Paul of Tarsus

Who was Paul of Tarsus?

According to the New Testament, Paul of Tarsus was one of the earliest converts to the Christian religion following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle testifies to having personally met Christ while walking to the town of Damascus, which is when he was known by his Jewish name "Paul" and was associated with persecuting Christians.

Soon, Paul would travel throughout the Mediterranean world planting and strengthening churches as he preached the gospel of Christ. Some of the letters he wrote to churches in the Mediterranean world are in the New Testament; in fact, 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament are attributed to the Apostle Paul.

Geography plays an important part in any life. John the Baptist spent his boyhood in the hill country of Judea in a small town (Luke 1:39) and then in the wilderness. Jesus spent His boyhood in the town of Nazareth and the country round. Both John and Jesus show fondness for Nature in all its forms.

The Apostle Paul grew up in a great city and spent his life in the great cities of the Roman empire. He makes little use of the beauties of Nature, but he has a keen knowledge of men (compare Robertson, Epochs in the Life of Paul, 12). The Apostle Paul was proud of his great city (Acts 21:39). He was not merely a resident, but a "citizen" of this distinguished city. This fact shows that the Apostle Paul's family had not just emigrated from Judea to Tarsus a few years before his birth, but had been planted in Tarsus as part of a colony with full municipal rights (Ramsay, Paul the Traveler, 31 f).

Timeline of the Apostle Paul's Life and Ministry

The Apostle Paul's Birthplace: Tarsus

Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, then a part of the province of Syria, but it had the title of metropolis and was a free city, urbs libera (Pliny, NH, v.27). To the ancient Greek the city was his "fatherland" (Ramsay, Cities of Paul, 1908, 90). Tarsus was situated on the river Cydnus, and in a wide plain with the hill country behind and the snow-covered Taurus Mountains in the distance. It was subject to malaria. Ramsay (ibid., 117) from Genesis 10:4 f holds that the early inhabitants were Greeks mingled with Orientals. East and West flowed together here. It was a Roman town also with a Jewish colony (ibid., 169), constituting a city tribe to which Paul's family belonged. So then Tarsus was a typical city of the Greek-Roman civilization.

The Apostle Paul's Citizenship: Roman

It was no idle boast with the Apostle Paul when he said, "But I am a Roman born" (Acts 22:28). The chief captain might well be "afraid when he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him" (Acts 22:29). Likewise the magistrates at Philippi "feared when they heard that they were Romans" (Acts 16:39), and promptly released the Apostle Paul and Silas and "asked them to go away from the city."

"To the Roman his citizenship was his passport in distant lands, his talisman in seasons of difficulties and danger. It shielded him alike from the caprice of municipal law and the injustice of local magistrates" (Lightfoot, Biblical Essays, 203). As a citizen of Rome, therefore, the Apostle Paul stood above the common herd. He ranked with the aristocracy in any provincial town (Ramsay, Paul the Traveler, 31). He would naturally have a kindly feeling for the Roman government in return for this high privilege and protection. In its pessimism the Roman empire had come to be the world's hope, as seen in the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil (Ramsay, Cities of Paul, 49).

The Apostle Paul would seize upon the Roman empire as a fit symbol of the kingdom of heaven. "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20); "Ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints" (Ephesians 2:19). So he interprets the church in terms of the body politic as well as in terms of the Israelite theocracy (Colossians 2:19). "All this shows the deep impression which the Roman institutions made on Paul" (Lightfoot, Biblical Essays, 205).

Ramsay draws a striking parallel under the heading, "Paulinism in the Roman Empire" (Cities of Paul, 70). "A universal Paulinism and a universal Empire must either coalesce, or the one must destroy the other." It was the Apostle Paul's knowledge of the Roman empire that gave him his imperialism and statesmanlike grasp of the problems of Christianity in relation to the Roman empire. The Apostle Paul was a statesman of the highest type, as Ramsay has conclusively shown (Pauline and Other Studies, 49-100).

