Tarsus is situated near a northwestern corner of the Mediterranean Sea and is triangulated between Jerusalem to the south, Greece to the west, and Persia in the northeast. In Saul’s day Tarsus was a prominent crossing point of trade, education, and religion. Unlike most of the rest of the world, and in particular Jerusalem, Rome treated Tarsus with extreme leniency. Jews and all the other cultural and enthnic inhabitants were pretty much left alone. It was under such cultural and ethnic equality that Saul was born, raised, and, educated.
Between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., the Jewish Diaspora (dispersion) began following the rebellion of the ten tribes of Israel against the House of David with only Judah and Benjamin remaining loyal (1 Kings 12:21). The lost tribes abandoned their Hebrew language for that of their new homelands. Because Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin he was a Hebrew of Hebrews meaning that he spoke and wrote in Hebrew. Only 1 in 10 Jews at that time could speak Hebrew. He was also fluent in Greek and highly educated because he was raised in Tarsus.
Saul was born about the same time as Jesus. We don’t know Saul’s father’s name. We do know that he was a Roman citizen. Citizenship could be purchased, but more likely it had been granted him for some meritorious acheivement. Roman citizen could also be inheritied and it seems likely that Saul’s citizenship was passed down. Roman citizenship was not comon. Of 80,000,000 people under Rome’s contraol, only 6,000,000 were citizens in Emperor Claudius’ A.D. 47 census.
The dignity and majesty of Roman law were the foundations upon which the whole fabric of the empire rested and Roman citizenship enjoyed all its advantages. A Roman citizen could not be flogged without a fair trial. Supposedly a citizen could not be crucified either. Roman law allowed a citizen to appeal to the highest court of all—the judgment of the emperor.
While the most natural thing would have been for Paul to become a merchant, it was decided that he should become a rabbi which meant he was a minister, teacher, and lawyer all in one. According to Jewish custom however Paul first learned a trade. He was making tents from goats’ hair cloth, which was one of the commonest trades in Tarsus.
Saul’s father was of the straitest sect of the Jews, a Pharisee, and of the tribe of Benjamin, of pure and unmixed Jewish blood (Acts 23:6; Phil. 3:5). Nothing is really known about his mother. You will recall in Jesus’ time on Earth, there existed the Pharisees and the Sadducees who made up the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin was the main governing body in Israel and the authoritarial equivalent of our Supreme Court. The Sadducees were of the priestly family residing in Jerusalem.You may recall that they tempted Jesus in particular about the resurrection because they didn’t believe in it (Luke 20:27-40). The Pharisees had far greater influence than the Sadducees.
The Pharisees claimed their history back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra 6:21 and 10:1-4 spoke of those who “separated themselves” from “the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord God.” In Nehemiah 9:2, he spoke of those of “the seed of Israel” who “separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.” Remember, Nehemiah was the one that rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem. In Nehemiah 10:28-31 he tells what the Pharisees first were and it seems all too familiar to radical Islam today.
Neh. 10:28 ¶ m“The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, nand all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding,
Neh. 10:29 join with their brothers, their nobles, oand enter into a curse and an oath pto walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes.
Neh. 10:30 qWe will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.
Neh. 10:31 rAnd if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day. And we will forego the crops of the sseventh year and the texaction of every debt.
Neh. 10:32 ¶ “We also take on ourselves the obligation to give yearly ua third part of a shekel3 for the service of the house of our God:
Neh. 10:33 vfor the showbread, wthe regular grain offering, wthe regular burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed feasts, the holy things, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.
Neh. 10:34 xWe, the priests, the Levites, and the people, have likewise cast lots yfor the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, according to our fathers’ houses, at times appointed, year by year, to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, zas it is written in the Law.
Neh. 10:35 We obligate ourselves ato bring the firstfruits of our ground and the firstfruits of all fruit of every tree, year by year, to the house of the Lord;
Neh. 10:36 also to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God, the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, bas it is written in the Law, and the firstborn of our herds and of our flocks;
Neh. 10:37 cand to bring the first of our dough, and our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the wine and the oil, to the priests, dto the chambers of the house of our God; and to bring to the Levites the tithes from our ground, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all our towns where we labor.
Neh. 10:38 And the priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive the tithes. And the Levites shall bring up the tithe of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of ethe storehouse.
Neh. 10:39 For the people of Israel and the sons of Levi fshall bring the contribution of grain, wine, and oil to the chambers, where the vessels of the sanctuary are, as well as the priests who minister, and the gatekeepers and the singers. gWe will not neglect the house of our God.”
So what did this mean in common practice between Pharisees treat non-Pharisees? The following is abridged from Alfred Edersheim’s book, Sketches of Jewish Social Life (p. 236):
- A Pharisee could not to buy from, nor to sell to a non-Pharisee.
