Saul’s parents were Gentiles who had not been fully converted to Judaism; Saul, himself, was the first of his family to take such a course of action. It is quite possible that his parents were semi-converts of the type known as ‘God-fearers’. These were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and had chosen to believe in the God of Israel and the main tenants of the Jewish faith, but did not wish to take the drastic step to full conversion. To fully convert to Judaism, it was required of the men to become circumcised and to take on the Jewish national identity. These ‘God-fearers’ were, none the less, given a respected status in the eyes of the Pharisees and were regarded s having attained salvation even without conversion to full Judaism; since full conversion was thought as more a matter of vocation than of necessity. But it was a common pattern for the child of ‘God-fearers’ to proceed to full conversion, and it may well be that Saul was conforming to this pattern.
Even as the son of ‘God-fearing’ parents, however, Saul would have been exposed in his early childhood to the common religious practices of his Gentile neighbors far more than a fully Jewish boy would have. In Tarsus, his education would have been with Gentile children and his imagination would have been impressed by the beautiful ceremonies of mourning and joy associated with the death and resurrection of certain of the local deities worshiped in Tarsus. These early impressions would have a profound affect on him as he began his career as Paul, missionary to the Gentiles.
In his youth, he made his way to Jerusalem with aspirations of becoming a teacher in the school of thought of those men he admired, namely the Pharisees. Following this ambition, he enrolled to be taught the ways of the Torah and Pharisaic thought. He may have even sought to become a student of Gamaliel, the foremost Rabbi of the day; but was most likely turned down as the Rabbi only took on the brightest and dedicated of students. When it became clear that he would not succeed in becoming a Pharisee, he may have sought solace in the company of the Sadducees and soon found himself in the employ of that group’s leader, namely the High Priest of the Temple.
Early on, we are told in Acts, that Saul was present at the stoning of Stephan, who is traditionally regarded as the first Christian Martyr. In the account, we are informed that Saul did nothing but watch the coats of those who were hurling the stones and that he approved of the action,. Then, as the story goes, Saul began his persecutions of the Netzarim and was dispatched to bring all those claiming to follow Jesus, whom they believed to have been risen from the dead and carried off to heaven to await an upcoming event that would usher in a new Kingdom of God on the earth with Jesus as its head. This assignment does not tend to wash, but leads itself as a good way to introduce Saul into that Netzarim Movement and his conversion on the way to Damascus. That event was so important that it is described a few times with every story having some inconsistency. Even Paul has a different take on the incident.
Paul refers to what happened as something more akin to a revelation and not a conversion. He points out that Jesus himself gave him knowledge that he was to pass on to the Gentiles and certain other facts that he could not divulge at the given time. It was through his ministry to the Gentiles that Paul gained what he had always wanted, that was to be a great teacher equal to the Rabbis he had admired.
A few more things to put into perspective before we wrap up on Paul. At one point in his career, he points to the fact that he changed as those he were addressing dictated. When he was around Jews, he behaved as a Jew; conversely, when around Gentiles, he behaved as a Gentile. In this way he was able to garner the sympathies of his audience. Later, we will look into how this ability helped shape Christianity into what it is today. For now, just let that idea percolate in your mind as we address on other facet of the man, Paul.
There was a time when Paul and his companion were detained by the High Priest. They were put on trial before the Sanhedrin, just as they were about to have sentence passed on them, Roman centurions removed him and he was brought before the Roman officials. The official decided to let Paul and his companion go, but they were to be flogged for the insolence to the High Priest. Paul takes this moment o play his ace in the hole and declare himself a Roman citizen, thereby making the coming beating illegal without a trial. At this, he is let off the hook for the flogging and is released.
Now comes the question, was he a born Roman citizen, as he stated in the incident or did he purchase this distinction, knowing that it might come in handy? Tradition says that he was a citizen by birth and states that he may have come from a family that had purchased the right for him. One thing that is overlooked is at the time of the affair, he was in Jerusalem to hand over money he had collected from the various communities outside Jerusalem to James and Peter to help the Netzarim cause. Could it be that Paul used some of these funds to buy the citizenship and neglect to tell James and Peter anything about the missing funds? It is something we may never know, but it seems possible the Roman official expected to receive a bribe from Paul.
What we are told is that Saul, now Paul, came from Tarsus and claimed to be of the tribe of Benjamin. It may be possible that his claim of the tribe could be a mere fabrication. His parents were most likely ‘God-fearers’ and it was from this influence he traveled from his home to become a Pharisee. When he got to Jerusalem, he was told he did not have what it takes to become a Pharisee, so he becomes an agent for the High Priest instead. On his way to carry out warrants against the Netzarim in Damascus (A scenario that would not make much sense and will be discussed in another post) that spurred him to stop his persecution of the Netzarim and compelled to become one f them instead. He goes on after this to become a great Missionary teacher to the Gentiles and along the way begins to put his own spin on the message of Jesus and his followers. And throughout all of this, he appears to be playing a double role, showing one face to one group and another to the other. He was a cunning man out to make a name for himself like his Pharisee heroes. Christianity today would be so much different if it were not for the influences of Paul.
Neither the Bible nor other sources say how or when Paul died, but Ignatius, probably around 110, writes that Paul was martyred. Christian tradition holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero around the mid-60s at Tre Fontane Abbey (English: Three Fountains Abbey).
How did Paul influence the direction of Christianity? We will explore that and much more in the coming posts.