense: “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:9). It was an important concession: Who knows? Maybe this guy really did speak to Jesus’ angel. Such things happen…

Then again, this is not just a savvy rhetorical move. Paul is cutting to the theological heart of the matter: it’s not just Paul himself, but the very hope of resurrection that’s on trial. Probably no one in the room, not even the Pharisees, was ready to allow that Jesus had risen from the dead as an individual, in advance of the rest of God’s people. But it was a theological foot in the door, an opening for further conversation about the gospel.

That conversation, unfortunately, never happened. The in-fighting escalated, and the Roman tribune who had ordered the council to examine Paul feared the apostle might be killed. So again, he ordered his soldiers into the fray, and Paul was taken into protective custody.

. . .

In short, it could be said that Paul’s impromptu strategy in the council meeting was to divide and conquer.

But if so, it should also be said that he wanted to conquer them for the gospel.