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Inside the Author-The Apostle Paul (Part 1 of 3)

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Paul’s Journey Begins

The Church’s Fiercest Persecutor Became Its Leading Messenger

Most of us are familiar with Paul primarily because we’ve read and studied his letters. He is the most prominent writer in the New Testament, arguing forcefully for the gospel in Romans, instructing the church in Corinthians, and encouraging the believers in Philippians. As we read these and other letters, we come to see Paul’s heart for sharing Christ with the world.
But before he was Paul the missionary/pastor/writer, he was Saul the persecutor. One of the earliest mentions of him comes in Acts 9:1, where he is described as “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Who was this fierce opponent of the first Christians? And how should we understand his remarkable transformation?
On the following pages, we explore the background of Saul/Paul. Craig Keener walks us through the various facets of Saul’s biography, from his birth in Tarsus to his education in Jerusalem to his pursuit of runaway Christians in Damascus. To help us understand the religious context of Saul’s story, Caryn Reeder takes a closer look at the often-misunderstood Pharisees and the earliest followers of Jesus. Joseph Dodson examines the account of Saul’s call to ministry and the oracles that foretold his role in expanding the Christian mission to the gentiles. Matthew Aernie wraps things up by considering how the Damascus road event shaped Paul’s later ministry.
Through his church-planting, Paul set the trajectory for Christian mission in the first century. And through his letters, he has shaped Christian theology for 2,000 years. The story of that legacy begins in Acts 9.[1]

Who Was Saul of Tarsus?

By Craig S. Keener
Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5), and his parents gave him the name of the one ancient Benjamite king (Shaul). They may have chosen this name also because its Greek form (Saoul or Saoulos) sounded similar to his Roman name, Paulus.
Contrary to what some people think, Saul did not change his name to Paul because of his conversion to Christian faith. He already had both names, but it made sense for him to go by his Roman name among Greeks and Romans. (The Greek word that sounds most like Saul’s Jewish name means “effeminate,” which was applied to men only as an insult. Outside Judea, Paul’s Roman name would work much better!)

Citizen of Rome and Tarsus

Saul was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28). The name Paulus (in English, Paul) was so rare for non-Romans (even rarer among Jews) that most people would have assumed his Romanness from his name. This gave him status in the eastern Mediterranean world, where, apart from Roman colonies, even most civic officials were not Roman citizens.
How did Saul’s ancestors acquire Roman citizenship? In the first century BC, a Roman general enslaved many Judeans. Later in Rome, other Jews bought the Jewish slaves’ freedom. Adults properly freed by Roman citizens became Roman citizens themselves—which meant Rome suddenly held many Jewish Roman citizens. Some of these citizens migrated eastward, especially during times of tension for Jews in Rome (for example, in the early first century AD, the emperor Tiberius expelled most Jews).
Saul’s parents or ancestors settled in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, and eventually his family moved to Jerusalem. There, they probably joined the “synagogue of the freedpersons” (Acts 6:9), a prestigious synagogue founded by libertini—the freed slaves of Roman citizens who therefore were now Roman citizens themselves. This synagogue included immigrants from Cilicia. (Although some scholars question whether Jews like Saul could have Roman citizenship, ancient sources are explicit about Jewish Roman citizens.)[2]
Paul attributes his good Greek (probably meaning his northern Mediterranean accent) to his earliest years in Tarsus (Acts 21:37–39). Tarsus was a prominent city, the capital of Cilicia. It was a “free” city, meaning that Rome granted it some freedom to run its own affairs. Important in trade, it also was one of the most elite university centers of this period, hosting many philosophers and orators.
Saul’s family were Tarsian citizens (Acts 21:39). Tarsus did not grant this to all Jews, but Saul’s family was no ordinary family. Roman citizenship gave them some status by itself, and a family that could pay the esteemed rabbi Gamaliel to tutor their son (more on this below) was wealthy enough to purchase local citizenship. (By the late first century, the price of citizenship in Tarsus was 500 drachmas.) Based on earlier practices, some scholars doubt that one could be both a Tarsian citizen and a Roman one, but this was no longer true by Saul’s day.[3]

