Who Was Paul?
Paul is the number one person people quote when talking about Christianity. This is most likely due to the fact that nearly half of the New Testament is attributed to his authorship. Sometimes it would seem as if he, rather than Christ, is the foundation of Christianity. When attempts are made to understand the life of Jesus, His theology and practice are filtered through our perceptions of how Paul taught. For example, most will admit that Jesus was Jewish and that He kept the Torah, but many Christians have been taught, according to the mainstream interpretation of Paul’s doctrine, that He did not intend His disciples to follow His footsteps in this regard, but rather that His ministry initiated a new religion with new rules. Noticing Paul’s massive amount of influence on the Christian religion, some have come to believe that Paul himself started Christianity. Some who have disagreed with the standard doctrine on Paul have gone so far as to completely reject his writings as heretical after mistakenly interpreting a difference between the message Jesus brought and the message Paul brought. It is clear that there is a lot of misconception surrounding Paul that must be cleared up. In this study, we are going to take a closer look at this apostle to learn more about his life and his beliefs. In order to get a good understanding of what Paul taught, we must begin by understanding how Paul thought.
Before we get to Paul, there are a few terms we are going to be using throughout this study which must first be defined. The first is the word Torah. This is a Hebrew word which means “teaching” or “instruction,” but is most often translated as “the Law.” It includes the first five books of the Bible, which contain God’s instructions for His people. The second term we will be using is Yeshua. Yeshua is the Hebrew name which was transliterated through into Greek as Iesous, and transliterated once more into English as Jesus. In Hebrew His name translates to “The Lord’s Salvation.”
Who Was Paul?
Part of the goal of this study is to demonstrate what Paul’s worldview was. Unless we fully comprehend the perspective of Paul, his words will easily be twisted, as was already happening in his own days (2 Peter 3:15-18). Now, time has driven the wedge further still between who Paul said he was and who his accusers said he was (Acts 21:27-28).
What is a worldview? The word worldview comes from German, where it is a compound of “world” and “view/outlook”. It is a term used to describe a framework of thought which a person holds and which they see the world through. It is more than just a perspective, but would better be described as a foundation of principles on which opinions are formed. All new information we receive is processed through our worldview, and it is our basis for interacting with the world around us. Therefore it is useful not only to understand the worldview of Paul, but also to recognize where our own worldview influences the opinions we form.
An essential aspect of understanding a worldview is examining context. We must look at where a person was raised, what type of education they had, what cultural influences they have been exposed to, and so on. To that end we will be examining Paul according to what we find about him in Scripture, and this will be supplemented by what we know about the religious beliefs of the world in which Paul lived. Paul’s Jewishness is an essential part of his teachings and his worldview, and it does us a great disservice to extract him from this position.
With that, we are going to start looking at the life of Paul to see who he really was. We first meet Paul in Acts 7. The previous chapter introduces Stephen, a man empowered by the Holy Spirit. Opposition arose as Stephen was doing mighty things through God’s power, much to the irritation of one of the religious groups, called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, or in some translations, Libertines. There are multiple reasons this synagogue could be called by this name. The first is that the founders or a large portion of the congregants were either slaves who had been set free and subsequently converted to Judaism, or the sons of such men. Another option is that these members were not converted, but had been born Jewish and then taken into slavery through Roman conquest, only to be released later. A third explanation is that the word “Libertines” does not refer to a social status, but a place. There is reference to a place called “Libertina” in some early religious documents which place its location in North Africa. Supporting this theory is the fact that some early manuscripts of Acts record “Libyans” instead of “Libertines.”
Acts 6:9 gives us more information about this synagogue: “But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen.” We see that this is a congregation composed of North Africans (Cyrene is in Libya and Alexandria is in Egypt), and some western Asians (Cilicia is along the coast of Turkey, and what is referred to as Asia in the text is what is today known as Asia Minor). These places were all well-known for their large Jewish populations. Being part of the Roman world, they were also immersed in the Hellenistic culture of the day in one way or another.
