What was the historical background of Paul?

Direct information about the historical background of Paul are rare, but indirect references provide clues about his early life. Paul mentions his mother in Galatians 1:15. And we know from Acts 23:16 that he had a sister for “Paul’s sister’s son” is cited.

Also, the Scriptures give us references to his Hebrew ancestors in Acts 24:14; Gal. 1:14; 2 Tim. 1:3. It is possible that his Jewish family, rejected him and didn’t communicate with him after his conversion (Phil. 3:8) which caused him sorrow. But it seems that he had some Christian relatives (Romans 16:7).

Paul’s birth

A 2d century tradition by Jerome, states that Saul’s parents originally lived in Gischala, of Galilee. About 4 b.c. It seems they were captured and taken as slaves to Tarsus, the chief city of Cilicia, in Asia Minor. But they later gained their freedom, succeeded in life, and became Roman citizens.

Saul’s life started at Tarsus (Acts 22:3), where, on the eighth day, he was circumcised according to the law (Phil. 3:5) and  according to tradition he was given his name (Luke 1:59). He probably was named after King Saul, the first king of Israel seeing that Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5). Also, since he lived in a Gentile community, he received a Latin name, Paulus which means “little,” or “small.” This name was Roman and was proper to the apostle’s future preaching of the truth in the imperial capital (Acts 19:21; Rom. 1:15).

His Roman citizenship

From birth, Paul inherited certain rights. He was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28). In the 1st century a.d., Roman citizenship was much desired. Also, Saul had a loyalty to Tarsus his city as he was a citizen there (Acts 21:39). It seemed that Paul’s family was well to do and had a status in that city.

His Jewish heritage

In addition, Saul appreciated his Jewish heritage. For he wrote, “an Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:22), and was jealous for his racial customs. Until a.d. 70, when Vespasian abolished the Jewish legal rights, the Jews were permitted to keep their nationality, even in pagan Roman.

His education as a pharisee

Paul had a great pride in being a Pharisee. He “lived a Pharisee” “after the most straitest [Jewish] sect” of his religion (Acts 26:5; 23:6; Phil. 3:5). He either inherited this right from his father or became a Pharisee because of his education under Gamaliel (Acts 5:34).

He was possibly sent to Jerusalem at the age of 12 (Acts 26:4), where he was taught by the renowned Gamaliel I (Act 22:3; 5:34). He was schooled in “the perfect manner of the law,” “believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets,” learning to be “zealous toward God” and “more exceedingly zealous of the traditions” of his ancestors (Acts 22:3; 24:14; Gal. 1:14).

Paul became more fanatic to his party than his teacher (Acts 5:34). Thus, he was prepared for his future fight against Christians (Acts 8:1, 3; 22:4, 5; 26:9–12). Saul appears in the book of Acts (ch. 7:58) as a zealous member of the pharisees and he approves by his presence the death of Stephen who challenged Jewish thinking.

His first encounter with Christ

Being in Jerusalem, Saul knew of Christ’s ministry and death. But his first hand encounter with the Savior was only at the Damascus road (Acts 22:7, 8; 26:14, 15; 1 Cor. 15:8). This decisive encounter changed his life completely and he became a great instrument in God’s hand to evangelize the world.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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