From Murderer to Missionary – The Life of the Apostle Paul (Part One)

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Before we get into this post, let me first say that I love my wife!  If you read the post from last Friday, you’ll remember that my SD card with quite a bit of un-backed-up work was lost.  After hours of searching and cleaning, she found it.  If not for her tireless and impressive work (did I mention that it was the garage she was cleaning and searching?), today’s post wouldn’t be here.  Now, on to today’s post–the latest part of our series on the apostles!

The last apostle chosen by Jesus Christ, Saul of Tarsus (better known as Paul) is arguably the best-known of the group, due to his prominence in the book of Acts and the many letters which he wrote which are contained in the New Testament.1  He is the only official apostle who was not from the Promised Land (which by the time of the first century was divided into Judea, Samaria, and Galilee), and is also the only one that we know for sure was a Roman citizen.

The Youth of Saul

Saul was born in the city of Tarsus, which was not a small city at all.2  In fact, Tarsus was a combination of two cities—one built on both sides of a river, and the other one built into the hills and fortified with walls.  The actual land mass that was considered to be Tarsus was perhaps 400 square miles, and the population is estimated to have been close to a million people.3  It was a center of learning, which some ancient historians say excelled the learning of Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.4  Because of their support of Rome, Tarsus was declared a “free city,” meaning that they could select their own rulers, live by their own laws, and not have to pay taxes to Rome (which might explain why the population was so large).5

Though he was born in Tarsus, Saul was brought up in Jerusalem, learning at the feet of a well-respected Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel.6  Gamaliel, a Pharisee, served as the head of the Sanhedrin during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius Caesar,7 and the Jewish Mishna says that when he died, “the reverence for Divine Law ceased, and the observance of purity and piety became extinct.”8  Thus, we are safe in concluding that Saul, whose father was a Pharisee, 9 was raised with a very high regard for the inspiration of the Scriptures, with respect for the Law of Moses, and with strict adherence to morality.  Add to that the fact that he was from Tarsus, a city known for its learning, and that fitted Saul perfectly to be used by God.

One other item, which comes into play later in his life, is that Saul was born a Roman citizen.  The city of Tarsus was a “free city,” but the inhabitants were not granted Roman citizenship.  Paul’s citizenship had to have come through his father—though how his father gained Roman citizenship is not known.10

-Bradley S. Cobb

1 Paul wrote at least 13 letters of the New Testament.  The letter to the Hebrews has historically been attributed to him as well, bringing the total to 14.

2 Acts 21:39.

3 Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, “Tarsus.”  The plain that encompassed two rival cities (one of which was Tarsus) was 800 square miles, and by the time of Christ, Tarsus had the preeminence.  Thus the estimate of 400 square miles might actually be low.

4 Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, “Tarsus.”  The tutor of Augustus Caesar was from Tarsus, as were several famous poets.  But Saul of Tarsus is the most famous of them all.

5 Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, “Tarsus.”

6 Acts 22:3.  Gamaliel’s influence with the religious leaders in Jerusalem is evident in Acts 5:33-40.

7 Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, “Gamaliel.”

8 Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, “Gamaliel.”

9 Acts 23:6.  Some have suggested that this is a reference to his teacher, Gamaliel, instead of his physical father.  Had Paul been referring to Gamaliel (who by this point in time would have been dead, for he died in AD 52), he would have mentioned him by name—he still being held in high esteem by the Pharisees.

10 It could be that his father was wealthy (which is plausible, since he could afford to send his son to private school in Jerusalem) and purchased his citizenship (see Acts 22:28).  It might also be, as suggested in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible (“Paul,” 3. Roman Citizenship), that Paul’s father or grandfather had done service to Rome, and had citizenship given to them as thanks for their service.

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