When we speak of Hellenism, we mean the influence of Greek culture upon the cultures of other nations. The word “Hellenism” comes from the Greek word hellas, meaning “Greece.” The ruler Alexander the Great is largely proclaimed to be responsible for this trend which has been extremely influential in shaping today’s world. Alexander was the king of the region of Macedonia in the 300s BC, and his rule was characterized by extensive military campaigns throughout the eastern-Mediterranean and Persia. Today he is known for his great military success and the fact that as he conquered, he brought Greek culture to the defeated lands while for the most part allowing them to keep their own culture. The adoption of Greek culture and its mingling with the cultures of the conquered nations is what defines the Hellenistic period. This Hellenization affected the most fundamental parts of daily life: religion, philosophy, art, literature, and entertainment.
As Rome began to grow, the territories previously influenced by the Greeks began to slowly be adopted into their empire. The Romans themselves had been greatly influenced by the Hellenists, not because the Greeks had forced anything upon them, but because they held a deep respect and appreciation for Greek cultural and academic accomplishments. As Rome expanded into areas untouched by Alexander the Great, they continued his vision which had become one with their own.
The Jewish people did not survive this conquest completely untouched by these influences. The mark of one who followed God was that he meditated on His Word at all times (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2). But Hellenism offered an alternative to this, bringing a huge amount of social pressure to sink into secular pursuits of philosophy and entertainment. In reaction to this, there was an attempt to return to traditional religious values, and the Jewish council at some times banned the reading or speaking of the Greek language altogether. Not all aspects of Greek culture were idolatrous on the surface, but at its core it was fueled by a desire for earthly pursuits and an idolatrous, polytheistic religious system. While some communities within Judaism did fall victim to the Greek machine, a strong zeal kept this from spreading to the greater practice of the faith.
We see that the Synagogue of the Freedmen is mainly composed of Jews from areas which were greatly influenced by Hellenism. While this doesn’t mean these individuals supported or engaged in idolatrous practices, at the very least it means that they were familiar with the Greek language and customs. Glancing ahead in Acts, we find that Paul is a member of this synagogue (Acts 7:58). Several times, Paul is referred to as being from Tarsus (Acts 21:39, 22:3), which was the capital of the region of Cilicia, and was a major port city and center of trade. It was also an educational hub and center of learning after becoming part of the Roman Empire in the 60s BC. Tarsus was designated as a “free city,” which meant it was a self-governing city within the Roman empire, able to create its own laws and taxes.
Not much is known of Paul’s upbringing, but what we do know comes from his own mouth. We are briefly going to look in Philippians 3:4-5, where we will return later on in more depth. For now, we want to focus only on what Paul says about himself and what we can discover about his upbringing and identity.
The first point he mentions is that he was “circumcised the eighth day,” This indicates that not only was he Jewish, but he was born as such. When God introduced His covenant with Abraham, he explicitly mentioned that any sons were to be circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-14).
The next thing he mentions is that he is “of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.” This shows that his parents were not proselytes either, but were Israelites themselves, and not only Israelites, but of the tribe of Benjamin. This tribe had given Israel their first king, who Saul may have been named after (1 Samuel 9:21). Although it was the smallest of the tribes, it along with Judah remained faithful to the house of David when the other ten tribes broke away.
Paul continues to title himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” This is a summary of all of the above and an assertion that he was a Hebrew who lived and believed like a Hebrew. It could also possibly be a statement meaning he and his family did not succumb to the Hellenistic influences which surrounded him, but rather remained true to their Jewish heritage. While Paul may not have allowed his religious views to be influenced by Greek culture, it is clear he used it as an evangelical vehicle. For instance, the manuscripts we have of Paul’s writings are in Greek. This makes sense, because he was writing mainly to Gentiles outside of the land of Israel who would not likely understand the Hebrew or Aramaic language. In several places, Paul quotes Scripture from the Septuagint. The word “Septuagint” comes from the Latin word septuaginta which means “seventy.” You may also see it abbreviated as LXX, which is the number 70 expressed in Roman numerals. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which was produced in Alexandria so that the Jews spread around the world who did not speak Hebrew could still read and live according to the Torah. Its name is derived from the tradition that 70 (or alternatively, 72) scholars worked on translating the Hebrew into the Greek form. Despite living in the Hellenistic atmosphere, Paul affirms that he did not compromise his Hebrew culture at any point, but that he is in fact more Hebrew than the others who claim to be so, but are not.
