Before we begin to evaluate Paul's character as it is brought to us by Luke's, The Acts Of The Apostles, and his own New Testament letters, we should understand his origination and his basic genealogy. Parentage is extremely important to us, for Paul held Roman Citizenship as well as being a Jew by birth, and a Hellenist by theological determination.
It is inevitable then, that for this task we must turn to history, tradition, and Paul's own words. The latter is the only biblical proof in evidence of his earliest beginnings.
Saul of Tarsus was born a Jew of Jewish parents in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia. His father had achieved Roman citizenship, and Paul inherited that high rank from him. He did not, on any account, earn it himself.
By his own word, Paul was, "...circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee..." (Philippians 3:5; RSV)
Paul was a dispersion Jew, not a Palestinian Jew as were Jesus and the disciples. It is important that we understand this, for Paul's loyalties and practices as a Jew, were far different than the Christ and his Apostles. Paul was a Hellenist or Diaspora Jew, and for these reasons would have been more easily moved toward Christianity. It would also have been a natural evolution for him to theorize about a Gentile mission since he was more familiar with a less orthodox view than Palestinian Judaism. The latter would obviously include Jesus and his disciples.
There is no proof, or tradition, that Paul was a Rabbi although it is probable that he did study toward that goal. Luke indicates that he studied under Gamaliel, in Jerusalem. (Peake's Commentary on the Bible; Page 873: 763a)
"I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel..." (Acts 22:3; RSV)
The Gamaliel referred to in the scriptures, was the first of the famous rabbis of that name. He was a descendant of Hillel. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume 9: Page 86)
We must be alerted at once that there is no evidence that Paul was the primary or singular student of the famous Rabbi. To say one studied under, or at the feet of, Gamaliel or Hillel or any other great teacher, only meant that he studied in the school of that teacher. There were many students in each of the special rabbinical institutions but it did not mean that that Rabbi or teacher knew them.
Saul of Tarsus was, at this point, a non-descript bystander. What we have of him to this point, is that of his own word.
It is in this city that we first meet the chief character, and subject, of this thesis. It is a time of radical movements within the infant church, sparked by revolutionary figures of which Stephen seems to have been the most outspoken. Stephen appears to have been a teacher, though tradition has it that he was very young. He was a Hellenist, and obviously held to a philosophy that caused great concern to the Synagogue and the leaders of the new Christian religion.
Stephen was probably the most talented of the Hellenistic teachers. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume7: Page 182) He held that Israel as a kingdom had been unfaithful to its heritage, and that the true Israel was represented by the new church. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume 7: Page 182)
This was a theme that Paul was later to adopt.
The Greek mind, that same Greek mind which had dared to regard its philosophy in a state as high as that of God's word as given in the Holy Scriptures, now decried the Jewish religion and the Temple. It is interesting to make note of a statement put forth by professional theologians concerning Paul's relationship with the Law. It is discussed at length later in this work, and brings us a true picture of the man's character.
Though Stephen repudiated the old Israel, he did not reject the Law itself, which Paul did many years later. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume 7: Page 182) At the end of an enraging, public discourse, Stephen is dragged out before a frenzied crowd, and is stoned to death. Saul of Tarsus first appears in Acts 7:58.
"Then they cast him 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)
His position in the community is not known, nor his importance to those involved in the stoning of Stephen. No position of authority is given to Paul at this point in the Bible or in tradition, but his enthusiasm in persecuting the Christian Hellenists gives reign to the thought that he was most certainly a vigilante.
"Saul was consenting to his death." (Acts 8:1; RSV)
"And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles... But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison." (Acts 8:1 RSV)
Whatever position Paul held, he most certainly did not act alone. To physically drag people out of their homes and into prison he must have had assistance, and in light of what history will tell us, the beginnings of an organization of no small power.
Saul is never mentioned as having been a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Stephen. It is only mentioned that he was a member of the Cilician synagogue. Luke only tells us that Paul gave his consent by holding the coats of those physically involved. Theologians read far more into Luke's statement. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume 9: Page 106)
Regarding Saul's authority to arrest and imprison the general population, this student would ask to which prison he sent them. Is it possible that Saul acted, not as an outraged Jew, but a Roman citizen? Did he arrest these people for sacrilegious activities or for sedition? We are given no clue, and in fact, even the theologians are puzzled about the area of Saul's activity.
It is not believed that Paul carried out his work in Jerusalem. The Disciples were not indicted in the persecution, though they preached Jesus as the Christ in the synagogue. Galatians claims that Damascus was the center of Paul's activity. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume 9; Page 107)
It is, in fact, to that very city that Saul seeks letters of authority to continue his persecution.
