SAINT PAUL Part II SAINT PAUL AND HIS WORLD
Saint Paul’s World
Saul was born between 2 and 5 AD in Tarsus in the Roman Province of Cilicia. It stood opposite the north coast of the island of Cyprus and the west coast of Syria. Rome then controlled almost the entire Mediterranean coast from Spain along the north coast to the eastern extremity, and then along the African coast to Numidia.
Caesar Augustus then 65-68 years old, would have been the only Emperor Saul’s parents had known. When they had been growing up stories of the conquests of Pompey Magnus in the region including, significantly for them as Jews, the conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC, would have been commonplace.
Augustus’ rule had brought steadily increasing prosperity and order to the Empire and consequently to the lives of Saul’s parents. They were Roman citizens, the prized status of the ancient world, a status Saul inherited. How they had gained that status we do not know, but Philo of Alexandria tells us that Augustus made it possible for the Jews of Rome to become Roman citizens, so perhaps Saul’s grandparents had originally gained that status. There were many paths to citizenship, some requiring lengthy and arduous service (e.g. in the army or some public service). As orthodox Jews they could at times have faced difficulties in relation to public acts of piety to the Roman Gods, although more normally Jews benefitted from surprising concessions.
In 4 AD Augustus legally adopted Tiberius, the son of his wife Livia, and named him as his successor.
Historical records of the region and time are rich, not only because of Roman historians, but especially because of the writings of the Romanised Jewish prince/priest/historian Flavius Josephus (37 AD – 95? AD). Stories of the recurring strife in Judea would have regularly reached the Jewish communities of the region and so would have been well known to Saul and his family. Pompey’s conquest had not brought lasting peace, but merely a new lid to the Judean political cauldron.
The Romans installed as King of Judea the infamous Herod “the Great”. Unlike the Hasmodean kings who preceded him, he did not claim the High Priesthood, to which he had no right in any case. Instead he appointed his youthful (scarcely 18) brother-in-law Aristobulus who was a member of a legitimate Jewish royal family, unlike Herod. Unhappily for Herod and also Aristobulus, the young man became exceptionally popular with the masses. He was drowned in the palace pool in Jericho. The people blamed Herod for this first of a series of murders.
Henceforth Herod appointed common priests with no right to it, to the High Priesthood. Their only qualification was docility. Herod’s briefly ruling successor Archelaus did the same.
The High Priesthood became ever more decadent – an office bought and sold – the source of violent competition between four families ranged against each other and even degenerating into stone-throwing battles. There were as many as 28 High Priests in 107 years, whereas there had been only 93 since the time of Aaron in the 13th century BC. The Jewish Talmud sums it up: “For they are High Priests, their sons are treasurers, their sons-in-law administrators and their servants beat the people with rods.” (Pesahim 57a).
Poisoned by his wife Livia, Augustus died in 14 AD and was succeeded by Tiberius. Saul was about ten years old. Five years later his parents sent him to Jerusalem to further his religious studies. At the feet of the great Pharisee doctor of the Jewish law, Gamaliel, a leader of the Sanhedrin, Saul studied for five years until 20 AD. During this period Gamaliel, who is well-known to history, would have been in his prime. We know that he died 32 years later. It was Gamaliel who convinced the Sanhedrin to release the apostles (after 39 strokes of the rod) when they were arrested for preaching the Word.
The Pharisees (the word comes from “parash”/”perush” – “separate”/”separatist”) had their origins around the second century BC in a group known as the “Hasidim” – pious and devout men of Israel – who opposed the then current Hellenistic tendencies and adhered strictly to the Law of God. In 167 BC they had become politically active in resisting the ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. But after the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 BC and the restoration of Jewish religious practice, they became more and more concentrated on strict religious practice. Josephus describes them as one of the three mainstreams of Jewish religious practice at the time, the others being the Sadducees and the Essenes (of Dead Sea Scroll fame).
Nevertheless, the religious rigorism of the Pharisees led them back into the political sphere around 128 BC. One of their number openly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the birth of the High Priest Hyrcanus and his right to hold office. The Pharisees closed ranks around their brother and Hyrcanus and the rulers from then on promoted the interests of the Sadducees. Despite them, popular support went increasingly with the Pharisees. So much so that by the time of Herod “the Great” the Pharisees needed to be dealt with most carefully, even though they seem to have numbered only 5% of the population. Around 20 BC Herod required all citizens to swear an oath of loyalty to him. The 6,000 Pharisees refused but instead of being executed, they were simply fined.
