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A Life of Paul
By John Pollock
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 John Pollock
All rights reserved.
FROM THE LAND OF BLACK TENTS
The judges leaped from their places in fury. The Hall of Polished Stones, scene of grave debates and historic trials, reverberated to the baying of a lynch crowd that rushed at the young defendant and manhandled him down the steps into the strong sunlight of the Court of the Priests. Across this wide, open space, down more steps, through court after court, Stephen was swept by judges, bystanders, worshippers, and traders, until they had him out of the sacred temple precincts and into the streets of the Holy City.
No sentence of death had been passed, nor could be executed unless confirmed by the Roman authorities after a solemn ritual to ensure justice to the last. But judges and mob cared nothing for that. When the northern gate was behind them and they reached the Rock of Execution, "twice the height of a man," they should have solemnly stripped him and thrown him cleanly over to break his neck, or at least to stun him, so that death by stoning would not be too unmerciful. But they did not. Instead they pushed Stephen down as he was, his tangled clothes breaking the fall, and he staggered to his feet fully conscious.
The mob was shocked into reverting to forms of law. In a judicial stoning the first stones must be aimed by those who had brought the charges. These witnesses therefore elbowed their way to the front, threw off their outer clothes, and looked around for someone to guard them. A young lawyer, panting from the race through the streets, stepped forward. They recognized the Pharisee from Cilicia in Asia Minor, known as Saul among the Jews and Paul among Greeks and Romans.
Paul watched approvingly as each witness picked up a heavy, jagged stone, raised it above his head, and threw it to gash and maim the man below. Then Paul heard Stephen's voice. Pained but clear, he spoke as if to someone invisible yet close: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
Stones showered as the mob scrambled to complete what the witnesses had begun. Stephen mastered his pain while blood gushed from cuts and bruises. He knelt down in an attitude of prayer. Paul could not miss the words that came with surprising volume for a dying man: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
The next stone knocked Stephen flat. He lost consciousness. The mob continued stoning until the body became obscene.
Paul was born in a city between the mountains and the sea. The year was probably AD 1, but all early details are shadowy except his clear claim: "I am a Jew of Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews."
Tarsus was the principal city of the lush plain of Cilicia in the southwest corner of Asia Minor. The sea lay out of sight a dozen miles south. The Taurus mountains curved in a great arc some twenty-five miles inland, coming nearly to the sea on the west and marked to the north by gorges and cliffs that stood like rock fortresses before the snows; a magnificent background for childhood, especially in winter when the snow showed smooth on cloudless peaks.
The river Cydnus, narrow and swift, and usually brilliantly clear, ran through the city. It flowed into the artificial harbor, an engineering masterpiece of the ancient world, where Cleopatra had stepped ashore some forty years before Paul's birth to meet Antony, while all Tarsus marveled at silver oars, a poop deck of beaten gold, and purple sails "so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them." Here, each spring when navigation resumed and the mountain pass thawed, slaves unloaded goods of the Orient. The city grew full of noise, smell, and prosperous bustle. Caravans set off due north up the Roman road and crossed the mountains by the Cilician Gates, a crevice that had been chiseled wide enough for a wagon—another feat of ancient Tarsian engineering.
Tarsus was a fusion of civilizations at peace under the rule of Rome: indigenous Cilicians; Hittites whose ancestors had once ruled Asia Minor; light-skinned Greeks; Assyrians and Persians; and Macedonians who had come with Alexander the Great on his march to India. After the carve-up of Alexander's empire, when Tarsus became part of the kingdom of the Seleucids who ruled from Syria, King Antiochus IV settled a colony of Jews about 170 BC. They had rights and privileges, and a determination never to marry into those outside their faith and blood, whom collectively they called Gentiles (meaning "nations" or "Greeks"). Paul's ancestors probably were among them. They may have sprung from an obscure town called Gischala in Galilee.
His father most likely was a master tentmaker, whose craftsmen worked in leather and in cilicium, a cloth woven from the hair of the large long-haired black goats that grazed (as they still do) on the slopes of the Taurus. The black tents of Tarsus were used by caravans, nomads, and armies all over Asia Minor and Syria. Of Paul's mother nothing is known; he never mentions her. Perhaps she died in his infancy or became alienated in some way, but he may simply have had no particular occasion to do so. He had at least one sister. His father must have been a citizen or burgess of Tarsus and obviously wealthy, for in a reform fifteen years earlier the rank of citizen had been removed from all householders without considerable fortune or property. Moreover, the family held the coveted title Citizens of Rome. At that period the civis Romanus was seldom granted except for services rendered or for a fat fee. Whether Paul's grandfather aided Pompey or Cicero when Rome first governed Cilicia, or whether his father paid money, the Roman citizenship conferred local distinction and hereditary privileges, which each member could claim wherever he traveled throughout the empire.