The Apostle Paul's Background: Judaism

The Apostle Paul was Greek and Roman, but not "pan-Babylonian," though he was keenly alive to all the winds of doctrine that blew about him, as we see in Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles. But he was most of all the Jew, that is, before his conversion. He remained a Jew, even though he learned how to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Even though glorying in his mission as apostle to the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:8), he yet always put the Jew first in opportunity and peril (Romans 2:9). He loved the Jews almost to the point of death (Romans 9:3). He was proud of his Jewish lineage and boasted of it (2 Corinthians 11:16-22; Acts 22:3; 26:4; Philippians 3:4-6). "His religious patriotism flickered up within his Christianity" (Moffatt, Paul and Paulinism, 66). Had he not been a Roman citizen with some Greek culture and his rich endowments of mind, he would probably not have been the "chosen vessel" for the work of Christ among the Gentiles (Garvie, Studies of Paul and His Gospel, 15).

Had he not been the thorough Jew, he could not have mediated Christianity from Jew to Greek. "In the mind of Paul a universalized Hellenism coalesced with a universalized Hebraism" (Ramsay, Cities of Paul, 43). Ramsay strongly opposes the notion of Harhack and others that Paul can be understood "as purely a Hebrew." So in Paul both Hebraism and Hellenism meet though Hebraism is the main stock. He is a Jew in the Greek-Roman world and a part of it, not a mere spectator. He is the Hellenistic Jew, not the Aramaic Jew of Palestine (compare Simon Peter's vision on the house-top at Joppa, for instance). But the Apostle Paul is not a Hellenizing Jew after the fashion of Jason and Menelaus in the beginning of the Maccabean conflict.

The Apostle Paul: Personal Characteristics

Much as we can learn about the times of the Apostle Paul (compare Selden, In the Time of Paul, 1900, for a brief sketch of Paul's world), we know something of the political structure of the Roman world, the social life of the 1st century AD, the religious condition of the age, the moral standards of the time, the intellectual tendencies of the period. New discoveries continue to throw fresh light on the life of the middle and lower classes among whom the Apostle Paul chiefly labored.

And, if Deissmann in his brilliant study (St. Paul, A Study in Social and Religious History) has pressed too far the notion that the Apostle Paul the tent-maker ranks not with Origen, but with Amos the herdman (p. 6, on p. 52 he calls it a mistake "to speak of Paul the artisan as a proletarian in the sense which the word usually bears with us"), yet he is right in insisting that Paul is "a religious genius" and "a hero of piety" (p. 6). It is not possible to explain the personality and work of a man like Paul by his past and to refer with precision this or that trait to his Jewish or Greek training (Alexander, Ethics of Paul, 58). "We must allow something to his native originality" (same place) .

We are all in a sense the children of the past, but some men have much more the power of initiative than others. the The Apostle Paul is not mere "eclectic patchwork" (Bruce, Paul's Conception of Christ, 218). Even if the Apostle Paul was acquainted with Philo, which is not certain, that fact by no means explains his use of Philo, the representative Jew of the Hellenistic age. "Both are Jews of the Dispersion, city-dwellers, with marked cosmopolitan traits. Both live and move in the Septuagint Bible. Both are capable of ecstatic and mystical experiences, and have many points of contact in detail. And yet they stand in very strong contrast to one another, a contrast which reminds us of the opposition between Seneca and Paul. .... Philo is a philosopher, Paul the fool pours out the vials of his irony upon the wisdom of the world" (Deissmann, Paul, 110). Deissmann, indeed, cares most for "the living man, Paul, whom we hear speaking and see gesticulating, here playful, gentle as a father, and tenderly coaxing, so as to win the hearts of the infatuated children--there thundering and lightning with the passionate wrath of a Luther, with cutting irony and bitter sarcasm on his lips" (ibid., 16 f).

"Saul" and the Death of Stephen

Saul is "a young man" (Acts 7:58) when this event occurs. Like other young Jews he entered upon his life as a rabbi at the age of thirty. He had probably been thus active several years, especially as he was now in a position of leadership and may even have been a member of the Sanhedrin (Acts 26:10). Pontius Pilate was not deposed from his procuratorship till 36 AD, but was in a state of uneasiness for a couple of years.

