Paul's Early Years - Part I

Nov 2013

We are given very little information as it regards Paul"s life before conversion.  We know next to nothing about his family or his upbringing, except that which led to his conversion.  So, we must deduce that what Luke gave us concerning Paul, and what Paul gave us concerning himself, is all that the Holy Spirit wanted us to know.  Yet, we do know some few things, which are of immense interest.


There is no doubt about the place in which Paul was born.  He says, when addressing the Jews in Acts, Chapter 22, Verse 3, "I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the Law of the Fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day."
Tarsus was the capital of the region of Cilicia, which was situated in the southeastern part of Asia Minor, and which is today modern Turkey.  In fact, Tarsus was located in the extreme southern part of this country, about halfway of its modern borders.  The city then was about eight miles from the Mediterranean Sea but had an excellent harbor by the means of the River Cydnus, which flowed to the Sea.  It is believed by many presently that Tarsus must have had a population of no less than half a million in Roman times.  So, it was a city of considerable importance.  In fact, it was one of the university centers of the period, ranking with Athens and Alexandria.  As well, it was an exceedingly corrupt city, being the chief seat of "a special Baal worship of an imposing but unspeakably degrading character."Because of information gathered from some of the things Paul said, there are some modern scholars who believe that Paul attended the university at Tarsus after his training in the Law of Moses by the great Law scholar of that day, Gamaliel; however, that is only speculation with no concrete proof.


We know, as stated, that Paul was born a Roman citizen, but no clue is given as to how all of this was brought about.
Some have speculated that something happened in the city of Tarsus of which the Emperor took notice and granted Roman citizenship to the entirety of the city, and for all time.  Others speculate that possibly Paul"s parents, or maybe his grandparents, did something noteworthy as it regarded the Romans, and they granted his family perpetual citizenship.  But all of that is speculation with no proof either way.  The one thing we do know is that Paul was born a Roman citizen, which carried with it any number of privileges.  For instance, a Roman citizen was not to be bound by a rope, etc., or put to torture in any capacity.
As well, few would ever venture the claim of being a Roman citizen when such was not the case.  The penalty for such was death.


For instance when Paul and Silas were beaten (Acts, Chpt. 16), it was a grossly unlawful act, which could have gotten the Magistrates into serious trouble.  As to exactly why Paul and Silas didn"t relate to them that they were Romans at the beginning, we aren"t told.  But maybe they did and were not believed.  At any rate, the Scripture says concerning this situation:

"And when it was day, the Magistrates sent the serjeants (probably refers to the same men who had administered the beating to Paul and Silas), saying, Let those men go (the Codex Bezae says that the Magistrates came into Court that morning feeling that their treatment of Paul and Silas had brought on the earthquake; they were right!).
"And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The Magistrates have sent to let you go:  now therefore depart, and go in peace.
"But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans (presents a scenario which puts an entirely different complexion on the matter; it was against Roman Law for Romans to be beaten; so, in beating them, the Magistrates had broken the law, evidently not realizing they were Romans), and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily?  (They were treated as common criminals.)  No verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out (in this way, the city of Philippi would know that the charges were false).
"And the serjeants told these words unto the Magistrates:  and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans (if Paul and Silas so desired, they could have brought charges against these individuals, which could have resulted in severe consequences).
"And they came and besought them, and brought them out (refers to the fact that the ‘Magistrates" now came to Paul and Silas), and desired them to depart out of the city (has reference to the fact that they were pleading with the Apostles not to bring charges against them, but rather depart in peace).
"And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia (they were somewhat the worse for wear in the physical sense, but greatly encouraged in the spiritual sense):  and when they had seen the Brethren, they comforted them, and departed (these were new converts in the Philippian Church)" (Acts 16:35-40).


