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Lesson #8
Excursus: A Portrait of St. Paul

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


We first met Saul at the stoning of Stephen, where he
supervised Steven’s murder. On that same day, Saul
began “trying to destroy the church; entering house
after house and dragging out men and women, he
handed them over for imprisonment” (8: 3). As we
entered Lesson #7 we learned that “Saul, still
breathing out murderous threats against the disciples
of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for
letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he
should find any men or women who belonged to the
Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains”
(9: 1-2).
Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus
transformed him from Saul, the greatest of sinners (1
Timothy 1: 15), to Paul, the greatest of saints. But the
transformation didn’t take place overnight. After his
of St.
Paul to go.
conversion, Saul stillExcursus,
had AaPortrait


Lesson #8 offers an excursus, an
exploration of Saul of Tarsus, later known
as St. Paul. Who was he? Where did he
come from? What was his background?
Why was he in Jerusalem? What were his
motives for hating Christ?


Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Rembrandt. The Apostle Paul (oil on canvas), 1657.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


When St. Paul is arrested in
Jerusalem in A.D. 57, charged
with inciting a riot and
mistakenly identified as an
Egyptian terrorist, he replies
indignantly: “I am Jew from
Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no
ordinary city” (Acts 21: 39).
Later, when he is about to be
flogged, Paul asserts his
Roman citizenship again in no
uncertain terms, prompting an
exchange with the Roman
“Tell me, are you a Roman
citizen?” “Yes, I am,” [Paul]
answered. Then the
commander said, “I had to pay
a big price for my citizenship.”

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


“But I was born a citizen,” Paul

These two scenes speak
volumes about St. Paul,
and they tempt us to
explore Paul’s
background in more
depth. What do we
really know about Paul,
and what informed
assumptions might we
make about Paul’s early,
formative years?

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


I’ve always liked St.
Paul, but I know that
many people have
difficulty with him.
Not certainly
He could
a curmudgeon . . . and
he didn’t suffer fools
gladly. He is surely
one of the most
complex personalities
in Scripture.

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul

I’m a little
afraid of


In St. Paul’s day
Tarsus was the
leading city on the
fertile plain of East
Cilicia, located
about ten miles
from the mouth of
the Cyndus River
and about thirty
miles south of the
Cilician Gates.
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


 Tarsus

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


A Roman street from the Tarsus of St. Paul’s
Photography by Ana Maria Vargas
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Strolling down a modern street in Tarsus.
Photography by Ana Maria Vargas
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Local school girls stop for a photo and to say
Photography by Ana Maria Vargas
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Tarsus came under Roman rule
as a result of Pompey’s
victories, becoming the capital
of Cilicia and retaining its
autonomy as a free city (67
B.C.). Cicero resided in Tarsus
while serving as procounsul of
Cilicia (51-50 B.C.), and Julius
Caesar visited the city in 47
After Caesar’s assassination in
44 B.C., Tarsus enjoyed the
favor of Antony, and it was in
Tarsus in 41 B.C. that the
celebrated meeting between
Antony and Cleopatra took
place. Shakespeare describes
the meeting best, as
Cleopatra’s barge glides up the14
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul
Cyndus River:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-color’d fans, whose wind did seem to
[glow] the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
(Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii, 191204)

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


The Cyndus River, just outside of town.
Photography by Ana Maria Vargas
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


During the reign of Caesar
Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14)
Tarsus enjoyed enormous
privileges, including exemption
from imperial taxation. An
extremely prosperous city, Tarsus
derived its wealth from the fertile
plain on which it was located.
Strabo, the Greek historian,
geographer and philosopher
writes in his Geography (xiv, 5.
12ff.) that Tarsus was a leading
cultural and educational center,
surpassing even Athens and
Alexandria. Its people, he says,
were avid in their pursuit of
culture, applying themselves to
the study of philosophy,
literature, music and the whole
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul
round of liberal arts.


When Paul claims to be “a citizen
of no ordinary city,” he certainly
has justification for doing so.
And as one “born a citizen” Paul
necessarily came from a well-todo family. Roman citizenship was
originally confined to freeborn
natives of Rome, but as the
Empire expanded citizenship was
extended to other people in the
provinces. Presumably, Paul’s
father, grandfather or even greatgrandfather had acquired Roman
citizenship, either by making a
significant contribution to the
Roman Empire (militarily, or more
likely, economically), or by
purchasing Roman citizenship
through political connections and
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul

In addition, Dio Chrysostom,
in his Oration (34, 23) tells
us that enrolling as a
Roman citizen in Tarsus
required owning property in
excess of 500 drachmae—
not an easy threshold to
Paul’s family clearly had
both money and status.

