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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Paul's Formative Years.


‘My earlier life in Judaism’ (Gal 1:13 ): Paul does not tell us a great deal about his Jewish upbringing and pre-Christian activities. This is not due to reticence; when it serves his purposes, he can parade his credentials and accomplishments with great flourish (esp. Gal 1:13–15; 1 Cor 15:9; Phil 3:4–6; 2 Cor 11:22; Rom 11:1 ). But his purposes are never purely biographical; what he tells us and how is determined by the rhetorical needs of the moment. In addition to the explicit information he does convey in passing, of course, the letters also contain a wealth of implicit evidence—familiarity with the Mediterranean world, facility in Greek, knowledge of the Septuagint and of Jewish interpretative tradition, and so on.

Still, the information conveyed to us by Paul himself is much less specific than that contained in the Acts account, where it appears both in the narration of his persecuting activity ( 7:58–8:3; 9:1–3 ) and in the speeches of self-defence made after his final arrest ( 22:1–5, 19–20; 23:6; 26:4–12 ). But while its secondary status needs to be remembered, the information in Acts, with only two or three exceptions, is both consistent with Paul's own statements and not so patently in keeping with Luke's special purposes as to come under suspicion.


According to Luke, Paul was a diaspora Jew—specifically, a native of Tarsus, the prosperous chief city of the region of Cilicia ( 21:39; 22:3 ). The letters certainly confirm the general identification; even without Acts, Paul's facility in Greek and the ease with which he navigated the Hellenistic world identify him as a diaspora Jew. With respect to the more specific reference to Tarsus, the only evidence in the letters with a bearing on the matter is Paul's statement that after his first visit to Jerusalem he ‘went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia’ (Gal 1:21 ). Syria is understandable; someone who had spent time in Damascus (Gal 1:17 ) could readily gravitate to Antioch, an important centre of the Jewish diaspora. But Cilicia is less to be expected, unless, as Luke indicates, Paul had a special personal affinity for the area. This detail in Galatians, then, lends a definite plausibility to Luke's identification of Tarsus as Paul's home city.

Luke goes further, however, to identify Paul as a citizen both of Tarsus ( 21:39 ) and of Rome ( 16:37–9; 22:25–9; 23:27 ), the latter by birth. This is not outside the realm of possibility. Jews certainly could be Roman citizens without compromising their traditional observances (e.g. Jos. Ant. 14.228–37). Tarsus itself was lavishly rewarded for services rendered, both by Mark Antony after the death of Cassius and Brutus (Appian, Historia, 5.1.7), and by Octavian after the battle of Actium (Dio Chrysostom, Orationes, 34.8). One could readily imagine circumstances in which even a Jewish family would have been able to share in this largesse. At the same time, however, full weight needs to be given to two additional items of information. First, Paul himself nowhere alludes to Roman citizenship, despite his readiness to boast about other items on his curriculum vitae when it served his purposes. Second, Paul's Roman citizenship could be seen as too neatly consistent with one of Luke's major themes—namely, that Roman officials repeatedly took the Christians' side, or at least demonstrated that they considered the movement to be no real threat to the order of the empire. But on the other hand, the sole premiss of Paul's final trip to Rome, as it is narrated in Acts, is his Roman citizenship, with the concomitant right of appeal to the imperial tribunal (Acts 25:10–12, 21; 26:32 ). Unless we are prepared to dismiss this whole account, despite the verisimilitude of its first-person narration ( 27:1–28:16 ), we need to give at least some credence to Luke's statements about Paul's citizenship.


As we have already observed, however, Paul's own self-description places more emphasis on his Jewish identity and credentials. To put this information into its proper perspective, we need to keep in mind the extent and significance of the Jewish diaspora. By the beginning of the first century, as was observed by the geographer and historian Strabo, ‘this people [i.e. of Judea] has already made its way into every city, and it is not easy to find any place in the habitable world which has not received this nation and in which it has not made its power felt’ (quoted by Jos. Ant. 14.114–18). Of interest in this statement is not only the geographical spread of Jewish communities (also Jos. J. W. 2.399; Ag. Ap. 2.38–9; Philo, Flacc. 7.45; Acts 2:5–11 ), but also what this translation calls their ‘power’, rendering a Greek verb that usually has the sense ‘to gain the mastery of, to prevail over’. The word is not to be taken literally, as if Jews had become dominant in any of the cities where they had taken up residence. But it does describe the fact that in city after city Jews had been able to create and maintain Torah-centred islands in the midst of the larger Hellenistic sea. And perhaps this image distorts things somewhat, in that Jewish communities were by no means sealed off from the life and culture of the cities that sustained them. The example of Sardis, where the Jewish community was able to acquire space for their synagogue in the central civic edifice that also housed the bath and gymnasium, is perhaps a little late (3rd cent. CE) to be directly relevant. But any difference between this example and the circumstances of diaspora Jews in the first century in Sardis and elsewhere is one of degree, not of kind. Diaspora realities can also be seen reflected in the long list, compiled by Josephus, of decrees issued by Julius Caesar and his successors which defined and protected the rights of the Jewish communities in various cities of Asia and elsewhere (Jos. Ant. 14.186–264). While not as much is known of the Jewish community in Tarsus as in some other cities, a Jewish presence in the first century is nevertheless ‘well attested’ (Murphy-O'Connor 1996: 33).


