Advancements in Judaism
In making a case against judaizing opponents, Paul describes his Jewish heritage by listing seven personal advantages – the first four were inherited and the last three were chosen by conviction: “[as to] circumcision, on [the] eighth day, of [the] nation of Israel, of [the] tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; according to [the] law, a Pharisee; according to zeal, persecuting the church; according to righteousness under [the] law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6).1
This is reminiscent of his rhetorical response in 2 Cor. 11:22, where the first three questions asked and answered imply the Jewish heritage of his adversaries: “Are they Hebrews? I also. Are they Israelites? I also. Are they descendants of Abraham? I also.” While these three designations are interrelated, they may respectively be descriptive of the Hebrew culture (as opposed to Hellenistic),2 Israelite nationalism (as opposed to diaspora),3 and Abrahamic bloodline (as opposed to a proselyte).4
Similarly, the defense Paul makes to the Philippians includes being “of the people of Israel” and “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” H. A. Kent observes that the apostle “may have meant he had no mixed parentage but was of pure Jewish ancestry from both parents. The phrase may also refer to his linguistic and cultural upbringing, which involved the Hebrew and Aramaic languages (in distinction from that of the Hellenist Jews), even though he had been born in the Diaspora (Acts 6.1; 22.2, 3)” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary 11:139). The self-portrayal actually begins with the fact that he was circumcised on the eighth day, a prelude to and reinforcement of the adjoining descriptions. Circumcision on the eighth day after a Jewish male’s birth was the physical sign of God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 17:10-13; Lev. 12:3). Paul is not a convert to Judaism who received the rite of circumcision later in life (Acts 2:10; 13:43; cf. 16:3); he has been a member since infancy.
More specifically he is “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob (with his favored wife Rachel), and the only one of his sons born in the Promised Land. The tribe of Benjamin provided many valiant warriors to Israel’s army (cf. Hos. 5:8), as well as Israel’s first king (1 Sam. 9:1-2) – from whom Paul’s Jewish name Saul was likely derived.5 Only the tribe of Benjamin stood with Judah when the kingdom divided (1 Kings 12:20-21; cf. Ezra 4:1), and Mordecai was also a Benjamite (Esther 2:5). J. S. Howson comments, “How little was it imagined that, as Benjamin was the youngest and most honoured of the Patriarchs, so this … child of Benjamin [Paul] should be associated with the twelve servants of the Messiah of God, the last and most illustrious of the Apostles!” (The Life and Epistles of St. Paul 36).
In addition to what he had inherited, Paul adds, “as to the law, a Pharisee.” The name “Pharisee” [Φαρισαῖος] comes from a Semitic root meaning “the separated ones, separatists …. It was the purpose of the Pharisees to take the pattern of the pious Israelite as established by the scribes, and to put it into practice as nearly as possible” (BAGD 853).6 They were a prominent Jewish sect who exercised significant influence among the people of Israel during the time of Christ and his apostles. They are probably best remembered for their antagonism against Jesus, although not all Pharisees or pharisaic tendencies were bad. Since they correctly acknowledged God’s power to raise the dead (Acts 23:6-8; 26:5-7), they were prime candidates for the gospel. Many of them did become Christians (Acts 2:41; 15:5), the most notable of whom was Paul himself (Acts 23:6; 26:5).
The recounting continues: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church,” having done so with a clear conscious (Acts 23:1; 24:6), firmly believing he was doing God a favor (Acts 26:9). “To his mind, this new movement posed a more deadly threat to all that he had learned to hold dear …. Paul was characterized, on his own confession, by a superabundance of zeal – which, indeed, he never entirely lost” (F. F. Bruce, Apostle of the Heart 51). Even though the apostle was a firm believer in God’s grace and forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; 2:8; Col. 1:14), he never forgot about his sinful past (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2, 21; 22:4-5, 19-20; 26:10; 1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:13), using it as a motivator to serve the Lord with even greater diligence (1 Cor. 15:9-10).
As a devout Pharisaic Jew, Paul’s “righteousness under the law” was “blameless.” The noun “righteousness” [δικαιοσύνη] means “uprightness, justice, to judge justly” (BAGD 196), and he had followed the Mosaic law so closely, he exceeded many of his contemporaries (Gal. 1:14; cf. Acts 22:3; 26:4-5). The fundamental distinction is “between external conformity to the law in areas where men can judge and inflict legal penalties, and the perfect spiritual conformity to it that God alone can truly assess, and by which no one will be justified [cf. Gal. 2:16; 3:11]” (H. A. Kent, Expositor’s Bible Commentary 11:140, emp. in the text).
Conversion to Christ
Paul is first introduced in the biblical narrative as “a young man” [νεανίας] named Saul (Acts 7:58), probably in his mid- to late-30s. Being from Tarsus of Cilicia, he may have been connected with fellow Cilicians to the synagogue of the freedmen in Jerusalem, where the dispute with Stephen began (Acts 6:9; 7:58). He went on to lead a violent persecution against the Jewish church from Judea to Syria, targeting both men and women (Acts 8:3; 9:2; 22:4), involving threats, arrests, imprisonment, forced blasphemies, beatings, and death (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2, 13, 21; 22:4-5, 19; 26:9-11).
