Friday, June 10, 2011


I recently completed a commentary on each of Paul’s epistles, and I thought it fitting to conclude that lengthy effort with a review of the man himself. The Apostle Paul is a fascinating person, worth learning from (since his epistles are the very word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit) and better understanding. He explains Christianity for us, in a way to make it especially applicable. We’ll note the timeline of his life as we rely on his personal letters to various congregations, the earliest written evidence for the truth of Jesus Christ, and on the book of Acts, a complement to the epistles of Paul and a historical account of his travels, written by a trustworthy physician / historian, Luke.

One author notes a couple of interesting facts that point to Paul’s influence on the spread of Christianity. First, Christianity is considered a European religion because of Paul’s work, though in fact it began as a Middle Eastern / Palestinian religion. Second, Christianity is considered a Gentile religion because of Paul’s work, though in fact it began as a Jewish religion. In just ten years (47-57 AD), the Apostle Paul worked most effectively to evangelize and plant churches in much of the Roman Empire. His message was simple: Free Grace. He emphasized God’s sovereignty in free grace, the availability of grace to all who repent from sin and turn to follow Jesus in faith, and the fact that this grace is the source of freedom in living for God without the shame and guilt that come from sin. Paul sought perfection not out of fear of God but out of love for Him. Thomas Erskine summed it up nicely, saying, “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” The Greek word “charis” means both grace and gratitude, and Paul was no stranger to its usage.

Another author, in his short summary of Paul’s life, points to 10 considerable elements. They include his unique conversion experience (Acts 9:1-31), his proclamation of God’s promises (Acts 13:13-52), his understanding of being poor yet rich (1 Corinthians 4:8-13; 2 Corinthians 6: 3-10), his resourcefulness, using the power of praise (Acts 16:16-40), his growth to become a spiritual mentor (Acts 20:13-38), his fearlessness to declare the truth even while on trial (Acts 26:1-32), his strength in weakness (2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10), his feeling safe in a storm (Acts 27:13-44), his finding hope in God’s Kingdom (Acts 28:11-31), and in joy in sufferings (Philippians 1).

There is an important part of Paul’s life omitted in the above summary: his pre-conversion experience. And the point of looking at the person of Paul might be to see a great theological truth – that God doesn’t just take us at conversion and make us into the person He wants us to be; rather, God takes us from before we were born and uses even our pre-conversion life to make us into the person He wants us to be. For example, Paul didn’t just become zealous after such a spectacular conversion. He was zealous prior to that. God just worked it for good. God didn’t transform Paul into an excellent expositor of Scripture post-conversion; Paul was that, and God turned it for good. Perhaps you can think of a talent or skill or trait that you have had since your youth, and only post-conversion did you discover how to use it for God’s glory. That’s what I want us to see from Paul’s pre-conversion life – that God built His Apostle to the Gentiles from scratch, and at “just the right time” in his sinful life, He turned him the right direction. But it was still the same person. When God transforms His people, He doesn’t change who they are so much as He changes for what they exist – To glorify and enjoy Him forever.

There is some speculation in an early timeline of Paul’s life, as we are not given every detail in Scripture. But if we piece together what we are told, we can probably get close to the truth about his life. First, he was born in the city of Tarsus (maybe around 2 AD, during the Pax Romana, while Caesar Augustus was Roman Emperor until 14 AD) to an Israelite family from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). He was circumcised on the eighth day as the Law of God required (Philippians 3:5), and he was given the name Saul (from the book of Acts), after the first king of Israel, who was also a fellow Benjamite.

