7 Heroes of the Faith: Part 1A – Saul the Zealous Pharisee

If we are going to recount inspiring stories of great saints from the past, we surely must start with Saul of Tarsus, who eventually became the great Apostle Paul.

“The Apostle Paul? But I already know about him! I thought you were going to write about people a little more recent in church history!”

I understand your complaint but let me assure you that there are details of Paul’s life (and death) that you are probably not familiar with, which will help you to have a much deeper appreciation of his legacy as you read his New Testament letters.

Arguably, no other person in history has had such a lasting legacy in the ongoing unfolding of God’s kingdom on earth. Fourteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven books were written by Paul, and his life of missionary work led to the spread of the gospel all around the gentile world of the first century. Upwards of twenty churches were directly founded by him, with many more second and third generation churches flowing from those.[1] For instance, in Asia alone, the New Testament mentions Paul evangelising and planting churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae and Hieropolis. Beyond that, if we take into account other New Testament references to Paul’s journeys to Athens, Spain, Cyprus, Philippi, Galatia, Illyricum, Damascus, Arabia, Syria and Crete, the number of churches founded by him in those and other associated places could be dozens more than we know about. Most modern church planters might successfully plant one or two churches in their lifetime. Compared to that, Paul’s accomplishments are extraordinary!

But more than the bare bones of his accomplishments, I want to dig down into his character. I want you to see the man of flesh and blood behind these achievements. Because the story of the man himself – his passion, his faith and his sacrifice – is incredibly inspiring.

It is not possible to provide a comprehensive biography of Paul’s life in a single chapter such as this. Instead, I will focus on just three areas and draw some implications from them: his early life, his conversion, and his martyrdom.

SAUL’S EARLY LIFE

Saul was a Jew from Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, a Roman province in Asia Minor, and was born around the same time as Jesus (possibly 5 BC). Because his parents were Jews, he was given the Jewish name of Saul. He was probably also given the Roman name of Paul at his birth, for use in the Gentile world. This is because his father, though a Jew (in fact, a Pharisee), was also a Roman citizen and thus, according to Roman law, Saul/Paul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29). This dual citizenship would eventually be used by God in a great way to bridge the gap between the Jewish and Gentile worlds and take the gospel to the far corners of the civilised world. From the moment of his birth, he was uniquely positioned to be God’s ambassador to the Gentiles.

In Acts 23:6, Paul describes himself as “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees”. Thus, his father and probably his grandfather were Pharisees[2], members of the strictest sect of Judaism. Paul also refers to the fact that he “studied under Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). From this we can infer that the young Saul was sent to Jerusalem after his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 12 or 13, and was discipled to Gamaliel, the greatest and most revered rabbi in Israel. At the time of Jesus, Gamaliel’s discipleship school had several hundred students, consisting of the very best and brightest boys and young men from all over Israel. It was considered a great honour to be selected to be discipled to Gamaliel rather than by any of the lesser rabbis. Thus, the young Saul appears to have been exceptionally bright and gifted.

Discipleship to a rabbi involved up to 18 years of study, commencing the age of 12. At the age of 20, after the first 8 years of study, many disciples were let go and had to pursue a secular trade. But the most gifted disciples were invited to stay on for a further 10 years of study under their rabbi. Finally, at the age of 30, a small number of these remaining disciples, the very best of the best, were endorsed by the formal body of rabbis and ordained as rabbis themselves. This was the pinnacle toward which all disciples strived but only a few ever reached.

Did Saul make it to the end of this process? Was he finally ordained as a rabbi? There is no explicit statement in the scriptures either supporting or negating this possibility, but there are several strong hints that he did achieve this lofty status. Firstly, there is the fact that he was not married, intimated by Paul himself in several of his letters (eg: 1 Corinthians 7:8). This would be highly unusual unless he was a rabbi. Of course, rabbis did often marry, but only once they had been ordained and set apart as rabbis after the age of 30. This was because the gruelling discipleship process that led to ordination demanded all their attention and energy.  Thus, most newly minted rabbis were still single and often remained so for some time until they established themselves and began to generate a reliable income – a process that usually took several more years until they gained respect from the wider community and could rely on offerings from synagogues and gifts from wealthy families who wanted their own sons trained as disciples. Saul’s conversion appears to have occurred at this stage of his life when he was still single. He then apparently decided to remain single, at least for the initial period of his missionary life, in order to dedicate himself solely to the work of the gospel with the same single-hearted devotion he had shown during his years as a disciple.

Even more significant, however, is the record of him organising and leading the persecution against Christians prior to his conversion. Saul appears to have played a significant leadership role in this persecution, which is a strong indicator that, by then, he had achieved rabbinical authority in his own right. In Acts 7 we read that those who stoned Stephen to death at the instigation of the Sanhedrin (the ruling council of leading rabbis) “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). The removal of coats was necessary because stoning was hard work. They weren’t small stones that were being thrown; they were large rocks, capable of breaking bones and crushing skulls, and it often took considerable time and effort before the condemned person was finally dead. The fact that those participating in this gruesome and physically demanding task laid their coats at Saul’s feet, seems to indicate that he was supervising the execution, acting under the authority of the Sanhedrin. This task would not have been delegated to a mere disciple or a lay person but would almost certainly have been given to a rabbi.

Evidence for Saul’s rabbinical status is further strengthened by the opening account concerning him in Acts 9:

“Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2)

Three things in this brief passage point to Saul’s rabbinical status:

  1. The reference to his “breathing out murderous threats” against the Christians is significant. This seems to indicate an ability and an authority to carry out those threats, rather than the mere hateful wishes of a layman. The word for “threats” used here (“apeile”) strongly infers the ability and authority to carry them out.
  2. Saul’s ability to directly approach the high priest in order to suggest a course of action and secure letters of authority from him is something that only an ordained rabbi would be able to do. Saul appears to have been a young rabbi whose star was in the ascendent and who had direct access to the high priest. A layman would not have had this kind of access to the high priest.
  3. His commissioning to authorise and coordinate the arrest of Christians would not have been given to a mere layman. This almost certainly infers his rabbinical status.

Many years later, as he reflected on his pre-conversion life, Paul wrote, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my people” (Galatians 1:14). In his letter to the church at Philippi, he also wrote that he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews … a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:5-6). These bold claims only make sense if Saul was an ordained rabbi, rather than merely a pious layman.

The most likely scenario is that at the time of his conversion to Christianity, Saul was a promising young rabbi who was rapidly gaining recognition among the Jewish hierarchy and was being given increasing authority.

It might seem that I am labouring the point here, but I believe it is an important one. Saul’s growing authority and extreme zeal as a rabbi on the rise makes his eventual conversion to Christianity all the more spectacular. It also explains why the religious hierarchy took such extreme offense at his conversion and relentlessly pursued him throughout the remainder of his life, seeking to have him arrested and killed. Such a high-profile conversion did not look good for the Pharisaic movement. One of their rising stars had switched teams! If the young Saul had been an ordinary layman, his conversion would not have aroused such intense opposition from the religious hierarchy.

Saul’s remarkable conversion to Christianity is the topic of the next instalment.

[1] Neil Cole, “How Many Churches Did the Apostle Paul Start?”, on Church Planting website, churchplanting.com, 24th Feb 2020.

[2] Acts 23:6