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THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF SAUL OF TARSUS aka

THE APOSTLE PAUL

As you will be bumping into Saul/Paul frequently when you visit Israel and Jordan (and even Turkey and Greece and Italy,) it would be well to have a brief overview of just who he was and why he is so important to the story.

Young Saul was born around the same time as Jesus perhaps around 4 BC in the town of Tarsus, located on the underbelly of modern Turkey on the sea coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

I have been there several times and can assure you that there is nothing of note remaining there to be seen from a Biblical interest point of view.

Tarsus was an important trading city and also the location of a famous university where young Saul would become familiar with Classical Greek and the more common koine  Greek of the market place. It also was a center for the teaching of Stoic philosophy.

After the destruction of the 1st Jerusalem Temple in the 6th century BC the Jews were scattered about the Mediterranean world in what was called the diaspora, or scattering, which resulted in  colonies  of Jews living in virtually every city in the then Roman Empire. The Jews of Tarsus were a part of that diaspora.

Saul was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family and was apparently attracted early on to the study of the Old Testament scriptures which resulted in him enrolling in what was then the Harvard of rabbinical studies under the sway of the famous 1st century rabbi Gamaleal.

In order to study under Gamaliel he had to go to Jerusalem where the rabbi resided and may have stayed with relatives there. He apparently excelled in his studies.

This was a mark of pride to have been able to study under such a man and Paul would use that fact to his advantage when later challenged  in describing his religious credentials.

There were 2 major denominations within the  Judaism of Saul’s day: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  (Some describe the Essenes   who copied and saved the Dead Sea Scrolls from the approaching Roman army as being a  3rd branch of Judaism)

Saul identified with the Pharisees.

The chief differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees were:

The Pharisees accepted the importance of the oral law given to Moses in addition to  the written law which was the first 5 books of the Old Testament, the so called Pentateuch.

The oral law, later written down, was called the Talmud.

The Pharisees believed in life after death, a resurrection of the dead to look forward to, and rewards to be enjoyed in the afterlife.

Modern Judaism traces its roots back to the Pharisees.

By contrast the Sadducees were the skeptics of their day.

Their religious convictions  had no place for the idea of  resurrection, or life after death, and they put all of their emphasis on the written law, the 5 books of Moses, the Torah, which they interpreted quite strictly.

They rejected the Talmud.

After the destruction of the temple of Herod that Jesus knew, the Sadducees disappeared and were, to all intents and purposes,  no longer heard from.

One can see how, as a Pharisee, Saul’s later views concerning  belief in the resurrection and an afterlife were already there in his thinking as a result of his rabbinical training,  prior to his conversion.

Saul’s rabbinical training  probably began when he was quite young.

It equipped him to understand the Old Testament Scriptures and the prophets and the prophesies about the coming Messiah and to know with certainty what he thought he should  look for in that coming one.

One can recognize some early elements of arrogance perhaps in the young Saul.

That is, too often, an earmark of some forms of intense religious devotion that most people when exposed to it, find distasteful when experienced.

Filled with religious certainty and fanaticism, Saul knew with an absolute certainty, that he had his Pharisee induced theology straight and he was hell bent committed to stamping out anything that deviated from what he already knew to be the truth.

All young Jewish men had to learn a trade.

Saul chose tent making, an honest way to make a living with a built in need to be satisfied.

Everyone needed the shelter which his tents could provide. Wherever he would later travel he therefore always had a way to make a living and purchase food.

Somewhere about the time that Jesus was becoming known, and feared, and rejected by the Jerusalem Jewish authorities, perhaps around 29 AD, Saul relocated,  back to Jerusalem.  Had he returned home to Tarsus for a time after his training under  Gamaliel?

We do not know.

As an ambitious young rabbi, Jerusalem  was the place to be.

Here lived his spiritual mentor Gamaliel.

Here too was located the grand Temple built by Herod the Great where the sacrificial system flourished and here were the outstanding teachers of the law that he had embraced with his whole heart.

Saul was truly a Pharisee of the Pharisees and at home in Jerusalem.

Did Saul run into Jesus or his disciples during those days?

That question is unanswered but one could speculate that it would have been impossible for Saul to not be aware of Jesus as Jesus was a huge challenge to the Jewish authorities that Saul identified with.

Those same authorities   came to value the young rabbi Saul and find him useful because of his unswerving commitment to the truth as they saw it.

Was Saul in Jerusalem at the time of the trials of Jesus and the crucifixion?

