by John B. Polhill
Neither Acts nor Paul says much about his family except to mention the strict Judaism under which he was reared. But do we know anything else about him?
Writing in the third century A.D., the Christian scholar Jerome mentioned a tradition that Paul migrated to Tarsus with his family from Gischala in Judea. Jerome added that they fled because the area was being laid waste by the Romans. Gischala was in Galilee, not Judea. However, there is ample evidence that the term Judea was used to refer to all of Palestine in the first century. The second problem is more difficult. Paul told the Jewish crowd that he was born in Tarsus (Acts 22:3), not carried there from “Judea.” Jerome’s tradition must be corrected at this point. The most likely time for a Jewish family to flee Roman repression in Palestine was that of Pompey (around 67 B.C.). If Jerome’s tradition has any historical basis, we must assume that the family went to Tarsus before Paul’s birth, perhaps as much as two generations earlier.
Paul’s family were Diaspora Jews; that is, they were Jews who lived outside Palestine. Also referred to as the Jewish Dispersion; Jews had from the time of the Babylonian captivity been living in communities outside the Holy Land. Many did not return from Babylon when Cyrus permitted the return from exile. There were other periods of major Jewish migrations from Palestine; for instance, to Alexandria in the third century B.C. and to Syrian Antioch in the second. Antiouchus IV seems to have settled a number of Jews in Cilicia and also in Rome. By the first century, Jews lived in every major city of Asia and Syria-Cilicia. . . .
Did Paul come from a family of means? There really is little evidence to go by. Some scholars have argued that his family was wealthy. This conclusion is based one or both of two considerations. The first is the fact of their Tarsian citizenship. According to the Stoic philosopher Dio Chrysostom, who visited Tarsus in the late first century, one of the measures initiated by Athenodorus a century earlier was to restrict the right of voting to those who were able to pay a 500 drachma poll tax. This was a considerable amount, equivalent to 10-months’ wages for a working-class person. A second consideration is Paul’s tent-making trade (Acts 18:3). It is possible that Paul worked with the material known as cilicium, which was made of woven goat’s hair. Named for Cilicia, where it originated, it was used for tents and saddles. It was durable and expensive. Tarsus was famous for its textile business. The Jewish rabbinic writings record that there was extensive commerce in textiles between Judea and Cilicia. Paul’s family may have had connections with this trade. It is also possible that Paul’s family was not involved in tent making at all. Paul studied in Jerusalem to be a rabbi, a teacher of the law. The Jewish idea for teachers was that they be self-supporting and not earn their livelihood by teaching. In this way they remained unencumbered and free to teach as they saw fit. Paul may have learned his tent making in Jerusalem in order to fulfill this idea.
The life of pious Diaspora Jewish family like Paul’s would have centered around the synagogue. Religious instruction took place there on a regular basis through the readings of Scripture and the prayers in the worship every Sabbath. There may also have been synagogue instruction in Scripture for young Jewish boys. They were expected to learn large portions of the Pentateuch. We know that by the second century elementary schools existed for teaching boys aged six through twelve the written books of Law. These were known as the “house of the book.” We have little evidence for educational practices in first-century Diaspora Judaism. Religious eduction was a family responsibility, and Paul may have received his primary instruction in the family circle. One thing is certain: he learned his Greek Bible well. Paul cited Scripture consistently from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Scripture. Of course, Paul ministered among Jews and Gentiles outside Palestine for whom Greek would have been their primary language. His use of the Greek Scripture was thus natural. He had probably first become acquainted with in the Tarsus.
Another influence on Paul in Tarsus would have been the presence of Gentile proselytes and God-fearers in the synagogue. Proselytes were converts to Judaism who had been circumcised and who agreed to live by the Torah. God-fearers were synagogue adherents, Gentiles who believed in the one God and who participated in synagogue worship but who had not been circumcised and become full converts to Judaism. A good example of a God-fearer is the centurion Cornelius: he worshiped God, prayed constantly, and gave generously to the needy (Acts 10:2). God-fearers were usually present in the synagogues where Paul later witnessed as a Christian missionary. They were probably present in the synagogue of Paul’s youth in Tarsus. It may well have been there where he first developed a burden for the salvation of the Gentiles, a burden which would become the passion of his life.
John B. Polhill is the professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of the Acts volume in the New American Commentary, along with numerous articles, reference works, and symposia.
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