May 5, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: His early years and education

Scholars have had to speculate somewhat about St. Paul’s early years, and not all agree. I’ll follow the opinions of one of those experts, Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor.

According to St. Jerome, Paul (or Saul, his original name) was born in Galilee at about the same time as Jesus was born in Bethlehem—about 6 B.C. He would have been 2 when King Herod died and some of the Jews revolted against Herod’s sons.

The Romans brutally suppressed the uprising and, as they often did, took prisoners, including Saul’s parents. The soldiers sold their prisoners to slave-traders, who served the whole area, and eventually they wound up in Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia Pedias.

A Roman citizen bought Saul’s parents. When he freed them, they and their child automatically became Roman citizens. They went on to prosper in Tarsus because Saul didn’t have to work as a teen and he received a great education.

He learned the Hebrew Scriptures thoroughly; in his letters, he quotes them almost 90 times. But he also received an excellent secular education, especially in rhetoric, as his letters display. He mastered the techniques of the time as well as Greek—the language of the well-educated. He also obviously had philosophical training. He probably got this education at the University of Tarsus, especially famous for its schools of rhetoric.

Having graduated at 19 or 20, Saul decided to immerse himself in Judaism. He headed for Jerusalem, about 500 miles away, a trip that would have taken about six weeks. There he came under the influence of the great Pharisaic teacher Gamaliel I, and Saul became a Pharisee.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke has Paul say, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees,” but that’s doubtful. Pharisees were rare in Galilee and non-existent in Tarsus. Saul would have met them only in Jerusalem.

Did Saul marry? As a good Pharisee, probably. The Pharisees considered “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gn 1:28) to be a command, and law-abiding Jew males married in their 20s. Perhaps he also had children, but we don’t know that. Father Murphy-O’Connor’s personal belief is that Saul’s wife and children perished in an accident so traumatic that he sealed off their memory, but that’s speculation.

Although Saul and Jesus were in Jerusalem at the same time, there’s no indication that they ever met. Saul would have thought he was wasting his time listening to that man who, he thought, couldn’t possibly be the Messiah.

After Jesus’ death, though, as the Jesus movement grew, Saul quickly recognized that a Jew couldn’t follow both the Jewish law and Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus’ followers continued to think of themselves as faithful Jews. He saw Jesus’ followers as deadly rivals—you were either saved by the Law or by the Messiah; it couldn’t be both.

Thus it was that Saul was present during the stoning of Stephen and consented to his execution. He was determined to eradicate this false religion in any way he could. †


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