Paul and Jesus: The True Story

By David Wenham | Go to book overview
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1: Before Paul met Jesus

What's your name and where do you come from?
Paul does not tell us much about his background in his letters; why should he? But we do know
his name Paulos. It was a common Graeco-Roman name.
that he came from a practising Jewish family: 'circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee' (Philippians 3.5).
that as an adult, he had a trade 'working with his hands' (1 Corinthians 4.12; 1 Thessalonians 2.9).

All of this fits in with what the book of Acts tells us, though Acts fills out the picture much more. It confirms that his name was Paul, though at first it calls him 'Saul', a Hebrew name. The probability is that like many other Jewish children he had a Hebrew name and a Roman name; it makes sense that a Jewish child from the tribe of Benjamin might have been called Saul after Israel's first king, who came from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9). Perhaps the family chose the Roman name Paul partly because it sounded like his Hebrew name!

Acts tells us that Saul/Paul was born in Tarsus, 'no mean city', as Paul is said to have commented (Acts 21.39). It was a large, prosperous city someone has estimated its population as half a million people, which was very big for those days. It was known for its educational and philosophical schools. It had a well-established Jewish quarter. It was ten miles from the sea up the river Cnydus, in what is now south Turkey.

Paul's letters do not directly confirm his origins in Tarsus, but they do speak of him spending a lot of time in that general area after his conversion (Galatians 1.21 and the rest of Galatians). His fluency in Greek and familiarity with Greek rhetoric fit with his being a Jew, whose first language was probably Aramaic ('a Hebrew

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