Paul was then converted to Christ in Damascus of Syria (Acts 9:1-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-20). If the “fourteen years” of Gal. 2:1 are counted consecutively from Paul’s previous visit to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-19), which had been three years following his conversion (Gal. 1:15-16), the year of his baptism was approximately three years after the church was established, i.e., the year 33.7
After his conversion, Paul spent the first three years of his Christian life in the Syrian city of Damascus and the adjoining country of Arabia (Acts 9:3-19; Gal. 1:15-18), although the biblical record does not indicate for how much of the three years he spent in either place. Arabia was the Roman name of the Nabatean kingdom, ruled for approximately forty-eight years (9 BC – AD 40) by King Aretas IV, mentioned by name in 2 Cor. 11:32.8 During the Middle Nabatean period (30 BC – AD 70) its boundaries fluctuated but would have included what is today known as the Sinai, the Negev, the east side of the Jordan Valley, much of Jordan, and part of Saudi Arabia (cf. Gal. 4:25). At times it incorporated the cities of the Decapolis and Damascus, and Paul probably did not venture far from Damascus during his time in Arabia.
He was in Damascus at least twice during this time: (a) when he was converted to Christianity (Acts 9:8-19), and (b) when he returned from Arabia (Gal. 1:15-17). His initial departure was prompted by a Jewish plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25), and his second departure was instigated by the governor of Damascus desiring to arrest him (2 Cor. 11:32-33). On both occasions Paul escaped by being let down in a basket through the city wall. Whether he (as a young Christian) went to Arabia for a period of isolation and renewal or as a missionary, the biblical record does not say. Neither does it indicate for how much of the three years he was there. But in view of his preaching Christ almost immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:20-22) and subsequently arousing the disfavor of the Nabatean king (2 Cor. 11:32), missionary activity seems likely.
Afterwards (ca. 36) Paul spent fifteen days with Peter in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18) before moving back to Tarsus (Acts 9:30). The first gentiles became part of the Christian movement sometime between 36 and 42 (Acts 10:1–11:18), and around the year 42 Saul joined Barnabas in Syrian Antioch, where they labored for a year. Then they traveled to Jerusalem with relief aid around 43 in conjunction with the famine of 44 (Acts 11:25-30). Herod Agrippa I died in early March 44 (Acts 12:23; Josephus, Ant. 19.8.2).
Commenting on 2 Cor. 11:23-33, P. E. Hughes notes, “the catalogue of Paul’s sufferings which commences at this point (vv. 23 to 33) contains the mention of many experiences which are not recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and therefore serves to remind us of how little we really know of the biographical details of his apostolic ministry. The book of Acts, indeed, was not written for the purpose of recounting the lives and achievements of men, albeit apostles, but in order to draw attention to the sovereign activity of God the Holy Spirit in the founding and expansion of the Christian Church” (Second Corinthians 406).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 The first time the word “Hebrew” (Heb. עִבְרִי, Greek Ἑβραῖος) occurs in scripture, it is applied to Abram (Gen. 14:13). It is then employed as a designation for his descendants through Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 40:15) and also for their language (1 Kings 18:26). This term is most often used to distinguish the Israelite people from other nations (Ex. 1:19; 2:11; 1 Sam. 4:9; etc.), and also applies to the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine in contrast to Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:1; 9:29). The origin of the name is uncertain. It may have been derived from one of Abraham’s ancestors, Eber (Gen. 11:16). Those who came to be known as the Hebrews descended from Shem, who is called “the father of all the children of Eber” (Gen. 10:21). Another possibility is that the designation is linked to a similar noun meaning “the region or country beyond,” referring to Abraham’s former homeland beyond the Euphrates (Josh. 24:2-3). It has also been suggested that the word is derived from a verb meaning “passing through” and came to describe Abraham and his descendants as sojourners (cf. Heb. 11:13).
3 The name “Israel” (Heb. יִשְׂרָאֵל, Greek Ἰσραήλ) means “Prince of God” and was first given to Jacob (Gen. 32:28; 35:10), then later used to designate Jacob’s descendants (Josh. 3:17). When the nation divided, the northern kingdom was called Israel in contrast to the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 15:9). After the Babylonian exile, the united kingdom again carried the name Israel (Ezra 6:16).
4 The only usage of the term Ἰουδαίοι (“Jews”) in 2 Corinthians is in reference to antagonists (11:24).
5 Acts is the only NT document where the Jewish name “Saul” is used for the apostle (see BAGD 742).
6 The Pharisee sect originated during the inter-testamental period, emphasizing religious purity in opposition to Hellenized Jews. They were distinguished from the Sadducees by their commitment to the entire Torah and belief in resurrection, angels, and spirits (cf. Acts 23:8).
7 Jesus was born in the days of Herod the Great, about two years before Herod died in the spring of 4 BC (Matt. 2:1-6, 14-19). The dating of Christ’s birth six years “before Christ” is due to the miscalculations of the 6th-century Roman monk Dionysius Exiguus, upon which our current system of dating is based. The ministry of John the baptizer began in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign (ca. 26/27), and Jesus began his ministry sometime after when he was “about” 30 years of age (Luke 3:1, 23). The word “about” suggests that he was not exactly 30 but probably older. The ministry of Jesus incorporated at least three and probably four Passovers (John 2:13; [5:1]; 6:4; 12:1), thus about three to three-and-a-half years. Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea during the years 26-36 (Luke 3:1; 23:1). Jesus was crucified “the Preparation Day of the Passover” (John 19:31) and resurrected on the third day after his death; the Passover was on the 14th day of the first Jewish lunar month (Ex. 12:6), and the church was established fifty days later on Pentecost (Lev. 23:16; Acts 2:1-47).
8 Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV, was at one time married to Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to AD 39. But Antipas divorced her in order to marry Herodias, who had previously been married to his half-brother Philip I (see Josephus, Ant. 18.5.1, 4), and then he beheaded John the baptist when he opposed this unlawful union (Matt. 14:3-12; cf. Luke 3:19-20; 9:9).
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