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History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100.
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§ 30. Paul before his Conversion.


His Natural Outfit.


We now approach the apostle of the Gentiles who decided the victory of Christianity as a universal religion, who labored more, both in word and deed, than all his colleagues, and who stands out, in lonely grandeur, the most remarkable and influential character in history. His youth as well as his closing years are involved in obscurity, save that he began a persecutor and ended a martyr, but the midday of his life is better known than that of any other apostle, and is replete with burning thoughts and noble deeds that can never die, and gather strength with the progress of the gospel from age to age and country to country.

Saul or Paul342342    "Paul" (Little) is merely the Hellenized or Latinized form for his Hebrew name "Saul" (Desired), and has nothing whatever to do either with his own conversion, or with the conversion of Sergius Paulus of Cyprus. There are many similar instances of double names among the Jews of that time, as Hillel and Pollio, Cephas and Peter, John and Mark, Barsabbas and Justus, Simeon and Niger, Silas and Silvanus. Paul may have received his Latin name in early youth in Tarsus, as a Roman citizen; Paulus being the cognomen of several distinguished Roman families, as the gens AEmilia, Fabia, Julia, Sergia. He used it in his intercourse with the Gentiles and in all his Epistles. See Hist. Apost. Ch., p. 226, and my annotations to Lange on Romans 1:1, pp. 57 and 58. was of strictly Jewish parentage, but was born, a few years after Christ,343343    When Paul wrote to Philemon, a.d. 63, he was an aged man (πρεσβύτης, Phil. 9), that is, about or above sixty. According to Hippocrates a man was called πρεσβύτης from forty-nine to fifty-six, and after that γέρων, senes. In a friendly letter to a younger friend and pupil the expression must not be pressed. Walter Scott speaks of himself as "an old grey man" at fifty-five. Paul was still a "youth" (νεανίας, Acts 7:58) at the stoning of Stephen, which probably took place in 37; and although this term is likewise vaguely used, yet as he was then already clothed with a most important mission by the Sanhedrin, he must have been about or over thirty years of age. Philo extends the limits of νεανίας from twenty-one to twenty-eight, Xenophon to forty. Comp. Lightfoot on Philemon, v. 9 (p. 405), and Farrar, I., 13, 14. in the renowned Grecian commercial and literary city of Tarsus, in the province of Cilicia, and inherited the rights of a Roman citizen. He received a learned Jewish education at Jerusalem in the school of the Pharisean Rabbi, Gamaliel, a grandson of Hillel, not remaining an entire stranger to Greek literature, as his style, his dialectic method, his allusions to heathen religion and philosophy, and his occasional quotations from heathen poets show. Thus, a "Hebrew of the Hebrews,"344344    Phil. 3:5. A Hebrew by descent and education, though a Hellenist or Jew of the dispersion by birth, Acts 22:3. Probably his parents were Palestinians. This would explain the erroneous tradition preserved by Jerome (De vir. ill. c. 5), that Paul was born at Giscala in Galilee (now El-Jish), and after the capture of the place by the Romans emigrated with his parents to Tarsus. But the capture did not take place till a.d. 67. yet at the same time a native Hellenist, and a Roman citizen, be combined in himself, so to speak, the three great nationalities of the ancient world, and was endowed with all the natural qualifications for a universal apostleship. He could argue with the Pharisees as a son of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin, and as a disciple of the renowned Gamaliel, surnamed "the Glory of the Law." He could address the Greeks in their own beautiful tongue and with the convincing force of their logic. Clothed with the dignity and majesty of the Roman people, he could travel safely over the whole empire with the proud watchword: Civis Romanus sum.

This providential outfit for his future work made him for a while the most dangerous enemy of Christianity, but after his conversion its most useful promoter. The weapons of destruction were turned into weapons of construction. The engine was reversed, and the direction changed; but it remained the same engine, and its power was increased under the new inspiration.

