Tuesday, June 22, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 2

Paul of Tarsus

Paul was born into a conflict of cultures: a Jew in a Hellenistic environment. This may be seen from the fact that he, like so many of his contemporaries, is known by two names, one Hebrew and another Greek/Roman. His Hebrew name, Saul can be found in the Acts of the Apostles prior to 13:9 whereas the Roman-Greek name, Paul, can be found for the first time in that same passage and thereafter. The Roman-Greek name of ‘Paul’ is also used in 2 Peter 3:15 and in his letters. There is however no evidence to show that the name ‘Saul’ was changed to ‘Paul’ at the time of his conversion.(1) Marrow suggests that Luke had used the Hebrew name in the Jewish part of his narrative in Acts, and the Latin name in the part given to the Gentile mission.(2) In other words, the former name was probably used in the Jewish circles and the latter in the Roman-Gentile circles, for he possessed a Roman citizenship as well. In any event, we are really not certain as to the reason for the change in name. But as a Jew, we have come to know his pedigree from his own account that runs as follows: “Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless” (Phil 3:5-6). According to O’Connor, such a concern to affirm his Jewish credentials betrays the expatriate, i.e. a Jew living in the Diaspora.(3)

Perhaps it is only by accident that in Paul’s letters preserved to us he never mentions his native town. Our information comes from the Book of Acts. After Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, a Christian named Ananias was told to go and inquire for a man from Tarsus named Saul (Acts 9:11). Paul then was baptized and went to Jerusalem to meet the apostles, who brought him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus (9:30). Some time later, Christianity came to Antioch in Syria, and because of such great success there Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Paul and brought him to Antioch (11:25-26). The great missionary journeys of Paul begin after this. There is one other reference to Tarsus. When the Roman tribune allowed Paul to speak to the mob, he told them of his conversion and began with the words, “I am a Jew … and was born at Tarsus in Cilicia. I was brought up here in this city. It was under Gamaliel that I studied and was taught the exact observance of the Law of our ancestors. In fact, I was as full of duty (‘zealous’) towards God as you all are today” (22:3). This last statement suggests that Paul while still small was brought to Jerusalem by his parents, spent his childhood and youth there, and received something like an education under one of the most famous of rabbis. No doubt it was his heritage that led Paul to be concerned, as we shall see about the relevance of the Jewish tradition for Christianity. The strong concern of the Pharisees with proper living of the Law would lead Paul to later considerations of the place of the Law in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s letters also show clearly that the content of his thought was essentially Jewish, based on a knowledge of Jesus’ life and death and on thorough acquaintance with the Old Testament and Jewish tradition.

Paul certainly claimed to be a Pharisee, a member of the tribe of Benjamin and a Hebrew born of Hebrews (Phil 3:5); that is, both he and his parents spoke Aramaic or Hebrew. But there is a slight puzzle here. As most scholars would point out, although Paul’s letters show much acquaintance with Jewish tradition, his thinking and methods of argument are only partly Jewish, and he obviously had some Greek education. Unlike the Pharisees of Holy Land, Paul’s later career certainly demonstrated his openness to Gentiles. This would have been possible if Paul was exposed to the Hellenistic influence of a Gentile city like Tarsus. On the trade route between Syria and Asia Minor, Tarsus was prosperous and cultured – a center of learning. As Paul would describe it in Acts, Tarsus was “no insignificant city” (21:39). It is therefore suggested by Johnson that it is likely the family returned to Tarsus from time to time as Paul did after his conversion.(4)

It may very well be that Paul also had some formal training in the Greek culture within which he lived, for Jews in the cities of the empire often attended the schools and had training in athletics and rhetoric. Education was uniform throughout all the Hellenist cities and everyone shard a common treasury of poems, stories and speeches which they had memorized. Higher education consisted mostly of rhetoric. There students learnt the structures of speech, manner of delivery, and models that could be used for various circumstances. Tarsus, for example, was wealthy and ancient enough to support the higher forms of culture. It was a famous ‘university town,’ one which had both philosophical schools and schools of rhetoric.(5) Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia (a Roman province), in other words, was a microcosm of the Hellenistic world. Paul would have learned here some of the quotations from Greek writings that found their way into his letters. Although later on he downplayed these principles as external show (1 Cor 2:1-5), Paul nevertheless learned and even used them when they were helpful. Thus, this part of his early education would also have been significant for Paul’s later career.(6)


1. Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1997) 15, n. 11.
2. Stanley B. Marrow, Paul: His Letters and His Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1986) 7.
3. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 32.
4. Sherman E. Johnson, Paul the Apostle and His Cities (Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc., 1987) 26.
5. On the history and background of Tarsus, see Johnson, 26-30.
6. Tambasco, 6-7.


  1. Thnaks for your essay. I explore many of the same themes in a different genre, historical fiction. My novel entitled "A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle" was released to critical acclaim just a few months ago.

    Many scholars doubt that Paul was educated in Jerusalem under the great Pharisee sage, Gamaliel. He never claimed as much although he frequently felt the need to defend his credentials, and the absence of any reference to Gamaliel in his personal resume is telling. On the other hand, his letters evince an excellent Greek education, and it is unlikely such an education would be available in Jerusalem but more likely a university city like Tarsus.

    In any case, the novel treats him as remaining in Tarsus where he learned Torah under a local, diaspora sage and Greek rhetoric at the local university. Thus, in my novel, his first visit to Jerusalem occurs three years after his Damascus road experience, which is consistent with Paul's autobiographical notes in his letter to the Galatians.

    Sorry for the blatant self promotion, but for you and your readers who are interested in the genre of historical fiction as an entry into the life of Paul, I refer you to the novel's website for more info ... www.awretchedman.com

  2. Thank you for your useful comments and yes, I'll try to get a copy of your book, if it's available here in Malaysia. I would agree that much of the primary sources (Paul's own writings) do not agree (or at least makes no mention of) with the secondary re-telling of his life and missionary work in Acts.


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