Roman citizenship also meant that Paul had a full Latin name, which would have been threefold (like Gaius Julius Caesar). The first two names were common to all the family (in Caesar's case Gaius Julius), but in Paul's case these are lost because his Greek colleague first wrote his life story and no Greek could understand Latin names. The third, the personal cognomen, was Paullus. He was given also a Jewish name at the rite of circumcision on the eighth day after birth: "Saul," chosen either for its meaning, "asked for," or in honor of the most famous Benjamite in history, King Saul.
Saul was the name used at home and emphasized that the Jewish inheritance meant the most in early years. Gentiles were all around, and the columns of pagan temples dominated the marketplace. Nineveh of the Assyrians, Babylon, Athens, and Rome had combined to create Tarsus, and Paul was unconsciously the child of his Oriental-Hellenic world. In his youth it seemed remote, for although many Jews throughout the Mediterranean had been influenced by the Greek view of life, Paul's parents were Pharisees, members of the party most fervent in Jewish nationalism and strict in obedience to the Law of Moses. They sought to guard their offspring against contamination. Friendships with Gentile children were discouraged. Greek ideas were despised. Though Paul from infancy could speak Greek, the lingua franca, and had a working knowledge of Latin, his family at home spoke Aramaic, a derivative of Hebrew, the language of Judea.
They looked to Jerusalem as Islam looks to Mecca. Their privileges as freemen of Tarsus and Roman citizens were nothing to the high honor of being Israelites, the people of promise, to whom alone the living God had revealed His glory and His plans.
The school attached to the Tarsus synagogue taught nothing but the Hebrew text of the sacred Law. Each boy repeated its phrases in chorus after the hazzan, or synagogue keeper, until vowels, accent, and rhythm were precisely correct. Paul learned to write the Hebrew characters accurately on papyrus, thus gradually forming his own rolls of the Scriptures. His father would have presented him with another set of rolls, on vellum: the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, from which the set readings were taken in synagogue each Sabbath. By his thirteenth birthday Paul had mastered Jewish history, the poetry of the psalms, and the majestic literature of the prophets. His ear had been trained to the very pitch of accuracy, and a swift brain like his could retain what he heard as instantly and faithfully as a modern "photographic mind" retains a printed page. He was ready for higher education.
Tarsus had its own university, famous for local students such as Athenodorus, the tutor and confidant of the emperor Augustus, and the equally eminent Nestor, both of whom had returned in old age to be the most distinguished citizens in Paul's boyhood. But a strict Pharisee would not embroil his son in pagan moral philosophy. (Such studies would have to come later.) So, probably in the year that Augustus died, AD 14, the adolescent Paul was sent by sea to Palestine and climbed the hills to Jerusalem.
During the next five or six years, he sat at the feet of Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel, the supreme teacher who a few years earlier had died at the age of more than a hundred. Under the fragile, gentle Gamaliel, a contrast with the leaders of the rival School of Shammai, Paul learned to dissect a text until scores of possible meanings were disclosed according to the considered opinion of generations of rabbis. These had obscured the original sense by layers of tradition to protect an Israelite from the least possible infringement of the Law and, illogically, to help him avoid its inconveniences. Paul learned to debate in the question-and-answer style known to the ancient world as the diatribe, and to expound, for a rabbi was not only part preacher but also part lawyer, ready to prosecute or defend those accused of breaking the sacred Law.
Paul outstripped his contemporaries. He had a powerful mind, which could have led to a seat on the Sanhedrin in the Hall of Polished Stones and made him a "ruler of the Jews." The state was a theocracy, in which religious and national leaders were identical, so that the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin were equally judges, senators, and spiritual masters. The court was supreme in all religious decisions and in what little self-government the Romans allowed. Some of its members were drawn from the hereditary priesthood. Others were lawyers and rabbis.
Before Paul could hope to be a master in Israel, he had to master a trade, for every Jew was bred to a trade, and in theory no rabbi took fees but rather supported himself. Paul therefore left Jerusalem in his early twenties. Had he been there during the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, he would surely mention having argued against Him like other Pharisees did; in later years he spoke often of the death of Jesus by crucifixion but never as an eyewitness. Paul probably returned to Tarsus to work in the family tentmaking business and resumed the old routine: winter and spring in Tarsus until the plain grew steamy and malarial, then the summer city in the Taurus foothills. Winter or summer he would have taught in synagogue.
A hint in one of his letters suggests he was strongly missionary-minded. Wherever Jews worshipped, Gentile sympathizers were admitted as "God-fearers." Pharisees like Paul urged God-fearers to become proselytes, full Jews: to submit to the simple but painful rite of circumcision, and thereafter to honor the ceremonial and personal demands of the Law in all its rigor. The burden might be heavy but the reward would be great, as they earned the favor of God. Paul's father could take full and justified delight in this son who had followed in his steps as a Pharisee and had the intellectual force to reach the highest office in Israel.
