The Apostle Paul is one of the great figures in Greek literature; the earliest and most prolific New Testament author; a missionary and preacher extraordinaire; apostle to the Gentiles; and most importantly, he provides the church with the most clear and full presentation of the gospel of free grace.
What makes Paul so unique is that though he was a Roman citizen, fluent Greek speaker, tradesman, and traveler; he was raised a “Hebrew of Hebrews” in all the strictness and zealousness of the Hebrew scriptures and traditions of his fathers. This combination made him a very unique tool in the early spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
A Hebrew of Hebrews
The key background element that shaped the life and thought of the Apostle Paul was his strict traditional Jewish upbringing.
“Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”
- “For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” (Rom 11:1)
- Notable borders: Ephraim to North; Judah to South; Jordan to East
- Notable leader: King Saul (1 Sam 9:21, Acts 13:21). Perhaps it was after King Saul that Paul was given his Hebrew name (see Acts 9)
- The city of Jerusalem fell along the border of Judah-Benjamin, but belonged to Judah.
- Benjamin allied with the Southern Kingdom (Judah) when Israel split (2 Chr 11), but at least some Benjamites continued to maintain their separate identity, even after the exile in Babylon (Neh 11:7, 31-33). Perhaps Paul’s family was one of these.
- “an Hebrew” is probably not a synonym for Israelite (in this context), it defines the most zealous and traditional of the Jews in Paul’s day in contradiction to the Hellenists
- “Are they Hebrews? so am I” (2 Cor 11:22)
- ‘Hebrews’ here contrasts the Hellenist Jews who spoke Greek and adapted themselves to Greek culture. The ‘Hebrews’ spoke Hebrew/Aramaic, worshiped in Hebrew in their synagogues, and tried to remain separate from Greek culture/influence – see Acts 6:1, for a notable example
- Hellenists were mostly the Jews of the dispersion. The “Hebrews” were mostly living in Palestine or were very devout/traditional Jews dispersed throughout the empire who retained their Hebrew language and tradition
- Paul was born in the capital city of a Greek speaking Roman province. He was a tradesman and citizen so he would be expected to be a Hellenist, so his parents must have been very devout/traditional if he were raised in the Hebrew customs (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”)
- Paul was fluent in Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic (see Acts 21:40-22:2) and he was called by Christ in the Hebrew/Aramaic tongue (Acts 26:14)
- Paul was sent to Jerusalem to be trained in the Hebrew Scriptures/Law as a boy or teen- “…brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers…” (ACts 22:3)
- There were three parties of Judaism in Paul’s day: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes
- Pharisee comes from Aramaic and means “separated ones”. The Pharisees practiced strict moral and ceremonial purity and separation
- The Pharisees accumulated a very large body of oral tradition, but the Saduccees were dedicated to a strict interpretation of the Pentateuch alone
- Paul was trained by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a Pharisee and doctor of the law (Acts 5:34), a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious and political ruling body that maintained order under the Roman governor), and perhaps a student of Hillel
- In Paul’s day, the Chief Priest, Sanhedrin, and other rulers were made up of Sadducees. The Pharisees were largely represented by the scribes – the teachers of the law
- Paul was probably brought up in the most strict sect of Pharasaism – “after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee (Acts 26:5).”
- Paul was very zealous for the Jewish traditions of his fathers (Acts 22:3) and Gal 1:14 – [I] “profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.”
- Paul was very heated in his invective against the church – “Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1)
- Paul differed from his teacher who urged the Sanhedrin to use restraint in persecuting the disciples of Christ (Acts 5). Paul rather sought permission from the Chief Priest to persecute believers (Acts 9).