The intellectual and moral endowment of Saul was of the highest order. The sharpest thinking was blended with the tenderest feeling, the deepest mind with the strongest will. He had Semitic fervor, Greek versatility, and Roman energy. Whatever he was, he was with his whole soul. He was totus in illis, a man of one idea and of one purpose, first as a Jew, then as a Christian. His nature was martial and heroic. Fear was unknown to him—except the fear of God, which made him fearless of man. When yet a youth, he had risen to high eminence; and had he remained a Jew, he might have become a greater Rabbi than even Hillel or Gamaliel, as he surpassed them both in original genius and fertility of thought.

Paul was the only scholar among the apostles. He never displays his learning, considering it of no account as compared with the excellency of the knowledge of Christ, for whom he suffered the loss of all things,345345    Comp. the sublime passage, Phil. 3:8-10, and 1 Cor. 2:1, 2. but he could not conceal it, and turned it to the best use after his conversion. Peter and John had natural genius, but no scholastic education; Paul had both, and thus became the founder of Christian theology and philosophy.


His Education.


His training was thoroughly Jewish, rooted and grounded in the Scriptures of the Old Covenant, and those traditions of the elders which culminated in the Talmud.346346    Gal. 4:14: "I made progress in Judaism beyond many of mine own age in my nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers." He knew the Hebrew and Greek Bible almost by heart. In his argumentative epistles, when addressing Jewish converts, he quotes from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Psalms, now literally, now freely, sometimes ingeniously combining several passages or verbal reminiscences, or reading between the lines in a manner which betrays the profound student and master of the hidden depths of the word of God, and throws a flood of light on obscure passages.347347    Scripture references and allusions abound in the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians, but are wanting in the Thessalonians, Colossians, and Philemon, and in his address to the heathen hearers at Athens, whom he referred to their own poets rather than to Moses and the prophets. He was quite familiar with the typical and allegorical methods of interpretation; and he occasionally and incidentally uses Scriptural arguments, or illustrations rather, which strike a sober scholar as far-fetched and fanciful, though they were quite conclusive to a Jewish reader.348348    As the reasoning from the singular or rather collective σπέρμα(zera)in Gal. 3:16, the allegorical interpretation of Hagar and Sarah, 4:22 sqq., and the rock in the wilderness, 1 Cor. 10:1-4. See the commentaries. But he never bases a truth on such an illustration without an independent argument; he never indulges in the exegetical impositions and frivolities of those "letter-worshipping Rabbis who prided themselves on suspending dogmatic mountains by textual hairs." Through the revelation of Christ, the Old Testament, instead of losing itself in the desert of the Talmud or the labyrinth of the Kabbala, became to him a book of life, full of types and promises of the great facts and truths of the gospel salvation. In Abraham he saw the father of the faithful, in Habakkuk a preacher of justification by faith, in the paschal lamb a type of Christ slain for the sins of the world, in the passage of Israel through the Red Sea a prefigurement of Christian baptism, and in the manna of the wilderness a type of the bread of life in the Lord’s Supper.

The Hellenic culture of Paul is a matter of dispute, denied by some, unduly exalted by others. He no doubt acquired in the home of his boyhood and early manhood349349    Comp. Gal. 1:21; Acts 9:30; 11:25. a knowledge of the Greek language, for Tarsus was at that time the seat of one of the three universities of the Roman empire, surpassing in some respects even Athens and Alexandria, and furnished tutors to the imperial family. His teacher, Gamaliel, was comparatively free from the rabbinical abhorrence and contempt of heathen literature. After his conversion he devoted his life to the salvation of the heathen, and lived for years at Tarsus, Ephesus, Corinth, and other cities of Greece, and became a Greek to the Greeks in order to save them. It is scarcely conceivable that a man of universal human sympathies, and so wide awake to the deepest problems of thought, as he, should have under such circumstances taken no notice of the vast treasures of Greek philosophy, poetry, and history. He would certainly do what we expect every missionary to China or India to do from love to the race which he is to benefit, and from a desire to extend his usefulness. Paul very aptly, though only incidentally, quotes three times from Greek poets, not only a proverbial maxim from Menander,350350    1 Cor. 15:33. φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρηστὰ ὁμιλίαι κακαί.
   "Evil associations corrupt good manners."
and a hexameter from Epimenides,351351    Tit. 1:12. Κρῆτες ἀεὶ ψεῦσται, κακὰ θηρία, γαστέρες ἀργαί.
   "Cretans are liars alway, bad beasts, and indolent gluttons."