The next line we will examine is “as to the Torah, a Pharisee.” Although Paul was born in Tarsus, he got his education about the Torah in Jerusalem: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the Torah of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today” (Acts 22:3).
Who was Gamaliel, and why does Paul bring up here the fact that he was educated under this man? We see one other reference to him in Scripture. Peter and the apostles had been preaching in the Temple, and the Sanhedrin was trying to decide how to dissuade them.
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Torah, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men… In the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:34-35, 38-39)
Here we see Gamaliel as a voice of mercy. According to Christian tradition, he secretly believed in Yeshua, even achieving the position of sainthood in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. As a leader of the Jewish council, his opinions in general were more lenient in regard to rulings about interpretation of Torah. As the grandson of the famous rabbi Hillel, Gamaliel was well-respected, and he is the first person to be bestowed by the Sanhedrin with the title Rabban, which means “our teacher.” His influence within Judaism is expressed in the traditional words: “Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time” (Mishnah Sota 9:15).
Paul says he was “educated under” Gamaliel. Other translations put it more literally as “educated at the feet of Gamaliel.” This did not mean that Paul listened to Gamaliel teach every once in a while, but that he was his disciple. In first century Judaism, discipleship was the common method of teaching. The job of a disciple was to learn everything about their teacher and become exactly like him so that they could then in turn bring up disciples of their own. They adopted the way that their teacher interpreted the Torah, both written in the books of Moses and oral traditions.
So if Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel, and disciples were to be like their teacher, then we can reasonably assume that Paul and Gamaliel would share some common beliefs. For starters, we see in Acts 5 that Gamaliel was a Pharisee. Paul, too, proclaims that he is a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). We also learn from this verse that Paul was descended from Pharisees as well, so from an early age he would have been brought up with their teachings.
Pharisees are seen throughout the New Testament, but are often misunderstood by present readers. Divorced from their cultural context, the Pharisees are often seen as the bad guys. It is true that among the Pharisees there were some flawed beliefs, as we see in Yeshua’s condemnation of them. But if we examine the foundations of their faith, we may find that we have more in common with them than has generally been recognized.
The two largest groups of Jews in the first century were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees tended to be among the upper class, consisting of wealthy men and priests. Because of their social status, some of them had close political relations with the Romans, and tended to show more regard for secularism/Hellenism than the things of God. As far as doctrine goes, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, the afterlife, angels, spirits, or anything like that. Their hyper-literal understanding of the Torah left no room for application in personal life, and thus their popularity faded away with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
Standing in opposition to them were the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not as financially well-off as the Sadducees, but were still often middle or upper class. The things mentioned above that the Sadducees didn’t believe in were held to be true by the Pharisees. In addition to the written Torah, they believed in an oral Torah, that is, traditions that had been passed down through the centuries by word of mouth, purporting to go all the way back to Moses. They understood the word of God to apply to all areas of life as interpreted by the oral traditions. The Orthodox Judaism of today is the modern descendant of this group.
In addition to these two groups, there was another: the Essenes. This was a community who separated themselves from Israel, choosing to live near the Dead Sea. It is believed that it was formed by a dissatisfied priest, referred to as the Teacher of Righteousness in their writings, who wanted to separate from the worldliness and leniency of the priesthood and general population. The group was well-known in those days for their devotion to asceticism, communal living, celibacy, and ritual purity. They became well-known in today’s world after the discovery of a cache of religious documents in the caves of Qumran in the 1940s. There are some interesting ideas of theirs which appear to be paralleled in the New Testament writings, although this does not necessarily indicate that the apostles were friendly or theologically aligned with the Essene community in general. Because of the diversity of beliefs within Judaism at that time, an individual or group could easily be influenced by the teachings of another group without completely adhering to the same governing doctrines.