It seems highly likely to me that he was, although the Bible is silent on this subject. .

Is it possible that he was present when Jesus appeared before the High Priest Caiaphas on trial?

Not a huge stretch to assume that he probably was there.

As a zealous young up and coming rabbi, is it conceivable that he would have been unaware of the greatest challenge that his form of religion had ever faced, in the person of this heretic from Nazareth?

He clearly had to see Jesus, and the followers of the Nazarene as the enemy, to be stamped out with violence if necessary.

From his later actions, it is clear that he was not impressed by Jesus’ claims or the rumors of miracles and resurrection that circulated and were widely believed by many.

What Saul knew was that the followers of Jesus were heretics to Judaism and Jesus was a false prophet whose followers must be restrained or destroyed, whatever it took to stamp out this heresy that they represented.

This was for Saul a holy mission from God and he embraced it with his whole heart.

Saul was the kind of personality that once committed to a person or idea did not give it up lightly.

We know that, sometime after the ascension of Jesus into heaven from the backside of the Mount of Olives in the town of Bethany,  and after the turmoil of the day of Pentecost when thousands  of Jewish foreign visitors to Jerusalem got caught up in this Jesus related religious infection, and after he witnessed the death by stoning of the young fanatic Stephen, he, Saul, asked for an official role in putting an end to this heresy. He was hard core on this subject.

Although he lurked about the edges of the story by implication and by speculation, Saul officially first entered the Bible story when he appeared as an observant part of the mob that stoned the first Christian martyr, young Stephen, to death.

We learn from the Bible record that Saul approved of that brutal action and even held the cloaks of those who threw the stones.

This apparently whetted Saul’s appetite for more violent actions against the followers of this false prophet who had, he felt, been quite rightfully put to death by crucifixion.

Saul apparently became the go to guy to deal with these Christ follower fanatics in the area around Jerusalem and as far north as the region of Samaria.

Saul’s zeal for this activism resulted in him soliciting an official  mission from the Jerusalem religious leadership, whose approval he sought,  to take his hatred of Jesus and all  things Jesus related, on an international mission, this time to Syria and its capital city Damascus located about 120 miles  from Jerusalem.

He set out from the northern gate of Jerusalem now called the Damascus Gate (a more recent gate has been rebuilt over the foundations of this earlier gate whose ruins can be seen from above).

He did not go alone.

It would have taken about 10 to 14 days to make this journey on foot.

Somewhere along the way, close to his destination, Damascus,  his world was turned upside down.

The sky split and he was struck down to the ground by a blinding light that rendered him temporarily blind and probably resulted in  a constant irritating  eye condition for the rest of his life, and he heard a surreal voice that he did not recognize.

The risen Jesus challenged him with these words: “Saul why are you persecuting me?”

Imagine the turmoil inside this young rabbi at this moment when all of the religious certainty and resolve that he had felt was called into question.

Who are you Lord? He inquired.

And the answer came  “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.”

Now , ( and this condition lasted for 3 days ), he was led into Damascus by the hand and left to stew about what this all meant for 3 long days.

Imagine what was going through his mind there.

His whole world and theology and understanding of all things religious had suddenly been called into question. And on top of that he was blind and for all he knew that was going to be a way he was going to have to live out the rest of his life. Things looked bad and then even worse.

He was no longer the arrogant young fanatic filled with absolute certainty that he had all of the answers but now was a thoroughly confused blind man, led about by the hand into Damascus, and was now hearing the voice of that dead heretic Jesus, who he had been  committed to destroy, apparently now alive.

But how could that be?

That same mysterious voice further instructed him, when in Damascus, to make his way to a specific street called “Straight”, to a specific house owned by a Christian Jew named “Thomas”, and ask for a specific Christian Jew named “Ananias”, who already knew about Saul, feared his soon arrival  and had been forewarned that the young fanatic was heading his way with persecution and destruction on his mind.

Ananias was not too thrilled about the idea of meeting with Saul.

The voice of Jesus instructed Ananias that He had great plans for Saul and told him that Saul was actually expecting Ananias’ arrival and that he, Ananias should lay hands on Saul and the result would be the restoration of Saul’s sight.

And that is what the Bible story reports happened.

Ananias addressed his feared persecutor with the unusual greeting “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit”.                                                                                                                                 

This might suggest that this Ananias had been in Jerusalem a short time earlier on the day of Pentecost when the dramatic experience of the Holy Spirit descending on the believers occurred.

Bottom line: Saul received his sight back, was imbued with now redirected religious zeal, was baptized by Ananias, and had some food and rest.