   As Epimenides was himself a Cretan, this contemptuous depreciation of his countrymen gave rise to the syllogistic puzzle: "Epimenides calls the Cretans liars; Epimenides was a Cretan: therefore Epimenides was a liar: therefore the Cretans were not liars: therefore Epimenides was not a liar," etc.
which may have passed into common use, but also a half-hexameter with a connecting particle, which he must have read in the tedious astronomical poem of his countryman, Aratus (about b.c. 270), or in the sublime hymn of Cleanthes to Jupiter, in both of which the passage occurs.352352    Acts 17:28. Τοῦ [poetic for τούτου] γὰρ καὶ γένος ἐσμέν.
   "For we are also His (God’s) offspring."

   The passage occurs literally in the Phoenomena of Aratus, v. 5, in the following connection:

   ...." We all greatly need Zeus,

   For we are his offspring; full of grace, he grants men

   Tokens of favor ....

   The Stoic poet, Cleanthes (Hymn. in Jovem, 5) uses the same expression in an address to Jupiter: Ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ γένος ἐσμέν, and in the Golden Poem, θεῖον γὰρ γένος ἐστὶ βροτοῖσιν. We may also quote a parallel passage of Pindar, Nem. VI., which has been overlooked by commentators:

   Ἓν ἀνδρῶν, ἓν θεῶν γένος, ἐκ μιᾶς δὲ πνέομεν ματρὸς ἀμφότεροι.

   " One race of men and gods, from one mother breathe we all."

   It is evident, however, that all these passages were understood by their heathen authors in a materialistic and pantheistic sense, which would make nature or the earth the mother of gods and men. Paul in his masterly address to the Athenians, without endorsing the error, recognizes the element of truth in pantheism, viz., the divine origin of man and the immanence of God in the world and in humanity.
He borrows some of his favorite metaphors from the Grecian games; he disputed with Greek philosophers of different schools and addressed them from the Areopagus with consummate wisdom and adaptation to the situation; some suppose that he alludes even to the terminology of the Stoic philosophy when he speaks of the "rudiments" or "elements of the world."353353    τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, Gal. 4:3, 9. So Hilgenfeld, Einleitung, p. 223. Thiersch assumes (p. 112) that Paul was familiar with the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, and that his dialectics is classical rather than rabbinical; but this is scarcely correct. In Romans 5:16, 18, he uses the word δικαίωμα in the Aristotelian sense of legal adjustment (Rechtsausgleichung). See Eth. Nicom. v. 10, and Rothe’s monograph on Rom. 5:12-21. Baur compares Paul’s style with that of Thucydides. He handles the Greek language, not indeed with classical purity and elegance, yet with an almost creative vigor, transforming it into an obedient organ of new ideas, and pressing into his service the oxymoron, the paronomasia, the litotes, and other rhetorical figures.354354    Farrar, I. 629 sq., counts "upwards of fifty specimens of thirty Greek rhetorical figures in St. Paul," which certainly disprove the assertion of Renan that Paul could never have received even elementary lessons in grammar and rhetoric at Tarsus. Yet all this does by no means prove a regular study or extensive knowledge of Greek literature, but is due in part to native genius. His more than Attic urbanity and gentlemanly refinement which breathe in his Epistles to Philemon and the Philippians, must be traced to the influence of Christianity rather than his intercourse with accomplished Greeks. His Hellenic learning seems to have been only casual, incidental, and altogether subordinate to his great aim. In this respect he differed widely from the learned Josephus, who affected Attic purity of style, and from Philo, who allowed the revealed truth of the Mosaic religion to be controlled, obscured, and perverted by Hellenic philosophy. Philo idealized and explained away the Old Testament by allegorical impositions which he substituted for grammatical expositions; Paul spiritualized the Old Testament and drew out its deepest meaning. Philo’s Judaism evaporated in speculative abstractions, Paul’s Judaism was elevated and transformed into Christian realities.


