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The Apostle Paul’s Nationality
In the growth of Christianity, we observe that all the threads of development that had been formed in the life of the great races of older history are gathered together into one complex whole. Hence we have just the same assurance of the truth of Christianity that we have of the trustworthiness of earlier history: the earlier works into the later, the later grows out of the earlier, in such a way that all must be taken together. The correspondence is in itself a guarantee of truth. Each exists for the other: each derives its full comprehensibility from the other. We must accept the general outline of early history as a whole, or we must reject it as a whole on the plea of insufficient evidence. There is not a fact of early history, whether Christian or pre-Christian, which is not susceptible of being disputed with a fair show of rational and logical argument: the evidence is nowhere such as would convince a man whose mind is made up against the trustworthiness of ancient history. Let anyone test the evidence for any point in regard to the battles of Salamis or of Marathon, and he will find that everywhere he is reduced to a balance of evidence, and frequently to a balance so delicate that no one can feel any assured confidence on the point. Yet our confidence in the general facts regarding each battle and its results is not, as a rule, affected by our uncertainty as to the details. Doubtless, there will always be some who argue that the trustworthiness of the whole must be proportionate to the trustworthiness of the parts and conclude that, where all details are so uncertain, the whole is unworthy of study; and those who cannot see – or rather feel – for themselves the fallacy of the argument will not be convinced by any reasoning that can be adduced. But for those who do not adopt the extreme agnostic position, there is no other logical position except that of accepting the general scheme of ancient history, in which Christianity is the crowning factor that gives unity and rational plan to the whole.
The life of Paul partakes of the uncertainty that envelops all ancient history. As regards every detail we shall find ourselves in the position of balancing evidence; as to almost every detail we shall find ourselves amid a bewildering variety of opposite opinion and assertion among modern scholars of every school and shade; and, strangest of all, in regard to two or three points where there exists the nearest approach to a general agreement between all the various schools, we shall find ourselves unable to agree. Owing to the peculiar character of the evidence, we shall find it best to begin in the middle of Paul’s life and study the events of the years 44 to 61, and thereafter to sketch in outline the first half of his life.
At present, however, we must emphasize the complex influences amid which Paul grew up. According to the law of his country, he was, first of all, a Roman citizen. That character superseded all others before the law and in the general opinion of society; and placed him amid the aristocracy of any provincial town. In the first century, when the citizenship was still jealously guarded, the civitas* (citizens, See full definition below) may be taken as proof that his family was one of distinction and at least moderate wealth. It also implies that there was in the surroundings amid which he grew up, a certain attitude of friendliness to the Imperial government (for the new citizens in general, and the Jewish citizens in particular, were warm partisans of their protector, the new Imperial regime), and also of pride in a possession that ensured distinction and rank and general respect in Tarsus. As a Roman, Paul had a nomen and praenomen, probably taken from the Roman officer who gave his family civitas* (citizens, See full definition below); but Luke, a Greek, had no interest in Roman names. Paulus, his cognomen, was not determined by his nomen: there is no reason to think he was an Aemilius (as some suggest). Paul was, in the second place, a “Tarsian, a citizen of a distinguished city”(Act_21:39, Act_9:11). He was not merely a person born in Tarsus, owing to the accident of his family being there: he had a citizen’s rights in Tarsus. We may confidently assume that Paul was careful to keep within demonstrable law and custom when he claimed to be a Tarsian citizen in describing himself to the Tribune. According to the strict interpretation of the Roman law, the civitas* (citizens, See full definition below) superseded all other citizenship, but this theoretical exclusiveness was opposed to the Imperial spirit, and it is clear that Roman cives in a provincial city commonly filled the position of high-class citizens, and even had magistracies pressed upon them by general consent. Now, if Paul’s family had merely emigrated to Tarsus from Judea some years before his birth, neither he nor his father would have been “Tarsians,” but merely “residents” (incolae). It is probable, but not certain, that the family had been planted in Tarsus with full rights as part of a colony settled there by one of the Seleucid kings in order to strengthen their hold on the city. Such a re-foundation took place at Tarsus, for the name Antiocheia was given it under Antiochus 4 (175-164 B.C.E). The Seleucid kings seem to have had a preference for Jewish colonists in their foundations in Asia Minor. Citizenship in Tarsus might also have been presented to Paul’s father or grandfather for distinguished services to the State, but that is much less probable.
* In the history of Rome, the Latin term civitas (Latin pronunciation: [ˈkiːwɪtaːs]; plural civitates), according to Cicero in the time of the late Roman Republic, was the social body of the cives, or citizens, united by law (concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati). … Civitas is an abstract formed from civis.
