SAUL OF TARSUS
1. How does Luke introduce Saul? (Read Acts 7:54-8:1a)
Nowhere are we told when St. Paul was born. In Acts 7:58 Paul is referred to by Luke as a "young" man. That term was used in reference to a man anywhere between the years of 24 and 40. We would not be too far off by assuming Paul was born sometime around 1 or 2 AD.
2. What other biographical data does Luke record about Saul in the book of Acts?
Before Paul could become a master in Israel he had to learn a trade. In theory no rabbi was to take fees, but rather he was to support himself. The Greek word translated "tentmaker" literally means a "worker in leather." In Tarsus one important trade was tentmaking. Tents were made either out of leather or a material called "cilicium" which was woven from the hair of the large-hair black goats common to that area. These black tents were used by caravans, nomads, and armies all over Asia Minor and Syria.
Tarsus was the chief city of Cilicia, a region in southeastern Asia Minor (present day Turkey). It lay on the river Cydnus in the midst of a fertile plain. It not only was a trading port on the Mediterranean, but was also the starting point of the great trade route across the Taurus mountains into Asia Minor. It was a wealthy city, which boasted a large university rivaling those found in Alexandria and Athens. It was the home of Nestor, a Stoic philosopher, and of Athenodorus, the tutor and confidant of Emperor Augustus. It was a wicked city, which did not try to conceal either its prostitution or its homosexuality.
Jewish children received their first lessons at home under the direction of their parents. At the age of six they would attend a local synagogue school where they would study not only the Old Testament, but also Jewish traditions and rituals, and simple arithmetic. At the age of twelve or thirteen a child would attach himself to a noted rabbi, if he intended to carry on his education.
Gamaliel, under whom Paul studied in Jerusalem, was the grandson of Hillel, the founder of one of the two most famous Jewish rabbinical schools. Tradition says he succeeded his father as President of the Sanhe-drin. In any case he was very influential as we can tell from Acts 5:33ff. At this time there were about 1,000 students in the school headed by Gamaliel. Gamaliel not only taught his students the law and the prophets, but also had them study selected Greek literature.
We do not know how Paul’s family became citizens. We do know it was a very special privilege. In 47 AD only 6,000,000 people of the estimated 80,000,000 in the empire were citizens. During this period citizenship was seldom granted except for services rendered or for a fat fee. We do know that not long before Paul’s birth a property qualification of 500 drachmae (one drachmae was worth 16 cents, or a day’s wages) was imposed, which means that Paul’s father must have been comparatively wealthy to maintain his citizenship. Our best guess as to how Paul’s family became citizens is that either they performed a meritorious service to Pompay or Cicero, perhaps by providing them military tents; or they were part of an original Jewish colony established in Tarsus in 170 BC by a Syrian king named Antiochus IV. The members of this colony had been granted full rights and privileges at that time.
The Pharisees, or "separated ones," were a sect within Judaism known for their strict observance of the law. They expanded the Ten Commandments into 613 commandments. They were particularly zealous about observing the Sabbath. They had a list of 1,521 things they could not do. For instance you could not spit on the Sabbath for the movement of the dust by the spittle was considered plowing, nor could a woman look in a mirror lest she be tempted to pluck out a gray hair. While such intense obedience tended to and often did result in the self-righteousness and hypocrisy so frequently condemned by Jesus, there were pious Pharisess such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
3. What information does Paul add in his letters?
The word "Hebrew" in the New Testament is often used in contrast to the word "Hellenist" or "Greek" (cf. Acts 6:1 ). Both groups were Jews. The Hellenists, however, adopted the Greek language and customs, while the Hebrews retained the Hebrew or Aramaic language and customs. Their position might be classified as conservative over against liberal, or perhaps traditional over against progressive. These two groups often remained separate. In fact in both Rome and Corinth inscriptions have been found indicating that specific synagogues were for the Hebrews alone. Whether Tarsus had such a synagogue or not we do not know. Neither do we know if Paul was trained in school in the Greek or in the Aramaic language. Most certainly, however, at home the family would have spoken Aramaic.
4. What did Paul look like?
What was Paul’s "thorn in the flesh"? Three suggestions have been raised: 1) Recurring malaria--the low-lands around Tarsus are filled with malaria during the summer months. 2) Epilepsy--the word "despise" in Galatians 4:13-15 literally means "spit out." In ancient times people would spit, believing they would be protected from spirits causing sickness. Epilepsy was called the "illness that you spit against." 3) Ophthalmia, or some other eye disease--in Galatians 4:13-15 Paul makes reference to the fact that the Galatians would have torn out their own eyes for him while he was sick among them. He also makes reference to writing with large letters in Galatians 6:11. This has lead some to conclude that Paul had a eye disease known as ophthalmia, which is a recurring infection of the eye causing reduced vision and at times periodic blindness. It is painful, disfiguring, and characterized by draining pus.
1. In Galatians 1:15 Paul makes reference to the fact that God had separated him from the womb to do the tasks set before him. How did the Lord prepare Saul in his childhood for the work he would later do? Was Paul in this way a unique individual, or does God still prepare men and women from childhood for service in His kingdom? If so, how important is it for Christian parents to provide a broad range of experiences and educational opportunities for their children? What applications might the Christian make with regard to any and all life experiences as he or she looks forward to future kingdom service?
2. How did Paul’s parents and teachers influence his attitude, first of all, towards religion, and secondly, towards Christianity? Discuss the importance of parents and teachers today with regard to their influence on their children’s attitudes toward their religious faith?