Paul's biographical statements, then, brief and tangential though they may be, come more vividly to life when placed in the context of this vibrant diaspora reality. It was in one of these Greek-speaking Jewish communities, integrated into the life of the larger city but without wholesale assimilation, that he was born (perhaps in the first decade of the century) and nurtured in the ancestral faith. There were inevitably different degrees of Hellenization within the diaspora, but Paul locates his origins at the more rigorously observant end of the spectrum. While most (male) Jews could presumably describe themselves, as Paul does in Phil 3:5 , as ‘circumcised on the eighth day’, and ‘a member of the people of Israel’, not all would be able to name their tribe (Benjamin), or—since the term probably indicates facility in Hebrew or Aramaic—to categorize themselves as ‘a Hebrew born of Hebrews’ (cf. 2 Cor 11:22 ).

The next item in the Philippian catalogue—‘as to the law, a Pharisee’ (Phil 3:5 )—is a little harder to envisage in a diaspora setting, however. While Jews everywhere were identified by their adherence to the law, the only evidence we have for Pharisees as a specific group stems from Judea. Here the information from Acts is relevant, for Luke identifies Jerusalem as the place of Paul's education. Speaking to the Jerusalem crowd after his arrest, Paul is depicted as saying: ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law’ (Acts 22:3 ). This reading of the verse takes the latter two participial clauses (brought up, educated) as referring to the same process—study under Gamaliel. It is possible, however, to read the verse as referring to two stages—primary nurture (brought up in this city) and secondary training (educated strictly at the feet of Gamaliel according to our ancestral law). This latter reading, which suggests that Paul moved to Jerusalem as a child, is probably more consistent with the comment in Acts 23:6 that he was also the ‘son of Pharisees’.


But is it consistent with Paul's own statements about Jerusalem? There is a significant body of scholarship that rejects wholesale Luke's identification of Jerusalem as the locale for both Paul's education and his persecuting activity (e.g. Knox 1950: 34–6; Haenchen 1971: 297, 625). This rejection is based partly on a consideration of Luke's purposes: it is in keeping with his interpretative programme (cf. Acts 1:8 ) to have the apostle responsible for taking the gospel ‘to the ends of the earth’ to be linked closely with Jerusalem. But further, it is based more fundamentally on Paul's own statement that even after his conversion and first visit to Jerusalem, he ‘was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea’ (Gal 1:22 ). Surely, it is argued, the Jerusalem church would have known its chief persecutor.


In the context of Galatians, however, Paul is talking about his contacts with Jerusalem as a Christian: apart from Cephas and James, he declares, the church in Jerusalem and Judea had not seen the transformed Paul with their own eyes. With respect to the possibility of a period of residence in Jerusalem, then, Paul's statement that he was a Pharisee weighs in more heavily than does his comment about the churches in Judea (Murphy-O'Connor 1996: 52–4). This does not mean, however, that Luke's depiction is to be accepted in toto. Surely if Paul had had any meaningful association with Gamaliel it would have been included in one of his catalogues of Jewish credentials. The claim to be a ‘son of Pharisees’ probably belongs to a similar category.


In all probability, then, Paul journeyed to Jerusalem as a young man, where he joined the Pharisees, pursuing his ‘zeal for the traditions of his ancestors’, and ‘advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] people of the same age’ (Gal 1:14 ). Probably we are to see him as attached to one of the Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem, perhaps even the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’ (Hengel 1991: 69), which included in its membership expatriates of Cilicia (Acts 6:9 ). It is also possible that during this period he took a special interest in Gentile proselytes. In Gal 5:11 he refers to a time when he ‘was preaching circumcision’. In the context of Galatians, this statement means more than simply that he himself was once a Torah-observer; it means that he once was engaged in encouraging Gentiles to be circumcised and thus to become full adherents of Torah-religion (cf. Gal 5:3 ). When was this? It is unlikely that there was a period after his Damascus experience where he preached a kind of Judaizing gospel to Gentiles. The statement more likely refers to his pre-Damascus period, where we might envisage him as playing the same sort of role with Gentile synagogue-adherents as Eleazar did with King Izates of Adiabene (Jos. Ant. 20.43–5), namely, insisting that only by becoming full proselytes would they be pleasing to God.