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


I didn’t know that
Tarsus was such an
important city and
cultural Mecca, and I
sure didn’t
know that
Not me.
St. Paul came from a
wealthy, prominent
family. I wonder what
his education was

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul

I always
thought the
were poor!


Although nothing suggests that
Paul’s family were assimilated
Jews (quite the contrary, Paul
claims to be “a Hebrew [born]
of Hebrews; in regard to the
Law, a Pharisee”—Philippians 3:
5), Paul was deeply exposed to
Greco-Roman culture and
Roman education. Paul’s letters
evidence considerable training
in classical rhetoric, and when
he speaks at the Areopagus in
Athens he supports his
argument by deftly quoting
from the 6th-century B.C. Cretan
poet Epimenides (Acts 17: 28), a
favorite of the Stoic and
Epicurean philosophers to whom
he is speaking.
Paul most certainly knew his

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


In St. Paul’s day, children of
well-to-do families were taught
by private tutors or at private
schools. Primary education
focused on the basics of reading
and writing, using Roman
literary works, especially
poetry, as models. Between
nine and twelve years old,
students from affluent families
would leave their primary
education and continue the
advanced study of Greek and
hone their speaking and writing
skills. At 14 or 15 years old the
most promising students then
focused on the study of
deliberative or judicial rhetoric.
Such boys were from exclusive,
and were being
A Portrait of families
St. Paul

One can only speculate on
what level St. Paul
reached, although clearly
he is highly skilled in
Greek rhetoric, easily
adapting his speech and
writing to his audience,
suggesting he had reached
a very high educational

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


It seems to me
that St. Paul had
a superb classical
education, one
Not me. him
that groomed
for a brilliant
career in law
or politics.

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul

I’m glad he
made a
better career


At some point in Paul’s
education his family sent him
to Jerusalem (accompanied
perhaps by his sister—see Acts
23: 16) for advanced religious
study. Like all Jewish boys,
Paul had been well schooled in
Scripture and Oral Law at the
local synagogue, but once in
Jerusalem Paul became a
student of the greatest Rabbi
of his century, Gamaliel (Acts
22: 3).
The grandson of the great
Hillel, Gamaliel was a leader of
the Sanhedrin and possibly its
President. Only the brightest
and most promising student
could possibly secure a
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul
position under such a man.

Paul traveling from Tarsus
to Jerusalem to study
under Gamaliel is like
Beethoven traveling from
Bonn to Vienna to study
under Joseph
Haydn, or like
Not me.
a newly minted Cal Tech
Ph.D. in physics traveling
from Pasadena to
I wonder
Cambridge for a postdoctorial fellowship under what St.
Stephen Hawking.
Paul’s IQ


Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Paul had an extraordinary
education, available only to the
brilliant son of a wealthy and
influential family. Born into
privilege as a Jew and a Roman
citizen, Paul was steeped in
both secular and religious
education; he was fluent in at
least four languages: Hebrew,
Aramaic, Greek and Latin; he
was being groomed for
leadership in the Sanhedrin;
and he was absolutely
committed to his beliefs.
F.F. Bruce writes that even if
the events on the road to
Damascus had never
happened, history would still
know of Saul of Tarsus: he was
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul
destined for greatness.


In that way, St. Paul was
similar to Moses. Moses
was also brought up in a
privileged family as the
adopted grandson of
Pharaoh, Not
and me.
as St.
Stephen said, he was
“educated in all the
wisdom of the Egyptians
What Moses
was powerful in words and
was to the Old
deeds” (Acts 7: 22).
Testament, St.
Paul is to the

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul

How did
you know
You’re a


So, Saul of Tarsus was an
extraordinarily well-educated
young man, living in Jerusalem
at the time of Jesus. He was an
adult student of the great
Gamaliel and he had access to
the leaders of the Sanhedrin
and to the high priest himself.
He was the rising star in
So, what caused his intense
hatred of Jesus and the
Church? As he himself says to
king Agrippa: “I was so
enraged against them that I
pursued them even to foreign
cities” (Acts 26: 11). The
Greek word is ejmmaivnomai, a
Excursus, Acompound
Portrait of St. Paul of ejn (“in”) and 29
maivnonai (“behave as

Maybe it began at
Passover, A.D. 32,
when Jesus rides
into Jerusalem on
what we
Recall the story in
Luke 19: 28-40.

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul

I think you’re
on to


Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
(19: 28-40)
“After he had said this, he proceeded on his
journey up to Jerusalem. As he drew near to
Bethphange and Bethany at the place called
the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his
disciples. He said, ‘Go into the village
opposite you, and as you enter it you will find
a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone
should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you
will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’ So
those who had been sent went off and found
everything just as he had told them.”
(19: 28-31)



Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
“So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks
over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount. As he
rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks
on the road; and now as he was approaching the
slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude
of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy
for all the mighty deeds they had seen. They
‘Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.’”

