Login to download lecture and curriculum
The apostle Paul's background as a Jew, training as a Pharisee, and Roman citizenship had a significant influence in his ministry and writings.
I. Religious Background
A. Descendant of the tribe of Benjamin
B. Raised a Hebrew not a Hellenist
C. A Pharisee
D. The son of a Pharisee
E. Zealous for the Law
F. Roman Citizen
G. Born in Tarsus
H. Raised in Jerusalem
I. Persecuted the Church
Lecture: Paul: Background
As chapter 7 of Acts ends, verse1 of chapter 8 is, “And Saul was consenting to his death.” So we read about Saul in 7:58, that he is someone who is a young man standing by as they are stoning Stephen; and now Saul is consenting to his death. And that same Saul then begins a great persecution against the church. We noted however that what is unique about this persecution is that everyone seems to be fleeing except the Apostles. And it’s a very strange kind of persecution when you persecute people in the church, but you leave the leaders alone. So the suggestion is that primarily it is the Hellenists who think like Stephen who are most objectionable to the Jewish population, and so they flee.
But at this time, the scene now begins to switch to the second main character of the Book of Acts. Peter is the first main character, because he is the one through whom the gospel will be proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. And as this theme of Acts 1:8 is being filled out in the historical accounts that follow, Peter’s central role is played, and he’s the central character. However, when the gospel begins to spread to the ends of the earth, it will be a different person who will be the key to that, and that will be the apostle Paul, or Saul of Tarsus. And so there’ll be a switch in the main character, and the main character will become the apostle Paul.
So, I’d like to deal a little with the apostle Paul here, and this will be some of the background that will also affect his letters and his writings later on. The apostle Paul in Philippians 3 lists some of his background qualities, and one of those of 3:5 is that he was not only circumcised on the eighth day of the people of Israel (like any male who was a Jew), but he was of the tribe of Benjamin. Now, most probably he was named after a very famous Benjaminite, the most famous up to the time of Saul of Tarsus, and that would be King Saul. And so he’s probably named after the first king of Israel, a man by the name of Saul. But he is boasting somewhat, with great reservation and hesitancy, but there are others who are boasting all the time, and he says, “Well, let me boast a little, too. I am from the tribe of Benjamin.“ This was a big deal! Why could he be proud that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, as you think of it? Well, would he have boasted if he was from the tribe of Dan? Or Issachar? Or Naphthali? Think of the tribes – there are only 2½ tribes remaining. The two which were faithful to the Davidic line were the tribe of Benjamin and the tribe of Judah. So he is one of the two tribes that have always been faithful to God’s anointed line. The other ten tribes had followed a different king who was not of the tribe of Benjamin, and so they were kind of renegades this way. So he was of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the two main tribes that had remained faithful all the time.
His name “Paul”, which he will be later called once they begin in the Gentile mission, is a Greco-Roman name. His name “Saul” is Jewish, but his name “Paul” is his Roman name. And his full Roman name would be something like [and this is not right], G. Pompeius Paulus. Now “G. Pompeius” I just threw in, because we don’t know, but “Paulus” would be his Roman name, and he will be called Paul in the Book of Acts the minute he becomes active in the Gentile world, and his Roman name becomes more dominant.
Another thing that he says about himself is that he is a “Hebrew born of Hebrews”. Now probably he means by that, that he is a Hebrew, not a Hellenist. Now, what were the Hellenists? They were Jewish Christians whose native language was Greek. Paul is basically saying, “I am not one of those who wasn’t raised in a Hebrew home. I learned Hebrew; this was my native tongue.” Actually, he was bilingual, and he probably would have a hard time stating which was his native tongue – whether it was Greek or Hebrew. It was probably both, as some people in other cultures are as well. Then he goes on and says he is a Pharisee. He is “according to the law, a Pharisee.” Now there were different sects among the Jews. The Pharisees were probably the largest of these sects, but they only numbered about 5,000 (with their followers, maybe about 20,000, and so forth). A smaller group would have been the Sadducees, the Sadducees being a priestly group, more politically involved; and the Pharisees being more of a lay group, growing out of the Maccabean revolt in 167 BC. They were concerned about the keeping of the law, and their differences with the Sadducees we’ll look at later on in the semester.