His Zeal for Judaism.


Saul was a Pharisee of the strictest sect, not indeed of the hypocritical type, so witheringly rebuked by our Saviour, but of the honest, truth-loving and truth-seeking sort, like that of Nicodemus and Gamaliel. His very fanaticism in persecution arose from the intensity of his conviction and his zeal for the religion of his fathers. He persecuted in ignorance, and that diminished, though it did not abolish, his guilt. He probably never saw or heard Jesus until he appeared to him at Damascus. He may have been at Tarsus at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection.355355    Cor. 9:1 refers to the vision of Christ at Damascus. In 2 Cor. 5:16: though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more," he particles εἰ καί (quamquam, even though, wenn auch) seem to chronicle a fact, as distinct from καὶ εἰ (etiam si, even if, selbst wenn), which puts an hypothesis; but the stress lies on the difference between an external, carnal knowledge of Christ in his humility and earthly relations or a superficial acquaintance from hearsay, and a spiritual, experimental knowledge of Christ in his glory. Farrar (I. 73 sqq.), reasons that if Paul had really known and heard Jesus, he would have been converted at once. But with his Pharisaic education he regarded Jesus of Nazareth, like his teachers, as a false Messiah, a rebel, a blasphemer, who was justly condemned to death. And he acted according to his conviction. He took the most prominent part in the persecution of Stephen and delighted in his death. Not satisfied with this, he procured from the Sanhedrin, which had the oversight of all the synagogues and disciplinary punishments for offences against the law, full power to persecute and arrest the scattered disciples. Thus armed, he set out for Damascus, the capital of Syria, which numbered many synagogues. He was determined to exterminate the dangerous sect from the face of the earth, for the glory of God. But the height of his opposition was the beginning of his devotion to Christianity.



His External Relations and Personal Appearance.


On the subordinate questions of Paul’s external condition and relations we have no certain information. Being a Roman citizen, he belonged to the respectable class of society, but must have been poor; for he depended for support on a trade which he learned in accordance with rabbinical custom; it was the trade of tent-making, very common in Cilicia, and not profitable except in large cities.356356    He is called a tent-maker, σκηνοποιός, Acts 18:3. Tents were mostly made of the coarse hair of the Cilician goat (Κιλίκιος τράγος, which also denotes a coarse man), and needed by shepherds, travellers, sailors, and soldiers. The same material was also used for mantelets, shoes, and beds. The Cilician origin of this article is perpetuated in the Latin cilicium and the French cilice, which means hair-cloth. Gamaliel is the author of the maxim that " learning of any kind unaccompanied by a trade ends in nothing and leads to sin."

He had a sister living at Jerusalem whose son was instrumental in saving his life.357357    Acts 23:16.

