Today we are beginning with Acts chapter 9, and we are going to focus our attention on the person of Paul; or better Sha’ul, which was his given Hebrew name.
Today is a rather long post, but I was unable to shorten it without losing the meaning of what is written here. You may want to grab a cup of coffee or tea before we begin.
Paul is the English version of a Latin word that is probably Paulus, and it seems that in general he used that name, and that name was used by him when he was dealing either with Jews from the Diaspora or Gentiles who were subjects of the Roman Empire. Then dealing with Hebrews, he seems to use Sha’ul (Saul in English) mostly.
My reason for pausing at this point, and delving deeper into Paul, is that much of what will occur for the remainder of Acts will involve Paul to varying levels.
There is no Christian doctrine more misunderstood, misquoted, and authoritative source than Paul; so it is vital that we do all we can to uncover what Paul intends to tell us.
We can no more hope to understand what Paul meant by the things he did and said in his many letters that dominate the New Testament. Until we know Paul as the unique individual that lived at a particular time in history, and in the context of his culture, language, upbringing, education, and life experiences.
Every writer speaks from the position of their particular worldview, the lens through which they see history and happenings unfold and interpret them, even if they aren’t fully conscious of it.
So to pretend as though Paul was a blank sheet of paper who didn’t have a personal worldview, or that whatever it was that he wrote so mysterious that it transcends whatever worldview he may or may not have held, is not only illogical it makes him less than human.
And for those theologians and Bible commentators who demand that Paul is culturally neutral. Or his words have little or no connection to who he is as a human person; it is for no other reason than for that writer or translator to be entirely freed to make whatever he or she wants to make out of Paul’s words.
So I have been putting together a picture for you of whom the old Paul is before we examine what he says:
- Where he came from,
- What influenced his religious and societal thoughts and beliefs, and
- What the terms he regularly used meant to him in the context of his particular Jewish experience.
It is complicated because just like for anyone, we can’t be entirely described and labeled according to only one aspect of our lives.
We can no more fully describe Paul by using the term Jew and thus anticipate his actions and reactions and thought processes than we can adequately describe a random person as a Christian and assume too much only from that.
Now, this becomes especially important when some of the most critical doctrines that are foundational to our faith as Believers in Christ comes directly from the writings of Paul.
For those listeners who might think that what I’m covering is not something that anyone but a Bible academic needs to know, think again. For the 21st-century Western Gentiles, even though you might not realize it, Paul couldn’t be more of a foreigner to us. So let’s continue adding to Paul’s biography.
Last time I said that Paul was initially a Diaspora Jew who was born and raised (at least for a time) in Tarsus of the province of Cilicia. It was a large city, and so Paul was anything but a country boy like Yeshua was.
At some point, he came to the Holy Land to live and to go to religious school. He came from a prestigious family who identified themselves as Pharisees, something rather unusual when a Jewish family lived outside of the Holy Land.
The social/political/religious divisions within Judaism that are represented by the parties of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes were mostly present in Judea, and the Diaspora Jews didn’t tend to divide themselves up and label themselves that way.
In the Diaspora occupation, craft, and social status usually determined which Synagogue one might attend, not so different from modern Christianity.
It is significant that Paul was a Roman citizen, another uncommon standing for a Jew. Not unheard of, but not typical; and this status was greatly advantageous to Sha’ul bringing him credibility as well as affording him special rights.
And this further emphasizes the privileged life he was born into, and his ease of operating in both Jewish and Gentile environments.
Paul was a Greek speaker as his first language. However, to attend the elite Academy of Gamaliel in Jerusalem for his religious training, he had to be fluent in Hebrew and be familiar with Aramaic.
But even more, the Academy of Gamaliel was so distinguished that to be a student Paul would have had to demonstrate incredible potential, as only a handful of the best and brightest were admitted.
What were the students taught? The Tanakh (the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible) and Halakhah; that is, the Scriptures and Oral Torah Traditions.
We find Paul quote Scriptures dozens of times in his letters, so he knew his way around the Bible. However, just as it is in Christian institutions, it is not so much what the Bible says that matters as much as what the teacher says the Bible means by what it says.
Let me put it another way, Bible interpretation was the key, and the interpretations are what separated the various factions of Judaism from one another the same way it separates the several thousand modern days Christian denominations from one another.
And since Gamaliel was a Pharisee (and so was Paul even before coming to the Holy Land), then it was the Biblical interpretations of the Pharisees, meaning the Traditions of the Pharisees, which Paul learned.
So I want to stress again: the world of the Pharisees was the world of the Synagogue. And the world of the Synagogue emphasized Oral Torah, Traditions.
Paul’s thought processes, the very fiber of his understanding, was most influenced by Halakhah, which was the body of Jewish law that controlled everyday life for Jews.
The Temple and the Priesthood, however, was the world of the Sadducees, and they stressed the Torah of Moses. They did not accept the Halakhah of the Pharisees.
Of course, that means that they had their interpretations of what the Law of Moses meant by what it said, and it was in many important ways different from the interpretations of the Pharisees.
Therefore often different from what was taught in the Synagogues. So the Temple and the Synagogue were rivals in many aspects.
Synagogues in the Diaspora used the Greek Septuagint as their Bibles. The LXX was a Greek translation of the Tanakh that had been created about 250 B.C.
Although in the Holy Land some Synagogues used the Hebrew Bible (the original Tanakh) depending on the affiliation of the Synagogue. Paul would have been most familiar with the Septuagint.
In spite of the fact that Paul was born in Tarsus, Paul says in Acts 22 that he was “brought up” in Jerusalem.