But where the Sadducees had more of the political power, the Pharisees had more of the influence on the people. The Sadducees had as their main area of influence the temple. The Pharisees had as their main area of influence the synagogue. And he is a Pharisee. Another group that we know of are the Essenes, and smaller group yet, but when you think of there being may be 6 million Jews, those that were part of the sects of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes would have numbered 30,000 or so. So these groups are very, very small in comparison with the main body of Israel. But they had great influence. And Paul says that he was raised as a Pharisee.
Furthermore, in 23:6, he tells us he studied under a great Pharisaic leader, a man by the name of Gamaliel. In 22:3, we read, “Born a Jew, born at Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated in the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” And so he’s a Pharisee, and he’s also the son of a Pharisee. Now that is unclear – it may mean that his father also was a Pharisee, but it may mean that he was raised by the Pharisees, and that he’s one of their “children”; and it may not actually imply that his father himself was a Pharisee, as such. “Zealous for the law” – this is emphasized here in the speech in Acts, but also in Galatians, he talks about his zeal for the law. In Galatians 1:13-14, he brings this out, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Now that word “zealous”, “zealous for the law” is frequently used in the inter-testamental literature for those who are zealous for the defense of the Jewish religion, and that they are concerned about it being mitigated or minimized in some way. Strong for the specifics of Judaism – so “zealous for the law” would mean zealous for those aspects that make us Jews (circumcision, Sabbath, kosher, temple, and things of that nature). And because of the zeal for the law, he ran into a conflict with Stephen, who seemed to minimize some of those things, and was a part of the mob that killed him.
He also mentions that he is a Roman citizen, which is a very special privilege. When he is arrested in Rome in Acts 22, he is about to be beaten by the Romans (frequently they preceded a questioning with a beating period, figuring that they would put a person in a better mood to speak honestly with them if they beat him) – he was tied up to be beaten, and he questions whether it’s lawful to beat a Roman citizen. And he [the guard] becomes frightened by this, and goes immediately to the tribune to ask if he realizes that he’s been ordered to beat a Roman citizen. The tribune then comes to Paul and says, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And Paul said “Yes.” The tribune said “Tell me this, I bought this citizenship for a large sum” [one of the ways that you could become a Roman citizen was by the purchasing of it]. And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” So his father was a Roman citizen, and he inherited that citizenship by birth. There was a third way in which a person could become a Roman citizen, and that was by doing something great for the Roman Empire, and they would reward them with citizenship; and there was still a fourth way, and that would be when captives were released from their slavery, that brought with them Roman citizenship.
So Paul is a Roman citizen, and it gives him an attitude towards the Roman government in which he doesn’t see it as all bad. In Romans 13, he says that they are instruments for our good. If you want to avoid getting into trouble with the Roman government then do what is good. Don’t do what is wrong, because they’ll punish you if you do wrong, etc. So he has a positive view of this, and there are instances in his missionary journeys where we’ll see that his Roman citizenship protects him. So he’s very positive toward that – it’s a gift that he has. Unlike many, he didn’t have to earn it; he didn’t have to purchase it; he was born this way, because his father was a Roman citizen. And when the tribune finds this out, he’s really frightened. And he’s frightened not because he almost did something wrong, but that he had even bound him (which was forbidden in this way). And when the final time comes, if you are going to be found guilty and executed, you can always say “No, I’m not going to let you do that, Governor, I want to appeal to Caesar.” The Emperor himself will have to decide on this issue. And that will happen in Paul’s case. And then, when execution comes, it’s never by crucifixion – no Roman citizen will be crucified. They’ll be beheaded – what’s the difference? Well, there’s a great deal of difference – one is a torture that lasted usually for days, and the other is a very quick execution. So, Paul’s citizenship will prove very useful.