Of these main groups, we see that the beliefs espoused by Yeshua and the apostles aligned more with the Pharisees than with those of the Sadducees or Essenes. Indeed, even in regard to traditions, Yeshua only condemned them when they stood in opposition to a written command (Matthew 15:3, 23:23; Mark 7:13). Yeshua attended meals with Pharisees, meaning he had a somewhat friendly relationship with at least some of them (Luke 7:36, 14:1). While the Sadducees’ teachings were less Scripturally sound (Matthew 22:23, 29), we see that Yeshua condemns the Pharisees more often. Perhaps this is because they were nearer to the truth, and thus more capable of changing their ways (Proverbs 3:12, Psalm 94:12). Despite this, we see that many Pharisees still in the end did not receive Him.
So did Paul remain a Pharisee? Aside from his verbal testimony to that fact (Acts 23:6), we should be able to see the evidence of it in his writings. In regard to traditions, Paul himself passed on traditions, both orally and in writing, to the assemblies of believers which he wrote epistles to (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15), while condemning traditions that were merely made by men (Colossians 2:8). His agreement with the Pharisaic idea of a resurrection and an afterlife are made clear in his writings, and in fact they are at the very center of our faith (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). His belief that the Torah had application for each individual person and for every part of life permeates his teachings (2 Timothy 3:16), and the manner in which he uses Scriptures as proof-texts for his teachings also bears resemblance to the Pharisaic methods of interpreting Scripture, methods he would have learned in Jerusalem under his rabbi.
To summarize, Paul had a lot going for him in regard to the flesh. He was a Pharisee, from the tribe of Benjamin, educated under Gamaliel. He had the benefit of growing up among the Hellenistic scholars of Tarsus as well as observant Pharisaic parents. He was observant to the Torah and traditions of his fathers, and never saw these things as conflicting with the gospel.
Saul the Persecutor
Now that we have a good understanding of Paul’s upbringing, let’s return to the story of Stephen. We see that the members of Paul’s synagogue brought up false accusations against him, saying that he was teaching against the Temple and against the Torah, and so he is brought before the Sanhedrin, who were the judicial council of Jewish religious leaders. In his testimony, Stephen goes on to prove that it was not him who was walking in opposition to the Torah, but all those of the council who had failed to believe in, and paved the way for the death of, Yeshua (Acts 7:51-53). At this, the Sanhedrin is visibly enraged. But Stephen’s next statement is the real turning-point of the trial: “But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Yeshua standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (verse 55). The council perceives this as blasphemy, which was a crime punishable by death. From their perspective, Yeshua was a false messiah and Stephen was equating him as equal to God. “When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (verse 58).
This is our first encounter with Paul, who is introduced to us here as Saul. We will learn more about his names later in the study, but for now let it suffice to say that Saul and Paul are two interchangeable names for this apostle. Acts 8:1 goes on to say of him, “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.” While he did not actively participate in hurling stones at Stephen, it is evident that Saul was trusted by the men who did. In our modern terminology, here Saul would be considered an accomplice to the act, as he made no effort to stop the men, and in fact engaged in the stoning by watching over the cloaks of those who killed him. In their perspective, they were doing justly in the sight of God, for He had commanded them to treat blasphemers this way (Leviticus 24:16). Their hearts had been hardened to the truth, and an innocent man paid the price for their rebellion.
Gamaliel’s merciful opinions do not appear to have taken Saul’s interest, but instead this stoning inspires him to drive out the menace of this group once and for all. We see that the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak with words that were beyond argumentation (Acts 6:10). Since public debate had not put down this movement, the only option left was physical violence: “But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:3).
