The question in the title for this blog post may seem like an odd one considering how well known Paul is for anyone who has read the New Testament. After all, 13 of the epistles bear his name, and fully three-quarters of the book of Acts is devoted to the story of this man’s life and work. Even so, this post and two subsequent posts are devoted to answering, in very general terms, who this individual was.
[Most of the information in these three posts come from an article in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible titled “Paul, the Apostle” and an article in the first volume of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary titled “The Life and Ministry of Paul.”]
We first read about this man as Saul, the persecutor of the early church (Acts 7-8). Saul comes from Shaul, his Hebrew name, meaning “asked of God” or “dedicated to God.” Luke tells us that Saul “was also known as Paul” (Acts 13:9). In fact, it is at this point in the book of Acts that Luke stops referring to the apostle as Saul, using the name Paul instead (with the exceptions of Paul’s autobiographical speeches in chapters 22 and 26). The name Paul comes from the Greek Paulos or Latin Paulus, meaning “small.”
We don’t know for sure whether the apostle changed his name to accommodate his Greek-speaking audience or whether the name reflects his status as a Roman citizen.
Small, but Driven
We know very little about Paul’s physical appearance from unquestioned sources, though some second-century sources describe him as a small man. The apostle’s own words, however, hint at him being a small man, or at the very least, of unimposing stature. Paul quotes his enemies as saying “his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10, NASB throughout).
Another hint of Paul’s relatively small size comes from the reception of the people of Lystra after a miraculous healing. Though Paul was the one who had commanded a lame man to stand, the crowd began calling Barnabas by the name of the chief Greek god Zeus and Paul by the name of Hermes, the messenger god of the Greeks (Acts 14:8-12). It is likely that Paul was the smaller of the two men.
Though he may well have been a small man, Paul was undoubtedly a man with immense energy and drive, thoroughly committed to God. This was true even before his conversion, as Paul explains in his letter to the Philippian church. He was “as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6).
Citizen of Tarsus, Citizen of the Empire
Paul had been born in Tarsus, a wealthy and important city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) on the main overland route from Greece to Asia. The Romans made Tarsus the capital of the province of Cilicia, later granting it the status of free city. This city, which had been the meeting place of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 41 B.C., served as an important buffer between the Western, Hellenic world and the Eastern, Asiatic world. As a resident of Tarsus, the young Paul was exposed to both.
Paul later claimed not only to be a citizen of the free city of Tarsus, but also to be a citizen of the Roman Empire. According to the “The Life and Ministry of Paul,” an article in the first volume of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (1979 edition, page 563), this dual citizenship was unusual.
The account of Paul’s experience after being arrested in Jerusalem reveals the distinction between the two citizenships. In asking the tribune for permission to speak to the agitated crowd, Paul identifies himself as a citizen of Tarsus (Acts 21:39). After the speech, the tribune ordered that Paul “be examined by flogging” (Acts 22:23-24). Before the order was carried out, however, Paul explains to the centurion first, and then the tribune, that he was a Roman citizen, and had been from birth (verses 25-28).
From Tarsus to Jerusalem
From Paul’s status as a citizen of Rome from birth we can surmise that he came from a relatively wealthy family. To be granted Roman citizenship generally required performing some service for the empire or holding a political office. In either case, Paul’s family was one of prestige and wealth.
Another indication of the family’s wealth is that Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who is known to history as one of the most significant and influential Pharisees. Ironically, Gamaliel was a leader among members of the more tolerant branch of Pharisees who followed Hillel, in contrast to the stricter branch who followed Shammai. Paul, though he studied under Gamaliel, seems to have embraced the harsher ideals of Shammai.
Scripture does not tell us how old Paul was when he began his studies in Jerusalem, but we do know that it was common for a young man of wealth to begin such intensive studies in early adolescence. Josephus, writing of his own experiences, recalls beginning his intensive studies when he was about 14 years old. For Paul to claim that he was “brought up in this city” (Jerusalem) in the same breath that he mentions studying under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) indicates that his experience was similar.
Paul’s education, though, was not limited to religious studies. He received training as a tentmaker, an occupation that provided him the opportunity to support himself wherever he traveled later in his efforts to preach the gospel to the Gentile world (Acts 18:2-3).
The idea of being trained as both a tentmaker and an expert in the Law may seem a bit strange to us today, but such an education is very much in line with common Jewish practice at the time. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (volume 4, page 625) explains that “Jewish education sought to produce a man who could both think and act; one who was neither an egghead nor a clod.”
Paul’s Place in the World
Before his conversion, Paul was probably a member of the Sanhedrin, or religious court, in Jerusalem. We know this because the apostle speaks of having “cast my vote” (Acts 26:10) in judicial actions against the followers of Christ. This is why Paul could tell the church in Galatia that he “was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries” (Galatians 1:14) before God intervened in his life.
But this man was much more. Having been reared, first in Tarsus, then in Jerusalem, Paul was unique among his peers. In Jerusalem he had learned from one of the most impressive rabbis of that generation, Gamaliel. Living in Tarsus, a crossroads between the Greek world and the Asian, the young Saul had been exposed to a wider world than he would have seen had he lived only in Jerusalem. The end result was a man who understood the Law thoroughly, but who also understood enough of the Gentile world to become effective as an apostle to the Gentiles.
R. Alan Cole, in his article titled “The Life and Ministry of Paul,” describes the apostle this way: “He is not a Hellenist with a smattering of Judaism, like some nonobservant Jew of the Western world today. Instead, he is a Jewish Rabbi with a smattering of Hellenism, more like the strictly Orthodox Rabbi of a big modern city” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 1, page 561).
In my next blog post, we’ll take a look at Paul as a persecutor of the early church, leaving his work as an apostle for the blog post after that. In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts, and what you’ve come up with in your studies.