We have another account of Paul referring to his Roman citizenship.  It occurred in Jerusalem. 
After a great tumult in the Temple, instigated by certain Jews, they would have killed him but for a Chief Captain of the Roman army.
Concerning this event, Luke wrote:

"The Chief Captain commanded him (Paul) to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging (a most terrible form of torture); that he might know wherefore they cried so against him (considering that Paul was speaking in Hebrew, the Roman Captain little knew what was taking place).
"And as they bound him with thongs (getting him ready for the beating that would now be inflicted), Paul said unto the centurion who stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?  (Paul did not shrink from torture when it was directly connected with the Name of Jesus, but he quietly and with much dignity avoided it when ordered by official ignorance.)
"When the centurion heard that, he went and told the Chief Captain, saying, Take heed what you do:  for this man is a Roman (the rights of Roman citizens were guarded as something sacred by Rome).
"Then the Chief Captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, are you a Roman?  He said, Yes (in fact, the Chief Captain had broken the law even by binding Paul).
"And the Chief Captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom (proclaims one of the ways Roman citizenship could be gained).  And Paul said, But I was free born (Paul was born a Roman citizen, either through some service performed for Rome by his family, or else because of living in the city of Tarsus).
"Then straightway (immediately) they departed from him which should have examined him (refers to those who were going to scourge Paul quickly retiring):  and the Chief Captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him" (Acts 22:24-29).


As a result of the uproar in Jerusalem, Paul was transferred by the Romans to Caesarea, where he was there imprisoned for some two years.  He was kept in the capital building in a place called "Herod"s Judgment Hall"(Acts 23:35).  It was a part of the lavish palace built by Herod the Great.  It served as the capital building as well as the official residence of the Roman Governors, and evidently had some prison cells within its confines.
After appearing before any number of notables and noting that Festus, the Roman Governor:

"Willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said (Festus feared these Jewish leaders, knowing that if they were willing to bring these types of false charges against Paul, they would not hesitate to do the same against him to Rome), Will you go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?  (This presents the compromise of the Governor.)
"Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar"s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged (proclaims the Apostle seeing through this ploy, knowing that if he went to Jerusalem, the Jews would find some way to kill him):  to the Jews have I done no wrong, as you very well know (proclaims that which is true, and which Paul hammers home, and rightly so!).
"For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die (in effect, Paul is attempting not so much to save his life, but rather to declare his innocence):  but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them.  I appeal unto Caesar (means it is the Will of God for him to stand before Caesar, not the Jews).
"Then Festus, when he had conferred with the Council, answered (refers to the legal advisory Council of the Governor, which evidently advised Festus that he acquiesce to Paul because of Roman Law), Have you appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shall you go" (Acts 25:9-12).
This was another privilege or right held by Roman citizens who appealed to Caesar, if they felt they were not being duly treated in other courts.  This didn"t mean that Caesar personally would attend these trials, but that he or someone appointed by him would officiate.
During the time of Paul, Roman citizenship, as stated, was highly prized.  While some, who were not born a Roman citizen, paid large sums of money for this privilege, Paul rather was born a Roman citizen.


      Paul said:

"I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee"(Acts 23:6).  He also said, "I was circumcised the eight day, of the stock of Israel (he was a pure-blooded Jew), of the Tribe of Benjamin (Benjamin was the only Tribe that stayed with Judah at the time of the division of the nation), an Hebrew of the Hebrews (goes all the way back to Abraham); as touching the Law, a Pharisee.  (In fact, Paul had been the hope of the Pharisees, touted to take the place of Gamaliel)" (Phil. 3:5).