The term “church” used here and elsewhere in the New Testament may be a misleading translation. Throughout the New Testament, the word ekklesia is translated as “church” in most English versions. However, a more literal term would be “assembly” or “congregation,” as there was no church as we think of it today. Using the word “church” may affect our understanding of these verses improperly, in that our modern understanding of what the church looks like is far removed from what is actually being referred to. In fact, the Greek word ekklesia is used in the Septuagint of the Old Testament to refer to the congregation of Israel when they were assembled before Mt. Sinai. The assembly of believers Paul is persecuting here was variously called the Way (Acts 9:2), the Notzrim/Nazarenes (followers of the Natzer, meaning “the Branch”, Jeremiah 23:5, who was a Nazarene, Acts 6:14), and not until later as Christians (Acts 11:26). Even in the latter case, it was not Christianity as we know it, but in fact it was still a sect within the larger Jewish sphere. It is this fact that gives us the proper perspective for the next appearance of Saul in Acts.
“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 Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). Notice again the reference to “the Way.” In Acts, this is the formal name used most often in reference to those who believed in Yeshua. There are several important facts here that will put our understanding of the “church” into its proper perspective. First of all, Saul goes to the high priest for permission to find those who belonged to the Way. If this group had been operating outside of the confines of Judaism, then the high priest would not have had any authority over them. Secondly, Saul’s request is for letters which will go out to the synagogue leaders. The group known as the Way had apparently not ceased from attending the main synagogues in their cities, but instead had assimilated in among the other sects of the day in coming together for prayer and Torah study, and undoubtedly to preach the good news that Yeshua is the Messiah. This passage also serves to show that Saul had close ties to the religious leaders of the day; not just anyone could go to the high priest to ask permission to do something such as this.
Continuing on, we see that as Saul is on his way to Damascus with these letters from the high priest in hand, he has an experience that changes his life. Most Bibles title this passage, “Saul’s Conversion,” or something similar. This is a misunderstanding, as we will seek to explain. First let’s read the passage:
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Yeshua whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
The heavenly glory of the Lord leaves Saul blind for three days. God sends a disciple named Ananias to lay his hands on Saul, who was staying at the house of a man named Judas. Not much is said of Ananias other than that he was “devout by the standard of the Torah, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there” (Acts 22:12). Understandably, Ananias is leery of going to see this terrible man who has been such a bitter enemy up to this point. But God assures him that it is not a trap and that Saul will “bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). God also tells Ananias that Saul is praying. From this we learn that Saul was a man of prayer, and we can only imagine the great travail he must have been experiencing. Undoubtedly his thoughts turned to Stephen, and how those words he had spoken before the Sanhedrin were so applicable to him in this hour: “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Ananias goes to the house on Straight Street and does as God told him:
So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Yeshua, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized. (verses 17-18)
Some people mistakenly assume that this experience marked the end of Saul and the beginning of Paul. They think that from this point on, Saul the Pharisee was dead and Paul the Christian was alive and well. At least, that’s what the title “Saul’s Conversion” seems to imply. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of conversion is “the act or process of changing from one religion, belief, political party, etc., to another.” Reason would follow, then, that Saul converted from Judaism to Christianity. After all, he was even baptized!
Let’s see what Saul himself has to say about this: “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Torah and that is written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). Notice that Saul says they call the Way a sect. Saul considered the way he was walking to not be merely a sect of Judaism, but the true manifestation of it: that is, believing everything in accordance with the Torah and prophets, especially their testimony that Yeshua is the Messiah and the Son of God, which was the crucial piece most Jews were missing. He was not converted from one religion to another, but rather found the religion he was already in was now made complete through Yeshua. Some people also mistakenly assume that God changed Saul’s name to Paul during this experience on the road. This is not seen anywhere in the text, and in fact the name Paul is not used until Acts 13.
So if Saul wasn’t converted, then what did happen? The fact that Saul didn’t forsake his Judaism on that road in no way diminishes the great importance of this event. Saul undeniably had a life-changing encounter which led him to believe in Yeshua and desist from persecuting the Way. From that time on, he begins preaching in the synagogues about Yeshua and is filled with the Holy Spirit. Instead of seeking to kill and imprison the congregation of believers, he joins with them in their imprisonment and death. Through all this, he never did abandon his previous beliefs in regard to Judaism. Saul was still Saul of Tarsus, and he still was very much Jewish in every way, shape, and form.
