Paul the Apostle-Scholars Answer Questions About Paul-Part 1

By: Staff Writer; ©2004
Who was Paul? Did he invent Christianity? Did he change the message of Christianity? Where did he get the message that he preached? These and other questions are answered by scholars in this series.


Index to Questions

What can we know about Paul’s birth and family?

Paul was born in Tarsus, the capital city of Cilicia, a province in what is now Turkey, probably somewhere around 0-5 A.D.[1]

Even in the flourishing period of Greek history [Tarsus] was a city of some considerable consequence. In the civil wars of Rome it took Caesar’s side, and on the occasion of a visit from him had its name changed to Juliopolis. Augustus made it a “free city.”[2]

We learn from Acts 22:28 that, although Paul was a Jew, he was “born” a Roman citizen.

Though a Jew, his father was a Roman citizen. How he obtained this privilege we are not informed. “It might be bought, or won by distinguished service to the state, or acquired in several other ways; at all events, his son was freeborn. It was a valuable privilege, and one that was to prove of great use to Paul, although not in the way in which his father might have been expected to desire him to make use of it.”[3]

Paul would think of this valuable privilege later when he was explaining the rights and privileges Christians enjoy as citizens of Heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20; Eph. 2:19; Col. 2:19).

Paul (also called Saul) was a tentmaker by trade. Cilicia was known for a black goat’s haircloth called cilicium, which was made into tents and “used by caravans, nomads, and armies all over Asia Minor and Syria.”[4]

Little is known of his family, but there are a few things we can deduce:

Of Paul’s mother nothing is known; he never mentions her, either because she died in his infancy or because of some alienation or because he simply had no particular occasion to do so. He had at least one sister. His father was a citizen or burgess of Tarsus and obviously wealthy, for in a reform fifteen years earlier, the rank of citizen had been removed from all householders without considerable fortune or property….He almost certainly had been married. Jews rarely remained celibate, and parenthood was a qualification required of candidates for the Sanhedrin.[*] Yet his wife never is mentioned in Paul’s writings.[5] [*Although some scholars suggest that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, this is not known for certain.]

As a young boy, Paul would have been sent to school at the synagogue. There he:

…learned to write the Hebrew characters accurately on papyrus, thus gradually forming his own rolls of the Scriptures. His father would have presented him with another set of rolls, on vellum: the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, from which the set readings were taken in synagogue each Sabbath day.[6]

It is likely that his family moved to Jerusalem when he was still quite young, although the exact timing is uncertain. We do know that in Jerusalem the young Saul sat under Gamaliel, “one of the most eminent of all the doctors of the law.”[7]

Paul was also, proudly, a Jew.

He describes himself to the Christians at Philippi as “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). On another occasion, he called himself “an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom. 11:1).
Thus Saul stood in a proud lineage reaching back to the father of his people, Abraham. From the tribe of Benjamin had come Israel’s first king, Saul, after whom the boy of Tarsus was named.[8]

We are not told whether Paul had any actual contact with Jesus during His ministry. It is unlikely, however, that Paul was unaware of the claims Jesus made or of the miracles He performed, particularly if he was in Jerusalem at this time. It’s not impossible to think that he may even have witnessed Jesus’ trial or even His crucifixion.

What did Paul look like?

The New Bible Dictionary (p. 890) states:

Of Paul’s personal appearance the canonical account suggests only that it was not impressive (1 Cor. 2:3f.; 2 Cor. 10:10). A more vivid picture,… occurs in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Theclas, ‘And he saw Paul coming, a man little of stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the leg, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace: for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometime he had the face of an angel.’”

What is the first mention of Paul in the Bible?

The first mention of Paul in the Bible is when he stands by observing the death of Stephen. Acts 8:1 reports that “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”

Acts 8:3 goes on to say, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” We pick him up again in Acts 9, where he is still “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He obtains permission to go to Damascus to continue his pogrom. But along the way Paul has a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus.

What happened to Paul on the Road to Damascus?

Hearing that fugitives had taken refuge in Damascus, he obtained from the chief priest letters authorizing him to proceed thither on his persecuting career. This was a long journey of about 130 miles, which would occupy perhaps six days, during which, with his few attendants, he steadily went onward, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter.” But the crisis of his life was at hand.[9]

What was in his mind as he tramped on, day after day, in the dust of the road and the burning heat of the sun? The intensely personal self-revelation of Romans 7:7–13 may give us a clue. Here we see a conscientious man’s struggle to find peace through observing all the minute ramifications of the Law.

