Who Was Saul of Tarsus, Really?

02 Mar

It is difficult to gauge the importance of Paul to Christianity, but, without doubt, his conversion is the most important event to occur in the early Jesus’ movement after the Pentecost blessing of 31 AD. Paul is personally responsible for at least ten epistles and fourteen if one counts Timothy, Titus and Hebrews as Paul’s work. Try to imagine what our New Testament Scriptures would look like had God not intervened in Paul’s life and called him for the work of Christ.

Some may say, well, God can do anything, and Paul was merely a tool in God’s hands. This is true, but we need to remember that God gives us a tremendous amount of grace and freedom in Christ. God called and commissioned all of the apostles, but Paul claims that he worked harder than all the others (1Corinthians 15:10). Therefore, though God is indeed almighty, he has limited his power to what he is able to do through us, implying Paul made himself more available to God and was more willing to cut all ties that came between him and Jesus than the others. Of course this opinion is pretty subjective, especially since we know very little of the lives of the other apostles. However, if the amount of the New Testament each one is responsible for is any indication of a favorite, God used Paul, more than he did anyone else.

Saul (Paul) was born in Tarsus, a large city in the province of Syria-Cilicia, to Jewish parents. In 66 BC, the inhabitants of Tarsus received Roman citizenship, so Saul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29). Paul or Paulos was Saul’s official or Roman name, but his Jewish name was Saul, born of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). Saul grew up in Jerusalem and trained in the Jewish Scriptures (Acts 22:3). When Saul moved to Jerusalem is difficult to say, but he was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Did Saul’s father move to Jerusalem when Saul was young, or did his father live as a Pharisee in Tarsus? We don’t know, but Saul did have family in Jerusalem, for when his life was threatened, it was Saul’s sister’s son who warned him of the danger (Acts 23:16), so, evidently, at least part, if not all, of Saul’s family had returned to Jerusalem.

Saul was a passionate man both before and after his conversion, and his zeal was bent toward God (Acts 22:3; cf. Philippians 3:6). Saul found idol worship deeply offensive (Acts 17:16), and this may be at least partially responsible for his zeal to destroy the church before his conversion. The disciples had been preaching that God resurrected Jesus and placed him alongside himself on the very throne of God (Acts 2:31-36). While there are Scriptures in the Old Testament pointing to this Messianic event, it is unclear how first century AD Judaism would have received the idea. Certainly there was in existence Jewish extra-biblical literature showing the Messiah would be a divine being, but all Jews didn’t receive this tradition, so Saul may have found this doctrine irritating.

Saul was a first rate theologian both in Judaism and later in the Messianic faith. In this regard, we need to remember that Saul strove to exceed others in both zeal and knowledge of Jewish traditions (Galatians 1:14). One has to wonder exactly what was going on in the synagogue of the Libertines cir 34 AD (Acts 6:9), and notice that among those who disputed with Stephen were Jews of Cilicia, the very area in which Saul was born. Later, in his epistle to the Romans Saul confesses that he had no occasion to accuse himself of sin, until he realized the Law’s claim on him that he should not covet (Romans 7:7). He thought he was alive, but when he realized the depth of the commandment, he died (Romans 7:9). Did Saul’s confession in Romans, chapter seven, point to what occurred in the synagogue of the Libertines at Jerusalem on that eventful day in 34 AD? Did Saul’s covetousness lead to Stephen’s death? Saul prided himself on being more zealous for the Law and the traditions of the Jews, but the Scriptures claim that no one could defend their point of view against either Stephen’s wisdom or their passion for the traditions of the elders against his zealous spirit. Does this mean Saul could not resist Stephen’s wisdom, and was Saul’s zeal for the Jewish traditions overwhelmed by Stephen’s own zeal for Christ? Moreover, the Lord pointed to Saul’s “kicking against the goads” at his transforming vision of his Savior. Was Saul still thinking about and still resisting Stephen’s argument? One can only wonder!