In the third place, Paul was “a Hebrew sprung from Hebrews”. The expression is a remarkable one. It is used not to a Jewish audience, but to a Greek Church (Php_3:5), and it is similar to a familiar expression among the Greeks: “a priest sprung from priests” is a term commonly applied to members of the great sacerdotal families which play so important a part in the society of Asian cities. He was a Jew at least as much as he was a Tarsian and a Roman, as regards his early surroundings; and it is obvious that the Jewish side of his nature and education proved infinitely the most important, as his character developed. But it is a too common error to ignore the other sides. Many interpreters seem to think only of his words, Act_22:3, “I am a Jew born in Tarsus,” and to forget that he said a few moments before, “I am a Jew, a Tarsian, a citizen of no mean city”. To the Hebrews, he emphasizes his Jewish character, and his birth in Tarsus is added as an accident: but to Claudius Lysias, a Greek-Roman, he emphasizes his Tarsian citizenship (after having told of his Roman citizenship). Now, there is no inconsistency between these descriptions of himself. Most of us have no difficulty in understanding that a Jew at the present day may be a thoroughly patriotic English citizen, and yet equally proud of his ancient and honorable origin. In the extraordinarily mixed society of the Eastern provinces, it was the usual rule in educated society that each man had at least two nationalities and two sides to his character. If we would clearly understand the society in which Paul worked, and the mission of Rome to make the idea of cosmopolitanism and universal citizenship a practical reality – an idea that had been first conceived by the Stoic philosophy in its attempt to fuse Greek and oriental thought into a unified system – we must constantly bear in mind that double or even triple character, which was so common.
To the Hebrews of that period it was especially easy to preserve the Hebraic side of his life along with his Greek citizenship; for the Jewish colony in a Seleucid city preserved as a body its double character. It was not merely a part of the city, whose members were citizens, but it was also recognized by the Seleucid Empire and afterward by the Roman Empire as “the Nation of the Jews in that city”. Thus arose a strange and often puzzling complication of rights, which caused much heart-burning and jealousy among the non-Jewish citizens of the city, and which was at last terminated by the action of Vespasian in ad 70, when he put an end to the legal existence of a “Jewish nation,” and resolved the Jews into the general population of the Empire.
From this wide and diversified training, we may understand better Paul’s suitability to develop the primitive Judaic Church into the Church of the Roman World (for beyond that he never went in practice, though in theory, he recognized no limit short of universal humanity), his extraordinary versatility and adaptability (which evidently impressed Luke so much, p. 22), and his quickness to turn the resources of civilization to his use. The Jew in his own land was rigidly conservative, but the Jew abroad has always been the most facile and ingenious of men. There are no stronger influences in education and in administration than rapidity and ease of traveling and the postal service; Paul both by precept and example impressed the importance of both on his Churches, and the subsequent development of the Church was determined greatly by the constant intercommunication of its parts and the stimulating influence thereby produced on the whole.
The Apostle Paul’s Family
If Paul belonged to a family of wealth and position, how comes it that in a great part of his career (but not in the whole, p. 312) he shows all the marks of poverty, maintaining himself by his own labor, and gratefully acknowledging his indebtedness to the contributions of his Philippian converts, in Rome, in Corinth, and twice in Thessalonica (Php_4:15, 2Co_11:9; see p. 360)? It was not simply that he voluntarily worked with his hands in order to impress on his converts the dignity and duty of labor, for he conveys the impression, 2Co_11:8 f., 1Th_2:9, that he had to choose between accepting help from his converts and making his own living. But it often happens in our own experience that a member of a rich family is in a position of poverty. It would be enough simply to accept the fact; but, like Paul in his later career is found in a different position, and as the same conjecture about his poverty must arise in everyone’s mind, we may glance for a moment at the relations in which Paul would stand to his own family after his conversion.
The relations between Paul and his family are never alluded to by himself, and only once by Luke, who tells how his sister’s son saved his life in Jerusalem by giving private information of the secret conspiracy against him, Act_23:16. How could this young man get immediate information about a conspiracy, which was concocted by a band of zealots, and arranged in private with the high priests and elders? In absolute secrecy lay the sole hope of success; and the conspiracy must therefore have been imparted only to a few, and probably only the leaders of the extreme Jewish party were aware of it. We must, I think, infer that the nephew acquired his information in the house of some leading Jew (to which he had access as belonging to an influential family) and that he was himself not a Christian, for in the heated state of feeling it may be taken as practically certain that a Christian would not have had free and confidential entry to the house of one of the Jewish leaders. But, further, if Paul’s nephew were trusted with such a secret, it must have been assumed that he was hostile to Paul.
Now, as Paul himself says, he had been brought up in strict Judaic feeling, not as a Sadducee, accepting the non-Jewish spirit, but as a Pharisee; and we must infer that the spirit of his family was strongly Pharisaic. The whole history of the Jews shows what was likely to be the feeling among his parents and brothers and sisters when he not merely became a Christian but went to the Gentiles. Their pride was outraged; and we should naturally expect that such a family would regard Paul as an apostate, a foe to God and the chosen race, and a disgrace to the family; his own relatives might be expected to be his most bitter enemies. Looking at these probabilities, we see a special force in Paul’s words to the Philippians, Php_3:8, that he had given up all for Christ, “for whom I suffered the loss of all things and do count them but refuse”. These emphatic words suit the mouth of one who had been disowned by his family, and, reduced from a position of wealth and influence in his nation to poverty and, contempt.
