Παῦλος [Paulos] is the Greco-Roman name of שָׁאוּל [Shaul] of Tarsus (cf. Acts 13:9; 21:39). Acts is the only NT document where his Jewish name is used, mostly in its Greek form Σαῦλος [Saulos]. Only in the accounts of his conversion is the Hebraic Σαούλ [Saoul] found (9:4, 17; 22:7, 13; 26:14). Having more than one name was not uncommon during this period in the Roman Empire (cf. Acts 1:23; 9:36; 12:12; 13:6-9; etc.), making it easier to function in the Jewish, Roman, and Hellenistic worlds. It has been suggested that as a Roman citizen (see below) Paul may have had three names (praenomen, nomen, cognomen), but a third name is not included in the biblical record.1 Outside the book of Acts (and after Acts 13:9) he is referred to as “Paul” exclusively.
He is first introduced in the biblical narrative as “a young man” [νεανίας] (Acts 7:58),2 descriptive of one between the ages of about 24 and 40 (BAGD 534). He almost certainly would not have been any younger than this, since he is described as Paul the “aged” (πρεσβύτης) approximately three decades later (Philem. 9). This is the same word Zacharias applied to himself (Luke 1:18),3 having earlier been described as “advanced in years” (v. 7); Philo applied the term to a man of 50-56 years (BDAG 863). This would indicate that at Stephen’s execution young Saul was at the very least in his 20s. The fact that shortly thereafter he became such a prominent leader of the persecution against Christians (Acts 8:1-3) suggests that he may have been even older, perhaps in his mid- to late-30s and thus comparable in age to what the earthly Jesus would have been.4
The Earliest Years
He was an ethnic Jew born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia, southeast Asia Minor (modern-day south-central Turkey) (Acts 16:37; 21:39; 22:3, 25-29).5 Tarsus was an intellectual center and “not an insignificant city” (Acts 21:39). Located at the mouth of the Cydnus River approximately 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, Tarsus was a prominent port city. Since Tarsus was not a Roman colonia or munincipium, Paul’s father or another ancestor would have attained freedom and citizenship by way of payment, services rendered, or manumission. Paul may have received Greek education in these early years, becoming familiar with the works of poets like Aratus and Menander,6 and philosophers like Cleanthes and Epimenides (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Tit. 1:12).7 Paul was bilingual, fluent in both Aramaic and Greek (Acts 21:37–22:2), and at some point he also learned the trade of a tentmaker [σκηνοποιός] (Acts 18:3).8
All Jewish children, from “earliest infancy” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.18), were taught in their respective households (Deut. 6:6-7). Timothy, from nearby Lystra, is typical of one who knew the holy scriptures from childhood (1 Tim. 3:15), thanks to a godly parent and grandparent (2 Tim. 1:5). Paul was raised in an orthodox Jewish home (Phil. 3:5), the beginning of his education in the Mosaic Law. The only other thing we know about his family, besides being the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), is that he had a sister and a nephew (Acts 23:16).
Another important part of the Jewish educational system was the synagogue. The synagogue was a multi-purpose assembly place for prayer, worship, and scripture reading (Acts 15:21), also functioning as a court, a community center, and a school. Both boys and girls attended the synagogue school from age 5 or 6; boys continued on until around age 15, while girls were usually married by then. According to the halakha,9 at age 13 a Jewish boy was accountable for his actions and became a bar mitzvah (“son of the commandment/law”). Later in life, the local synagogues were primary targets for Paul’s evangelistic efforts (Acts 13:14-43; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4-8, 19; 19:8).
Jewish boys who demonstrated exceptional promise were sent to Jerusalem to learn from a renowned teacher of the Law (like Hillel, Shammai, or Gamaliel). The typical age of a Jewish boy beginning his training in the Torah was 15 (Mishna, Aboth 5.21) or 16 (Josephus, Life 9-12). Paul says that from his “youth” [νεότης]10 he was “brought up” in Jerusalem, “instructed at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law …” (Acts 22:3; 26:4).11
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See F. F. Bruce, NT History 235; G. M. Burge, et. al., NT in Antiquity 251.
2 The noun νεανίας appears in the NT three times: Acts 7:58; 20:9; 23:17. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
3 The only other occurrence of this word in the NT is Titus 2:2.
4 According to Irenaeus: “That the age of thirty years is the prime of a young man’s ability, and that it reaches even to the fortieth year, everyone will allow; but after the fortieth and fiftieth year, it begins to verge towards elder age” (Adv. Haer. 2.22.5).
5 The city of Tarsus had belonged to the ancient Hittite Empire (Tarsa), later ruled by the Assyrians and Persians, then hellenized by the Greeks and particularly the Seleucids. During this latter period, its schools rivaled those of Alexandria and Athens, and its library held approximately 200,000 published works. By 67 BC General Pompey had gained control of the region, and Tarsus became the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia.
6 It is debated whether Paul actually quotes Menander in 1 Cor. 15:33, or simply recites a common hellenistic saying that Menander had also used.
7 On Paul’s potential training in rhetoric, see K. L. Moore, Critical Introduction to the NT 256-63.
8 A. Edersheim notes that the ancient Jews believed, “whoever does not teach his son a trade is as if he brought him up to be a robber” (Sketches of Jewish Social Life 190).
9 Religious laws comprised of both written and oral Torah.
10 The noun νεότης occurs only four times in the NT: Mark 10:20; Luke 18:21; Acts 26:4; 1 Tim. 4:12.
11 The only historical account affirming Gamaliel’s public teaching is Acts 22:3. Jewish sources do not represent Gamaliel as a teacher, and his name is seldom mentioned in halakic tradition (see Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Gamaliel I” by S. Schechter and W. Bacher). Gamaliel died eighteen years before Jerusalem’s destruction, and he occupied a prominent position in the Sanhedrin during the reigns of Tiberius (14-37), Caligula (37-41), and Claudius (41-54).
Related Posts: Early Life of Paul Part 2