Whatever occurred in the synagogue of the Libertines, Saul was among those who stirred up the elders and the scribes who then sent for Stephen to be brought before the council, or Sanhedrin. The outcome of the trial, if that is what it was, was the stoning of Stephen, while Saul stood by approving of what occurred (Acts 7:58; 8:1).


Posted by on March 2, 2011 in New Testament History, Paul


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9 responses to “Who Was Saul of Tarsus, Really?

  1. Matthew Perri

    April 19, 2016 at 08:07

    I am Matthew Perri, I wrote “Boss Paul the Pharisee” some years ago, and I’ve posted it on a number of other blogs to get some conversations going. I see you found David Brainerd’s blog, which has been one of the most popular sites for people who have been reading my poem for the past couple of years. David seems to have moved on to other topics, and does not appear to have interest in continuing conversation, so I am reaching out elsewhere.

    Jesus was asked twice which Commandment is the greatest or most important one, (Matthew 22 and Mark 12)
    Both times Jesus answered quoting the same two commandments, from the Law of Moses.

    Jesus said that one of these two commandments is the first and greatest most important one. Which one is it? The one in Deuteronomy 6, or the one in Leviticus 19 ?

    “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “ is this: ‘Hear, of Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [Mark 12:29-30, Deuteronomy 6:4-5]

    Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” [Matthew 22:37-38, Deuteronomy 6:5]

    Poem – What is love?

    Two men came to Jesus
    With different motivations.
    They asked Him the same question
    Relevant to all the nations:

    Which is the Most Important?
    The answer was the same.
    Jesus did not manipulate
    He was not there to play a game.

    “Love the Lord your God” said Jesus
    as He quoted from The Law –
    to fulfill and not abolish
    was His purpose, full of awe.

    Jesus did not make all Scripture
    Into one new great commandment.
    He summarized The Law and Prophets
    “First and Greatest” and “The Second.”

    The Love of God is higher
    Than the love of any man.
    Receive from God, give back to God-
    Then to others, that’s His plan.

    The Love of God involves much more
    Than simply “love your fellow man.”
    Worship, trust, and pray to God,
    and obey Him – that’s His plan

    To worship and pray to neighbors,
    Whoever they may be,
    Or trust and obey our enemies
    Would be idolatry.

    The love of God is first and greatest,
    And the love of man is second.
    “All we need is love” are words
    of dead Beetles on the pavement.

    “The entire law is summed up in a single command”
    are not the words of Jesus our Salvation.
    It’s false teaching of Paul the Pharisee
    an “accuser of our brethren.”

    “Love” without God is Satan’s word through Paul
    in his chapter to the Corinthians.
    “I will show you the most excellent way”
    is the road to eternal perdition.

    Where is God in Paul’s chapter on love?
    Nowhere in view of the eye.
    Paul sings about himself like a Mexican Mariachi
    “I, I, I, I.”

    Jesus is The Most Excellent Way
    Not the words of a Pharisee.
    The words of Jesus are very clear.
    Jesus said, “You must follow ME.”

    • Eddie

      April 19, 2016 at 09:47

      You seem to have a talent for writing poetry, Matt. While I don’t have a problem with your poem, per se, I do have a problem with your theology.

      Since you don’t clearly state it in words, I must presume your issue in writing the above is that Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-30), but you believe Paul claims the greatest is “love without God…” which you infer is satanic inspired.

      First of all, “love without God” is your phrase that you put into the mouth of Paul, and then you claim it is Satan-inspired. Anyone can win an argument like that, if he is permitted to put the words he wishes his opponent to say into his opponent’s mouth. You have proved nothing by doing this.

      Secondly, Jesus was asked which of all the commandments in the Old Testament was the greatest or foremost of all. Paul was never asked this question, nor did he reply to it in 1Corinthians 13. In fact, Paul doesn’t speak of love as a commandment at all, but lists it as a virtue or a gift with faith and hope. He begins by comparing the gift of love with things like prophecy and miracle working power etc., and he claims that love is much more than these, and I quite agree.