It is more probable, therefore, that the stoning of Stephen would take place after his deposition in the interregnum, or not many years before, when he would be afraid to protest against the lawlessness of the Jewish leaders. He had shown timidity at the death of Jesus, 29 or 30 AD, but some of the forms of law were observed. So nothing decisive is here obtained, though 35 AD seems more probable than 32 or 33.

The Apostle Paul's Flight from Damascus

Paul locates this humiliating experience (2 Corinthians 11:32) when "the governor under Aretas the king guarded the city of the Damascenes." Aretas the Arabian, and not the Roman, has now control when the Apostle Paul is writing. The likelihood is that Aretas did not get possession of Damascus till 37 AD, when Tiberius died and was succeeded by Caligula. It is argued by some that the expression "the city of the Damascenes" shows that the city was not under the control of Aretas, but was attacked by a Bedouin chieftain who lay in wait for the Apostle Paul before the city. That to me seems forced.

Josephus (Ant., XVIII, v, 3; vi, 3) at any rate is silent concerning the authority of Aretas over Damascus from 35-37 AD, but no coins or inscriptions show Roman rule over the city between 35 and 62 AD. Ramsay, however ("The Pauline Chronology," Pauline and Other Studies, 364), accepts the view of Marquardt (Romische Staatsalterth., I, 404 f) that it was possible for Aretas to have had possession of Damascus before 37 AD.

The flight from Damascus is the same year as the visit to Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul's first after his conversion (Acts 9:26; Galatians 1:18). If we knew the precise year of this event, we could subtract two or three years and reach the date of his conversion. Lightfoot in his Commentary on Ga gives 38 as the date of this first visit to Jerusalem, and 36 as the date of the conversion, taking "after 3 years" in a free way, but in his Biblical Essays, 221, he puts the visit in 37 and the conversion in 34, and says " `after 3 years' must mean three whole years, or substantially so." Thus we miss a sure date again.

The Death of Herod Agrippa I

Here the point of contact between Acts (12:1-4,19-23) and Josephus (Ant., XIX, viii) is beyond dispute, since both record and describe in somewhat similar vein the death of this king. Josephus says that at the time of his death he had already completed the 3rd year of his reign over the whole of Judea (Ant., XIX, viii, 2). He received this dignity soon after Claudius began to reign in 41 AD, so that makes the date 44 AD. He died after the Passover in that year (44), for Peter was imprisoned by him during that feast (Acts 12:3).

But unfortunately Luke sandwiches the narrative about Herod Agrippa in between the visit of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem from Antioch (Acts 11:29) and their return to Antioch (Acts 12:25). He does not say that the events here recorded were exactly synchronous with this visit, for he says merely "about that time." We are allowed therefore to place this visit before 44 AD or after, just as the facts require. The mention of "elders" in Acts 11:30 instead of apostles (compare both in 15:4) may mean that the apostles are absent when the visit is made.

After the death of James (Acts 12:1) and release of Peter we note that Peter "went to another place" (Acts 12:17). But the apostles are back again in Jerusalem in Acts 15:4. Lightfoot (Biblical Essays, 216) therefore places the visit "at the end of 44, or in 45." Once more we slip the connection and fail to fix a firm date for the Apostle Paul. It is disputed also whether this 2nd visit to Jerusalem according to Ac (9:26; 11:29 f) is the same as the "again" in Galatians 2:1. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveler, 59) identifies the visit in Galatians 2:1 with that in Acts 11:29, but Lightfoot (Biblical Essays, 221) holds that it "must be identified with the third of the Acts" (15:4).

In Galatians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul is not recording his visits to Jerusalem, but showing his independence of the apostles when he met them in Jerusalem. There is no proof that he saw the apostles on the occasion of the visit in Acts 11:29 f. The point of Lightfoot is well taken, hut we have no point of contact with the outside history for locating more precisely the date of the visit of Galatians 2:1 and Acts 15:4, except that it was after the first missionary tour of Acts 13 and 14.


The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain. A.T. Robertson