In Acts 9:20 we see Saul still in Damascus proclaiming Yeshua in the synagogues. As the days continue to go by, the Holy Spirit begins to work through him more and more: “But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Yeshua is the Messiah.” Notice that his argument is still about whether or not Yeshua was truly the Messiah who Israel had been expecting, not about any matter of Torah-observance. It took a vision from heaven to convince Saul of the truth about Yeshua, and although his arguments confounded (i.e. perplexed, amazed) those who heard, his opponents were not easily persuaded. This new sect known as the Way was dangerous in their sight because of just how convincing it was. What they failed to realize was that it was convincing because it was true. Since they could not beat Saul’s arguments through the Spirit, they decide to get rid of him. Saul now gets a taste of what he has been putting the believers through: “When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death” (verses 23-24).
Lowered out of the wall in a basket under cover of darkness, Saul continues to Jerusalem. There, he begins arguing with some Hellenized Jews (verse 29). Perhaps Saul thought he could find some common ground to build off of, since he was familiar with the Greek way of life. This group, however, was apparently just as offended by Saul’s message about Yeshua, and so the assembly of believers makes a way for him to return home to Tarsus for a time. In Saul’s absence, things seem to calm down for them: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (verse 31).
After Peter’s vision and the subsequent baptism in the Spirit of Cornelius and the Gentiles who were with him, some of the assembly began to preach to Gentiles: “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Yeshua” (Acts 11:20). When Barnabas sees this, he heads off to Tarsus to look for Saul. Perhaps he knew that Saul was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and so he brings him to Antioch where this phenomenon is taking place. While their ministry is there, many people are brought to belief in Yeshua.
Up until now, we have still seen the Scriptures refer to Paul as Saul: “While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). This work begins as they set out for Cyprus, an island in the eastern Mediterranean. When they arrive, they travel around to the synagogues, where they preach the word of God. As they are going around, they encounter a false prophet named Bar-Jesus. We are also told that his name is translated as Elymas. It is interesting to note that just after the two names of Bar-Jesus are introduced, we are told of Saul’s alternate name as well: “But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him” (verses 8-9).
From this point on, the Scriptures refer to him solely as Paul, except when he is retelling the story of his experience on the road to Damascus. The text here implies that the names were used alternatively, not that his name was changed to Paul. But from where would he get this name?
First, we must realize that this was a time where the Roman Empire had an enormous amount of influence over most of the world around the Mediterranean. As was mentioned earlier, Saul was born in the Roman-controlled city of Tarsus. It is recorded that he was born a citizen (Acts 22:28). Rome wasn’t like America where if you are born here, you are a citizen. Citizenship was a special right that not everyone had. One could gain citizenship by birth if their father was a Roman citizen. So how did Saul’s father gain citizenship? Some methods of gaining citizenship include being freed from slavery, through service in the military or government, bribery, or other means.
Some scholars suggest that Saul belonged to a prominent family in the city who had been gifted citizenship due to their support of Rome. Others point to the fact that a Roman emperor had granted citizenship to the earliest settlers of Tarsus, speculating that his parents or grandparents moved there at that time. Because of the complexity of the issue and the fact that the particulars of Saul’s citizenship are not recorded, the best we can do is speculate. For the purposes of this study, it suffices to say that Saul was most likely given both names at birth in order to easily assimilate into the Jewish and Roman cultures he grew up in.
What benefit would Saul have received by being a Roman citizen? Some of the rights which belonged to citizens were not things we would consider to be necessarily positive, but they were a sign of status in those days, such as the right to serve in the military or to pay certain taxes. Other rights were of more personal benefit. A Roman citizen could not be given the conventional methods of punishment such as scourging (whipping). They had the right to a trial if they were accused of a crime. If they were found guilty of a crime punishable by death, the method of execution was beheading, as opposed to the excruciating ordeal of crucifixion which was used for non-citizens.