From the way that Paul said, "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee,"we would assume that his father and mother were Jews of the stricter sort.
When Paul used the term "an Hebrew of the Hebrews,"he was referring to the fact that he had clung to the Hebrew tongue and followed Hebrew customs.  Other types of Jews of that day were called "Hellenists,"who spoke Greek by preference and adopted, more or less, Greek views and civilization.
And yet, Paul could probably be said to be a "Hebraist,"which means that even though he was unabashedly Hebrew, still, at the same time, he was a master of the Hellenistic Greek language.
Farrar said, "Although Paul was a Hebrew by virtue of his ancestry, and by virtue of the language which he had learned as his mother-tongue, and although he would probably have rejected the appellation of ‘Hellenist," which is indeed never applied to him, yet his very Hebraism had, in one most important respect, and one which has very little attracted the attention of scholars, an Hellenic bias and tinge."[1]
The world that Paul was born into was a world of acute skepticism.  Sell said, "While the gods and goddesses in the great heathen temple still had their rites and ceremonies observed yet the people to a large degree, had ceased to believe in them."Sell went on to say, "The Roman writers of the period are agreed in the slackening of religious ties and of moral restraints.  Yet it was the policy of the state to maintain the worship of the gods and goddesses.  Any attack on them or their worship was regarded as an offense against the state."[2]  So, Paul faced several powerful obstacles.  They were:
•   As we have previously alluded, to attack the religion of the state in any capacity constituted an offense punishable by beatings and even imprisonment.  So, there was precious little freedom of religion.
•   To take a stand against the sins of man and the evils of the times stirred up bitter opposition.
•   On top of all of that, to proclaim a crucified and risen Christ as the Messiah to the Jews, when they were expecting rather a conquering hero, most of the time put them into a rage.
•   And, even among Christian Jews, the idea that the Law of Moses was totally finished in Christ did not sit well either.
In the midst of all of this, especially considering the opposition he encountered, the fact that Paul could preach "Christ Crucified"and establish Churches, seeing great numbers Saved, portrays to us the truth that he did not allow these obstacles to stop the propagation of the Gospel.
Along with his education regarding the Mosaic Law under Gamaliel, to which we will address ourselves more particularly momentarily, he seems also to have been quite well acquainted with Greek philosophy and literature.  In fact, he quotes from the Greek poets, Aratus, Epimenides, and Menander.  It is this that pushes some scholars to believe that Paul also attended the university at Tarsus.  But, of course, that is only speculation.


At the age of five every Jewish boy would begin to study the Bible with his parents at home.  At the age of six he would enter into the synagogue to begin formal education.  At the age of ten he would begin to study those earlier and simpler developments of the oral law, which were afterwards collected in the Mishna.  Some even say that all Jewish boys had to memorize the entirety of the Book of Leviticus. 
At any rate, by the age of thirteen he would, by a sort of "confirmation,"become a "Son of the Commandment."
As well, at the age of thirteen, if he were destined for the position of a Rabbi, he then entered the school of one of the great masters.  Farrar said, "The master among whose pupils the young Saul was enrolled was the famous Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabban Simeon, and a grandson of Hillel, ‘a doctor of the law had in reputation among all the people."  There were only seven of the Rabbis to whom the Jews gave the title of Rabban, and three of these were Gamaliels of this family, who each in turn rose to the high distinction of President of the School."[3]
At the feet of Gamaliel sat Saul of Tarsus, in all probability, for several years.  It is said that the Jewish Rabbis sat on lofty chairs, and their pupils sat at their feet, either on the ground or on benches.
It is also said that Paul as a young scholar was so learned in the Scriptures, absorbing all that Gamaliel taught him, that he was being groomed by the Pharisees to take the place of the great Gamaliel.  In other words, he was the darling of the Pharisees, and in today"s modern terminology, their "fair haired boy."


The Jewish world into which Jesus came, and Paul, as well, was a world that had lost all of the real meaning of the Law of Moses.  In fact, the Law of Moses had been turned into some 248 commands and 365 prohibitions, totaling some 613 oral laws, all formulated by men, oftentimes referred to as "fence laws."
For instance, a woman could not comb her hair on the Sabbath, nor could anyone drag a chair across the floor, because dust might be parted in the hair or on the floor, which could be construed as plowing, with the latter being forbidden by the Law.  They had so taken it to extreme that it was now a burden that was literally impossible to be borne.  The Pharisees demanded that a rigidly scrupulous obedience was due.  This was what God absolutely required, they said!  This, and this only, came up to the true conception of the blameless Righteousness of the Law. 
In their minds, so very much depended upon this scrupulous obedience to the Law, which took it far beyond what the Lord originally intended.  In fact, this was the cause, or at least part of the cause, of the great hatred of the Pharisees for Christ.  He portrayed the true meaning of the Law, which infuriated them.  And it must be understood that the Pharisees in that particular time claimed to believe all of the Bible, which consisted of the Books beginning with Genesis and concluding with Malachi.  They were the fundamentalists of that day.  Actually, it is said that there were seven kinds of Pharisees:
1. The bleeding Pharisees;
2. The mortar Pharisees;
3. The Shechemite Pharisees;
4. The timid Pharisees;
5. The tumbling Pharisees;
6. The painted Pharisees; and,
7. And the Tell-me-anything-more-to-do-and-I-will-do-it Pharisee!   Paul probably belonged to this group.