Did it free him? Paul’s answer from experience was no. Instead it became an intolerable burden and strain. The influence of Saul’s Hellenistic environment in Tarsus must not be overlooked as we try to find the reason for his inner frustration. After his return to Jerusalem, he must have found rigid Pharisaism galling, even though he professed to accept it wholeheartedly. He had breathed freer air most of his life, and he could not renounce the freedom to which he had become accustomed.

However, the deeper reason for his distress was spiritual. He had tried to keep the Law, but learned that he could not do so, by reason of his sinful fallen nature. How then could he ever be right with God?

With Damascus in sight, a momentous thing happened. In one blinding flash, Saul saw himself stripped of all pride and pretension, as the persecutor of God’s Messiah and His people. Stephen had been right, and he was wrong. In the face of the living Christ, Saul capitulated. He heard a voice that said, “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest….

Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:5–6). And Saul obeyed.

During his stay in the city, “He was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink” (Acts 9:9). A disciple at Damascus by the name of Ananias became a friend and counselor, a man not afraid to believe that Paul’s conversion had been genuine. Through his prayers, God restored Paul’s sight.[10]

Why did Paul go into Arabia for several years after his conversion?

Before Paul could become the great missionary and defender of the Christian faith, he needed to spend some time in “seminary.” It’s also likely that he needed to distance himself from his former activities. After all, how could he expect the very people he had been persecuting to be willing to listen to him now?

Paul began witnessing to his newfound faith in the synagogue at Damascus. The burden of his message concerning Jesus was, “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). But Paul had bitter lessons to learn before he could emerge as a trusted and effective Christian leader. He discovered that people do not forget easily; a man’s mistakes can haunt him for a long time, even after he has forsaken them. Paul was suspected by many of the disciples and hated by his former companions in persecution. He preached briefly in Damascus, went away to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus.
Paul’s second attempt to preach in Damascus did not work out well, either. A year or two had elapsed since his conversion, but the Jews remembered how he had deserted his original mission to Damascus. Hatred against him flamed anew, and “the Jews took counsel to kill him” (Acts 9:23). The story of Paul’s dramatic escape over the wall in a basket has captured the imagination of many readers.
Paul’s days of preparation were not over. The Galatian account continues by saying, “After three years I went up to Jerusalem…” (Gal. 1:18). There he met the same hostile reception as at Damascus. Once more he had to flee.
Paul dropped from view for several years. These hidden years brought the ripened convictions and spiritual stature he would need for his ministry.[11]
Immediately after his conversion he retired into the solitudes of Arabia (Gal. 1:17), perhaps of “Sinai in Arabia,” for the purpose, probably, of devout study and meditation on the marvellous revelation that had been made to him. “A veil of thick darkness hangs over this visit to Arabia. Of the scenes among which he moved, of the thoughts and occupations which engaged him while there, of all the circumstances of a crisis which must have shaped the whole tenor of his after-life, absolutely nothing is known. ‘Immediately,’ says St. Paul, ‘I went away into Arabia.’ The historian passes over the incident [Compare Acts 9:23 and 1 Ki. 11:38, 39]. It is a mysterious pause, a moment of suspense, in the apostle’s history, a breathless calm, which ushers in the tumultuous storm of his active missionary life.”[12]

How did Paul die?

M. G. Easton gives this poignant account of the death of Paul:

“There can be little doubt that he appeared again at Nero’s bar, and this time the charge did not break down. In all history there is not a more startling illustration of the irony of human life than this scene of Paul at the bar of Nero. On the judgment-seat, clad in the imperial purple, sat a man who, in a bad world, had attained the eminence of being the very worst and meanest being in it, a man stained with every crime, a man whose whole being was so steeped in every nameable and unnamable vice, that body and soul of him were, as some one said at the time, nothing but a compound of mud and blood; and in the prisoner’s dock stood the best man the world possessed, his hair whitened with labors for the good of men and the glory of God. The trial ended: Paul was condemned, and delivered over to the executioner. He was led out of the city, with a crowd of the lowest rabble at his heels. The fatal spot was reached; he knelt beside the block; the headsman’s axe gleamed in the sun and fell; and the head of the apostle of the world rolled down in the dust” (probably A.D. 66), four years before the fall of Jerusalem.[13]


  1. Smith’s Bible Dictionary (
  2. Smith’s Bible Dictionary
  3. Easton’s Bible Dictionary (
  4. John Pollock, The Apostle: A Life of Paul (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), p. 15.
  5. Pollock, pp. 15-16, 19.
  6. Pollock, p. 17.
  7. Smith’s Bible Dictionary
  8. James I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney and William White, Jr., editors, Nelson’s Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible [computer file], electronic ed., Logos Library System, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1997, c1995.
  9. Easton Bible Dictionary
  10. Nelson’s Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible
  11. Nelson’s Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible
  12. Easton Bible Dictionary
  13. Easton Bible Dictionary


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