Saul the Persecutor, Paul the Apostle
Stephen died at the hands of a mob — men who were “enraged” (Acts 7:54) by his accusations. His murderers were many, but we know the name of just one of them: Saul. St. Luke tells us: “Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 8:1). Members of the mob left their cloaks with him as they took up stones to kill Stephen (Acts 7:58).
That day marked the beginning of the first coordinated, systematic persecution of the Church. Most of the disciples fled Jerusalem and went into hiding. Some took refuge among Israel’s most notorious apostates, in Samaria, where the Pharisees and other religious authorities would be unlikely to venture. Only the Apostles stayed behind in the holy city.
Saul, a young Pharisee consumed by zeal, pursued a program to purge Jerusalem — and every Jewish community — of any trace of Jesus’ teaching or influence. Single-minded in his dedication to the task, he went about “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). “But Saul laid waste the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).
Saul was not a docile minion, blindly carrying out orders issued by higher authorities. He was the most active agent of persecution, moving it forward and prosecuting the matter himself. Not content with a local police action, he “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1–2). He was willing to travel 140 miles, from Jerusalem to Damascus, by foot or by horse, to round up disciples of Jesus and bring them to the same end as Stephen. The mere mention of Saul’s name was enough to strike fear in the heart of those who followed Jesus’ way (see Acts 9:13–14).
Among the Church’s persecutors, Saul was singular in his zeal, unabashed in his purpose. He saw no reason to be diplomatic or cautious about it. He was willing to take risks, even if he was perceived to be a radical. Saul was a man with a mission.
* * *
From his earliest days, Saul had sense of divine calling. His birthplace, Tarsus, was a bustling coastal city and administrative center for the Roman province of Cilicia (what is now southeastern Turkey). Like his father, Saul was a tradesman — a tentmaker. Like his father, he held Roman citizenship, a coveted privilege. Like his father, he observed the doctrine and discipline of the Pharisees.
He grew up with a strong sense that God had set him aside for a special task. His calling came even before his birth — koil-ias metros mou, as he put it, “from my mother’s womb.” While still a youth, he “advanced in Judaism,” he said, “beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14–15).
A prodigy, he went early to Jerusalem to study in the great center of Jewish learning. At the time, there were two rival schools in the city, following two first-century sages who took two different — and sometimes opposing — approaches to the law. They were the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. They flourished around the time of Jesus’ birth. It is said that the two sages debated and differed on more than three hundred important points of law, liturgy, morality, and theology. Shammai tended to be strict and exclusive in his interpretation. Hillel tended to be lenient. An ancient maxim (preserved by the House of Hillel) runs: “Be gentle like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.”
By the time Saul arrived in Jerusalem, both men were dead. The young man — perhaps still a boy— took up study under Hillel’s grandson and successor, Gamaliel, who would be known to Jews ever after as Gamaliel the Great, and Rabban, which means “Our Master.” He is one of the sages most often cited in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. The Mishnah looks back to Gamaliel’s lifetime as a kind of Golden Age: “Since Rab-ban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time.”
Gamaliel appears once in the Acts of the Apostles (5:34–39), where he exemplifies the ideals associated with his school. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he pleads lenience and tolerance for the Apostles.
Saul would later boast that he had studied under the greatest rabbi in the House of Hillel. But historians and other observers have long noted that Saul’s sympathies seemed to lie more with the House of Shammai.
If Shammai was impatient, as the maxim taught, it was because of his zeal for the law and his eagerness to bring about the day of the Messiah. Some teachers believed that faithful observance of the Torah was the precondition of God’s saving action. Through the prophets, God had promised salvation and vindication to Israel — a gathering of the tribes, a restoration of the land, and an expulsion or subjugation of the foreign powers. The New Testament scholar N. T. Wright summarizes the situation:
The Shammaites, and the revolutionaries in general, were eager to bring these prophecies to fulfillment by their zeal for the Torah. They would not sit around and wait; they would take matters into their own hands. . . .
Observing Torah would hasten the time of fulfillment. If God were to act climactically now, within history, while Israel was still not keeping Torah properly, she would be condemned along with the Gentiles.
It seems likely that Saul fell under the influence of ideas like these. He saw the disciples of Jesus as heretics who opposed observance of the law and denied the holiness of the Temple. Jesus, after all, had repeatedly violated the laws regarding the Sabbath — healing people, encouraging his disciples to pick grain, and so on. He even declared himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath,” thus putting himself in the place of God.
Saul believed that such heretics should be given a choice. They should adopt a strict observance of the law — or they should die, so that they would not bring divine judgment down on the rest of the nation. They were an obstacle to the fulfillment of the prophecies and the coming of the Christ. They were an impediment to the destiny of Israel.