"But 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; RSV)
What occurs next is plunged into controversy, debate, and contradiction. Saul's conversion leaves much to be explained, and in its several varying forms, especially Saul's own accounts, lays down the general 'modus-operands' of Saul's entire ministry. It is one of constant contradiction, changes of loyalty, and an ever-growing attention to his own self-importance.
It begins with, Damascus. Saul's conversion comes in the form of a vision. As set forth in Acts, this is written by a third party, Luke. Did he receive the story from his friend, Paul, or was he a witness? Paul's own words bring us a sense of his experience and contradiction.
"Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do. The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one." (Acts 9:3-19; RSV)
Blinded by the light that he alone can see, Paul is sent to meet, Ananias. This disciple is to tell him of his mission and to heal Paul of his affliction.
These are purported to be Paul's words as spoken to Luke. Paul offers witnesses, not by name, but by inference; "the men who were traveling with him." The men are not named, we do not know who they might have been. They see nothing, but hear the voice.
We may assume many things, but can prove nothing. Chief among our objections to this report is clear. In the event of such an occurrence, including Jesus' several experiences, witnesses are necessary.
Even in Jesus' baptism there are witnesses, John the Baptist and his disciples, which group included Andrew. There were also three 'named' witnesses to the transfiguration. Throughout the history of the Bible, witnesses are provided who are named, and with whom we are familiar in the course of these events. Even Aaron is made part and party to the mission of Moses, spoken to by God and given the very words of God, (Exodus 4:15-16; RSV) as Moses received them in his vision of the burning bush. (Exodus 4:27-28)
Later, Paul speaks again through Luke, and the vision experience changes.
"Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me." (Acts 22:9-13; RSV)
This time the witnesses hear no voice but they see the light. Oddly enough, they are not blinded as Paul is reported to have been. The statement is, however, absolute and it contradicts Paul's previous account. Here again, Paul is sent to Ananias to receive his 'calling' and a restoration of his sight.
Later still, when Paul addresses King Agrippa, the witnesses hear nothing, they see nothing. and the vision becomes Paul's alone.
"At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language..." (Acts 26:13-14; RSV)
Hebrew, or Aramaic? It is irrelevant except to note that not only has this addition been made to the vision, but now the voice tells Paul what his task is to be. Ananias is forgotten, and nowhere does Paul state that he was blinded. Added also is the fact that this time, Paul claims that he sees the speaker.
In the other renditions Paul gives of his vision, he is told to go into the city and there he will, "... be told all that is appointed for you to do." (Acts 22:10-11; RSV)
It is of importance to note once more, in the previous version (Acts 26:16-18; RSV) of Paul's testimony there is no mention of his blindness, or of Ananias. In the end, we are to observe by his own words that Paul's recovery from blindness did not involve a perfect 'healing'. His own words testify to the fact that his sight-impairment was permanent and so he complained of it throughout his travels. At the last, he claims that his 'thorn in the side, is of Satan. It would also appear that there was some matter of his being disfigured, unsightly to behold.
So the vision changes, subtly, but enough so that at the end Paul becomes the main character. He sees the great light enveloping himself and those around him, he hears the voice, and through it, he believes that he has been given a calling to minister to the Gentiles. Luke openly declares that Paul began at once to "... declare to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles..." (Acts 19:20)
In this, he also contradicts Luke, bringing doubt on his word.
The good physician has all this beginning at the moment of Paul's 'vision', but in fact, none of it occurred for years. In the other versions, it is Ananias who heals Paul and tells him what his mission is to be. In this there is no mission to the Gentiles, unless Paul himself decided that Ananias' words were to be interpreted in that manner. Surely Jesus, in his lifetime, adjured the Apostles to avoid the Gentiles and the Samaritans.
"... for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard." (Acts 22:15; RSV)
But there is one other situation in which Paul calls up the vision that eventually caused his 'conversion', and this time it is also in his own words. One must note carefully Paul's choice of words, for they seem to camouflage the difference between that which others saw, and that which Paul experienced. He wants it to seem as though the events are the same, bearing the same substance, but they were not. Paul mentions it in connection with the appearances of the risen Jesus after his resurrection from the dead.
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Make note that Paul ignores what later appears in the Gospel stories which tell us that the women were the first to see the living Jesus, not Peter. Surely he had knowledge of the oral tradition concerning these events. More enlightening is the fact that Paul seems to be making another, revised statement concerning his vision.