- A Pharisee could not eat at a non-Pharisee’s table (as he might partake of
what had not been tithed).
- A Pharisee could not admit a non-Pharisee to his table, unless he had put on
the garments of a Pharisee (as his own old ones might else have
- A Pharisee could not give tithes to any priest who was not a member of the
At the time of Christ there were about 25,000 to 30,000 people living in Jerusalem. Josephus writes that there were about 6,000 Pharisees in the vicinity of the city in the first century. Those who were not Pharisees however still admired them. The Pharisees spread there philosophy widely throughout the surrounding Jerusalem countryside. Most of the Pharisees were average people…carpenters, fishermen and storekeepers.
There were two rival schools within the Pharisees when Jesus walked the Earth. The school of rabbis Hillell and Shammai. Shammai held the Law of Moses high and despised tradition while Hillel held the honor of tradition to be higher than the Law of Moses. The school of Hillel was more influential as you can imagine and they began adding their “helpful suggestions” which was soon regarded as sacred law. Today Jewish law, known as Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious laws.
Halakha is derived from the Torah of Moses and the Oral Torah or traditions. It includes the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”), subsequent Talmudic and rabbinic law and the customs and traditions compiled in the Shulchan Aruch (literally “Prepared Table”, but more commonly known as the “Code of Jewish Law”).
Judaism classically draws no distinction in its laws between religious and non-religious life. Jewish religious tradition does not distinguish clearly between religious, national, racial, or ethnic identities. This is how God’s command to rest and not work on the Sabbath got warped to include even picking up a grain wheat or heal on the Sabbath.
Halakha guides not only religious practices and beliefs, but numerous aspects of day-to-day life. Halakha is also often translated as “Jewish Law,” although a more literal translation might be “the way to behave” or “the way of walking.” The word derives from the root that means “to behave” or “to go” or “to walk”.
In Acts 22:3 Saul says he trained at the feet of Gameliel and that he was a zealot for God. Traditionally Jewish parents put their sons into such formal training at the age of 12. At 6 Jewish boys began studying the Pentateuch, writing, and arithmetic. At 10 they started learning the Mishnah which is the Oral Torah or traditional “law” that the school of Hillel added to the Pentateuch. At 15 they started learning the opinions of rabbis down the centuries that contributed to the Oral Torah. The Talmud is the summary of Jewish oral law, i.e. traditions and contains the Mishnah which is a book of law and the Gemara which is rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah.
Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel, and referred to as Gamaliel the Elder. He was called Rabban which means master teacher and was the first of seven Rabbis in history to be so called. He rose above the prejudices of the Pharisees, encouraged the study of Greek (something most Pharisees considered sinful), and taught that poor Gentiles should have the same right to glean the harvest fields as poor Jews. Gamaliel was the most revered living rabbi during the time of the early church. He died in 52 A.D. He may well have been among those who sat listening to and asking questions of Jesus as a boy in the temple.
Saul learned the Old Testament as a Rabbi knew it then. He understood the special traditions (oral law) of the Rabbis. He was taught that the Old Testament Pentateuch was given through angels, even though Exodus clearly accounts for it directly by God to Moses. Thus the oral law was considered sacred and inviolable. While Saul spoke of the rock that followed the children of Israel in the wilderness by tradition, that is not part of the Old Testament narrative. He was steeped in the tradition of the oral law was a brilliant student of Rabban Gamaliel who may even have looked on him favorably as a possible successor. It is easy to see then how he had a part in putting Christians to death.
It is notable when the apostles were brought before the council after Jesus’ resurrection, that Gamaliel cautioned the members to moderation and calmness and advised them to “refrain from these men.” If their work or counsel was of man, it would come to nothing; but if it was of God, they could not destroy it, and therefore ought to be on their guard lest they should be “found fighting against God” (Acts 5:34-40).
For some two years after Pentecost while Christianity was spreading, Saul was an active part of persecuting believers. The account of Stephen is notable.
Acts 7:55 But he, nfull of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw othe glory of God, and Jesus standing pat the right hand of God.
Acts 7:56 And he said, “Behold, I see qthe heavens opened, and rthe Son of Man standing pat the right hand of God.”
Acts 7:57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together2 at him.
Acts 7:58 Then sthey cast him out of the city and tstoned him. And uthe witnesses laid down their garments vat the feet of a young man named Saul.
Acts 7:59 And as they were stoning Stephen, whe called out, “Lord Jesus, xreceive my spirit.”
Acts 7:60 And yfalling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, z“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, ahe fell asleep.