After this series of events the Bible chronology of the story gets somewhat confusing.

The account in the Book of Acts seems to imply that Saul immediately returned to Jerusalem, met the Apostles that he formerly had been actively persecuting,  and began preaching about Jesus.

Another record of what occurred, written by Paul himself later in his letter to the Galatian believers in that part of modern Turkey, ancient Asia Minor, states that, following his confrontation with the risen Jesus, Saul went into “Arabia” for 3 years after which he returned to Damascus and then finally went to Jerusalem.

It is possible to reconcile the two descriptions.

For example I could state that I moved from California to Florida AND I could also state that I moved from California to Virginia to Maryland to Florida and both would be correct statements. The shorter version simply did not record all of the intermediate details.

It seems the Galatians account is the more complete and comes from the pen of Saul himself and reports that he went into Arabia for 3 years.

And the questions that then arise are:

  1. Why did he go off for 3 years and what did he do during those years, and
  2. Why did he go to Arabia, and where in Arabia would he have been likely to go?

And so now we enter the world of speculation and sanctified imagining.

Most believe that the only place he would have gone to in “Arabia” would have been the trade city of Petra located to the south of modern Amman Jordan.

It was about 100 miles from Damascus to Petra.

(An interesting aside: Towering over Petra is Mount Hor, the traditional burial place of the brother of Moses Aaron. the site is called Jabal Haroun in Arabic. Numbers 20:28)

Those who participate in the February 10, 2014 journey with us will visit this famous site which is one of the most spectacular sites on earth, an entire city carved out of red sandstone cliffs and secreted away in a hidden valley and situated so as to guard the important trade route that ran from Damascus in the north to Egypt in the south.

So spectacular is this location that Hollywood chose it as the location for the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Why did Saul go off for 3 years instead of launching directly into his preaching ministry and immediately become one of the leaders of the Jerusalem Church?

Speculation might cause you to consider that perhaps Saul needed to time to sort it all out and rethink all that he had been trained to believe when he was learning under the influence of Gamaliel, and consider now the full implications of the resurrection and who he now knew Jesus to be and the place of grace in God’s plan for redemption and life after death and all of the doctrinal implications that flowed from this new truth.

Saul had a lot to digest and pray about and sort out and find how it all fit together now, given his new reality.

Then he perhaps also needed time to become convinced that God was calling him to this entirely new mission in life with all that this implied.

He had a lot to consider.

And in the process, the absolute certainty that had been his mind set and part of his personality when he was a persecutor of Jesus, was now made even firmer, as he prepared to set out to declare the truth of the resurrected Christ to the Jews across the Mediterranean world and to the Gentile world.

And when he finally did that, he was so convinced that he was speaking the words of God, that he came to view his own letters as on a par with the writings of the Old Testament prophets who had preceded him.

While there, probably in Petra, Saul probably made tents to support himself as he pondered the changes in his world that would never be the same again.

Finally we are told he returned, first to Damascus, probably to meet again with his friends Ananias and Thomas, and then he finally went to Jerusalem, met the apostles who took some convincing as to the depth of his conversion. He also had to deal with the bitter hatred of his former Jewish colleagues who had, 3 years earlier, commissioned him to launch a persecution campaign against the Christians in Damascus,.

He, in the meantime, had become a traitor to them and joined the Jesus side.

Saul’s life, and not for the last time,  was in danger.

A plot was set, was launched, a contract on his life issued and discovered, and he was swiftly ushered out of town and onto a ship bound for his home back in southern Turkey in the town of Tarsus where he remained largely unused for, what we can tell appeared to be several years, until another Christian brother, Barnabas brought him out of retirement, and set him on his mission to the nations.

Much of the New Testament consists of a collection of letters that this same Saul, now also called Paul( Saul was his Jewish name and Paul would have been his  latin or Roman name), wrote to groups of believers and individuals  that he won to faith in Jesus in various cities around the Mediterranean  world during 3 missionary journeys.

Several years prior to his death he returned to Jerusalem where he was arrested.

Under Roman guard, so as to protect him from assassination, he was taken to the Roman Administrative capitol, Caesarea Maritima, where he was held for a couple of years and endured several trials and inquisitions and finally appealed, as was his right as a Roman citizen, to be tried before Caesar which resulted in his going to Rome where he remained for a number of years, first, under house arrest, then temporarily released, then put in prison, and finally executed.

Some 30 years later we learn that this same Saul also called Paul, died at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero about 62 AD.

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