Contrary to what some people think, Paul was never not named Paul; he wasn’t given that name by God post-conversion or anything special like that. As a Roman citizen by birth, Paul would have had three names, as with Gaius Julius Octavius, whom you might know as Caesar Augustus. Unfortunately, we don’t know Paul’s middle or last name in this arrangement, a circumstance undoubtedly by God’s design, perhaps for a similar reason that the burial place of Moses was concealed, to keep people from worshipping him. His Jewish name was Saul, and of course, his Greek name, was Paul. This reveals that he was brought up as a dual citizen, one whose heritage was strictly Jewish but who lived perhaps in a family accustomed to prominence in Greek social circles. Tarsus was a privileged “free city” of the Roman Empire and the capital city of the Asia Minor province of Cilicia (Acts 6:9; 21:39; 22:3; 23:34). The city, which was famous for its pursuit of cultural elitism, was also famous for its woven linen from flax, called cilicium. Perhaps Paul’s family made tents from this highly desirable fabric. That Paul was deemed a full-fledged Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:23-29) is surprising, and it’s worth considering how this came to pass.

Roman citizenship was a big deal, and it wasn’t made available for everyone. In fact, you really couldn’t even purchase it, though corrupt governors made a little extra cash by selling their ability to add names to the list. While there is speculation regarding how Paul came to be on the list, the majority opinion claims that Paul’s grandfather must have done something special for a Roman governor or general during the first century BC. Perhaps his grandfather made tents for the army of General Pompey, whose base of operations was Tarsus, and was “paid” for his labor with Roman citizenship for his family, rather than with money. The point is, however it came about, it was a great benefit, especially for the right to a fair trial, which God used later in Paul’s life not only for the personal protection of His Apostle to the Gentiles but also for the advancement of His kingdom.

We know little of Paul’s family; the Benjamite clan survived the exile and dispersion and, though undoubtedly many lost touch with their clan, we are also told that many remained together. Paul’s family likely descended from the group mentioned in Nehemiah 11:7-9,31-35. He had at least one sister (Acts 23:16). We know that Paul was sent to rabbinical school in Jerusalem to learn from one of the greatest teachers of Judaism, Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3). He would have entered this school around age 12 or 13, but the fact that Paul considered himself to be “a Hebrew of Hebrews” is reason to believe that he may have spent many earlier years living in Jerusalem as well (Acts 22:3). Referring to himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul probably spoke Aramaic in the home and participated in a Hebrew / Aramaic synagogue. Though being from such a place as Tarsus, we might have expected him to be a Hellenist Jew, one who spoke Greek in the home and participated in a Greek-speaking synagogue. So being born in Tarsus, where Greek culture thrived, and growing up in Jerusalem as a Jew with Roman citizenship was an amazing blessing to young Paul, whose life was constantly in the hands of almighty God.

Let’s stop there with Paul for a minute and explore the historical path taken by both the Romans and Jews from the time of the end of the Old Testament (400 BC) to the ministry of Jesus (30 AD). Rome was founded as a city by Romulus in 753 BC, and it remained relatively insignificant until it crossed the Tiber River and conquered the Etruscans in 396 BC. Rome was sacked by the Gauls in 387 BC, but then won revenge against them in 295 BC. Rome began to spread its control by narrowly winning the First (264-241 BC against Carthage) and Second (218-202 BC against Hannibal) Punic Wars, all while Greek control dwindled post-Alexander the Great. The Greeks had yielded control of their territories to local and regional puppet kings, such as the Macedonians (Greece, or west), Parthians (east), Seleucids (upper Middle East) and Ptolomies (lower Middle East), and Rome eventually conquered those groups as it enveloped the region, including the entire Mediterranean Sea, formerly governed by the Greeks (by 133 BC). Rome suffered through nearly 60 years of internal wars over slave, servant, gladiator, and citizenship issues, but all of this was pressed aside by the time Cicero entered the Roman Senate in 74 BC. Then the internal wars were over power issues for the next 40 years. Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar formed the First Triumvirate in 60 BC, Crassus was killed in battle in 53 BC, and Caesar crossed the Rubicon and defeated Pompey, whose base of operations was Tarsus, in 49 BC, declaring himself to be the Emperor, the sole dictator of Rome.

