Most of us have a mixed bag of stuff from our past, from our formative years. We may possess both opportunities, perhaps in education, but possibly also some challenges from family dysfunction. Or perhaps it could be just the opposite. Just as a strong background can surely prepare a person for lifetime successes, there is no guarantee it will evolve in that direction. Likewise, a less than stellar upbringing can be overcome, as many rags to riches stories attest.
The Apostle Paul could boast a very strong background, especially in Jewish circles of association. His credentials could match just about anyone else. Even so, thinking ahead in the story, we know that this strict Jewish education did not position him to naturally gravitate toward the new teachings of a crucified and resurrected Messiah with a gospel message for all mankind. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
As we consider Paul’s background, it is rather certain that Paul was born relatively close to the same time as Jesus Christ (maybe about two years older?), and that he would therefore live into his upper 60s.
From the city of Tarsus (south-central Turkey), we can infer that Paul came from what must have been a relatively affluent family. Though ethnically Jewish, they met Roman citizenship requirements as land owners and were likely among the leading people of the city. Paul’s family could trace their lineage to the tribe of Benjamin, his name “Saul” being after King Saul of that tribe, with Paulus being a Roman name given him by his Roman/Jewish father.
He possessed the finest of educations, what we might consider like a Harvard/Princeton equivalent, sitting also under the most famous of instructors. In an uproar in Jerusalem during his ministry, Paul sought and received the soldiers’ permission to address the rioting Jewish crowd …
Acts 22:1-3 … “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.
So this is about as good as it can get in terms of a background for a Jewish boy in the Roman world. Paul gave a summary of it when writing to the church in Philippi – who were dealing with Jewish legalists and their proud lineage …
Philippians 3:4-6 … If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
So Paul would have grown up with an early Synagogue education, topped off by Gamaliel and graduating magna cum laude. He would have known Hebrew, Greek, and the Septuagint as well (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). And he could speak the common language of Aramaic. Tarsus was in fact one of the three great “university towns” of that age, along with Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.
Like all responsible Jewish families, boys were taught a trade – for Paul, tent-making. The area from which he came in Cilicia boasted a particular type of high-grade fabric from the prevalence of goat herds, and this skill would prove valuable for Paul in his travel years as a missionary.
Paul’s advanced education and his commitment to it would lead him to become a Pharisee and member surely of the Sanhedrin. He was on track to become one of the foremost Jewish leaders of his generation.
We first encounter Paul on the pages of Scripture in the book of Acts, in chapters 7 and 8, upon the occasion of the stoning of Stephen after his sermon …
Acts 7:54—8:3 — 54 … When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
For Paul to be a Pharisee, he would have had to be around the age of at least 30, and this works with the presumed timeline of his life.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
8:1 – On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
So this event was a sort of “coming out” event for Saul/Paul, where his Jewish zeal and faith moved him to radical action (that would not have been endorsed actually by Gamaliel). And it is a couple of chapters later that we see Paul’s incredible conversion story, and we shall study again over these weeks all that came from the new life he found in Christ.
So Paul was uniquely qualified to serve God as he did – combining the great Jewish background of theology, the education of the Greek culture, and the opportunities that Roman citizenship could open for him. But his ultimate success was not because of these things, not primarily. It is not as if God chose Paul because he was the candidate with the best resume to miraculously redeem from the other side. No, Paul ultimately was the great leader of the early church because, by God’s grace, he was empowered to accomplish all that he did. His fleshly credentials were not his best asset, and his liabilities (such as apparently not being the healthiest guy around nor the best orator) did not diminish his success or limit what God could do through him.
So education is grand! A wonderful and godly family is an asset. Having great natural skills of personal and professional interaction are resume builders for sure. But none of it matters for eternity without the empowering blessing of God working through you. And no lack of these natural skills and blessings can thwart what God can do through the life of a yielded Christian. When we are weak, He is strong… as Paul knew and wrote!