Soon after his thirtieth birthday, Paul returned to Jerusalem—with or without a wife. He almost certainly had been married. Jews rarely remained celibate, and parenthood was a qualification required of candidates for the Sanhedrin. Yet Paul's wife is never mentioned in his writings. He may have suffered bereavement, losing not only his wife but an only child, for in later years, though he seemed impatient with women as a sex, he displayed gentleness toward individuals and an understanding of marriage, which belie his being a misogamist or misogynist; and he virtually adopted the young man Timothy as if to replace a son.
More likely his wife and family returned with Paul. In Jerusalem they could discharge the Law's more complicated and praiseworthy obligations and display zeal where it would be noticed.
There Paul could also combat the movement launched by Jesus of Nazareth. Tarsus must have heard echoes of the teaching and claims of the new prophet. And strange reports of miracles. Even a tale that He had risen from the dead.CHAPTER 2
Compared with the marble and gold terraces of the temple, the synagogue in Jerusalem for Jews from Cilicia was small and austere, and cool despite the summer sun. The men sat on stone benches along the walls, beneath columns that supported the women's galleries. The elders faced the congregation. Near them stood a small platform and beside it the seven-branched candlestick and the veiled chest or "ark" for the Scrolls of the Law. Here the Law was read aloud and expounded by any whom the elders might invite. Paul accepted such an invitation as his due.
In Jerusalem there was no lack of candidates; he had to listen more than he spoke, and so he happened to hear a disciple of Jesus named Stephen.
Stephen and Paul were probably much the same age—the Greek word translated "young man," with which the historian Luke introduces Paul, denotes a male between youth and forty. Stephen's birthplace is unknown, for Jews from Egypt and elsewhere used the same synagogue as Cilicians, but he spoke Greek as fluently as Aramaic. Both men were quick thinkers, powerful minds, able controversialists. No tradition remains of Stephen's physique. Paul is believed to have been short, though he held himself well enough to stand out in a crowd. His face was rather oval with beetling eyebrows and fleshy from good living. He had a black beard, since Jews scorned the Roman taste for shaving, and his blue-fringed robe and the amulet strapped to a turban-like headdress displayed his pride in being a Pharisee. As he strode about the temple courts, he wore the arrogance of a man whose ancestors and actions made him feel important. He carried out the unending cycle of ritual cleansings of platters and cups as well as his own person. He kept the weekly fasts—between sunrise and sunset—and said the daily prayers in exact progression and number. He knew what was due to him: respectful greetings, high precedence, a prominent seat in the synagogue.
His days were consumed by his legal career and grooming himself for heaven. No time was left for the poor, the lame, and the outcast. Deep down in his character lay a vein of compassion, but he believed that a good man should keep away from bad men: Paul would have approved the Pharisee who, on seeing Jesus allow a prostitute to wash His feet with her tears and rub them with ointment, concluded that the man could be no prophet. Jesus' immortal picture of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray would have fitted Paul. Like that Pharisee, Paul was sure he deserved God's favor, despised others, and could have prayed, "God, I thank Thee I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get."
Stephen, on the other hand, spent much of his time in giving food and necessities to widows.
In the two years since the execution of Jesus, the Holy City had become pervaded with those who believed that He had risen from the dead. Most were nondescript and poor. Many lived in communal groups, and all of them shared their resources. When Greek-speaking disciples complained that widows were being neglected, Stephen and six others were chosen to undertake routine daily distribution of food.
Paul was disturbed that a man of Stephen's academic caliber should demean himself in social concerns and go around bringing happiness. Men respected Paul but feared him; they respected Stephen and loved him.
When Stephen preached, Paul could not fail to discern the gulf between them: Stephen always turned the Scriptures in the direction of Jesus of Nazareth as the Deliverer or Messiah (or "Christ," when he used Greek), whom every Jew awaited; and Stephen proved his point by citing the evidence of eyewitnesses who reported that, incredibly, a corpse had come to life again and climbed out of the grave. He claimed they had talked with Jesus in different places during the six weeks following His execution. Stephen himself was not an eyewitness, but he was sure Jesus was alive, and he claimed to know Him.
Paul considered Stephen's arguments nonsense. The Christ had not come yet. And the way to God was fixed forever: A man must belong to God's chosen people the Jews, and try to obey the Law's every detail. When he sinned, forgiveness depended on the ritual slaughter of animals day after day, year after year in the temple. Paul could not stomach Stephen's idea that the dying of one young man, by a common if degrading and revolting form of punishment, could blot out sins. As for the alleged resurrection, he pitied those who narrowed their lives to the following of a dead Messiah.
Paul felt no personal concern, knowing his own goodness, but he recognized Stephen's contentions as dangerous. Gamaliel had advised toleration; Simon Peter and other disciples of Jesus worshipped at the temple and continued to obey the Law. But Paul saw, as Stephen saw, that the old and the new were incompatible; man was saved either by the temple sacrifices and obedience to the Law, or by faith in Jesus. The old must destroy the new, or be destroyed.
Paul dedicated himself to demolishing Stephen's argument by the time-honored method of public debate. The synagogue benches were filled; the elders listened gravely.
Excerpted from THE APOSTLE by John Pollock. Copyright © 2012 John Pollock. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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