Who is Saul/Paul?


From Paul himself we know that he was born at Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 21:39), in present-day south-central Turkey, in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea.

map of southern turkey

He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin and at the time of his circumcision he was given the name Saul (Latin form of Greek Saoul/Saulos and Hebrew Shauwl, meaning "asked for," "desired") in memory of the first Jewish king (Philippians 3:5), who was also from the tribe of Benjamin. His unnamed father was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:26-28). In 171 BC, to stimulate business the Romans promised citizenship to Jews if they emigrated to Tarsus.

In Acts 23 Paul said he was "a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee," one of at least four major schools of thought within the Jewish religion around the first century.


Saul/Paul's appearance

A 2nd century AD apocryphal writing, "The Acts of Paul and Thecla," tells the story of St. Paul's influence on a young woman named Thecla from Iconium. It preserves a detailed description of Paul's physical appearance:

"And a certain man named Onesiphorus, hearing that Paul was coming to Iconium, went out speedily together with his wife Lectra and his sons Simmia and Zeno, to meet him and invite him to their house.

For Titus had given them a description of Paul's personage, for as yet they did not know him in person but were only acquainted with his character. They went in the king's highway to Lystra and stood there waiting for him, comparing all who passed by with that description which Titus had given them.

At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a small stature with meeting eyebrows, bald [or shaved] head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large crooked nose; he was full of grace, for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel."

At that time it was common for  Jews to have two names, one Hebrew, the other Latin or Greek. Because he was a Roman citizen he had the Latin name Paul (Paulos) meaning "small" or "little." He was conversant in three languages (Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek; also had knowledge of Latin) and lived during the reigns of five emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Every Jewish father had to teach his son a trade, and young Saul learned to make tents (Acts 18:3) or rather to make the mohair used to make tents (see right column). At an early age he was sent to Jerusalem to be educated at the school of the prominent rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He was a highly successful student, well-educated in Jewish law: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14). Other members of his family probably resided in Jerusalem; Acts 23:16 mentions a sister whose son saved his life.

"But when the son of Paul's sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks (Antonia Fortress) and told Paul."

Paul's nephew than told the Roman commander of the cohort in Jerusalem: "The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. Don't give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request."

Saul first appears in the New Testament as an active opponent of the early Christian movement — called "the Way" — minding the "clothes" of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58). Afterward he zealously sought out other followers of Jesus, "breathing out murderous threats against" them (Acts 9:1).

"He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem." (Acts 9:1b-2)


Conversion of Saul