      Most of what Paul concludes about love in 1Corinthians 13 is a kind of definition of what it should look like. John tells us in 1John 4:8 that God **is** love! In other words, if we personify love it should look like God. I’ve heard it said, and it seems to be true if one actually does it, that if you look at Paul’s definitions of love and replace the word with God, the sense is pretty much the same. Notice:

      GOD is patient, GOD is kind and is not jealous; GOD does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; GOD does not seek his own, is not provoked, (GOD) does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; (GOD) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. GOD never fails… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

      That works for me, and I cannot see an enemy of the truth inspiring anyone to write such a beautiful description of God, whom we are supposed to image in our walk with him.

      Concerning the “Mexican Mariachi” the first seven **I’s** of Paul have to do with his failure if he doesn’t have love. He is hardly patting himself on the back with those “I’s” — but that’s just my opinion.

      Tell me, how would you follow Jesus if you didn’t know he was “patient” or wasn’t “jealous” or never engaged in bragging or acted arrogantly? How would you know how to follow Jesus, if you didn’t know he didn’t seek his own or wasn’t provoked or didn’t take into account the wrongs he suffered? How would you know how to follow Jesus, if you didn’t know he didn’t rejoice in unrighteousness but did rejoice in the truth. If you didn’t know what “love” actually is, how would you know Jesus bore all things believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. If you didn’t know what love is or that God is love, how would you know Jesus never fails?

      Remember, you claim that God (Jesus?) is nowhere to be found in “Paul’s chapter on love”, so if God isn’t there, how would you know what love is like and what it meant to live it out? I can’t help but see in astonishment that the very people who asked Jesus to tell them what the first of all commandments was, were the very people who crucified him days later. I’m sure they thought they “loved” God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. But, those are mere words without real meaning unless you see it all lived out before your own eyes–but according to you, Paul didn’t describe the love of Jesus. So, how would you follow him?

    • Matthew Perri

      April 20, 2016 at 00:48

      you wrote QUOTE:
      “First of all, “love without God” is your phrase that you put into the mouth of Paul, and then you claim it is Satan-inspired. Anyone can win an argument like that, if he is permitted to put the words he wishes his opponent to say into his opponent’s mouth. You have proved nothing by doing this”

      You want proof Paul is teaching “love without God”?
      Romans 13:8-10
      Galatians 5:14
      1 Corinthians 13.

    • Eddie

      April 20, 2016 at 07:13

      Matt, greetings once again. Let me point out that you haven’t replied to any of my questions, as to how you could follow Jesus and love God any more than those who crucified Jesus. Because, in agreeing with Jesus they inferred that they loved God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. Without acting love out, it is just a word. How do you love God or follow Jesus in love without taking 1Corinthians 13 into consideration? You have made it clear in your poetry that (by saying 1Corinthians 13 is Satanic inspired) God is not patient, GOD is not kind but is jealous; GOD brags and is arrogant, he acts inappropriately; GOD is self serving, is easily provoked, he is resentful, and rejoices in injustice, but not in the truth; he wouldn’t think of bearing anyone’s burden, or trust anyone, or hope for someone’s good, he wouldn’t endure any of our wrongs. GOD is never there for us… — according to what you infer in your poetry.

      Now, for the questions you raise in your most recent comment, by referring to Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14 you mean to say that, because Paul didn’t repeat the Sh’ma with loving man, he couldn’t have been correct in saying “love is the fulfillment of the law.” Paul is simply taking the shorter route. For example, Jesus was asked: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). Jesus told him to keep the commandments, but he didn’t mention any that refer to God–only those referring to man (Luke 18:20). The reason for this is that one cannot love God, unless one does love his fellow man (1John 4:20).

      Jesus didn’t commit an oversight in Luke 18, and neither did Paul in Romans 13, Galatians 5 or 1Corinthians 13.

      Now, please don’t forget my challenge that you tell me how you can love God, or follow Jesus without understanding that the manner in which 1Corinthians 13 tells us to love one another is the manner in which God loves us. You called 1Corinthians 13 satanic, so let’s see you describe God or his love or your love toward him without using any of those virtues in your descriptions.