The Pharisee party probably began under Ezra, the ambition of which was to master the Text and teachings of the Mosaic Law in every detail.  Actually, the first Pharisees would have borne no resemblance to those of Paul"s day.  The Scribes, who for the most part hated Christ, were their spiritual descendants.
The Pharisees were always a minority group.  Under Herod they numbered something over 6,000, but they held great sway as it regarded the religious life of Israel.
The Pharisees held the belief that the Babylonian Exile was caused by Israel"s failure to keep the Law, and that its keeping was an individual as well as a national duty.  In their minds" eyes, at least by the time of Christ, they thought that if they could keep the Law minutely, this would usher in the Messiah, which would enable them to throw off the Roman yoke, and once again Israel would be the leading Nation in the world, as it had been under David and Solomon.  But, as stated, they had so twisted and perverted the Law that they didn"t even recognize their Messiah when He came.  In fact, they crucified Him.
They reasoned that God would not have demanded obedience to the Law if that obedience were not possible!  So, in their efforts to obey, they completely disobeyed, and in their legalism, they pushed themselves further and further away from God.  Understanding this, we can see how their hatred for Paul was so rabid after he gave his heart to Christ on the road to Damascus. 
But something was about to enter into the life and living of Paul (then called Saul) that would serve to push him in a different direction altogether.  That something was Stephen.


Now begins the spread of the Gospel around the world, the propagation of the Message that was to confront humanity as no other Message in the annals of human history.  It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and more particularly, "Christ and Him Crucified."Strangely enough, even as the Ways of God often are, it begins with death, the death of Stephen, but whose death plants a seed in the heart of a young man nearby by the name of Saul, which seed would ultimately spring to life.  Much preparation over several centuries, actually from the time of Abraham, one might say, was all for this moment.  Going back for half a millennia, we see three vast and worldwide events, all designed for the purpose of the spread of the Gospel.  They are:
1. "The Jews of the Dispersion:"Josephus tells us that they crowded every corner of the habitable globe of that day and built their synagogues, which served as a staging point for the presentation of the Gospel by a young man who viewed the death of Stephen and even, in a sense, played a part in that death—Paul.
2. The second great effort by the Holy Spirit involved a pagan by the name of Alexander the Great.  He gave to the civilized world of that day a unity of language, the Greek language, without which it would have been, humanly speaking, impossible for the earliest Preachers to have made known the good tidings in every land which they traversed.  It was the language of the world of that day, which made it much easier for the Gospel to be preached, as should be obvious.
3. The rise of the Roman Empire on the ashes of the Greek Empire created a political unity which reflected in every direction the doctrines of the New Faith.  In fact, the high morality of Christianity eventually replaced the paganism of Rome.  Ultimately, that Gospel spread to all of Europe, and finally, to the shores of North America, and Central and South America, which launched it to the entirety of the world.  Our Ministry (Jimmy Swaggart Ministries) played a part in this, airing television over a large part of the world, with the Gospel translated into the languages of the people and, as well, with massive Crusades in capital cities all over the world.
Getting back to the Greek language, in every considerable city of the Roman Empire the service of the synagogue was held in Greek, and these services were opened to anyone who desired to be present at them.  Greek, too, became emphatically the language of Christianity, with the entirety of the New Testament originally written in Greek.


Jesus remained on Earth some forty days after His Resurrection (Acts 1:3).  As well, from the time of His Ascension to the Day of Pentecost was another ten days.  The Day of Pentecost, for all practical purposes, was the visible beginning of the Church.  Peter preached the inaugural Message, one might say.  At the conclusion of his message, the Scripture says that "about three thousand souls"were added to the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:41).  And then, the Scripture says, without giving any numbers, "And the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be Saved"(Acts 2:47).
Some days later, with the healing of the lame man at the gate called Beautiful, Peter once again preached to the multitudes which gathered, and the Scripture says, "Howbeit many of them which heard the Word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand"(Acts 4:4).
While we are not told in the Scripture as to exactly how large was the Jerusalem Church, it is believed it could have been regarding numbers anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people.  When one considers the following, it is easy to see how this number could have easily been won to the Lord.  The Word says:


"And by the hands of the Apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people (the Church was founded on the Power of God, and is meant to continue by the Power of God); (and they were all with one accord in Solomon"s porch (portrays a roofed colonnade bearing Solomon"s name, which ran along the eastern wall in the Court of the Gentiles of Herod"s Temple).
"And of the rest does no man join himself to them (to the Apostles):  but the people magnified them (they knew the Apostles were of the Lord and that the Lord was greatly using them, so they found no fault with them).
"And Believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.)  (It could have been as many as forty or fifty thousand, or even more.)
"Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches (evidently refers to two or three different streets on which Peter and the Apostles came to the Temple each day; the crowds were so large they could not all get into the Temple Court), that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them (implying that when this happened, healing resulted).
"There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks (proclaims the extent to which this Move of God had reached), and them which were vexed with unclean spirits (probably implying that much of the sickness was caused by demon spirits):  and they were healed every one (delivered and healed)" (Acts 5:12-16).


Due to the growth of the Church in Jerusalem, and due to the persecution, severe problems developed.
When anyone in Jerusalem accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour, immediately they were excommunicated from the synagogue.  In fact, they were not allowed to attend the services there anymore.  As well, if they had children, due to the fact that the schooling for little boys was carried on in the synagogues, such children were not allowed to continue in school (girls did not attend school). 
If they were renting an apartment or a house, they were immediately evicted.  As well, if they were working for an employer, as most were, they were automatically terminated from their jobs.  Consequently, the Church in Jerusalem was faced with tremendous hardships of trying to take care of the thousands of people who found themselves in this situation.  In fact, the following Scriptures are addressing themselves to this situation.  The Bible says:

"Neither was there any among them who lacked (those who lost their employment, etc., had their needs met):  for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold i>(refers to extra possessions, etc.),
"And laid them down at the Apostles" feet (they were entrusted with this largesse):  and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (no hint of communism here, as some have suggested)" (Acts 4:34-35).

In fact, the great dissertation that the Apostle Paul gave in II Corinthians, Chapters 8 and 9, pertains to this need.  He was receiving an offering from all of the Churches in order to take such to Jerusalem, which he did (II Cor. 9:12-15; Acts 20:4).
Regarding these difficulties, a problem arose in the Church in Jerusalem concerning certain "widows which were neglected in the daily ministration"(Acts 6:1).  At this juncture the Twelve Apostles told some of the Elders in the Church to:

". . . look you out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (is thought by some to represent the first Deacons, even though they are not called that in this Chapter), whom we may appoint over this business (the Holy Spirit told the "Twelve" what to do, the number to choose, and how they were to be chosen)"(Acts 6:3).

The Scripture says that they chose "Stephen, a man full of Faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch"(Acts 6:5).
Little did they realize that when they chose Stephen, how much this would play into the great Plan of God as it regarded the one we now know as the Apostle Paul.  As it regards Stephen, we have but one account of a Message he preached, which cost him his life.  Yet, the Message he brought that day, which was before the Jewish Sanhedrin, without a doubt influenced the greatest of the Apostles, and we continue to speak of Paul.  As someone has well said:

"God works in mysterious ways,"
"His Wonders to perform,"
"He plants His Feet upon the seas,"
"And rides upon the storm."

Stephen"s death was the earliest martyrdom. 
Up to this period, the name of Stephen has not occurred in Christian history, and as the tradition that he had been one of the seventy Disciples is valueless, we know nothing of the circumstances of his conversion to Christianity.
And yet, there is a good possibility that Stephen actually saw and heard the living Jesus, which turned his life completely around.  So, we know him only for a moment, only as this first Martyr steps into the full light of history.  Farrar said, "Our insight into his greatness is derived almost solely from the record of a single Message and a single day – the last Message he ever uttered – the last day of his mortal life."[4]
The Holy Spirit plainly tells us that Stephen was "full of Faith, and of the Holy Spirit.i>Nothing could be said about a man greater than that!  Like Philip, he was an Evangelist as well as a Deacon, with the following given to us as to what the Holy Spirit wanted us to know.  It is considerable!

    (This message was derived from the book, "Paul".)

1    (F.W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul: Vol.1, Minnesota, Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1981, pg. 58)
2    (H.T. Sell, Bible Studies in the Life of Paul, Fleming H. Revell Company, London & Edinburgh, 1904, pg. 15)
3    (F.W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul: Vol.1, Minnesota, Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1981, pg. 44)
4    (Ibid., pg. 137)

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