In Saul’s early twenties in 26 AD, the new Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate took up his position. The Romans had reverted to direct rule after the death of Archelaus, Herod’s successor. As Procurator, Pilate was the Emperor Tiberius’ personal representative. When Our Lord was crucified in 30 AD Saul was in his mid-twenties. Procurator Pilate’s principal roles were to collect the taxes, keep the peace and administer justice He was based at Caesarea and had at his disposal only 3,000 troops. In the event of any serious trouble he would be obliged to call on the Governor of Syria who had four legions at his disposal, including the X Fretensis which would much later be transferred to Judea.
(It should be noted here that the “Pilate Stone” discovered in 1976 actually shows his title as “Prefect” but we have maintained the customary reference “Procurator”).
As always (even today) Judea was in ferment. The Roman puppet kings Herod Agrippa in Galilee, his brother Phillip in Ituraea and Lysanias in Abilene had uneasy relations with the Procurator Pilate. The High Priest Annas had been succeeded by his son-in-law Caiphas and the religious governing Council the Sanhedrin was tensely split between the parties of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. To add further to the general air of tension Pilate himself was constantly uncertain of his relations with the Emperor after Tiberius had given him only qualified support in an earlier trial of strength with the Jews which had been appealed to the Emperor.
Saul’s conversion – giving us the Apostle Paul – is generally dated around 33 AD or 34 AD. He was then between 28 and 32 years old.
Around 36 AD Herod Agrippa, whilst visiting Rome, was overheard venturing the opinion that it would be better if Tiberius were dead. This promptly landed him in prison. Prior to this he had been a favourite of Tiberius and a boon companion of the vilely corrupt young Caligula. Tiberius did in fact die in 37 AD. Caligula succeeded him and made his friend Herod Agrippa King of Judea, restoring the unity of the regions last seen under Archelaus.
Caligula, whose excesses and insanity proved too much even for decadent Rome, was murdered in 41 AD. Improbably he was succeeded by the lame, stuttering but shrewd and effective Emperor Claudius. When Herod Agrippa died under horrible circumstances (recounted in the Acts of the Apostles) in 44 AD Claudius did not replace him, but reverted to direct Roman rule of Judea by Procurators. He also reserved to himself the right to decide who should appoint the High Priests.
By this time Paul had been a Christian and an Apostle for about ten years. He had spent an extended period in Arabia and visited Damascus and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem his preaching was so powerful that his safety was feared for (Acts 9.30) and he returned to Tarsus for four or more years. But around 46 AD Barnabus sought Paul, asking him to come to Antioch to assist with already successful preaching of the Word there, which he did for one year, “and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11.26).
In 49 AD – Saul was between 44 and 47 years old – Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome on account of “Chrestus”. The consensus seems to be that this is not a garbled reference to Christ or Christians on the part of the historian Suetonius as the name “Chrestus” appears to have been current at the time. The Jewish community in Rome is thought to have totalled about 40,000. Some of those expelled were, or became, Christians and had contact with Paul as in the case of Aquila and his wife Priscilla at Corinth (Acts 18.1-2).
Claudius was poisoned by his wife in 54 AD and succeeded by Nero. By this time Paul was on his third missionary journey and aged 49 – 52 years. In 59 AD when Paul was arrested, tried and appealed his case to Rome, Nero was busy arranging the murder of his reputedly vicious and manipulative mother Agrippina. The attempt degenerated into farce when she swam ashore from the boat designed to collapse and drown her. Not to be denied, her son despatched assassins who produced the desired result.
In 62 AD Paul was released from his Roman imprisonment and in 64 AD aged 59-62 years he was on further missionary journeys when Rome was destroyed by fire. The Romans blamed Nero, who for his part sought to shift the blame onto the Christians and instituted a terrible persecution.
Between 64 AD and 66 AD Paul continued preaching the Word and wrote the second Epistle to Timothy. Nero constructed his new palace the Domus Aurea (Golden House).
In 66 AD Paul was arrested again, imprisoned and executed by beheading. In Judea the revolt against Roman rule began. This was to lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD under the Roman General Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian who had succeeded in 69 AD after Nero committed suicide in 68 AD.
(The historically certain date of the destruction of Jerusalem confirms for us that St John’s Gospel was written prior to 70 AD for he says, “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool …” etc (John 5.2). The ruin of the five porticoed pool was identified by archaeologists in 2007.)
The man chosen by Jesus to be named “Paul” was born into an “interesting” time. Archbishop Alban Goodier SJ says of the Nativity, “It was the fullness of time …” God’s plan for the salvation of Man began to unfold. And out of the maelstrom of war, intrigue, cruelty, murder and corruption that surrounded him Paul, sustained by Divine Grace, responded to the call with Faith in Jesus of Nazareth the son of God, the Messiah, and never lost sight of Him.
“… it is no longer I who live,
but Christ Who lives in me …”
Copyright This article first appeared in the June, 2008 issue of FOUNDATION.