Saul of Tarsus -- From Childhood to Conversion
Biography of Saul of Tarsus
The city of Tarsus was the capital in the province of Cilicia and one of the great trade centers in the Mediterranean. It was also the birth place of the one man selected by God to who could bridge the gap between Jews and Gentiles with God’s gospel – Saul – the one man many Christians feared most.
Saul was born from the Jewish tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1), somewhere between 5 B.C. and 5 AD., he was circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance to God’s Law. This clearly made him a member of the covenant nation, as he claimed in Philippians 3:5, “…of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews, touching the law, a Pharisee.” A Hebrew was a Jew who could still speak Hebrew as opposed to those who abandoned their native language for the Greek of their adopted countries.
Saul’s parents were Jewish and presumably strict Pharisees. We also find that Saul was a Roman citizen, which brings the question, how does a Jew become a Roman citizen? There are three ways for outsiders to become citizens of Rome. One can become a citizen by either birth or buying the privilege. Another was through military service. In order to attract more soldiers, Rome offered citizenship to those serving in the military for at least twenty-five years and who received an honorable discharge. Due to Tarsus being designated as a “free state” by Rome, Saul was automatically granted citizenship by his birth in the city.
Why was Roman citizenship so important? As you read the writings of Paul, you will see he took advantage of his citizenship as often as he could. Some of the more common rights and benefits were:
- The right to vote in assemblies and stand for civil or public office
- The right to make legal contracts and hold property
- The right of immunity from some taxes and legal obligations
- The right to sue (and be sued) in the courts
- Citizenship also came with the right to have a legal trial where a person appears before a proper court in which to defend themselves. This right also included the ability to request Caesar to hear a case.
Few backgrounds could have prepared Saul to be the chief persecutor of the early church. At the young age of 14, Saul was sent to Jerusalem to train as a Rabbi. He must have been an eager student, as he claimed to have out done his peers in enthusiasm for ancestral traditions and in his zeal for the law (Galatians 1:13-14). Tutelage from his teacher Gamaliel in the city of Jerusalem (Acts 22:1-3) he had the opportunity to observe the council and come to know many of its principles and some of its inner workings. Ironically, his background also prepared him to be the church’s spokesperson (devout, energetic, outspoken, stubborn and exacting) which made him more of a problem to the Jews than he ever had been to the Christians.
During these times every Jewish boy was taught a manual trade. Tarsus was famous for the manufacturing of goats’ hair felt, out of which tent-cloth, blankets, clothing, belts and saddles were made. Young Saul learned how to make mohair tents. Later, as a Christian missionary, that trade became a means of support for him, one that he could practice anywhere. It also was to become an initial connection with Priscilla and Aquila with whom he would partner in God tent making (Acts 18:3).
Saul was zealous in all that he did. He was a man of firm conviction and acted on his beliefs and took Christianity to be a heresy against Judaism. Being from the tribe of Benjamin, he described himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regards to the Mosaic Law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the Christian Church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. He had a brilliant mind and could debate with the most educated scholars of his day. In the end, he was to become one of the greatest evangelists of his day in spreading Christianity preserving in the face of danger and inspiring countless Christian missionaries ever since.
Saul did everything he could to try to stop the growth of Christianity. In fact, when Stephen (the first recorded Christian martyr in the New Testament) was killed, Saul was there (watching the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen). On that day a great persecution broke out against the Christian Church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. At that time, Saul began to destroy the Church. Going from house to house, he dragged off Christian (known as followers of the Way at the time) men and women and put them in prison. Eventually, he obtained letters from the Jewish religious leaders in Damascus and was going there to bring Christians back to Jerusalem to be punished when a heavenly voice stopped him in his tracks.
Acts 9:3-4 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Not only was this frightening for Saul, but it must have been extremely confusing for the party traveling with Saul. Act 9:7 “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.” Because of the brilliance of the bright light, Saul was blinded for three days. His companions had to lead him into Damascus by hand.
While in Damascus, Jesus instructed a devout follower of the Way to pray for Saul in order that his sight be restored. When he did, immediately Saul could see. Saul was told that he would be Jesus' witness to all men of what he had seen and heard. At that time, Saul got up and was baptized a follower of Christ Jesus. Saul was to become known as the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews) whereas Peter was called the apostle to the Jews.
There are three things that stick out to me in the paragraphs above. First, Saul was zealous in EVERYTHING he did. As Christians we shouldn’t be any less zealous when attending God’s business. Second, he was a man of firm conviction. A firm conviction is the unshakeable belief in something without further proof. New Testament Christians knew what Saul stood for and were quite intimidated. Our obedience to God’s Word and total submission to Him should be of the same kind of conviction. Third, he did EVERYTHING HE COULD to try and stop the growth of Christianity. Why aren’t 21st Century Christians willing to do everything they can to stop the spread of Satan’s evil? True Saul was a brilliant, but evil man. But after his conversion his zealousness, conviction and willingness to follow Jesus without question became his biggest strengths in spreading the gospel.
Saul's great abilities and earnest enthusiasm in spreading the gospel of Christ have made his name revered wherever the Christian religion is known. It is his writings which make up much of the New Testament of the Bible. One could make a case that Saul of Tarsus (Paul) is the most remarkable follower Jesus ever had. He is mentioned more often than any other Christian in the New Testament (202 times). He got a late start (1 Corinthians 15:8), but he made up for it by laboring more diligently (1 Corinthians 15:10). Before or since, no other person ever came so far and did so much.