Those who saw Jesus at the times Paul indicates, beheld the living, in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. Paul's vision seems to be taking on flesh and bone of its own. He is most certainly insinuating that he was confronted by the living Jesus, when in two accounts of the event he sees only a light and hears a voice. In the third, where the healing of his sight and Ananias' instructions disappear, Paul claims to see Jesus, in the flesh, as he speaks to him.
It is upon this new tale that Paul bases his authority, contending that his 'calling' is the same as that of the Twelve, who were personally chosen by the living Christ, and that of James, Jesus' brother.
Was he building a case for the future with which to defend attacks against his own self-proclaimed apostleship? Or was the event so monumental that Paul's ability to function was becoming impaired. Was Festus correct? That which the church has taken as a slander against Paul's character, may well have been an accurate assessment.
"And as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, you are mad; your great learning is turning you mad." (Acts 26:24; RSV)
In regard to Paul's words, suspicion is raised and is not easily removed. Paul has attempted to set up an argument that no one can assail. It is his word against the world; no witnesses, no proof provided, and in Paul's mind none is needed. However, even professional theologians must offer their own explanation.
Professional theologians agree that Paul regarded his own experience with Christ near Damascus as being essentially the same as that of Cephas and James, to whom the resurrected Jesus had appeared. Of course, they also agree that no one can be certain of this. (The Interpreter's Bible; Volume 7: Page 191)(Peake's Commentary on the Bible; Page 873: 763b)
No one can say? No one can argue against a statement that infers God's direct intervention in a matter. One may say that they 'saw' anything they wish when a spiritual agent is involved, without fear of contradiction. But in the end, their own actions, their own words, provide us with the truth.
"But when he who set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were (A)apostles before me..." (Galatians 1:15-17; RSV)
This statement is extremely important, for it will contradict Luke again when the visit, according to Paul, includes the Apostles extending him, "...the right hand of fellowship. (Galatians 2:9)
Oh, how Paul's authority is to grow, even to the point of claiming that he is Nazarite!
Paul's account in (Gal. 1:1), is given in the context of an argument over the nature of his apostleship. In order to valid his claim, he says that his call is free of all human authority. This includes the leaders of the Church at Jerusalem. He ignores Ananias completely, thereby erasing his place in the 'vision' story, and in doing so, he refutes Luke's account, which may well have been derived from Paul's own words at the time.
But this is the manner in which Paul operated, this was the manner in which he treated people who were not absolutely necessary to him. If God called Paul, he also called Ananias, not only for his 'healing', but also to instruct Paul in his new role. Paul chooses to disregard him as unnecessary.
At the writing of Galatians, Paul's authority has grown beyond measure. He is now an 'apostle', and he proclaims his standing as, Nazarite, one chosen before his birth as a Prophet of God. No one may challenge his position, no one may challenge his authority, Paul has taken it beyond the realm of man into an arena which no one dare question. Yet God, the eternal Father, demands that we challenge it.
Paul's only defense is to say that all of his claims are beyond 'flesh and blood', so it matters not what any one says including the Twelve, including Jesus' brother James, including the Elders of the Jerusalem Church. This is the argument of one who does not dare to defend his statement, but one who wishes to avoid any coherent debate of his position by the simplest means possible. God did it, therefore there can be no discussion.
Paul's claims are so insidious, that he has written authorities in our own time, contradicting themselves. (Peake's Commentary on the Bible: Page 974: 851e: (Galatians 1:15-16))
But as the same source has already commented, "That Paul saw Jesus in the flesh we cannot say." Indeed, the variations and inconsistencies in Paul's narrative concerning his 'vision' cause one to hesitate in accepting it at face value. One can easily see that it has grown with the telling.
And here, still in the presence of Festus, Bernice, and King Agrippa, another matter must be brought to our attention. It concerns Paul's supposed imprisonment.
He was not actually a prisoner, not locked in chains within a cell and left to suffer. In fact, as we will discuss later, he was under house arrest at his own bidding and free to move about and have visitors. His journeys continued, but this time at the expense of the Romans and not his congregations. This is attested to by Felix and then King Agrippa himself.
"But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, "When Lys'ias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case." Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but should have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs." (Revised Standard Version; Acts 24:22-23)
"And Agrippa said to Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar." (Revised Standard Version; Acts 26:32)
Paul constantly uses his 'imprisonment' to draw sympathy and attention to himself, but we shall see, at the proper time, that Paul was absolutely overjoyed at the circumstances he himself had created. Now he was free to preach to the soldiers and spread his gospel among them, something that might never have happened otherwise.
And why ask for Roman assistance to start with? Not from preaching the gospel, but Paul sought protection to save his own neck from a riot that he himself had caused. But more of this will be revealed later.
It must also be remembered that Saul of Tarsus, by his own admission, in his own words, was guilty of two murders.