It is also during this period that Paul's zeal ‘for the traditions of [his] ancestors’ (Gal 1:14 ) took particular expression in his persecution of the nascent Christian movement (Gal 1:14, 23; Phil 3:6; 1 Cor 15:9 ). As has been noted already, there is no need to set Gal 1:22 over against the Acts account, and to restrict Paul's persecuting activity to an area outside Judea (Damascus). We can accept the Acts account at least to this point, that it was in Jerusalem that Paul took offence at the activity of the early Christians, particularly the Greek-speaking ‘Hellenists’ (Acts 6 ) who formulated their message in a manner that was much more critical of the temple and much less acquiescent to the Jewish religious establishment (cf. Acts 7 ) than the ‘Hebrews’. Perceiving the activity of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians as a threat to the well-being of the Torah-centred way of life, and also at a deeper level perceiving their basic message as setting Christ over against the Torah, he engaged in ‘zealous’ repression of the movement. When this resulted in the flight of Christians from Jerusalem to other Jewish centres, Paul became involved in attempts to repress the activity of the new movement in Damascus. That is, we can accept the basic itinerary of Acts 8 and 9 , though some of the details (the ferocity of Saul's own activity, imprisonment rather than simple disciplinary action, official letters from the high priest) may well be the result of Lukan exaggeration.


When God was pleased to reveal his Son to (in) me’ (Gal 1:15–16 ): Somewhere near Damascus (cf. ‘returned’, Gal 1:17 ), Paul had an experience that led to a radical reassessment of the person of Jesus and a thoroughgoing reconfiguration of his foundational convictions. In the history of interpretation, various attempts have been made to account for this experience without remainder by appealing to psychological preconditioning or even physiological manifestations (e.g. an epileptic seizure). But to reduce the range of possible explanations in this way is to fail to recognize the reality of religious experience, on the phenomenological level at the very least. Religious phenomena certainly have their psychological and physiological dimensions, but it is unfair to religious communities in general to reduce religious experience to non-religious categories.

Paul, of course, understood this experience as an encounter with the risen Christ (Gal 1:15–16; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8–9 ) and, moreover, as belonging to the same set of experiences as had brought the movement into being in the first place (1 Cor 15:5–8 ). But the reality of a religious experience is one thing, the interpretation placed on it by the subject quite another. Any attempt to assess the reality lying behind the statement, ‘Christ appeared to me’, belongs in a book whose purposes are quite different from those of a commentary such as this.


To understand Paul and his letters, however, it is necessary to recognize that he saw no gap or caesura between the experience and the interpretation. For him the subjective experience (‘God…was pleased to reveal his Son in me’, Gal 1:15–16 , my lit. tr.) and the objective reality (‘[Christ] appeared…to me’; 1 Cor 15:8 ) were a seamless unity.

Further, to understand Paul it is necessary to recognize two things that flowed from this experience. One was a reconfiguration of his basic, world-ordering convictions. Paul had already come to some conclusions about how the message of a crucified and risen Messiah related to the basic convictions of covenantal nomism. His previous perceptions of Christ ‘according to the flesh’ (2 Cor 5:16 ) produced the conviction that Christ and Torah were mutually exclusive; they were rival ways of marking the community of the righteous. Consequently his new conviction—that God had raised Jesus and that the claims made about him in Christian preaching were thus grounded in God's action—was not a simple, self-contained conviction; rather, it set in motion a thoroughgoing process of convictional restructuring. Not that his new convictions were simply the inversion of the old. He continued to believe in the God of Israel, in Israel's election, even in the divine origin of the Torah. But these native convictions were redrawn around a new centre, the foundational conviction that the crucified Jesus had been raised by God.


The second thing that flowed from Paul's Damascus experience was that it was also and at the same time a call to be an apostle. Despite the chronological gap between the first experiences recounted in 1 Cor 15:5–7 and Paul's own—a gap alluded to in v. 8 (‘last of all, as to someone untimely born’) but ultimately dismissed as inconsequential—Paul claims that it constituted him an apostle on an equal basis with the others (vv. 10–11; cf. Gal 1:1 ). One can readily imagine how this claim would have sounded to those ‘who were already apostles before [him]’ (Gal 1:17 ) and their Jerusalem followers, especially when this johnny-come-lately began to insist on a law-free mission to Gentiles with Paul himself as its divinely commissioned apostle. An uneasy relationship with the Jerusalem church marked Paul's ministry from the outset.


