The name Paul, of the apostle, whose original name was Saul has caused much discussion. Paul, a native of Tarsus, a city of Cilicia (Acts 21:39; 22:3), was of Jewish descent from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5) and had knowledge of Greek. According to Ramsey (Paul the Traveler, p. 81) “it was the fashion for every Syrian, Cilician, and Cappadocian who prided himself on his Greek education and his knowledge of the Greek language to bear a Greek name; but at the same time he had his other name by which he was known by his countrymen in general.” However, others, Christians, claim this was not the personal reason that Saul changed his name to Paul. The reason for the selection of Paul is that it comes from the Greek Paulos, meaning little, and when converting to Christianity Paul wished to be known as the “Little One” in the service of Christ.
The history concerning Paul’s parents is meager; in fact, nothing is known of his mother, and all that is known of his father is that he was a Pharisee (Acts 23:5), and from his father Paul inherited the rights of Roman citizenship (Acts 22:26). Again according to Ramsey (p. 31) “The character of a Roman superseded all others before the law and in the general opinion of society, and placed him amid the aristocracy of any provisional town.” Although the exact date of Paul’s birth is unknown, ancient tradition places it the second year after Christ’s birth.
According to Jewish tradition Paul, like all boys, had to learn a trade, his was tent making. Following this, at the proper age, perhaps about thirteen, he went to Jerusalem to pursue his studies of the Jews. He became a student of Gamaliel, a distinguished teacher of the law (Acts 22:3), and he was greatly interested in Mosaic law. Through his study Saul grew increasingly more familiar with the outward observance of the law, which would eventually teach him the “spirit of bondage” that after his conversion helped him teach others the “spirit of adoption.”
Paul, or Saul, first appears in the New Testament at the martyrdom of Stephen. He helped stoned the disciple, and at the Cilician synagogue it is said that “the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:58). He was described as a man around thirty years of age. Afterwards he continued his persecution as described by Luke and later by Paul himself in his epistles. The following summary is derived from various chapters in the Book of Acts: He made havoc for the Church invading sanctuaries of domestic life, entering every house (Acts 8:3) and tearing people from their homes and committing them to prison. Not only did he make men suffer, also, a fact three times repeated as a great aggravation of his cruelty (Acts 8:3). The persecuted people were scourged in their own synagogues (Acts 26:11). He later confessed, “I persecuted this way unto death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women (Acts 22:4), and when they were put to death I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:10). He even tried causing them to blaspheme (Acts 26:11). His fame as a notorious inquisitor was known far and wide.
Having suspicions Christians were at Damascus, Saul went to the high priest asking permission to go there; such permission was granted with orders to bring his prisons back for trial and punishment. While on his way to the city he experienced his conversion to Christianity. Suddenly there shown about him a light from heaven, which caused him to fall on the ground; and the voice he heard, said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute.” Then trembling and astonished Saul asked, “Lord, what would you have me do?” Then the Lord tells him, “Arise and go into the city, and it you will be told what you must do.” And the men accompanying Saul stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no man. When Saul arose he opened his eyes, but saw no man; and they led him by the hand to Damascus where he stayed for three days without sight, nor did he eat or sleep (Acts 9:3-9).
This Biblical event continues as the Lord directs the disciple Ananias to go to where Saul is in the house of Judas on Straight street (Acts 9:11). When entering the house Ananias tells Saul that he knows what has occurred. Immediately the scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he was baptized and received the Holy Spirit. He was given food, regained his strength, and within a few days began preaching with the disciples of Damascus (Acts 9:17-19). Saul also had learned that he was the Lord’s chosen vessel to carry his name and message to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). He remained in the Damascus for about three years (Galatians 1:15-19; Acts 9:20-25).
Paul’s epistles formed much of later Christian theology. His doctrine, starting from the traditions he “received” (1 Corinthians 15:3-11) was further ironed out in controversy with other Jewish Christians , against whom Paul held that sinful humanity is redeemed and justified by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, independently of keeping Jewish law. The death of Christ had abrogated the Law to usher forth a new era of the Holy Spirit. Christians therefore formed a new Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) and inherited the promises God gave to Israel (specified in Galatians and Romans). The local congregation is liken to the body by Paul, and in Colossians 1:24 the whole church is called the body of Christ. Paul expected Christ to return quickly to judge the world (e. g. 1 Thessalonians 4), but this theme recedes in later epistles. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 831-840
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 741-742