Paul's Religious Self-Identification
In determining whether Saul/Paul changed religions after his encounter on the Damascus road, it is instructive to observe the ways in which he identified himself religiously after that occasion.
First, he did not identify himself as a Christian. Never in Acts or any of his writings did he use the term "Christian" of himself or anyone else. The term originated in Antioch (Acts 11:26) prior to his time there, so he was doubtless familiar with it. However, he chose not to use it, even when it was used by Agrippa (Acts 26:28) in asking him a direct question. Instead he used the phrase, "what I am" in his reply.
How then did Paul identify himself? There are three terms that he used that we would like to consider: Jew, Pharisee, and the Way. First, Paul identified himself as a Jew to the commander of the Roman troops in Acts 21:39. As a result, he was given permission to speak to the crowd of assembled Jews. To them, speaking in Hebrew, he said, "I am a Jew". Lest people think that he meant only ethnically and not religiously, he goes on to explain his credentials: trained under Gamaliel, zealous for God. He even clarifies that his mentor after his encounter, Ananias, was "a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews" (22:12). Obviously he's emphasizing that there was no change in his Jewish status after his encounter with Jesus.
Even in his epistles he identifies himself as a Jew. In Philippians 3:5 he lists his reasons to have confidence in the flesh. Although he no longer considers this pedigree to be of value compared with knowing Christ, it is presented as a current pedigree. He claims to be "of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews". He has not renounced his Jewishness.
Another term that Paul uses to describe himself is "Pharisee". In the same passage in Philippians he describes himself as "in regard to the law, a Pharisee". In his encounter with Agrippa in Acts 26 he describes himself as both Jew and Pharisee. He says of his ongoing way of life that "according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee" (26:5). When he says "our religion", what religion does he mean? What religion is Pharisaism a sect of? Judaism, of course. He calls Judaism, "our religion".
Perhaps his most emphatic claim to being a Pharisee occurs in Acts 23:6. When he is brought before the Sanhedrin, composed of Pharisees and Saducees, he calls out, "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee." The term "son of a Pharisee" is a Hebrew idiom meaning "very much a Pharisee". This group of current Pharisees would have known if he had renounced his Pharisaism at his encounter with Jesus. He obviously had not.
The third and most unique way that Paul identifies his religion is "the Way". The community of Jews and God-fearers who believed in Jesus were referred to as "the Way" in Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:22. Paul identifies himself as a member of this group in his testimony before Festus in Acts 24:14. He says, "I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the prophets...". In his description of "the Way" he is careful to maintain continuity with the Jews who are accusing him.
He says that "they" call the Way a "sect". What does he mean by "sect"? This word "sect" is the Greek term hairesis, from which we get our word "heresy". But it really doesn't have that connotation. It comes from a verb which means "to choose or prefer", and it indicates a preference among various strains of a religion, never in a derogatory sense.
What other groups are called sects? The term is applied to Pharisees (Acts 15:5, 26:5), Saducees (Acts 5:17), and Nazarenes (Acts 24:5, also referring to Paul) in addition to the Way (Acts 24:14; 28:22). Pharisees and Saducees are obviously strains of Judaism, and Nazarenes and the Way are used in a context that places them also as strains of Judaism, although sometimes looked on with disapproval by the larger groups, as were many of the smaller sects of first-century Judaism. It is clear that the Way was considered by both its friends and its detractors to be wholly within the bounds of Judaism, and Paul also considered himself, as well as the movement he was a part of, to be thoroughly Jewish.
Paul and the Synagogue
the Day after Sabbath
Paul and the Festivals