So that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles’ (Gal 1:16 ): Looking back, Paul locates the origin of his Gentile mission in the Damascus experience itself. Some interpreters have argued that this is just a matter of retrospect, Paul here collapsing a process that might have taken years, into the event that set the process in motion in the first place (e.g. Watson 1986: 28–38). But not only is there no evidence for such an intervening phase of any length, Paul's statements relating to his activity in Arabia suggest that from the very beginning he saw himself as commissioned to carry the gospel to Gentiles. Paul's sojourn in Arabia (Gal 1:17 ) is sometimes seen as a period of quiet reflection, where he contemplated the significance of his experience and worked out its theological implications. No doubt there was a period of time in which such reflection took place; certainly his new theological framework did not emerge instantaneously. But Paul's time in Arabia seems to have attracted the unfavourable attention of King Aretas himself (2 Cor 11:32 ). One does not usually arouse the ire of a ruling monarch by engaging in solitary theological reflection. Paul's Arabian experience suggests that he attempted to carry out an apostolic ministry among non-Jews at a very early date. If there was a period of reflection, we should think in terms of weeks, not years.


From a first-century Judean perspective, Arabia was the kingdom of the Nabataeans, with its capital in Petra (Jos. J. W. 1.125: ‘the capital of the Arabian kingdom, called Petra’). This means that Paul's sojourn in Arabia in Gal 1:17 needs to be co-ordinated with the account of his escape from the agents of King Aretas in Damascus (2 Cor 11:30–3 ). The reference here is to Aretas IV, king of the Nabataeans from about 9 BCE to 39 CE. Murphy-O'Connor (1996: 5–7) argues that Damascus came under Nabataean control in 37 CE, which would then have been when Paul's departure from Damascus took place, though certainty is not possible (cf. Riesner 1998: 84–9). Presumably Paul had created enough of a disturbance through his evangelizing activity in Arabia that he had to return to Damascus (Gal 1:17 ), which in turn became too hot for him to remain once Aretas had gained control of the city. This evidence suggests, then, that Paul's statement in Gal 1:16 should be taken at its temporal face value: right from the beginning, he felt himself called as an apostle with a special commission for the Gentiles.


‘Up to Jerusalem…into the regions of Syria and Cilicia…Antioch’ (Gal 1:18, 21; 2:11 ): Of the other events in the period between his Damascus experience and the start of the missionary activity reflected in the letters, Paul tells us very little. ‘After three years’ he journeyed to Jerusalem, with the specific intention of ‘getting to know’ Cephas/Peter, or of ‘making his acquaintance’ (Gal 1:18 ; on this sense of the verb historein, see Jos. J. W. 6.81). Paul's larger purpose in Galatians 1 and 2 is to minimize his contacts with ‘those who were already apostles before [him]’ (Gal 1:17 ), in order to establish the point that he ‘did not receive [his gospel] from a human source, nor was [he] taught it, but [he] received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (Gal 1:12 ). While this statement underlines the centrality of the Damascus experience for Paul's new commitment to Christ and the gospel, it should not be interpreted as implying that his early Christian experience was isolated and individual and that other Christians played no part in his formation. Presumably he did not baptize himself (Rom 6:3 ). Likewise, he was able to count on friends—Christians, in all probability—to help him over the city wall in Damascus (note the passive in 2 Cor 11:33: ‘I was let down’). Even before his first visit to Jerusalem, then, he had been incorporated into a Christian community as a new convert, with all the socialization that would have entailed. Further, he describes such central Christian elements as the facts of the gospel itself (1 Cor 15:1–7 ) and the narrative of the last supper (1 Cor 11:23 ) as material that he had ‘received’ and then ‘handed on’, using the accepted, formal vocabulary for the transmission of tradition. It is probably not without significance that the two proper names mentioned in the summary of the gospel in 1 Cor 15:3–7 (Cephas, James) are precisely the two people that he met on his first Jerusalem visit (Gal 1:18–19 ). As C. H. Dodd is famously reported to have said, surely in two weeks Paul and Peter found more to talk about than simply the weather.


Of Paul's time in ‘the regions of Syria and Cilicia’ (Gal 1:21 ), very little can be said, unless we disregard the order in which these two geographical regions are listed and understand ‘Syria’ to refer to the kind of scenario recounted in Acts 11:25–6 , where Paul was engaged as Barnabas's junior partner in a ministry of teaching and church leadership in Antioch. Be that as it may, other statements of Paul confirm the general picture arising from the Acts account: he was resident for a time in Antioch (both Cephas and James's delegation ‘came’ to Antioch, while Paul and Barnabas were already there; Gal 2:11–12 ); and he was associated with Barnabas in the earlier part of his known ministry but probably not later (the only evidence for direct association appears in Gal 2:1, 9, 13; cf. 1 Cor 9:6 ). Paul's arrival in Antioch brings his formative period to an end and sets the stage for the more public ministry narrated in Acts and reflected in his letters.

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