BACKGROUND: "Set apart (by God) from the day of my birth" (Gal. 1:15)
Saul's upbringing and formation uniquely prepared him for his apostolic life. The Tradition in the early Church ( according to St. Jerome ) was that Saul's family originally came from Gaililee. They moved to Tarsus in Cilicia and before Saul's birth, had acquired the prized Roman citizenship.
Paul, in later years , was insistent on the importance of three aspects of this background:
- He was a Hebrew, born of Hebrews ( that is, not just a Diaspora Israelite he belonged (Phillipians 3 : 5);
- "I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city", he informs the Tribune in Jerusalem ( Acts 21 : 39). The Greek historian/ geographer/ philosopher Strabo ( 63/64 B.c - A.D. 24 ) says of Tarsus : " ....there was much zeal for philosophy and all other aspects of education generally among the inhabitants so that in this respect they surpassed even Alexandria, Athens and any other place ( Geog. 14. 5. 13 )." This pagan source backs up Paul's claim.
- "Tell me are you a Roman Citizen? And he said, " Yes....But I was born a citizen ." Paul insists on his rights as a Roman Citizen Again, he belonged. ( Emphasis added.)
Not much is known of Saul's early education in the stimulating intellectual environment of Tarsus. We know enough of Pharisees and the practice of devout Jews, steeping their children in detailed study of the Law and scriptures. We also know that Saul spoke Greek well. When he first addresses the Tribune, the immediate surprised response is :: " Do you know Greek?" ( Acts 21 : 37)
Among the Jews and most Middle Eastern peoples at that time, Aramaic was the everyday language. Paul also spoke Hebrew, the classical language of the rabbinical scholars. His use of it ( Acts 22 : 2 ) wins some respect from the Jewish mob that brought him before the Tribune. Further Jesus speaks to him in Hebrew on the Damascus road ( Acts 26 : 14 ).
Paul's writing does not use the classical Attic Greek but Koine, the language of the ordinary people, not only in Greece but in the various international communities around the Mediterranean world. He makes several references, quoted in epigrams, to Greek literature in his writing :
1 Cor. 15 : 33 - Menander, Thais 218
Acts 17 : 28 - Epimenides : Aratus
Titus 2 : 12 - Epimenides
But as likely as not, these epigrams were in common use and not necessarily evidence of classical Greek education. We know from his own remarks that Paul sustained himself by his work as a tentmaker , so that he would be no burden on those to whom he preached. It seems at least possible that he acquired this trade during his time in Arabia where it would have been commonly needed and practised, and where he needed physical sustenance.
Surprisingly in the New Testament context, where silence about the appearance of those mentioned is the norm, we know a good deal about St. Paul's appearance and manner. The lack of charity on the part of his critics gives us a dramatic picture, either directly or through Paul's responses :
2 Cor. 10 : 10 "...but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account"
Gal. 4 : 13-14 " You know that it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first; and though my condition was a trial to you ...."
2 Cor. 10 : 1 " I who am humble when face to face with you..."
1 Cor. 1: 17 " Christ...(sent)...me..to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom " (Knox translation : ..""not with an orator's cleverness").
1 Cor. 2: 1 " ...I did not come proclaiming to you the testmony of God in lofty words or wisdom" ( Knox Translation : "...without any high pretensions to eloquence or philosophy".)
Yet surely we know even more about his presence from its results. He founds and fosters burgeoning local churches around the Middle East. He has a host of dedicated disciples around the region seeking his return visits. He is treated like a son by the mother of Rufus (Romans 16 :13 ) son of Simon of Cyrene ( Mark 15 : 21 ).
He is treated with reasonable regard by the Roman Tribune in Jerusalem, by the Procurator Felix and by his successor Porcius Festus, by King Agrippa who has to resort to feeble humour to evade Paul's effort to convert him, and by the Roman Centurion Julius who is to conduct him to Rome for trial. And, under house arrest in Rome he makes converts even " in the Emperor's household" - no doubt some of the Emperor's Praetorian Guard, members of which guarded Paul in his house pending Caesar's decision.
These two sets of facts seem at odds. But perhaps the apocryphal "Acts of Paul and Thecla" can offer a solution. It contains the description : "....and he saw Paul coming, a man of little stature, thin haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace: for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel." ( Emphasis added.)
The intense criticism of Paul comes from the Corinthians. Corinth, with its rich sea port was the largest city in Greece. It had been devastated in 146 B.C. when the Romans under Lucius Mummius sacked it, put all the men to the sword and sold the women and children into slavery. More recently it had been re-settled by Julius Caesar with freedmen from Rome. The new Corinth became famous for its wealth and luxury and the immoral and vicious habits of its people.
Paul's first visit in A.D. 51/52 lasted 18 months when Gallio, the brother of Seneca, was Pro-Consul.
It is clear that the citizens of worldly, wealthy Corinth tended to backslide when Paul had gone and became resentful of the firm teaching in Paul's letters. The more recently arrived Apollos ( from Ephesus where Paul had asked Aquila and Priscilla to complete Apollos' Christian education) would seem to have had a classical background, and to have been an accomplished orator in the highly conventionalised style of Greek custom ( head raised, arms thus and thus and hand just so). They contrasted this with Paul's humility and sincerity and, in their worldly way, found Paul lacking.
