1.SAUL THE JEW STUDIES IN JERUSALEM
Paul was born around 10 AD to a Jewish family from Tarsus in Cilicia (modern-day Eastern Turkey). He was given the biblical name Saul and the Roman name Paul (his father had obtained Roman citizenship and perhaps wanted to show his gratitude to the people of Paulus). He was educated in Jerusalem.
‘As a student of Gamaliel the Elder I received strict instruction in the Law of our ancestors and was zealous towards God.’ From the Acts of the Apostles he says he is ‘a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees’ (Acts 23:6) and ‘circumcised on the eighth day’ (Phil 3:5-6)
At Stephen’s martyrdom ‘the witnesses left their cloaks in the care of a young man named Saul.....he was among those who approved of his murder and who began a cruel persecution against the Church.’
Saul, who defended with zeal ‘the traditions of the Fathers’ (Gal 1:14) could even have been a member of the Zealots (Acts 22:3) which would explain his mission to Damascus to hunt down the Greek missionaries, like Stephen, who contested the Temple ‘to break them, even through torture’ (Acts 25:6,9-11) This would also throw light on two unusual episodes: Paul never became part of the Church in Jerusalem and had to flee as a result of death threats (Acts 9:26-30). Later forty famous Jews voted to kill Paul, a prisoner of the Romans (Acts 23:12-22) and it was known that the Zealots punished those who betrayed their vows.
The Acts of the Apostles contain the famous words that Paul heard on the way to Damascus: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
The way Paul himself recounts the apparition of the Risen Lord betrays a great inner turmoil, according to the prophetic vocation/conversion of the Old Testament which also contains a mission: ‘But God in his grace chose me even before I was born and called me to serve him. And when he decided to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the Gentiles..’ (Gal 1:15-17)
The radical ‘conversion’ of Saul does not represent in his mind a change of religion, rather he feels more Jewish than ever since it is ‘the God of our Fathers’ who sends him to preach the Gospel. As the evangeliser of the pagans, he continues to preach to the Jews wherever possible until his last journey to Rome. The conversion and baptism of Paul means he has discovered his true place in the life of Israel.
We do not know the exact date of this pivotal event: the letter to the Galatians may indicate around 33-35 AD, shortly after the founding of the first Church in Jerusalem set up around ‘Peter with the other Eleven.’ (Acts 2:14)