In 47 BC, Caesar invaded Egypt and named Cleopatra queen. She later met Mark Antony in Tarsus in 41 BC. Julius Caesar was killed by his friend (Brutus) in 44 BC, and Octavius joined Marcus Lepidus and Mark Antony in the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC. Cicero, who summered in Tarsus, was a victim of that second political union. Marcus Lepidus was exiled in 36 BC for rebellion and Octavius defeated Mark Antony in 31 BC. When Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC, ceding Egypt to Rome (Egyptian history considers Octavius the next pharaoh as successor of Cleopatra), the civil wars were over and Octavius ushered in the Pax Romana as Caesar Augustus, truly the first Roman Emperor. By the time Caesar Augustus died in 14 AD, the Roman Empire was flourishing in peace.

Well that’s about as concise as I can make a history of Rome, and now let me try to do the same thing with Jewish history. Of course, from Scripture we know about Israel’s exile at the hands of the Assyrians and Judah’s subsequent exile at the hands of the Babylonians. And we know about Persia’s defeat of Babylon and Cyrus’ decree that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. And we know that Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah led groups of Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem. But we know that most Jews never returned, including Esther and Mordecai. In fact, from the end of the exile (530 BC or so) Jewish colonies flourished throughout the Persian and Greco-Roman Empires, were they were oftentimes subject externally to whatever secular rules applied, but remained subject to their own internal religious guidelines, officiated by a priest and ultimately the High Priest. Communication among the scattered Jews of the Dispersion must have remained somewhat constant, as even though they lived scattered from one another and subject to local or regional secular authorities, the colonies still considered themselves part of the Jewish nation and subjected themselves, religiously speaking, to the High Priest, who was required to be a descendant of Zadok (Ezekiel 40:46; 48:11). (By the time of Jesus’ birth, there were 11 synagogues in Rome itself, and an estimate 40-60,000 Jews living there – just as many as in Jerusalem!)

Focusing for a moment on the Judean Jews during the Intertestamental period, they were governed by a Zadokite priest internally and by the Seleucid Dynasty externally. Between 175-164 BC, Seleucid King Antiochus IV attempted to de-Judaize the Jews, and Hellenize them instead, by outlawing Sabbath observance, denying them the right to circumcision, ransacking the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, imposing taxes for the construction of a fortress and monument to Zeus in the city, and forcing them to sacrifice to idols. Some of the Jews wanted Hellenization, for economic and social reasons (the Tobiad family), but others fought back. Judas Maccabee, which means “hammer,” the son of a rural priest named Mattathias the Hasmonean, led the Jews in earning autonomy through guerilla warfare. The Hasmonean Dynasty was founded and controlled Judea from 164-63 BC. And Hanukah celebrates this victory and rededication of the Temple. Jerusalem would be considered “holy” by the entire Roman Empire until 66-70 AD.

But all was not well, inside or out. The Seleucids didn’t go away, and there was uncertainty regarding whether to continue fighting to expand their territory or make peace with neighboring dynasties and empires. The Jewish people divided over what to think about this situation, and new-formed factions within Judaism expanded (Hasideans, which became Pharisees, meaning “godly people” and “separated ones” from Leviticus 19:2, Sadducees, and Essenes). According to Joseph Schultz, modern scholarship “considers the Maccabean revolt less as an uprising against foreign oppression than as a civil war between the orthodox and reformist parties in the Jewish camp.”

Jonathan Maccabee was made High Priest, and when his older brother Judas died, Jonathan became ruler and priest. Jonathan Maccabee was assassinated in 142 BC, and when the youngest brother, Simon, became leader, he made treaties with the Seleucids and earned exemption from tribute, which lasted until 6 AD, pacifying some Jews and enraging others. Simon Maccabee was assassinated by his son-in-law, and his grandson, John Hyrcanus, succeeded him as priest, military leader, and “president;” he wouldn’t use the word “king,” because he knew he wasn’t a son of David and didn’t deserve the title. Hyrcanus reigned from 134-104 BC, and, because he led Judea to complete independence as the Seleucids collapsed and forced conversions to Judaism from neighboring peoples, many thought he could be the Messiah (Sadducees). But others (Pharisees and Essenes) realized that he was neither a Zadokite priest, nor a son of David; they thought he should be removed from that role.