Raised in Jerusalem

Many Jews lived in Tarsus—loyal to Tarsus while also loyal to Judea, their ancestral homeland. Jewish adult males outside the holy land paid an annual half-shekel tax for the upkeep of the temple, sending it with some local Jewish representatives. Jews of the diaspora counted it a special privilege to make pilgrimage to the holy land or eventually settle there. Greek-speaking Jews from the Mediterranean world who returned to the holy land would naturally settle especially in Jerusalem or on the coast, where many people spoke Greek and a critical mass of foreign Jews settled.[4]

TERMINOLOGY: Diaspora-Jewish people living outside the holy land are commonly described as “the diaspora”—a Greek word that means “dispersion.” In Acts 2:5–12, the Holy Spirit is poured out on members of the diaspora who were visiting Jerusalem.[5]

Like other Jewish boys outside the holy land, Saul would have started learning the scriptures at a young age, probably by oral memorization. Faithful Jews also prayed and heard reading and exposition of Moses’ law in synagogues. But Saul’s primary training came in Jerusalem, the capital of Jewish learning. Many Tarsians studied abroad at the tertiary level, but Saul’s entire family probably settled in Jerusalem when he was young.
Ancient writers often distinguished a person’s birth, upbringing, and training. In Acts 22:3, Paul’s statement that he was “born … brought up in this city … and educated” depicts these three phases of his background, probably suggesting that he spent most of his young life in Jerusalem. Further confirming Saul’s Judean upbringing, his father apparently became a Pharisee (23:6)—and Pharisees were rare outside the holy land. We later hear of his sister’s son in Jerusalem (23:16), which suggests that his extended family lived in the vicinity. A Judean setting also fits what Paul says about advancing in Judaism and zeal for ancestral traditions (Gal 1:14).
Whereas adults often learn only with difficulty the language of a new location, children often quickly pick up the local language while also speaking their family one. Saul’s upbringing in Jerusalem helps explain his skill in the local Judean language (Acts 21:40; 22:2; this probably means Aramaic, although there remains some debate among scholars.) In his letter to the Philippians, Paul attests that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5).

Advanced study with Gamaliel

Saul quickly advanced among his peers in his training (Gal 1:14) and apparently achieved leadership while still young (Acts 7:58). Ancient sources depict such men as prodigies, as admirable exceptions to the norm of leadership by elders. What did Saul study? Whereas educated Greeks displayed their learning with abundant classical quotations, Paul’s letters betray instead advanced training in Bible.
Saul’s family had settled in the ideal location for this training. Advanced and financially wealthy students might study rhetoric in Alexandria or medicine in Pergamum, but the best place to study the Torah was Judea—and the best place in Judea for a Greek-speaking Jew to study the Torah was Jerusalem.[6]

TERMINOLOGY: Torah-The Hebrew word torah means “instruction,” but it also can refer to the Jewish law and to the first five books of the Old Testament.[7]

Saul would, of course, receive some other instruction at this advanced level, perhaps including at least further exposure to Greek persuasion theory (rhetoric). (We might compare this to a Bible major who took a couple preaching courses. Paul certainly develops this skill in debate settings in later years.)
Advancing beyond his peers undoubtedly included studying with a prominent teacher, so it is no surprise that Saul studied with Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Although Gamaliel was a Pharisee, he was so prominent that he (and later his son) became leading members in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, even though it was probably dominated by the Pharisees’ frequent rivals, the Sadducees. There were two schools of Pharisaism: the followers of the rabbi Shammai were more strict in their interpretation of the Jewish law, while Pharisees who followed the rabbi Hillel were more tolerant. Even though Gamaliel belonged to the Hillelite school, which was in the minority during the early first century, any Pharisee would have wanted to study with this prestigious teacher. That Saul was able to do so implies that his family had considerable resources.
As in Acts 22:3, the ideal posture for disciples was at the feet of their teachers. Because Gamaliel was a Pharisee, studying under him would include learning not only Scripture itself but also ancestral traditions, which Pharisees passed down meticulously. Later sources also indicate that Gamaliel’s household trained some students in Greek sources. Saul’s focus was apparently the Septuagint, the dominant Greek version of the Old Testament. Although his letters reveal an awareness of where the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Jewish scriptures differed (Rom 1:17; 1 Cor 2:16), his memory of the Septuagint—the Bible used by his diaspora audiences—is phenomenal.
Disciples were usually in their teens. (Once boys reached puberty they were considered adults and thus could travel independently.) Despite exceptions, even most wealthy students finished tertiary education and began their public careers by age 18. So Saul had likely finished formal instruction by the time he began persecuting Christians. In contrast to his tolerant teacher Gamaliel (Acts 5:34–39), Saul learns the hard way that resisting God is futile (5:39), as he kicks against the goads (26:14).[8]