Acts 8:1 ¶ And bSaul capproved of his execution. ¶ And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and dthey were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
That word “approved” is significant I think as you can see below. The sense is that Saul was there watching the events and as the crowd descends on Stephen to stone him, he give a wink and a nod and watches their coats while they do his bidding.
gk G5306 | s G4909 suneudoke÷w syneudokeoœ 6x
to approve with another; to agree with in principle, Rom. 1:32; to stamp approval, Lk. 11:48; Acts 8:1; 22:20; to be willing, agreeable, 1 Cor. 7:12, 13*
The effect of intense persecution only fanned the flame of Christianity. As it spread intensely it only made Saul more determined to extinguish it. After hearing that believers were taking refuge in Damascus, the chief priest authorizes Saul to go there to root them out. Damascus was 130 miles away and a six day journey. He and his companions are within sight of the city when something remarkable happens.
Acts 9:3 gNow as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.
Acts 9:4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting hme?”
Acts 9:5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, hwhom you are persecuting.
Acts 9:6 But irise and enter the city, and you will be told jwhat you are to do.”
Acts 9:7 kThe men who were traveling with him stood speechless, lhearing the voice but seeing no one.
Acts 9:8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, mhe saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 9:9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Acts 9:10 ¶ Now there was a disciple at Damascus named nAnanias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, o“Here I am, Lord.”
Acts 9:11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man pof Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying,
Acts 9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and qlay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
Acts 9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, rhow much evil he has done to syour tsaints at Jerusalem.
Acts 9:14 And here he has authority from uthe chief priests to bind all who vcall on your name.”
Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for whe is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name xbefore the Gentiles and ykings and the children of Israel.
Acts 9:16 For zI will show him how much ahe must suffer bfor the sake of my name.”
Acts 9:17 So cAnanias departed and entered the house. And dlaying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and ebe filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and fhe regained his sight. Then ghe rose and was baptized;
Acts 9:19 and htaking food, he was strengthened.
¶ For isome days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
Acts 9:20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, j“He is the Son of God.”
Acts 9:21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who kmade havoc lin Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?”
Acts 9:22 But Saul mincreased all the more in strength, and nconfounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving othat Jesus was the Christ.
The transformation that Saul underwent is one of the most dramatic turnarounds I know. Here was a man dead set on pursecuting, arresting, and killing Christians who is one moment…the moment he saw Jesus…was forever changed. That change was not a little change, in that Saul just saw the error of his ways.
The man didn’t eat or drink for three days! Jesus showed him that Annanias was coming and that he would pray for him to receive his sight. Immediately upon that very event, Saul was baptized. Moreover, Saul, a truly educated man comfortable in both the Grecian and Hebrew worlds, the probable replacement for Rabban Gamaliel, begain teaching and preaching just why Jesus was the Christ!
And so Paul experienced the first “Come to Jesus” moment of many that others also report such as the Wakhan Kyrgyz of the Pamirs in Afghanistan.
As many of you know, there are about 2,500 Kyrgyz who, when Russia carved up the region into countries after WWII, found themselves high up in the Pamir mountains in the Wakhan Corridor of what is now Afghanistan and permanently unable to return to their homeland. Their lives are extremely difficult, living above 10,000 feet, cut off from the outside world with no education, high infant mortality rate and a very bleak future. Greg Mortensen mentioned meeting these people in his book “Three Cups Of Tea” and actually had a simple school built for them. When **********, an expat serving with ********** in Kyrgyzstan, met him personally, he asked him where the villages of these people were located as precisely as he could.
In 2007 ********** set out with several vehicles, some local friends, and a hand-held GPS to find these Kyrgyz. The first miracle was getting across the two intervening borders and arriving at the mouth of the Corridor. Then with only the GPS coordinates to guide them the party set out on foot to hike for days through the most difficult terrain imaginable. Exhausted and weary they finally arrived at the first Kyrgyz village where they were greeted warmly with true Kyrgyz hospitality. A feast was held; sheep were killed; eyeballs eaten. These Kyrgyz had never met an outsider who spoke their language, let alone a foreigner.
In the morning, after consuming the remnants of the feast for break- fast, the Khan (village leader) finally asked **********, “Why have you come?” **********, wisely replied, “I have come to tell you a story.”
“We know,” the Khan replied. “You have come to tell us the truth.”
Surprised, ********** asked, “How do you know that?”
“The Wandering Prophet told us. He said a foreigner would come who spoke our language and he would tell us the truth.”
Curious, ********** asked, “Who is this Wandering Prophet?”
“Well, we argue about that a lot. We don’t really know. All we know is that he appears to our elders at night sometimes when they are alone out in the fields tending the animals. My grandfather saw him and my father saw him.”
“So, what does this Wandering Prophet look like?”, ********** queried.
“Well, we argue about that a lot too. We’re not really sure. The only thing we all agree on is this: he has holes in his hands.”
“Holes in his hands? How can you tell that?”
“Oh, they are very big holes and when he holds his hands up as he is talk- ing, you can see the stars through them.”
********** smiled knowingly at the Khan and said, “You are really going to like the story I have to tell you….