(19: 35-38)



Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to
him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He said
to them in reply, ‘I tell you, if they keep
silent, the stones will cry out.”
(19: 39-40)



The words of the crowd are
positively incendiary!
  “Blessed is the king who comes
in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest.”

Luke draws on Matthew and
Mark for the words of the crowd,
a quote from Psalm 118: 26, but
only Luke adds the word “king”
to the quote, making explicit the
crowd’s proclamation of a new
king, one representing in a new
Jesus’ “triumphal entry”
deliberately recalls Solomon’s
entry into Jerusalem, when David
elevates him to the throne in 1
Kings 1: 38-40.

Was Saul of Tarsus there?


As the rising young star in
Judaism, Saul had a vested
interest in maintaining
and defending the status
quo, and Jesus’ actions are
blatantly inflammatory.
That is only reinforced
when Jesus arrives at the
southern steps of the
Temple with a whip,
driving out the merchants
and money changers,
shouting: “It is written,
‘My house shall be a house
of prayer, but you have
made it a den of thieves’”
A Portrait of
St. Paul

Unknown. Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (oil on
panel), c. 1570.
National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


The next day the religious
leaders confront Jesus and
demand: “By what authority are
you doing these things? Or who
is the one who gave you this
authority?” Jesus replies: “I
shall ask you a question. Tell me,
was John’s baptism of heavenly
or of human origin?” After
discussing it, the religious
leaders say, “We don’t know.”
And Jesus says, in effect, “I didn’t
think so!”
This exchange publically
humiliates the religious leaders,
and we can only imagine the
crowds guffawing at them as
they are taken aback.
Was Saul of Tarsus there?

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Jesus presses the attack,
regaling the crowds with
the parable of the “tenant
farmers,” a scathing
indictment of the religious
leaders. Once more the
crowds cheer him on, and
the religious leaders can do
nothing, for the crowds are
huge, and they hang on
Jesus’ every word,
delighted at Jesus’ audacity
and his rapier wit in
skewering the corrupt
Was Saul of Tarsus there?

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Next, the religious leaders “sent
agents pretending to be
righteous who were to trap him
in his speech,” discrediting him
before the crowds. It would take
a very clever man to do so.
The most clever of them asks, “Is
it lawful for us to pay tribute to
Caesar or not?”—knowing that
answering either “yes” or “no”
will discredit him before the
crowds or get him arrested by
the Roman authorities.
Jesus then asks the man for a
coin; the man tosses it to him,
and Jesus displays Caesar’s
picture on the coin—a coin the
people may not bring into the
Temple precincts, but the
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul
religious leaders do.


Titian. Tribute Money (oil on panel), 1516.
Old Masters Gallery, Dresden.
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


•When Judas led a crowd to the
Garden of Gethsemane to arrest
Jesus, was Saul of Tarsus among
•Although Saul was not yet a
member of the Sanhedrin, was he
present (perhaps as an assistant)
at the home of the high priest,
Caiaphas, during Jesus’ trial?
•When Jesus was accused before
Pilate at the Antonia Fortress, did
Saul of Tarsus shout from the
crowd, “Crucify him!”?
•On the cross we read that “The
people stood by and watched;
the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at
him and said, ‘He saved others,
let him save himself if he is the
A Portrait
of St. the
Messiah of God’”41

Finally, when Stephen
stands before the
Sanhedrin, speaking
boldly against the Temple
and the law of Moses—
deeming both irrelevant—
and then when he
accuses the high priest
and religious leaders of
the betrayal and murder
of Jesus—does that finally
push Saul over the edge,
triggering his own
murderous rage?
Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Wow! I had never
thought about it that
way. If any one of those
statements is true, that
a long way
toward explaining
Saul’s “over-the-top,”
rage and his hatred of Isn’t it ironic
that Jesus
Jesus and the Church. chose Saul to
be THE

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


“This saying is
trustworthy and
deserves full
Christ Jesus
came into the
world to save
sinners. Of
these I am the
El Greco. St. Paul (oil on canvas),
Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Lewis,

(1 Timothy 1:

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


For an in-depth study of St. Paul, listen to Dr. Creasy’s
24-lecture course,
Paul, from Sinner to Saint, on
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Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


Questions for discussion and
1. What was St. Paul’s hometown of Tarsus
noted for?
2. What evidence do you find to support the
idea that St. Paul had a 1st class education
in classical literature and rhetoric?
3. Why did St. Paul move from Tarsus to
4. Had St. Paul met Jesus prior to his
encounter with him on the Road to
5. What were Saul’s motives for persecuting
the Church?

Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul


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Excursus, A Portrait of St. Paul