But when we consider the list of Paul's sufferings :
" I have toiled harder, spent longer days in prison, been beaten so cruelly, so often looked death in the face. Five times the Jews scourged me, and spared me but one lash in the forty; three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned; I have been shipwrecked three times, I have spent a night and a day as a castaway at sea, danger among false brethren! I have met with toil and weariness, so often been sleepless, hungry and thirsty; so often denied myself food, gone cold and naked." ( 2 Cor. 11 : 23-27). He might well have appeared somewhat worn and " crooked in the legs! "
Paul refers ( 2 Cor. 12 : 7 ) to a " thorn ...given me in the flesh" ( RSV Translation - Knox Translation : " a sting to distress my outward nature.") The original Vulgate Translation from the Greek to Latin as "stimulus carnis" led to the conclusion that this was a sensual temptation. However Monsignor Ronald Cox suggests that Monsignor Ronald Knox' Translation of the passage is the better rendition of the original Greek and suggests some recurring malady, with external symptoms. In this connection, we note St. Paul's comment in Galatians (4 : 13-14 ) " you know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the Gospel to you first; and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus." This suggests some embarassing but not diabling physical condition which may have been recurring - something seriously troubling to Paul - a trial to be overcome.
As Paul says elsewhere ( 1 Cor. 9 : 27), " I buffet my own body,and make it my slave, or I, who have preached to others, may myself be rejected as worthless."
In Saul we see a privileged, hyper zealous Pharisee, better educated in his religion than most, an activist we might say - but a leader - not one to " get his hands dirty". Saul goes with the mob which is to kill St. Stephen " and was consenting to his death" (Acts 8 : 1 ) but stood back minding the clothes of those who did the murderous deed. ( Acts 7 : 58 )
In his activist leadership role Saul secures from the Chief Priests a warrant to pursue Christians, even in remote locations. Evidently his scholarly brilliance and his zeal had opened doors for him. He was no doubt well connected, being a leading pupil of Gamaliel.
But on the Damascus road he encounters Jesus Christ - the encounter is overwhelmingly transforming. After his consequent blindness is lifted by Ananias in the house in Straight Street, Damascus, and he is Baptised, he is no longer the " clean hands" activist leader - no longer obsessed by the Law, but driven by the love of Jesus Christ and His commission to preach the Gospel to the World. So dramatic is the transformation, that 2,000 years later a " Damascus road experience " is still a common metaphor.
So powerful, so pervasive was this direct revelation by Christ that Paul, after his Baptism went off to " Arabia " for several years. He tells us nothing of what he did there. We hear relatively little of Arabia in the writings of the time. It lay to the East and the South of Judea constituting what is to-day Jordan and Saudi Arabia : largely desert. The region was at the time controlled by the Himyarites, a people who could not be subdued even by a 10,000 strong Roman Army under Aelius Gallus, despatched from Egypt by Augustus in 24 B.C.
We can only conclude that Paul spent his time in these desert lands in prayer, fasting and meditation on the profound Revelation he had received.
It was a transformed Paul who emerged onto the active mission field. He is right in the midst of the work. No more the elite zealot. He is personally involved in winning souls for Christ. Through the pages of the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's Epistles, we see a new man - marvellously matured, loving, vigorous, adventurous, brave, bold in preaching and extraordinarily learned in Sacred Scripture and in theological understanding.
Mentally, Paul is as sharp as a tack. His sometimes lengthy but always relevant expositions of the history of the Jewish people and religion are brilliant. Even mor remarkable is his quick thinking under pressure. Dragged before the Chief Priests and under great threat, he nimbly diverts the whole proceedings by claiming he is being persecuted because he is a Pharisee and believes in life after death. He well knows the Pharisee Vs Sadducee divisions among the priests, who then turn on each other. In Athens, he notices the shrine to "an unknown God" and wastes no time in telling the Athenians this is the One True God he is preaching. His analysis and enunciation of the consequences of the new dispensation for converted Jews is incisive and clear thinking in a situation which many found confusing and troubling. He insists that the Gentiles have no need to follow the observances of the Law and that the Jewish converts need no longer do so and must not try to impose them on Gentile converts.
His personal convictions, even in optional matters are strong. This did not always make him easy to get along with. Having concluded his first missionary journey ( according to our customary division of his travels) at Antioch, he proposes to his companion Barnabas that they should travel back the way they have come, re-visiting each of the churches. Barnabas wishes to take Mark with them, but Paul will not agree, since Mark had left their first journey when they reached Pamphylia rather than confront the rugged mountains and wild tracks of Galatia. Their disagreement was so sharp that Barnabas returned to his native Cyprus with Mark. Paul went on as he had intended, with Silas. Interestingly Paul later revised his view of Mark who was with him during his imprisonments in Rome. Barnabas remained in Cyprus for the rest of his life, becoming known as the Apostle of Cyprus.
Paul retains his human characteristics. Somehow the apocryphal " eyebrows joining" ring true. For in popular belief they are a sign of a fiery temper. Paul certainly shows signs of that. Though, as the years go by it is moderated under the influence of grace and love. And, in his writing, we are often taken along verbally as he warms to a topic, and in one or two notable examples most translations demurely modify or, shall we say, re-phrase some of his more excitable utterances.
But, through it all,we come to love Paul who spends himself totally for the love of Jesus Christ and His Church. It is easy to visualise Paul - this smallish man, of somewhat worn appearance, betrayed only by his eyes. Eyes that are aglow with the light of the fire that burns in his spirit and heart. As we read his words, his charismatic presence inspires us, his unflagging drive and boldness in bringing Christ to us opens our hearts and souls to the movement of the Holy Spirit as Paul continues to preach the Word made Flesh.
Copyright This article first appeared in the July 2008 Issue of FOUNDATION.