“And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and… Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison… Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damscus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 8:1,3; 9:1-2)
“For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure, and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.” (Galatians 1:13-14)
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today. And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify.” (Acts 22:3-5)
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.” (II Corinthians 11:22)
“And the commander came and said to him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And the commander answered, ‘I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” And Paul said, ‘But I was actually born a citizen.’” (Acts 22:27-28)
“But perceiving that one part were Saducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’” (Acts 23:6)
Now, dear reader, it is time for you to play detective! See if you can fill in the blanks from the information in the verses above…
- Saul was born in T_______________ in the region of C_______________.
- Saul’s father and possibly his grandfather were P_________________.
- Saul was more a_______________ in his understanding of Judaism than his contemporaries.
- Saul was a descendant of A_________________.
- Saul was born a R_________ c_________________.
- Saul was z______________ concerning the Jewish traditions.
- Saul himself was a P__________________.
- At the time of Stephen’s death, Saul was a y_________ m_______. (See Acts 7:58)
- Saul’s principal teacher was G__________________.
In addition to the straightforward observations above, there is much that we can learn about the young man Saul — from the Bible’s historical accounts (primarily Acts), from Paul’s own writings, and from other historical sources and traditions from the time of these events. You can read much more detail in Conybeare and Howson’s Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, but there are a few things I’ll take the time to expand upon here.
Rome was in power in the time of Saul’s birth in Tarsus, following on the heels of the Greek empire. God had orchestrated world events around the time of Christ’s first advent so that there was firm government (Rome), rich philosophy and common language (Greece) and intense religion in Jerusalem. These three factors set the stage for the initial spread of the Gospel. Tarsus was a city in a Gentile part of the world, well north of the area of Palestine and the influence of the Herods. It was an urbs libera under Roman rule, a “free city” governed by its own magistrates and having no garrison of Roman troops to keep the peace. Still, being born there did not make one automatically an official citizen of Rome.
Saul was both a Jew and a Roman citizen. How was that possible? Birth in Tarsus did not automatically make him an official citizen of Rome. We know little about his parents — nothing of his mother, and only that his father was a Pharisee. Some have conjectured that he was a product of a mixed Hebrew-Gentile marriage, and that his mother must have been a Gentile Roman Citizen. But Rome did not confer citizenship through the maternal side of the family and a mixed marriage involving a Pharisee was unheard of, so his father must have been a Roman citizen. How his father became a Roman citizen is not revealed in the Bible, but under Roman custom there seem to be only two ways for a Hebrew to acquire it. It was either purchased at great price (like the Roman commander in Acts 22), or it was conferred upon him in payment for exceptional service to Roman authorities. It could have been either (Saul’s family was wealthy enough to send him to Jerusalem for his schooling under Gamaliel), but Saul’s father would have to have been a Roman citizen by one means or the other by the time of Saul’s birth. It’s more likely that Roman citizenship was conferred on Saul’s father.
Nothing is said in the Bible about Saul’s childhood, but Tarsus obviously had a large synagogue where Saul would have received the equivalent of a grade-school education, both in Greek and Hebrew. Or Saul may have been “home schooled” by his father, or some combination of the two. Paul later draws upon the illustration of the Law being like the man who was in charge of rounding up the students each day and delivering them to the rabbi for instruction, and this may very well have been his experience in Tarsus.
At some point it must have become obvious to Saul’s parents that if he were going to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Pharisee, especially since he seemed to be academically successful, he would need to go to Jerusalem for “secondary and undergraduate education” (as was the nature of the educational system in Judaism in that day). We don’t know his boarding arrangements (if the whole family moved to Jerusalem to accomodate his education, or if he lodged with relatives or even the schoolmaster). He seems to have been absent from Palestine during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and was perhaps attracted back to Jerusalem by news through the grapevine in time to be present at Stephen’s execution. He is described then as a “young man”, but this young man was old enough to go to the Council and obtain papers authorizing him to persecute “the Way” in distant cities. We guess from these two factors that he was probably about 25 years old.
In defending himself when he was arrested in the Temple many years later, he said he was educated under one Gamaliel (we don’t know if it was the same Gamaliel who advised the High Council to leave Peter and John alone). Jewish tradition tells us that Gamaliel the teacher was the greatest teacher in the School of Hillel, the most famous school of Pharisaical philosophy. He was one of only seven rabbis who were given the title of “Rabban” in Jewish history, and his death is mentioned in the Talmud: “From the days of Moses to Rabban Gamaliel, they stood up to learn the Law; but when Rabban Gamaliel died, sickness came into the world, and they sat down to learn the Law.”
This is the pedigree that Saul brought to the stoning of Stephen:
- He was fully Hebrew
- He was fully a Roman Citizen
- Raised in a Gentile city and was familiar with Gentile ways
- Educated under Gamaliel, he knew the Law and the Prophets by heart
- He was ambitious
- He was zealous for the Hebrew traditions
- He was a Pharisee and the son of Pharisees
It’s no wonder that Luke says Saul “ravaged” the church! As unlikely as it seems, God had engineered all of these qualifications in Saul while he was still in his mother’s womb for a very special purpose (Galatians 1:15-16). If ever a man had his mind set on something, convinced he was both right and righteous, Saul was the man. But in a matter of days his mind would be suddenly, powerfully and irreversibly changed! It would take more than human logic…
In the meantime, the believers in Jerusalem are being chased out of the Temple by Saul and others, and there is more of God’s program for Israel to be witnessed. Next time — Persecution Scatters the Church.