What kind of portrait does the book of Acts paint of Saul/Paul? Does it fit our traditional narratives? How does our view of Paul and his relationship with the early messianic believers impact our reading of his epistles and letters? Let’s start by showing what Paul was like before his Damascus road conversion. We’re first introduced to Paul/Saul in Acts 7, as he was present at the stoning of Stephen:
Then they cast [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. Acts 7:58 (ESV)
The text next focuses on Saul and his persecution of the early believers:
… Saul approved of his execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Acts 8:1-4 (ESV)
Finally, we get another glimpse of Paul’s motivations just before he leaves for Damascus:
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2 (ESV)
These first impressions highlight Paul’s approval of the persecution of the earliest believers. To get more details of Paul’s pre-conversion life, we can hear directly from the source, as he later addressed those in Jerusalem:
And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day…” Acts 22:2-3 (ESV)
What we see here is that Paul was born in Roman (and Greek speaking) Tarsus, and was later educated in the Hebrew language and Pharisaic tradition of Gamaliel, who was himself from the house of Hillel. How does this explain the dichotomy between the names Saul and Paul? We get one incredibly brief mention of Paul’s dual names:
But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? Acts 13:9 (ESV)
Most traditional narratives tell us that “evil” Saul was converted to “good” Paul, but scripture does not give us that description. Acts 13:9 simply tells us that Paul had two names, and historical analysis confirms this. Someone such as Paul, educated in two distinct cultures, would have had two names: the Hebrew transliterated Sha’ul, and the Roman/Greek transliterated Paulus. The idea that Paul’s name was changed after his conversion is a historical misunderstanding – an inaccuracy born of an oversimplification of the narrative.
Beyond the names of Paul, we get further insight into his post-conversion Jewish practices, which included circumcision of believing Jews:
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. Acts 16:1-3 (ESV)
… continuing to meet in the synagogues on the Sabbath:
As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. Acts 13:42-43 (ESV)
… continuing to observe the feasts (note that Paul was not allowed to travel during the feast, so he had to sail afterward):
These went on ahead and were waiting for us at Troas, but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. Acts 20:6 (ESV)
… and ritual mikvah/purification before entering the temple:
Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. Acts 21:26 (ESV)
When speaking to the Sanhedrin, Paul was quick to identify as a Pharisee:
When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” Acts 23:6 (ESV)
One thing we can observe from this quick surface portrait is that even after his Damascus road experience, Paul never abandoned his personal Jewish identity or practice, and he continued to assist Jewish messianic believers in maintaining their Jewish identity. This is something we must keep in mind as we read and exegete his letters to the various communities and individuals that make up the bulk of the New Testament. As Paul later wrestles with the issues presented by the Judaizers 1those that wanted Gentile believers to become full Jewish proselytes, and of Jew-Gentile relations, we must remember that he could not have advocated the abrogation of Jewish identity and practice, because he continued to live them out himself!
Even as we see Paul functioning as the apostle to the Gentiles, breaking down the barriers that allowed Gentile believers to enter the community and commonwealth of Israel through faith in the Jewish messiah, we cannot divorce him from his Jewish identity, particularly when exegeting his letters. That identity informs his theology and his practice, and we see that he never abandoned it, nor required any other believing Jew to abandon it, while he proclaimed the good news of Jesus.
The value of seeing how Paul maintained his Jewish identity on the surface is that it presents us with a foundation for later exploring Paul’s writing and preaching in a 1st century rabbinic framework.
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