Paul – Saul from Tarsus

Saul's Early Years

Born and reared as Saul from Tarsus, the largest city in Rome’s gateway province of Cilicia (Acts 9:11; 22:3), the Apostle Paul was the bridge that carried belief in Jesus as Messiah from a Jerusalem based Judaism to Gentiles living in “the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Rom 11:17–24). The world has never been the same for his efforts.

Saul’s Early Years
Image source: © Carta, Jerusalem

Saul was born probably about a decade after the birth of Jesus, though in a world away. In the first century AD Tarsus was a center of Hellenistic education and culture that rivaled Alexandria and Athens in influence. It was, moreover, a major trade center and gateway in the Roman world, as Istanbul is today. As a result, Saul’s Tarsus contemporaries were, by definition, “of the world,” cosmopolitan and connected.

Many of the residents of Tarsus, including some Jews, were granted Roman citizenship by Pompey and Antony in the last half of the first century BC.; perhaps Saul’s father or grandfather was among that number since Paul himself was born a Roman citizen (cf. Acts 21:39). Without question his roots were deeply intertwined with the penetrating reality of the Hellenistic world.

But they were thrust just as deeply into traditional Judaism. Paul’s abbreviated autobiography: “[I am] a Hebrew of Hebrews… as to the righteousness which is in Torah, blameless” (Phil 3:5–6) suggests that in spite of his family’s likely connections to the politics and economy of Tarsus, they also maintained strict control of their Jewishness and were careful not to assimilate too much to the glories of Hellenism that so defined their home town.

Both Saul and his father were, after all, Pharisees (Acts 23:6) and remembered their tribal roots in Benjamin (Phil 3:5–6). So Saul moved to Jerusalem early in life where he received a traditional rabbinic education (Acts 22:3; 26:4; cf. Acts 23:16). He was joined to the aged rabbi Gamaliel (the Elder), one of the leading Pharisaic scholars of the day (Acts 22:3).

Although his credentials as a teacher of Bible and preserver of rabbinic tradition were impeccable (at one point he had served as president of the Sanhedrin), Gamaliel was also a student of Greek literature and advocated tolerance toward Gentiles. Saul, certainly fluent in Greek, Hebrew (Acts 21:37–40) and Aramaic and arguably conversant in Latin, was one of Gamaliel’s prize students. And, like many other Pharisees, Saul also had an income-producing job, in this case a maker of tents (Acts 18:3).