Nationalistic zeal

Paul later associates his early zeal with persecuting Jesus’ followers (Acts 22:3–4; Gal 1:13–14; Phil 3:6). In this period, many young Judeans, including Pharisees, pursued the nationalistic model of zeal offered by the Maccabees, who drove out foreigners and executed apostates (Jews who seemed to be unfaithful to Yahweh). A primary model of zeal for the Maccabees, in turn, was Phinehas, who zealously destroyed an apostate and so turned God’s wrath from Israel (Num 25:11).[9]

TERMINOLOGY: Maccabees-During the second century BC, Judea was ruled by the Seleucid Empire, which at one point demanded that Jews abandon their traditions and adopt pagan practices. Jewish resistors led by Judas “Maccabeus” (a nickname meaning “the hammer”) mounted a widespread rebellion in 167–160 BC. They later came to be called the Maccabees. Their story is recorded in the book of 1 Maccabees (which isn’t included in most Protestant Bibles).[10]

Saul probably understood his zeal in similar terms. (Some Judean revolutionaries, trying to follow this pattern, later adopted the title “Zealots.”) In Paul’s day, the term usually translated “Judaism” in Galatians 1:13–14 apparently connotes not simply Jewish faith or heritage but Judean nationalism and hostility to foreign customs.
What apparently mobilizes Saul’s crusade against Jesus’ followers is the (false) charge against Stephen. By allegedly speaking against the holy temple and ancestral customs (Acts 6:11–14), Stephen, a fellow Greek-speaking Jew, seemed to oppose everything Saul stood for. Indeed, Stephen counted even places outside the holy land as holy, relativizing the temple (7:30, 33, 48–50)!
Saul began persecuting Christians while a “young man” (Acts 7:58). “Young man” (Greek: neanias) can refer to anyone from his teens through age 40, but Saul was probably in his late teens or early 20s when Stephen was killed. Saul’s role seems prominent: those executing Stephen left their cloaks at Saul’s feet, just as believers left resources at the apostles’ feet (4:35). Saul, in other words, had already achieved leadership in the movement to persecute Jesus’ followers.
Casting his “vote” against Stephen (26:10) does not mean, however, that Saul belonged to the Sanhedrin, as some interpreters have thought. The Sanhedrin’s members were mostly older. Greek writers often apply the image of casting a vote figuratively, to mean showing approval. At least sometimes, as here, they do so in a wordplay. The Greek word psêphos, normally translated in verse 10 as “vote,” can also mean “pebble,” and pebbles were often used for voting. So while the (false) witnesses are casting stones, Saul casts his pebble.
Persecuting Jesus’ followers became Saul’s personal crusade, to the extent that he arrested not only men but also women (8:3), which was less common in his day. While others also were involved (1 Thess 2:14–16; also see Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 11:24, 26), Saul was a leading persecutor (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13). He was from a sufficiently prominent family to secure an audience with the high priest Caiaphas, from whom Saul obtained letters of recommendation to synagogues in Damascus (9:1–2). Saul was planning to arrest Jewish followers of Jesus in Damascus who had fled his repression in Jerusalem. He viewed his task as so urgent that he pursued it even at noon (22:6), a time of day when most people rested in the shade.
But Saul was about to be arrested by someone else instead—someone who would harness his zeal for a genuinely divine purpose. The defender of Judean heritage, the opponent of foreign customs, would soon be sent to gentiles as an apostle of Israel’s Messiah.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
Craig S. Keener (PhD, Duke University) is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is author of 28 books, seven of which have won awards, and over 100 academic articles and 200 popular-level articles.[11]
[1] Bomar, D. (2019). Special Section: Introduction: Paul’s Journey Begins: The Church’s Fiercest Persecutor Became Its Leading Messenger. Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 27.
[2] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 29–30.
[3] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 30.
[4] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 30.
[5] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 30.
[6] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 30–32.
[7] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 32.
[8] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 32.
[9] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 32.
[10] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 33.
[11] Keener, C. S. (2019). Context & Clarity: Who Was Saul of Tarsus? Bible Study Magazine, 11(5), 32–33.
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