So why is this the first time we see mention of Saul’s alternate name in Scripture? One likely possibility is that since he was beginning to venture out into preaching to the Gentiles, his Roman name would have come in handy in identifying with those he was reaching out to. Although he and Barnabas were speaking in the synagogues in Cyprus, the encounter here is between them and a proconsul who is stationed on the island. A proconsul was a Roman military leader, but they were also involved in civil affairs.
An interesting point to consider is that the proconsul’s name was Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-7). Paulus is the original Latin form of the anglicized name Paul, and so perhaps this is why the introduction to Saul’s name takes place here. Thinking of it this way, the phrase “Saul, who was also known as Paul,” is simply telling us that the proconsul and Saul share the same name.
What we have seen so far is that Paul is never seen acting in opposition to his Jewish beliefs. His conflicts with some of the Jews are not based on his opinions on Torah, but on the message he brings of Yeshua the Messiah. We have also seen that Saul did not change into Paul, but that the latter name was used more often since his mission was mainly to the Gentiles. There is no mention at all that God suggested any changes of this kind.
We have previously mentioned Philippians 3, but there is more there which we can glean about who Paul was. He starts out with a warning in verse 2: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision.” Speaking of dogs, Peter tells us in 2 Peter 2:20-22 that a person who, after leaving the world’s ways and coming to the knowledge of Messiah, then returns to their sinful lifestyle is like a dog who returns to its vomit and a pig that returns to the mud after being washed. This saying comes after Peter is speaking against false teachers, who were trying to lead people away into pursuing the lusts which they had formerly indulged in when they were of the world.
What is the meaning behind the imagery of the dogs and pigs? These were common ways to refer to Gentiles in those days. We see this in Matthew 7:6 and 15:21-28. The reason Gentiles were treated this way was because of the impurity and idolatry which was present among the nations. The Roman and Greek world was centered on polytheism and the worship of idols. It had transcended religion and become a cultural influence which was imposed upon conquered regions. The Jewish people realized the dangers of allowing close ties between the pagans and their own people, as had in the past so often led them into idolatry. Another reason for this name-calling is that the Jewish people believed that Israel alone was destined for salvation and care by God. There is a tradition that before God gave the Torah, he first offered it to all the other nations, who were unwilling to follow God, so He chose Israel alone to walk in His ways. While it is true that Israel is the possessor of the covenants, the promises, and Yeshua (Romans 9:4-5), we as Gentiles are now able to become adopted into the family of Abraham through faith in Him (Romans 11:17-21).
This allusion would make sense in the passage in Peter, as he is making the point that one who is not transformed by Yeshua through a complete revocation of the old, idolatrous self will return to their previous sins because they are still unclean in the heart. But what about the passage we mentioned in Philippians? Here Paul is talking about the teachers, not the ones who follow their impure guidance. Another name he gives them is “the false circumcision.” Paul is making the point that simply being Jewish does not equate with righteousness. One can be circumcised outwardly but be a pagan “dog” in the depths of the heart. The Gentiles who sought to be saved through circumcision had not truly changed their ways, but had returned to the works of the flesh.
Paul continues to pursue this line of criticism against the false teachers. He claims that he has more reason to boast then these other men due to his credentials:
If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Torah, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Torah, found blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
Although he has more reason to put confidence in the flesh then the false apostles, he realizes that for him to do so would be in vain:
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Messiah. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Messiah Yeshua my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Messiah. (verses 7-8)
This is not a forfeiture of his heritage or his values, but rather a declaration that these things which he previously put his faith in are of no importance in gaining justification before God, which is only attainable through faith in Yeshua. It is the same argument we see in Acts 15, which we will examine in depth later on.
So what does all of this tell us about Paul? He was completely committed to Messiah and not the world. He was not a person who had converted to Judaism, but was a full-blooded Hebrew. He did not believe that his heritage would merit him salvation, but instead he put his faith in Yeshua. He condemned those who put confidence in their Jewish heritage or in ritual conversion to Judaism. He puts no confidence in the flesh even though he might have had more reason than others to do so. Through everything, he remained a practicing Jew with integrity and devotion to his faith and to his God.