Luke says that at the time that Paul was holding the cloaks for those who would stone Stephen, he was a “young man.” A “young man” in that day was roughly between 24 to 40 years of age.
So Paul had lived for some time in Jerusalem and was heavily indoctrinated in the type of Judaism present in the Holy Land more so than in the kind of Judaism practiced in the foreign lands of the Diaspora.
Although Paul had been subjected to Hellenist influences early in his life, it would be quite incorrect to label Paul as a Hellenist Jew. As an elite academic he was familiar with both sides of the fence, so to speak. He was as comfortable among the Hebrew Jews as he was among the Hellenist Jews.
I’ll stop here for now in describing the old Paul by giving you an example of how knowing a person’s worldview, culture, and life context matters so much when interpreting what he or she has to say.
I’m going to take this example not from Paul, but from His Master Yeshua. I do this for a couple of reasons; first because we see that even Jesus Christ was not a blank slate.
At least what we might characterize as the human attribute of Him, Jesus had a particular personal worldview and a life context that we need to grasp so that we can correctly understand what He meant by what He said.
After all, He was a rural Galilean Jew, a craftsman, who communicated with and lived among, other typical, blue-collar everyday Jews. And the life-context I want to highlight is that Yeshua’s world was the world of the Synagogue, not of the Temple.
And second, although he didn’t belong to any party, he was likely closest in religious philosophy to that of the Essenes. Nonetheless, even though we are told that He had no formal religious training, it was the world of the Synagogue that He lived in and frequented, and not the world of the Temple.
In fact, the New Testament record shows that He only visited Jerusalem and the Temple during the Biblical Feast days to obey requirements of the Law of Moses.
Thus He knew well the teachings of the Rabbis. He certainly didn’t need training in the Word of God since He WAS the Word of God. The point is that He was quite familiar with the terms of the Synagogue because that was part of the regular Jewish social life.
The example I want to give to you is from Yeshua’s most famous and extensive speech, the Sermon on the Mount. After plainly and emphatically stating in Matthew 5:17 -19 that He did not come to change or abolish the Law of Moses or the Prophets, so no one should interpret what He is saying in that light, in verse 21 we read this:
Under the laws of Moses the rule was, ‘If you murder, you must die.’ Matthew 5:21 TLB
When a Jewish teacher or a Rabbi is in a debate (a Midrash) or instructing on the Torah, the first thing they say is what a prominent teacher or Rabbi has previously said about it.
And Christ says that what this crowd of Jews had been told by the earlier teachers of their fathers was “do not murder” because they’ll be judged for it.
But now, in typical rabbinical fashion, Christ gives His interpretation of the commandment to not murder. So in the next verse, He says:
But I have added to that rule and tell you that if you are only angry, even in your own home, you are in danger of judgment! If you call your friend an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse him, you are in danger of the fires of hell. Matthew 5:22 TLB
For Yeshua’s followers, this was Yeshua’s Oral Torah, or Tradition, about what the commandment to not murder means. And despite all the false teachings we’ve heard that Christ lessened the restrictions of the commandments of Moses, thereby making it easier and less burdensome, in fact, we find that He made them much stricter.
Here harboring anger or even saying something unkind against a brother (meaning a fellow Hebrew) was considered to break the commandment against murder.
A few verses later we hear in TLB Matthew 5:31
The law of Moses says, ‘If anyone wants to be rid of his wife, he can divorce her merely by giving her a letter of dismissal.
So in the same familiar rabbinical format, Yeshua now discusses a hot topic of His day, divorce. And He begins by saying what has been previously declared by the earlier Synagogue teachings about divorce.
That the wife must receive an official divorce decree and if the husband will do that, then he meets all the requirements of the commandment.
But then in the next verse, He says what His interpretation of the law of divorce is:
But I say that a man who divorces his wife, except for fornication, causes her to commit adultery if she marries again. And he who marries her commits adultery. Matthew 5:32 TLB
We see that just as with the murder topic, Yeshua’s interpretation about divorce was far stricter.
The rather standard Christian teaching on this passage is that Yeshua was speaking against the Law of Moses and essentially canceling the commandments from Mt. Sinai and replacing them with His own.
Had you been a Jew in that day, and regularly attended the Synagogue, you would have heard this form of debate and teaching countless times. And it in no way challenged or changed the Law of Moses; it was simply an issue of how to correctly interpret the Law of Moses.
Paul as a trained Rabbi also thought and spoke in the same usual, customary way of Rabbis. Thus while to the uninitiated Gentile, Yeshua might sound as though he is setting up a new system of Laws and speaking against the old regime (but He is not).
So it is that when we hear Paul talk about the Law, even though it might seem so to a Gentile, he is never talking against the Law but rather is offering His interpretation of the Law.
And he is doing this in light of his life experiences as a Pharisee, and owing to his training at the Academy of Gamaliel, but now greatly influenced with the divine revelation of the risen Christ and what Christ’s disciples taught him.
What I’m telling you is not speculation; it is a historical fact derived from many reliable sources. Now if you can get your mind to accept it then reading Paul’s letters changes dramatically.
His attitude towards the Law no longer seems cynical at times, and some of the supposed contradictions he occasionally offers appear to disappear.
Suddenly everything he says comes right back into line with the Torah, and with what Christ taught. We also see that while Paul is in no way repudiating or pulling away from Judaism, often he is arguing against many of the erroneous Traditions of Judaism that were popular, although incorrect.
So with that as our background, in my next blog post, we will go into the Scripture passages of Acts chapter 9.