He was probably never married. Some suppose that he was a widower. Jewish and rabbinical custom, the completeness of his moral character, his ideal conception of marriage as reflecting the mystical union of Christ with his church, his exhortations to conjugal, parental, and filial duties, seem to point to experimental knowledge of domestic life. But as a Christian missionary moving from place to place, and exposed to all sorts of hardship and persecution, he felt it his duty to abide alone.358358    In 1 Cor. 9:5 (written in 57) he claims the right to lead a married life, like Peter and the other apostles, and the brethren of the Lord; but in 1 Cor. 7:7, 8 he gives for himself in his peculiar position the preference to single life. Clement of Alexandria, Erasmus, and others supposed that he was married, and understood Syzyge, in Phil. 4:3, to be his wife. Ewald regards him as a widower who lost his wife before his conversion (VI. 341). So also Farrar (I. 80) who infers from 1 Cor. 7:8 that Paul classed himself with widowers: "I say, therefore, to the unmarried [to widowers, for whom there is no special Greek word] and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I." He lays stress on the fact that the Jews in all ages attached great importance to marriage as a moral duty (Gen. 1:28), and preferred early marriage; he also maintains (I. 169) that Paul, being a member of the Sanhedrin (as he gave his vote for the condemnation of the Christiana, Acts26:10), must have had, according to the Gemara, a family of his own. Renan fancies (ch. VI.) that Paul contracted a more than spiritual union with sister Lydia at Philippi, and addressed her in Phil. 4:3 as his σύζυγε γνήσιε, that is, as his true co-worker or partner (conjux), since it is not likely that he would have omitted her when he mentioned, in the preceding verse, two deaconesses otherwise unknown, Euodia and Syntyche. The word σύζυγος, as a noun, may be either masculine or feminine, and may either mean generally an associate, a co-worker ("yoke -fellow" in the E. V.), or be a proper name. Several persons have been suggested, Epaphroditus, Timothy, Silas, Luke. But Paul probably means a man, named Σύζυγοςand plays upon the word: "Yokefellow by name and yoke-fellow in deed." Comp. a similar paronomasia in Philem. 10, 11̓Ονήσιμον, i.e., Helpful,-ἄχρηστον, εὔχρηστον , unprofitable, profitable). See the notes of Meyer and Lange (Braune and Hackett) on these passages. He sacrificed the blessings of home and family to the advancement of the kingdom of Christ.359359    This sublime loneliness of Paul is well expressed in a poem, Saint Paul, by Frederic W. H. Myers (1868), from which we may be permitted to quote a few lines:
   "Christ! I am Christ’s! and let the name suffice you;
Aye, for me, too, He greatly hath sufficed;

   Lo, with no winning words I would entice you;
Paul has no honor and no friend but Christ.

   

   " Yes, without cheer of sister or of daughter—
Yes, w ithout stay of father or of son,

   Lone on the land, and homeless on the water,
Pass I in patience till the work be done.

   

   "Yet not in solitude, if Christ anear me
Waketh Him workers for the great employ;

   Oh, not in solitude, if souls that hear me
Catch from my joyance the surprise of joy.

   

   Hearts I have won of sister or of brother,
Quick on the earth or hidden in the sod

   Lo, every heart awaiteth me, another
Friend in the blameless family of God."

   