    • Matthew Perri

      April 20, 2016 at 10:35

      You want to skip ahead to “the application”, but we have not agreed yet on what the commandment IS. There are MANY applications, not just one. But if we can’t agree on what the most important commandment is, we will never agree on how to apply it.

      Jesus was asked twice which Commandment is the greatest or most important one, (Matthew 22 and Mark 12)
      Both times Jesus answered quoting the same two commandments, from the Law of Moses.

      Jesus said that one of these two commandments is the first and greatest most important one. Which one is it? The one in Deuteronomy 6, or the one in Leviticus 19 ?

    • Eddie

      April 20, 2016 at 12:27

      Matt, if you wish to show you are not a clanging cymbal or one who sounds an alarm when no danger is near, you need to reply to the questions I put to you. If you address those questions about how you could love God and follow Jesus while still believing 1Corinthians 13 is satanic, I’ll reply to what you point to in your latest offering.

      If you cannot do this (or won’t) our discussion is over, and any more replies from you that don’t address what I’ve already asked will be deleted and not posted.

  2. Matthew Perri

    April 18, 2016 at 15:27

    Here is who he was….
    [sing it to the tune of “Rapture” by Blondie]

    I’m Boss Paul, the Pharisee
    My hypocrisy’s plain for the world to see
    I travel the land and travel the sea
    to make a convert who is just like ME

    “All have sinned” – we know that’s true
    but it never means ME – it only means YOU
    My sins are all theoretical
    “I’m the worst of sinners”- but don’t ask where

    To be more like Jesus is what some strive
    except for me – I’ve already arrived
    I’m the perfect model since the road to Damascus
    What were Paul’s sins? Don’t ask us!

    I justify everything I do
    If I testify about myself it MUST be true
    I’m the only man in all history
    whose testimony doesn’t need two or three

    If I did something it MUST be right
    Don’t use the Scripture to shed any light
    Don’t do as I say, do as I do
    and then you can be a Pharisee too.

    • Eddie

      April 19, 2016 at 07:27

      Greetings Matt, thanks for reading, if that is what you did…

      I deleted the rest of my comment to you when I realized you actually wrote the ditty above. I assumed when I saw it on several other sites that it wasn’t yours. I intended to go back and read the other blog sites later, and that is when I realized they were commenting on what **you** wrote. So, I apologize for my earlier posting that you were not the original author.

      That said, I’ll leave most of my remarks for your second comment, which, by the way, seems to be getting preachy. I don’t mind discussing points of view, but I don’t appreciate long winded remarks that are more like what should be posted as a blog post on one’s own website, rather than using that of another as (more or less) advertisement for your own blog. Keep it simple and to the point, Matt, and you can say virtually anything you please on my website, but expect a reply.

      One observation: You are not using Scripture to point to why you disagree with Paul.

  3. Paul Ross

    January 25, 2015 at 19:44

    Saul was educated in the scripture by Gamaliel, who was there top teacher. So that could have been a large element of Saul’s elevation into the temple’s Pharisee’s control of it. He was likely a member of the Sanhedrin which was also probably how he was able to commit the arrests and executions oft the Jews who did believe in Jesus as Christ, their Messiah and Son of God. His persecutions were known as intense. And then we he finally left Judea to gentile territory in Damascus with his own soldiers…we know what happened. They were all knocked down, possibly off their horses, and were blazed from a light in heaven …which Saul looked up at…and he spoke to that obvious divine source which blinded him…and he alone of that group could comprehend what was being spoken to him. None of the others did…nor were blinded. There is a distinct possibility that Jesus was having executed an illustrative example of what would happen at the end times for Israel… How all that remnant that has disbelieved in him…and are enemies…are made footstools… As prophetically expressed in Psalms 110:1 A Psalm of David. The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
    That was how Jesus could rest on him…and Saul would be suffering in that service… As shared in Acts to Ananias who was legitimately frightened to go see him at Jesus directions: Act 9:15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
    And he did emphasize how he would bear stresses…Act 9:16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.


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