The Essenes, who were convinced of God’s sovereignty, ran for the hills and isolated themselves at Qumran, where they most certainly penned the Dead Sea Scrolls, waiting for the Son of David to come. The Pharisees, who walked the middle of the road between God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, and the Sadducees, who were all about man’s freedom even at the expense of God’s sovereignty, remained involved in the struggle for proper self-governance, and though the Pharisees were considered better at exposition of Scripture, they remained the minority political party. They spoke out against Hellenization and certainly did not favor wars of expansion or forced conversions, but the Sadducees won out most frequently in this battle for power among the laity.

Hyrcanus, a Pharisee who switched sides and became a Sadducee due to political pressure, seeing the political turmoil, arranged for a separation of the roles of priest and king, but his son and successor as priest, Aristobulus, also a Sadducee, wanted the throne as well. He imprisoned his mother, who was intended to be the queen, and let her starve; then he proclaimed himself “king” despite not being a son of David. He died from internal bleeding, and his wife released one of his brothers, Alexander Jannaeus, from prison, married him, and proclaimed him “king.” Jannaeus ruled from 103-76 BC and, in suppressing the Pharisee party, was ardently supported by the Sadducees. He was a military style ruler and a poor High Priest, which served as plenty of reason for the Pharisees to despise him. His failure to act properly as High Priest ultimately culminated in a bloody civil war, in which the Pharisaical opposition to his throne unbelievably asked for assistance from foreign powers. Jannaeus and the Sadducees won the war, which lasted 6 years and saw 50,000 Jews killed. Afterward to show his power, Jannaeus, who earned the nickname “Lion of Wrath,” continued killing rebel Jews, crucifying as many as 800 while he ate with his concubines (Both Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls record such activity).

When Jannaeus died, his widow, Salome Alexandra succeeded him (76-67 BC). Her brother was a leading Pharisee, and the Pharisees made huge inroads during her reign in the Sanhedrin (which became important around this time, and ultimately remained important until its dissolution in 358 AD). Jannaeus had two sons, who fought to be next in line for the throne by siding with different political parties. The older son, Hyrcanus II, sided with the Pharisees, and the younger son, Aristobulus II, sided with the Sadducees. They engaged in another civil war after their mother’s death, and Aristobulus led the Jews until the civil war ended when the Roman General Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 BC. Under Roman authority but still semi-autonomous, Hyrcanus was re-established as sort of a puppet king until 40BC, when he was exiled to Babylon to live peaceably with recognition from them until 36 BC. His nephew, Antigonus, captured the throne, but there was a tumultuous time of transition from 40-37 BC, during which Rome itself was struggling with its leadership.

Enter Herod. According to Josephus, Herod was of Maccabean decent. But according to secular sources, Herod was the son of Antipater of Idumea, a high-ranking official under Hyrcanus II. Herod would have been converted to Judaism forcibly, including being circumcised. Herod was appointed by his father to be governor of Galilee at age 25, and when his father was poisoned, he garnered Roman support to execute all those involved in his father’s murder. Despite accusations of brutality from the Sanhedrin, and the hatred of devout Jews for his extreme impiety, his allegiance to the Roman Empire – especially to Mark Antony until Octavius defeated Antony in battle (31 BC) – made him an ideal candidate for King of the region to get things settled. The newly appointed Judean King Herod (37 BC-4 BC) made mild attempts to gain Jewish favor. First, he appointed Aristobulus III as High Priest, only to drown him months later. Second, he invited Hyrcanus II to return from exile, where he had him executed in 30 BC for plotting against him with the King of Arabia. Third, he married one of Aristobulus’ granddaughters, but that was in addition to having several other wives. One of Herod’s wives was the daughter of the High Priest! Fourth, he fathered sons with her in order to maintain some sort of Hasmonian bloodline, which was rightly meaningless to all pious Jews. He eventually killed them as well.

