The Hellenist Messianic Jews were scattered abroad going into regions of Samaria and Judea (Acts 8:1) and then to more distant lands such as Phenice, Cyprus, Cyrene and Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). Paul pursued them to wherever it became known they were (Acts 26:11). In order for Paul to pursue the Hellenistic Messianic Jews to foreign cities, though probably within the province of Syria is meant, two things are implied. First, letters had to have been sent out from Jerusalem to those synagogues outside Judea to beware of this Messianic sect that had so little regard for the Temple, meaning the name of God (cp. Acts 28:21). Secondly, it would have to be known by those in Jerusalem that the Messianic Jews had traveled to such cities. Otherwise it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
News had to be brought back to Jerusalem from the foreign city that the Messianic Jews had come to and were spreading the Gospel in their synagogue. Therefore, when the Scripture says Paul went to foreign cities (Acts 26:11), it must be understood that those cities had been alerted by Jerusalem to be on the lookout for this sect, and secondly, the synagogue leaders recognized the Messianic believers and sent word back to Jerusalem so that the proper authorities might bring them there for judgment.
Understanding this will place Acts 9:1 in its proper perspective. Paul would need no such letters from the high priest, if letters had already been sent out. That letters had already been sent out is evident by Paul’s knowledge that there were such believers in Damascus, and the Jewish leaders there sent word back to Jerusalem saying so. Therefore, the only reason why Paul would need new letters from the high priest would be if a change in the high priestly office had been made. If Stephen was stoned in 34 CE, Caiaphas would have been the reigning high priest. The fact that Acts 9:1 shows Paul seeking new letters implies Caiaphas was no longer in authority there. At the time of the Passover in 36 CE Caiaphas had been removed from his office by Vitellius, the new Roman governor of Syria, and Jonathan, the son of Annas, was placed in that position. Therefore, Paul needed new letters, if he wished to go to Damascus and bring back the Messianic believers living there for punishment in Jerusalem. If the new high priest did not consider them a threat, Paul would have no authority to imprison them or bring them to Jerusalem for judgment. Therefore, Acts 9:1 denotes the passage of time of about a year and a half from the time of Stephen’s stoning. No doubt Paul would have sought immediate approval for his mission and obtained the needed letters and started out for Damascus not long after the Passover of 36 CE but met the Lord on the way. Paul, therefore, persecuted the church from the fall of 34 CE to the spring of 36 CE or for a period of one and a half years.
Another reference that would point to this period of time is Acts 9:31. Unless one wishes to say that Paul was on a private mission and was solely responsible for the entire persecution of the Messianic Jews, one must look for another reason for the church’s peace that occurred about the time of the now Messianic Paul leaving Jerusalem for Tarsus. If it is accurate to conclude Paul was converted in the year 36 CE we can use this date to unveil the reason for this mysterious peace that occurred about the time Paul was visiting Peter in Jerusalem or shortly thereafter. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that he did not go up to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18) on the way to Damascus. Knowing this and adding it to 36 CE would bring us to 39 CE. What occurred in 39 CE that would bring peace to Messianic Judaism—conservative, moderate and even the persecuted liberal Grecian Messianic Jews?
By 39 CE Caius Caesar had become mad. Late in the year he sent Petronius as the new governor to the province of Syria with orders to set up a statue of himself, i.e. Caius Caesar, in the Temple at Jerusalem. Intending to carry out Caius’ orders in the spring of 40 CE, Petronius brought his army southward from Syria to winter at Ptolemias, a city in Galilee on the coast of the Mediterranean, just north of Caesarea. Tens of thousands of Jews (men, women and children) came there to mourn before Petronius, begging him not to do such a thing. Long-story-short, the Roman governor was moved by their pleas and delayed executing his orders and sent word back to Caesar saying that the Emperor would suffer much loss in revenue, if he carried out his command, because the locals had ceased working in their fields for mourning, neither planting nor harvesting. In other words, no winter crop was planted in 39 CE and neither was a spring or summer crop planted in 40 CE. Petronius wanted to know if Caius wished him to continue despite the apparent loss of revenue to the empire.
The Jewish nation was at the brink of war with Rome, and this, not Paul’s conversion, was the reason for the church’s peace in Acts 9:31. The whole nation was in the state of shock and dismay and on the brink of war with Rome. The high priest, Theophilus, and the Temple officials had much more horrendous matters to attend to than what they perceived the Hellenistic Messianic Jews to be, who were at that time fleeing for their lives to distant cities, but probably within the province of Syria.
With the above in mind, we can now date Acts 9:31 to 39 CE, late in the year, when Petronius, the new Roman governor of Syria, reasoned with the Jews at Ptolemias and awaited word from Caesar in reply to his most recent letter to him. By the time Petronius received this letter, Caius had been assassinated (January, 41 CE) and Petronius’ orders had become moot. So, if Paul left Jerusalem for Tarsus in late summer or early fall of 39 CE, three years after his conversion on his way to Damascus (spring of 36 CE), Paul could have been persecuting the Messianic Jews for about a year and a half.