Perhaps it is some terrible family scene that made Paul so keenly alive to the duty owed by a father to his children. Probably nothing in family life makes a more awful and lasting impression on a sensitive mind than a scene where a respected and beloved parent makes a demand beyond what love or duty permits, and tries to enforce that demand by authority and threats. If Paul had to face such a scene, we can appreciate the reason why he lays so much stress on the duty of parents to respect their children’s just feelings: “ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath; but bring them up in the education and admonition of the Lord”(Eph_6:4): “fathers, provoke not your children, lest they lose heart”(Col_3:21). Not every person would think this one of the most important pieces of advice to give his young societies in Asia Minor. But, according to our conjecture, Paul had good cause to know the harm that parents may do by not reasonably considering their children’s desires and beliefs. At the same time, he strongly emphasizes in the same passages the duty of children to obey their parents and sets this before the duty of parents to their children. That also is characteristic of one who had been blameless as touching all the commandments (Php_3:6), and who therefore must have gone to the fullest extreme in compliance with his father’s orders before he announced that he could comply no further.
The Personality of Paul
While Luke is very sparing of personal details, he gives us a few hints about Paul’s physical characteristics as bearing on his moral influence. As an orator, he evidently used a good deal of gestures with his hands; for example, he enforced a point to the Ephesian Elders by showing them “these hands”(Act_20:34). When he addressed the audience at Pisidian Antioch or the excited throng of Jews in Jerusalem, he beckoned with the hand; when he addressed Agrippa and the distinguished audience in the Roman governor’s hail, he “stretched forth his hand”. This was evidently a characteristic and hardly conscious feature of his more impassioned oratory; but, when more quiet and simple address was suitable (as in the opening of his speech to the Ephesian Elders, before the emotion was wrought up), or when a purely argumentative and restrained style was more likely to be effective (as in addressing the critical and cold Athenian audience, or the Roman procurator’s court), no gesture is mentioned. On the other hand, in the extreme excitement at Lystra he “rent his garments”; and in the jailer’s critical situation, Act_16:28, Paul called out with a loud voice. Wherever any little fact is mentioned by Luke, we can always observe some special force in it, and such details must have had real importance when an author so brief and so impersonal as Luke mentions them; and they are very rare in him. Alexander tried to obtain a hearing from the Ephesian mob by such a gesture; and the din, as they howled like a lot of dervishes, is set before us strongly by the fact that speaking was impossible and gesture alone could be perceived. Peter, when he appeared to his astonished friends in Mary’s house after his escape, beckoned to them to make no noise that might attract attention and betray his presence. Otherwise, such gestures are mentioned only where the hand is stretched out to aid or to heal or to receive help.
Two of the most remarkable instances of Paul’s power over others are prefaced by the statement that Paul “fixed his eyes on” the man (Act_13:9, Act_14:9, cp. Act_23:1); and this suggests that his fixed, steady gaze was a marked feature in his personality, and one source of his influence over them that were brought into relations with him. Luke frequently notes this trait. Peter tells that he fixed his gaze on the heavenly vision, Act_11:6; and he fixed his eyes on the lame man, Act_3:4. Stephen turned his fixed gaze towards heaven and saw it open to disclose the vision of glory to him. In these cases, the power of the eye is strongly brought out. The same trait is alluded to where intense astonishment or admiration is involved, as when the bystanders gazed at Peter and John after they had healed the lame man, or Stephen’s auditors stared on him as they saw his face suffused with glory, or the disciples gazed upwards as Jesus was taken away from them, or Cornelius stared at the Angel. In the third Gospel, Luk_4:20, the stare of the congregation in Nazareth at Jesus, when He first spoke in the synagogue after His baptism, suggests that a new glory and a new consciousness of power in Him were perceived by them. The power which looks from the eyes of an inspired person attracts and compels a corresponding fixed gaze on the part of them that are brought under his influence; and this adds much probability to the Bezan reading in Act_3:3, where the fixed gaze of the lame man on Peter seems to rouse the power that was latent in him. The Greek word (ἀτενίζειν) is almost peculiar to Luke and occurs chiefly in Acts. Elsewhere in NT, it is used only by Paul in 2Co_3:7, 2Co_3:13; and it has often seemed to me as if there were more of Lukan feeling and character in 2 Cor. than in any other of Paul’s letters. A consideration of these passages must convince everyone that the action implied by the word (ἀτενίζειν) is inconsistent with weakness of vision: in fact, Paul says that the Jews could not gaze fixedly on the glory of Moses’ face, implying that their eyes were not strong enough. The theory which makes Paul a permanent sufferer in his eyes, unable to see distinctly persons quite near him, and repulsive to strangers on account of their hideous state (Gal_4:13 f.), is hopelessly at variance with the evidence of Luke. In that word, as he uses it, the soul looks through the eyes.
The word twice occurs in the Third Gospel, once in a passage peculiar to Luke, and once when the servant-maid stared at Peter and recognized him, where her fixed gaze is not mentioned by Matthew or Mark.
WHEN I was honored by the invitation of Auburn Theological Seminary, I referred the matter to my friends
by William Mitchell Ramsay