Known in secular circles as Herod the Great, King Herod was known to the Jews as little more than a builder, a brute, and a blasphemer. The only good thing he did for them was to build a better Temple (19 BC). This was the Temple that Jesus and His disciples visited regularly, the very one about which the disciples remarked how magnificent it was and the very one about which Jesus prophesied that not one stone would remain atop another. Otherwise, Herod was a brute. He murdered, in fulfillment of prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2) dozens if not hundreds of infants upon hearing that the Messiah was born from the traveling wise men. He also killed several members of his own family, even his wife and sons. And he was considered to be a madman, suffering from paranoia and severe depression. He died in 4 BC from a severe and excruciating internal illness, nicknamed “Herod’s evil,” perhaps Fournier gangrene and/or kidney disease. His grandson, Agrippa I, would later suffer a similar fate (44 AD). After Herod’s death, many of his remaining sons by different marriages, were appointed rulers and governors over various regions, but no one again achieved the title of “king” of the Jews until Jesus did at His crucifixion. (Later Agrippa I would be entitled “king of the Jews” by Emperor Claudius, but after death in 44 AD, Judean authority was held exclusively by Rome.)

After King Herod’s death, Judea was ruled in a combined manner by both a Roman Procurator or Prefect (as Pontius Pilate) and a Governor (as Herod Antipas and Agrippa I and II). But the Sanhedrin was also given a role in governing religious life among the inhabitants of Judea. These three establishments were responsible to cooperate in peace keeping in the region; if they failed, the Roman army would possibly wipe everyone out. Judea was made an official Roman province in 6 AD, which brought back the taxation that the Maccabees family had succeeded in exempting. This caused no small uprising, as a Jewish political group known as Zealots (zealous for the restored reign of God) fought against Rome. The Zealots were thought by many to be a fourth political party in the Jewish make-up, in addition to the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees. The group formed during the transition from the Hasmonian to Herodian Dynasties, and waxed and waned for about 100 years, as issues arose and were made public, until Titus and Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. They may have been the first political group associated with terrorism.

So we’ve now come back to Paul and the timeframe in which he would have been coming to Jerusalem to study. It doesn’t sound like a good time to me, but it was perfect in God’s plan. Little is known about the specific doctrines of Gamaliel’s rabbinical school, though it is thought to have been an offshoot of Hillel’s school, which in turn was one of two prominent schools taking opposing positions on the doctrines of Judaism. Let’s take a look:

Hillel (110-10 BC) is considered one of the most important figures of Jewish history, even comparable to Moses and Ezra in many ways. He was involved in the formation of the Mishnah and Talmud (written understandings of the Jewish oral tradition), and he is attributed with coining the negative golden rule, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Even modern-day Jewish Rabbis would claim to have an understanding based on that of Hillel. His position was considered liberal (patient and humble), while his primary opponent, Shammai (50 BC- 30 AD), held a conservative position (passionate).

Shammai worked alongside Hillel in establishing the Mishnah, but they disagreed on doctrine and theology. Hillel was president of the Sanhedrin while Shammai was the vice-president. (Annas, a Sadducee, was appointed as the High Priest at this time (6-15AD) by Quirinius (Luke 2:2), and his five sons and son-in-law (Caiaphas), also Sadducees, occupied the High Priesthood until 66 AD, when Rome abolished the office). When Hillel died, Shammai became president, and no vice-president was named; Caiaphas was High Priest during this time. Shammai took that opportunity to pass several ordinances that Hillel would not have allowed, mostly designed to make the distinction between Jew and Gentile all the more obvious and necessary. Upon that move, the Talmud notes that it was as grievous to Israel as the day the golden calf was made. When Shammai died, Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, became the president of the Sanhedrin (also while Caiaphas was High Priest), but Shammai’s Temple policies, which Jesus may have criticized (Luke 11:46), remained intact until 70 AD.

So Gamaliel followed the school of Hillel, but we still don’t much in terms of specifics. The only taste of Gamaliel’s teaching that we get in Scripture comes from Acts 5:34-40, where he shows mercy and a reliance on God’s sovereignty, saying that the disciples of Jesus would fall off the map if they weren’t doing the will of God, but that they would be unstoppable if they were in fact doing the will of God. This position sounds like what we might expect of the merciful and patient Hillel, and was persuading to the Sanhedrin, which consisted of a mix of Pharisees and Sadducees. But what is interesting about this is that Paul didn’t agree with it! Though he was a student of Gamaliel, he was much more aggressive (zealous) on the issue of squashing Christians! There is a record of one of Gamaliel’s students being a pain in his neck, and of course, speculation gives us the opportunity to wonder if that student was Paul, but we have no way to know. Finally, there are differing accounts of what became of Gamaliel. Some suggest he became a Christian and was baptized by John and Peter alongside his own son and Nicodemus. Other accounts say it was a secret conversion to allow him to continue in the Sanhedrin and work favorably for Christians. Still others say he remained Jewish to his death.