* * *
The blood of the martyrs, as we saw in the last chapter, is the seed of the Church.
The disciples who fled Jerusalem were hardly cowed into silence. St. Luke reports that “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This new persecution, like the death of Jesus before it, just exacerbated the problem for the Jerusalem authorities.
Wherever the disciples fled, they made new disciples, as the subsequent chapters of the Acts of the Apostles make clear. They fled to Antioch, and in that city they were, for the first time, called Christians (Acts 11:26). This new nickname — which may have been derogatory — did not indicate a new religion, different from that of Israel. Not even Saul considered Jesus’ disciples to be Gentiles; they were guilty, in his eyes, precisely because they were unfaithful Jews. He would not have persecuted Gentiles, and he could not; he had no authority to do so.
Working with the chief priests in Jerusalem, however, Saul “shut up many of the saints in prison” (Acts 26:10); and “when they were put to death,” he said, “I cast my vote against them.” He persecuted Christians “violently” (Gal. 1:13) — “to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women” (Acts 22:4). His goal was nothing short of the destruction of the Church (Gal. 1:13).
The growth of the Church surely fueled his fury. He believed he was on a divine mission — “as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless” (Phil. 3:6).
As he traveled to bring the persecution to Damascus, however, something happened.
What happened was an event of seismic importance to the early Church. The story is told not once, but four times in the New Testament, three times in the Acts of the Apostles alone. Here is the story in Saul’s words, as related by St. Luke.
As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, “What shall I do, Lord?” And the Lord said to me, “Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.” And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. (Acts 22:6?11)
Saul had been correct in his sense of personal destiny. God did indeed have a mission for him — something “appointed” for him to do. He had been right, too, that he was destined to bring about the fulfillment of prophecy. He was wrong, however, about the identity and the day of the Messiah.
As he lay on the ground, he knew that he was facing almighty God, but he recognized also that he did not know God. He addressed the voice as “Lord,” but asked him, “Who are you?”
The response he received was curious: “I am Jesus . . . whom you are persecuting.” What could it mean? By that time, Jesus himself had been out of the picture for years. Saul had not been persecuting Jesus, but rather Jesus’ followers. Neither Saul nor Luke bothered to explain the phrase as they told the tale. But those few words would come to inform so much of Saul’s later doctrine, as he wrote and preached under his Greek name, Paul. He would speak often of the Church as Christ’s Body on earth. To the Corinthians he wrote: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Writing to the Ephesians, he repeatedly identified the two, Church and Christ: “the Church . . . is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:22–23; see also 4:12 and 5:29–30). He spoke similarly to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
So close was the communion of Christ with each believer that Paul came to see his former persecutions as blasphemy directed against God — although that had certainly not been his intention: “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13).
Saul underwent a true conversion. He ceased to be a persecutor of Jesus and began to be a disciple. He converted, but he did not abandon the religion of Israel. Long after his incident on the road to Damascus, he made it clear that he was still a Jew (Acts 21:39) and still a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). The people of Israel would always be, for him, “my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (Rom. 9:3). Accepting the Messiah was not something alien to his Jewishness. Indeed, for all the time he was a Pharisee, it is what he had been waiting for, working for — and even persecuting for. He could honestly say that, as both a Pharisee and a Christian, he had “lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1).
Preaching as Paul, he was still a man of the Tribe of Benjamin. As he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus, he was trying not to draw Jews away from Judaism but rather to show them that the ancient prophecies had come to fulfillment. In the words of N. T. Wright, Paul’s preaching to Jews was a “critique from within,” like that of the prophets.
Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a modern biblical scholar, extends that judgment to the entire primitive Church. Like other groups that diverged from the Pharisees and Sadducees, like the Essenes and the followers of Philo of Alexandria:
The earliest Christians, Jesus and his family and Paul, all saw themselves as “Israel” and called on Scripture to provide the framework of interpretation of the life and teachings, death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ. All of these groups fall into the category “Judaisms,” though each differs in fundamental ways from the others.
In later years, centuries, and millennia, Jews and Christians would distance themselves from one another. There would be a parting of the ways — although when (and even if) it happened is subject to much debate and discussion. It did not happen with — or within — the saint formerly known as Saul of Tarsus.
This article is adapted from a chapter in The Apostles and Their Times by Mike Aquilina which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on the life of St. Paul: Cover of The Apostles and Their Times used with permission; Conversión de Saulo (Conversion of Saul), Guido Reni, 1615-1620 (circa), PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.
Read more about Christian life in the early Church.