Paul (Saul) of Tarsus

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Christ’s Faithful Servants, copyright 2023

His Pre-Conversion Life. We know more about the life of the apostle Paul than any other New Testament figure except perhaps Jesus.

Paul’s birth name was Saul, and he hailed from Tarsus,[1] a city in the region of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (Asia Minor is modern Turkey). He was a Jew, from the tribe of Benjamin,[2] but was also a Roman citizen.[3] The son of a Pharisee[4] (that is, a Jewish religious leader), Saul studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel,[5] a widely-respected Pharisee and teacher of the Jewish Law.[6] Saul acquired a reputation for being a zealous Jew,[7] and became a Pharisee himself.[8] He may have been one of those from Cilicia who argued with Stephen.[9]

Most of what we know about Saul begins after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Saul guarded the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen, the new faith’s first martyr.[10] Acts makes clear that Saul was not neutral about the stoning, for “Saul approved of putting Stephen to death.”[11] After that Saul led a Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus in Judea.[12]

Convinced that the preaching about Christ’s resurrection was a diabolical lie and a very real danger to Judaism, and having received authority from the Jewish priests, Saul set out to crush the new movement by imprisoning its adherents.[13] Some were even executed, with Saul’s concurrence.[14] He describes himself as being “extremely enraged” at them.[15] However, persecution did not silence his quarry, but only forced them to flee Judea and preach elsewhere.[16] Thus, his actions unintentionally helped to spread this new gospel. In response, Saul obtained permission from the Jewish leaders to expand the persecution to Damascus, Syria, intending to arrest any believers he found there and bring them back to Jerusalem.[17] But just outside Damascus, God struck Saul with a vision that transformed him from this new religion’s fiercest opponent into its greatest champion.

Saul’s Conversion to Christianity. As Saul approached Damascus, at about noon, he suddenly saw a blinding light from heaven.[18] He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus saying, in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”[19] Saul’s traveling companions saw the light and heard the voice, but could not understand what was said.[20] The voice told Saul to continue to Damascus, where he would be told what to do.[21] When the vision ended, Saul was blind.[22] His companions led him into the city, to the house of a man named Judas, where Saul stayed for three days without eating or drinking.[23] Meanwhile, one of the believers in Damascus named Ananias saw a vision from the Lord telling him to go to Saul and lay hands on him.[24] When Ananias did so, Saul regained his sight and was baptized.[25]

Not long after his conversion, Luke (believed to be the author of Acts) begins to refer to Saul by the Greek name of Paul.[26] “Saul” means “desired”; “Paul” means “little.” Maybe Paul changed his name to enhance his ministry to the Gentiles, or perhaps merely to emphasize the tremendous change that had occurred in his own life. I refer to him hereafter as “Paul.” . . .

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[1]. Acts 9:11, 21:39, 22:3

[2]. Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5

[3]. Acts 22:25-29

[4]. Acts 23:6

[5]. Acts 22:3

[6]. Acts 5:34

[7]. Galatians 1:14

[8]. Acts 23:6, 26:5, Philippians 3:5

[9]. Acts 6:9

[10]. Acts 7:58, 22:20

[11]. Acts 8:1

[12]. Acts 8:1, 3

[13]. Acts 8:3, 9:1, 22:5, 26:10; see also 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13-14, Philippians 3:6, and 1 Timothy 1:13

[14]. Acts 26:10; see also Acts 9:1 and 22:4

[15]. Acts 26:11

[16]. Acts 8:4

[17]. Acts 9:1-2, 22:5, 26:12

[18]. Acts 9:3, 22:6, 26:13

[19]. Acts 9:4-5, 22:7-8, 26:14-15

[20]. Acts 9:7, 22:9

[21]. Acts 9:6, 22:10

[22]. Acts 9:8, 22:11

[23]. Acts 9:8-9, 11

[24]. Acts 9:10-12

[25]. Acts 9:17-18

[26]. Acts 13:9