His "bodily presence was weak, and his speech contemptible" (of no value), in the superficial judgment of the Corinthians, who missed the rhetorical ornaments, yet could not help admitting that his "letters were weighty and strong."360360    2 Cor. 10:10 ἡ παρουσία τοῦ σώματος ἀσθενὴς , καὶ ὁ λόγος ἐξουθενημένος, or, as Cod. B. reads, ἐξουδενημένος, which has the same meaning. Comp. 10:1, where he speaks of his " lowly" personal appearance among the Corinthians (κατὰπρόσωπον ταπεινός). He was little, compared with Barnabas (Acts 14:12). Some of the greatest men have been small in size, and some of the purest souls forbidding in body. Socrates was the homeliest, and yet the wisest of Greeks. Neander, a converted Jew, like Paul, was short, feeble, and strikingly odd in his whole appearance, but a rare humility, benignity, and heavenly aspiration beamed from his face beneath his dark and bushy eyebrows. So we may well imagine that the expression of Paul’s countenance was highly intellectual and spiritual, and that he looked "sometimes like a man and sometimes like an angel."361361    This is from the tradition preserved in the apocryphal Acts of Thecla. See the description quoted above, p. 282. Other ancient descriptions of Paul in the Philopatris of pseudo-Lucian (of the second, but more probably of the fourth century), Malala of Antioch (sixth century), and Nicephorus (fifteenth century), represent Paul as little in stature, bald, with a prominent aquiline nose, gray hair and thick beard, bright grayish eyes, somewhat bent and stooping, yet pleasant and graceful. See these descriptions in Lewin’s St. Paul, II. 412. The oldest extant portraiture of Paul, probably from the close of the first or beginning of the second century, was found on a large bronze medallion in the cemetery of Domitilla (one of the Flavian family), and is preserved in the Vatican library. It presents Paul on the left and Peter on the right. Both are far from handsome, but full of character; Paul is the homelier of the two, with apparently diseased eyes, open mouth, bald head and short thick beard, but thoughtful, solemn, and dignified. See a cut in Lewin, II. 211. Chrysostom calls Paul the three-cubit man (ὁ τρίπηχυς ἄνθρωπος, Serm. in Pet. et Paul.). Luther imagined: "St. Paulus war ein armes, dürres Männlein, wie Magister Philippus "(Melanchthon). A poetic description by J. H. Newman see in Farrar I. 220, and in Plumptre on Acts, Appendix, with another (of his own). Renan (Les Apôtres, pp. 169 sqq.) gives, partly from Paul’s Epistles, partly from apocryphal sources, the following striking picture of the apostle: His behavior was winning, his manners excellent, his letters reveal a man of genius and lofty aspirations, though the style is incorrect. Never did a correspondence display rarer courtesies, tenderer shades, more amiable modesty and reserve. Once or twice we are wounded by his sarcasm (Gal. 5: 12; Phil. 3:2). But what rapture! What fulness of charming words! What originality! His exterior did not correspond to the greatness of his soul. He was ugly, short, stout, plump, of small head, bald, pale, his face covered with a thick beard, an eagle nose, piercing eyes, dark eyebrows. His speech, embarrassed, faulty, gave a poor idea of his eloquence. With rare tact he turned his external defects to advantage. The Jewish race produces types of the highest beauty and of the most complete homeliness (des types de la plus grande beauté et de la plus complète laideur); but the Jewish homeliness is quite unique. The strange faces which provoke laughter at first sight, assume when intellectually enlivened, a peculiar expression of intense brilliancy and majesty (une sorte d’éclat profond et de majesté).

He was afflicted with a mysterious, painful, recurrent, and repulsive physical infirmity, which he calls a "thorn in the flesh, " and which acted as a check upon spiritual pride and self-exultation over his abundance of revelations.362362    2 Cor. 12:7-9; Gal. 4:13-15. Comp. also 1 Thess. 2:18; 1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 1:8, 9; 4:10. Of the many conjectures only three: sick headache, acute ophthalmia, epilepsy, seem to answer the allusions of Paul which are dark to us at such a distance of time, while they were clear to his personal friends. Tertullian and Jerome, according to an ancient tradition, favor headache; Lewin, Farrar, and many others, sore eyes, dating the inflammation from the dazzling light which shone around him at Damascus (Acts 9:3, 17, 18; Comp. 22:13; 23:3, 5; Gal. 4:15); Ewald and Lightfoot, epilepsy, with illustration from the life of King Alfred (Mohammed would be even more to the point). Other conjectures of external, or spiritual trials (persecution, carnal temptations, bad temper, doubt, despondency, blasphemous suggestions of the devil, etc.) are ruled out by a strict exegesis of the two chief passages in 2 Cor. 12 and Gal. 4, which point to a physical malady. See an Excursus on Paul’s thorn in the flesh in my Commentary on Gal. 4:13-15 (Pop. Com. vol. III.). He bore the heavenly treasure in an earthly vessel and his strength was made perfect in weakness.363363    2 Cor. 4:7; 12:9, 10. But all the more must we admire the moral heroism which turned weakness itself into an element of strength, and despite pain and trouble and persecution carried the gospel salvation triumphantly from Damascus to Rome.


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