Paul eventually became a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-8; 26:4-5; Philippians 3:5), likely in the footsteps of his mentor. Pharisees were rarely if ever in the majority, and we’ve talked about some of their positions and goals so far. We’ve mentioned that they were considered the best expositors of the Scriptures, which explains why most of the scribes were also Pharisees. They despised the Hellenistic tendencies of the Sadducees and Jewish laity, and they maintained that the purpose of the oral tradition (Mark 7:8) was to keep the written law from becoming obsolete and impractical due to the inevitable cultural changes. Generally speaking, Pharisees thought the lay people incapable of true piety, which certainly makes sense given the criticism they faced at the hand of Jesus (John 7:48). Known for their rigid adherence to the letter of the law (Acts 26:5, Matthew 23:3, Luke 11:39, etc.), Jesus frequently rebuked the Pharisees for their self-righteous, unmerciful, hypocritical way of life (Matthew 9:11, 23:14; John 8:7, Luke 18:11).”

There were other options besides the Pharisees, as far as religious or political aspirations and affiliation went at the time, and we’ve mentioned them along the way. Paul could have become a Herodian, a Jewish supporter of Herod’s family of rulers in the region, especially during the time of Herod Antipas, since they generally ruled favorably for the Jews. He could have become a Zealot, one who was “zealous for God’s law” and therefore despised the Roman occupation of a mostly Jewish region. He could have become a follower of John the Baptist, who urged the Jews to repentance and maintained followers after Jesus came on the scene and still had followers even after his death. He could have become an elder, one of 70 members (plus the High Priest) of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Elders could be Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes, priests, scribes, or teachers of the law. He could have joined with the Essenes, a smaller sect of Zadokite priests that lived a communal monastic lifestyle at Qumran (near the Dead Sea) from the second century BC through the first century AD. Essenes recruited devout Jews who joined them in ascetic living and legalistic rituals, all while denying the validity of Sadducees, Jerusalem priests, and Temple worship. Many people associated John the Baptist with the Essenes, though the word is not even found in the Bible. Paul could have joined the Hellenist Sadducees, though most of them were priests, claiming to have descended from Zadok. The Essenes challenged the authenticity of the rule of the Sadducees, blaming the downfall of ancient Israel and the siege of Jerusalem on their impiety. The Dead Sea Scrolls brand the Sadduceean elite as those who broke the covenant with God in their rule of the Judean state, and thus became targets of divine revenge. The Sadducees denied oral tradition and believed only in the written word as being authoritative; they accused the Pharisees of being Persianizers, considering them to be dangerous innovators with their oral tradition. Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead and disbelieved in angels, spirits, and the afterlife. Though they claimed to hold dear to the written law, they had reinterpreted it over and over again to fit their chosen lifestyle and cultural modifications. One author says, “When synthesized, one can discern that the Pharisees represented mainstream Judaism in the Hellenistic world, while the Sadducees represented a more aristocratic elite.” Finally, Paul could have trained to become a scribe, a writer and recorder of Holy writings. As a scribe, Paul could have also joined another of the groups mentioned above.

To summarize, it seems to me that the Essenes were too extreme; for their right efforts to be not of the world, they failed to remain in the world. The Sadducees, so it seems, were like today’s mainline denominations that are compromising the word of God to suit their lifestyles. And the Pharisees seem to be like me, people who are greatly concerned with right living according to the word of God, striving to make sure the interpretations of that word are true to it. They are concerned with holiness and trying to walk the line between God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, but they face criticism from all sides (Essenes and Sadducees).

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