Now he is born in Tarsus, in southern modern-day Turkey. It was in a province called Cilicia, but it was actually under the control of what was called Syria, the Roman province of Syria. Present-day Turkey of course is not present-day Syria, but in that day Tarsus was part of the province of Syria. He’s born there, and it is no mean city – it’s not an unimportant city. It was a city with a great stoic university, and so forth. Now one of the questions that is raised is “Alright, he was born there, but we find out that he is in Jerusalem as a young man, present at Stephen’s martyrdom – when did he leave Tarsus to come to Jerusalem? Lots of the scholarship on the left tends to say that he stayed in Tarsus for many of his formative years, and there he was influenced by stoic philosophy at a great stoic university in Tarsus, and that would mean that when he did come to Judea, he had this heavey influence from the Greek world via Tarsus. What about the fact that he studied under Gamaliel? Quite a few of the scholars on the left would simply deny that. They’d say “That was Luke saying that; Paul never says that in his letters; and we know from what we read in his letters that he was never really a rabbi, or anything like that.”
However, Luke makes it rather clear that, at a fairly early age, he came to the city of Jerusalem and there was raised in his most formative, early years. Turn with me in your New Testament to Acts 22:3. Now here, he is describing himself in some ways, and he says, “I am a Jew born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers ….” Those three verbs, “born”, “brought up”, “educated”, form a common expression to describe one’s early years. “Born”, “brought up”, “educated” – you find this throughout Greek literature. And you find that the word “brought up” tends to refer to early years. And more important than that Greek literature is the Book of Acts itself, where Luke uses this same trio of expressions in chapter 7, where in Stephen’s speech he uses those three verbs. In 7:20-21, Luke has this part of Stephen’s speech: “At this time Moses was born [same word as we have Acts 22:3]; and he was beautiful before God. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house [same word, “brought up”, but notice that this describes the first three months of his life], and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up [same verb again] as her own son.” So we have the word “brought up” applied here to Moses – he was born, then he was bought up in the first three months of his life under his mother’s home, and after that he’s brought up (three months of age and after) in the home of his adopted mother, the daughter of Pharaoh. And then in v. 22: “And Moses was instructed [he was taught, same verb again], in the wisdom of Egypt.” So you have in 22:3 Paul saying, “I am a Jew born at Tarsus, brought up in this city [he’s speaking in Jerusalem so it must be that], at the feet of Gamaliel,” and then he says he was educated under Gamaliel – same verb. So you have Luke’s understanding of that trio of verbs, “born”, brought up”, “educated”. Born at a very early age of course, and then brought up in the months following that, and then educated later on. Probably under a Pharisee, at the age of 15 or 16 he would start studying under Gamaliel or something like that, around that age.
That indicates that, according to Luke, Paul was brought up as an infant in the city of Jerusalem, and did NOT live in the city of Tarsus until he was 12 or 13. But in the earliest months of his years, he came to Jerusalem, where he was brought up, which would indicate that all the attempts that you sometimes find in scholarship to try to trace the life of Paul as being heavily influenced in his young years. He would be walking through Tarsus and hear the stoic philosophers, and that sank into his sub consciousness – that is all very fictional. It has nothing to do with what Paul in the Book of Acts says of himself. He says that he was brought up in Jerusalem as an infant, and then educated here as a Pharisee. So when people in the past have looked at Paul and they’ve tried to understand where his thinking comes from and what analogies he had in mind, oftentimes they’ll go to the Greek philosophers. How does this fit into what Plato and Aristotle talked about? What the stoics talked about? They’d try to see the analogies, if there were similar kinds of wording.
That’s a dead-end, false approach. If you want to understand how Paul thinks, think of a young child, brought up in Jerusalem, in the heart of Judaism, who in his early teens begins to be educated as Pharisee. This is where we should look for an understanding of the way Paul thinks. And the result is that scholarship now does not look into the Greek world (they don’t look at the mystery religions, they don’t look at stoicism, they don’t look at the philosophers, and so forth). They look at Judaism, and the main books to study are not Plato, Aristotle, and the Greek works, but the Talmud – the Jewish literature. And this has become rather clear now since the 1950’s. So, he’s born; he’s raised in Jerusalem as a young child; and he persecuted the church. And that persecution of the church troubled him a great deal. It comes up a number of times in his autobiographical statements in his letters. “Least among the apostles” because he persecuted the church. But he did this in ignorance, and therefore God forgave him. That’s something of the religious background of Paul that we want to deal with.