May 24 2008
I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia; no mean city. I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” In these words, garnered from Acts of Apostles and his letter to the Philippians, St Paul tells us a good bit about his origin and upbringing.
The Man we know as St Paul was probably born sometime between BC 6 and AD 10. Most scholars lean towards a date late in the first decade of the Christian era on the basis of the fact that Luke Describes Paul as a neanis, a young man, at the time of St Stephen’s martyrdom. Such a designation would put Paul’s age at that time to somewhere between 24 and 40 years of age. Now we don’t know exactly when this event occurred, but most scholars think it is likely to have taken place after the dismissal of Pontius Pilate by the Roman Legate in Syrian, which happened in AD 36. While Pilate was more than willing to see injustice done, he would not have tolerated the ignoring of his authority and, given the absence of any information of collusion on the part of the Romans in this affair, it is logical to conclude this event took place “post-Pilate.” Also, it should be noted that the Roman Legate in Syria, a man by the name of Lucius Vitellius, was rather sympathetic towards Judaism, as was Pilate’s successor, Marcellus. Inasmuch as Christians were viewed as venerating as a King a man who had been crucified for rebellion against Rome, it is unlikely that these men would have had much sympathy for them.
Tarsus was the capital of the Roman Province of Cilicia, in what is now modern day Turkey. Eastern Turkey, to be exact. Tarsus was a splendid, cosmopolitan city which spanned both sides of the Cyndus River, it was located about thirty miles south of the Tarsus mountains, and about ten miles north of the Mediterranean Sea. People would disembark at the harbor and be transported up the slow moving river in light boats. For this reason Tarsus was considered a port city and was a major travel stop in the ancient world.
The city was declared a free city by imperial favor in 146 BC, which means its citizens were granted legal Roman citizenship with all the perks that went along with it. For several centuries-and this includes St Paul’s day-the city not only rivaled, but surpassed both Athens and Alexandria as the center of learning in the Roman Empire. A list of some of the people who taught there, were educate there, lived there, or who passed through there reads like a who’s who of the ancient world. Alexander the Great, Strabo, the famed Historical geographer, Cicero, the Roman statesman, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Athenodorus, the Stoic philosopher who taught Caesar Augustus are just a few of the names. It was indeed “no mean city.”
According to some scholars, Paul was from a wealthy family which had some influence in Jerusalem. This is possible, but speculative, and need not concern us here. Even if Paul was from an extremely wealthy family, he would have-in accordance with ancient Jewish custom-learned a trade. The wisdom and practicality of such a custom is not hard to see: if a man suffered a reversal of fortunes he could still provide support and sustenance to himself and his family. According to Paul’s own testimony, he worked to support himself and his apostolic labors so as not to burden his converts financially. On several occasions he makes reference to this fact; sometimes to defend himself against the charge that he is preaching solely for profit; a charge often leveled at the traveling philosophical and religious guru’s of the day. At other times he refers to the practice in order to provide himself as a model for how Christians ought to behave.
Paul describes himself as “a Hebrew born of Hebrews;” meaning that he was a full-blooded member of the chosen people. Paul was justly proud of this status, and it forms an important part of his theology.
Paul was circumcised “on the eighth day” in accordance with the law of Moses. It was at this time that he would have received his Hebrew name Saul, or, as it is pronounced in Hebrew, saw-ool. Some scholars speculate that since Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin, he was named in honor of the most famous Benjamite in the OT, namely, King Saul. However, King Saul ignored the words of the prophet, usurped priestly functions, forfeited the dynasty that had been offered to him by God, brought down upon himself divine condemnation, persecuted David, descended into madness, and died an ignominious death. I find it highly unlikely that Paul was named to honor such a man.
It is interesting to note that King Saul is described in the OT as being an exceedingly handsome man who “stood head and shoulders above his fellow men.” In contrast, early descriptions of St Paul describe him as the exact opposite. He is described as being short of stature, slump-shouldered, with bowed legs, a uni-brow and a large, hooked nose. Was there a conscious attempt to suggest a contrast between the two?
It was a common practice in Paul’s day for Jews to possess not only a Hebrew name, but also a Greek or Latin one as well. The Latin name Paulus means “small,” or “little,” and down through the centuries preachers and panygerists have made much of this fact. Aquinas, for example, in his first lecture on First Corinthians writes: “Suffice it to say here that this name is mentioned as a token of humility, for Paul means a small amount, which pertains to humility: thus, in 1 Samuel 15:17 we read: ‘though you are Parvulus, that is to say little in your own eyes, are you not at the head of the tribes of Israel?” “Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to parvulus, meaning babes’ (Matt 11:25).” Parvulus is derived from the same root as Paulus, and such an application as Aquinas makes is very common in the tradition. While the idea has value in presenting St Paul as an example to be imitated, and has been used to great effect down through the centuries, it should be kept in mind that Scripture itself does not give any significance to the name as such.
Paul describes himself as a Pharisee. That term seems to be derived from an Aramaic word which referred to a fence-builder. A Pharisee is someone who built a fence around the Law of Moses by observing rule and regulations which went well beyond the Law’s requirements. This provided protection against breaking the actual Laws. Unfortunately, the practice was subject to hypocrisy, and the effect was that the Pharisees built a wall around themselves by which they were separated from the common herd of non-pharisaic Jews, and through which they looked down upon them as not being truly faithful to the Law. When Paul describes himself as “in observance of the Law a Pharisee, in zeal I persecuted the Church, in righteousness based upon the law I was blameless”- these words should be taken as hanging intimately together. It was Paul’s pharisaic upbringing which led to his views concerning the law and righteousness, and which led to his Persecution of the Church.
This completes my presentation of Paul’s background. I will now proceed to speak of his life according to Acts of apostles, with some “fleshing out” from his letters.