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Who was Paul? His early life, and why it matters
When you think of Paul, what comes to mind?
For as much as Paul wrote, and as influential as he was, there is still much we don’t know about Paul.
Paul describes his own life in Philippians 3:5–6, where he lists seven things ascribed to him or achieved by him:
- He states that he was “circumcised on the eighth day.”
- He calls himself “of the people of Israel.”
- He says he is “of the tribe of Benjamin.”
- He tells his readers that he is “a Hebrew of Hebrews.”
- When he thinks of his life relative to the law, he calls himself “a Pharisee.”
- When he speaks of his zeal, he talks of “persecuting the church.”
- Lastly, he says that with respect to the law, he was “faultless”—and note that he doesn’t describe himself as “sinless.”
Unfortunately, there is no autobiography of Paul. Our sources are sketchy, and there are big gaps.
We can, however, look at Paul’s letters; we can reach for the book of Acts; and we can look at statements from early Christian literature regarding Paul. Taken together, we can create a composite portrait of Paul’s early life.
Where Paul is from
Paul was born in the city of Tarsus, capital of the province of Cilicia. During Paul’s time, this was a city which enjoyed no taxation. It was a free city, and a place of culture and learning.
How did Paul's family arrive in Tarsus?
There is some suspicion that Paul’s parents or ancestors were taken to Tarsus as prisoners of war. The theologian Jerome, writing in the late fourth to early fifth century, indicates that Paul and his parents were brought to Tarsus from the region of Gischala in Judea. Although Jerome does not date their deportation, sometime between 5 BC to AD 5 would be a reasonable inference, when uprisings against Rome were not infrequent. It’s also possible that Paul’s ancestors came to Tarsus as prisoners after Pompey’s invasion of Jerusalem in 63 BC or, perhaps even earlier, during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 175–163 BC.
So we don’t know for sure how Paul's family arrived in Tarsus. But we do know they were Jews who were living outside of Israel. In the ancient world, there were roughly 6 million Jewish people, 5 million people living outside of the area we now know as Israel. The fact that Paul, born a Jew, was living outside Israel was not the exception, but the rule.
How did Paul become a Roman citizen?
We learn from Acts that Paul was a citizen of Rome and of Tarsus.
- In Acts 16:37–38, upon being released from prison, Paul says—referring to both himself and Silas—“They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison.” Here, we also learn the magistrates were horrified at having beaten Roman citizens.
- In Acts 22:25, Paul asks a centurion if it is permissible to “flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty,” speaking, again, of himself.
Unlike many of us in modern times who have a citizenship linked to our country, Roman citizenship was not automatic. It was not something you possessed simply because you lived within the Roman Empire. Instead, Paul received citizenship only because he was born into a family that had Roman citizenship, and his family received it because they lived in the province Cilicia.
Pompey won Cilicia for the Romans in 67 BC. In turn, he named Tarsus the provincial capital. Later, Mark Antony made Tarsus a “free city” and exempted it from Roman taxation. Still later, Augustus confirmed and extended these civic privileges. By the close of the first century BC, shortly before Paul was likely born, the residents of Tarsus were Roman citizens.
Where was Paul educated?
We read Paul’s letters in the Greek language, and from this we know Paul was well-educated. He could think, write, and articulate himself in Koine Greek. This has led many scholars to conclude that Paul's education happened in Tarsus.
We are also aware Paul was a student of Scripture. He was steeped in it. He could turn to it to both ground and advance his arguments. It's likely Paul learned the Scripture from his family and from the local synagogue. But we also know, from Acts, that at some point, Paul came to Jerusalem, where he gained formal instruction. Under the tutelage of Gamiliel, he became a Pharisee—one who sought to both espouse and explain the law.
How did Paul support himself?
We also know that Paul plied the trade of a tentmaker, a leatherworker.
When did Paul gain this skill? As a boy? From his father? Or did he learn it later, after his conversion, so he could support his mission?
We don’t know with certainty, but it does bear upon the question of Paul’s social status. Was Paul relatively wealthy? Was Paul from a family of little means?
This is difficult to know as well, because wealth in the ancient world isn’t measured in the same way as wealth in contemporary contexts. But we do know that Paul, as a result of his commitment to Christ, lost “all things.” It may be that he lost his wealth, or only some of his social standing. Whatever the case, following Christ came with a cost.
Was Paul married?
Some have also wondered if Paul was married. It’s possible that prior to his mission, he was. 1 Corinthians 7 could be read this way. But by the time he wrote 1 Corinthians 7, he refers to himself as a single person.
Paul’s goal before his conversion
Perhaps the defining trait of Paul’s life immediately prior to his conversion was his opposition to the church. He admits his in 1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1, and Philippians 3. We also read about this in Acts 7, 8, 9, 22, and 26.
As the faith spread beyond Jerusalem—to Damascus, Syrian Antioch, and elsewhere—these followers of the Way irritated Paul and incited Paul’s ire. We’re not precisely certain why, but we gather that Paul wanted them eradicated, lest they compromise the Jewish faith and imping upon Torah. He was a zealot, trying to preserve the faith he loved.
His project of persecution is spectacularly interrupted on the road to Damascus.
God broke in, and we know where the story goes from there.
Learn about Paul’s life and letters
In the Thinking Through Paul online course, taught by Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still, you’ll learn:
- The basics of Paul’s life and ministry
- The overarching theological themes of Paul’s letters
- The key issues and concerns of each letter
The course will be available in just a few weeks. Sign up to be notified when enrollment opens:
Portions of this post have been adapted from the Thinking Through Paul online course.
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