Saul—A Chosen Vessel to the Lord
SAUL of Tarsus was a murderous opponent of Christ’s followers. But the Lord had a different future in store for him. Saul was to become an outstanding representative of the very cause he had fought so vehemently. Said Jesus: “This man [Saul] is a chosen vessel to me to bear my name to the nations as well as to kings and the sons of Israel.”—Acts 9:15.
Saul’s life as “an insolent man” was changed completely when he was shown mercy and became the “chosen vessel” of the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Timothy 1:12, 13) Energies that had motivated participation in the stoning of Stephen and other attacks on Jesus’ disciples were turned to entirely different objectives when Saul became the Christian apostle Paul. Jesus evidently saw desirable traits in Saul. What traits? Who was Saul? How did his background make him suitable for use in advancing true worship? Can we learn anything from his experience?
Saul’s Family Background
At the time of Stephen’s murder soon after Pentecost 33 C.E., Saul was “a young man.” When writing to Philemon in about 60-61 C.E., he was “an aged man.” (Acts 7:58; Philemon 9) Scholars suggest that, according to the ancient reckoning of ages, “young” likely meant an age between 24 and 40, whereas “an aged man” would be from 50 to 56 years old. So Saul was probably born just a few years after the birth of Jesus.
Jews then lived in many parts of the world. Conquest, slavery, deportation, trade, and voluntary migration were among the causes of their dispersion from Judea. Though his family were Jews of the dispersion, Saul underlines their allegiance to the Law, stating that he was “circumcised the eighth day, out of the family stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born from Hebrews; as respects law, a Pharisee.” Saul bore the same Hebrew name as an eminent member of his tribe—the first king of Israel. As a Roman from birth, Saul of Tarsus also had a Latin name, Paullus.—Philippians 3:5; Acts 13:21; 22:25-29.
Saul’s being born a Roman meant that one of his male ancestors had acquired the privilege of citizenship. How? There are several possibilities. Apart from inheriting citizenship, it could be accorded to individuals or groups either for particular merits, for mere political expediency, or as a reward for some signal service to the State. A slave able to buy his freedom from a Roman, or one emancipated by a Roman citizen, would become a Roman himself. So would a veteran of the auxiliary forces upon being discharged from the Roman legions. Local natives dwelling in Roman colonies could in time become citizens. It is also said that in certain periods citizenship was purchased for large sums. How citizenship entered Saul’s family remains a mystery.
We do know that Saul came from Tarsus, the principal city and capital of the Roman province of Cilicia (now in southern Turkey). Though a sizable Jewish community lived in the area, life there would also have exposed Saul to Gentile culture. Tarsus was a large and prosperous city noted as a center of Hellenistic, or Grecian, learning. Estimates put its first-century population at between 300,000 and 500,000. It was a trading center on the main highway between Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Tarsus owed its prosperity to commerce and to the fertility of the surrounding plain, which produced mainly grain, wine, and linen. From its thriving textile industry came goat-hair cloth from which tents were made.
Saul, or Paul, made honest provision for himself and supported his missionary activities by making tents. (Acts 18:2, 3; 20:34) The trade of tentmaker was typical of his native city, Tarsus. It is likely that Saul learned the tentmaking trade from his father in youth.
Saul’s knowledge of languages—especially his mastery of Greek, the common tongue of the Roman Empire—also proved invaluable in his missionary work. (Acts 21:37–22:2) Analysts of his writings say that his Greek is excellent. His vocabulary is not classical or literary but, rather, reflects that of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that he often quoted or paraphrased. On this evidence, various scholars assume that Saul received at least a good elementary education in Greek, probably in a Jewish school. “In antiquity a better education—above all a Greek education—was not to be had for nothing; as a rule, it presupposed some material support,” says scholar Martin Hengel. Saul’s education thus suggests that he came from a prominent family.
Likely, when he was no older than 13, Saul continued his schooling in Jerusalem, some 520 miles [840 km] from home. He was educated at the feet of Gamaliel, a well-known and highly esteemed teacher of the Pharisaic tradition. (Acts 22:3; 23:6) Those studies, comparable to a university education today, threw open the door of opportunity for achieving prominence in Judaism.*
Abilities Put to Good Use
Born into a Jewish family in a Hellenistic and Roman city, Saul belonged to three worlds. A cosmopolitan multilingual background doubtless helped him to become “all things to people of all sorts.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) His Roman citizenship later permitted him to defend his ministry legally and take the good news before the highest authority in the Roman Empire. (Acts 16:37-40; 25:11, 12) Of course, Saul’s background, education, and personality were known to the resurrected Jesus, who said to Ananias: “Be on your way, because this man is a chosen vessel to me to bear my name to the nations as well as to kings and the sons of Israel. For I shall show him plainly how many things he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:13-16) When channeled in the right direction, Saul’s zeal was instrumental in spreading the Kingdom message to distant territories.
Jesus’ choice of Saul for a special commission was a unique event in Christian history. Yet, all present-day Christians have individual abilities and characteristics that can be used effectively in spreading the good news. When Saul understood what Jesus wanted of him, he did not hold back. He did all he could to promote Kingdom interests. Is that true of you?
Concerning the content and nature of the education Saul would have received from Gamaliel, see The Watchtower, July 15, 1996, pages 26-9.
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Registration and Certification of Roman Citizenship
Registration of legitimate children of Roman citizens was established by Augustus with two statutes that were enacted in 4 and in 9 C.E. Registration had to take place within 30 days of birth. In the provinces, a family had to make a declaration before a magistrate in the appropriate public-record office, stating that the child was legitimate and had Roman citizenship. The parents’ names, the gender and name of the child, and the date of birth were also registered. Even prior to the introduction of these laws, registration of citizens in all Roman municipalities, colonies, and prefectures was renewed every five years by means of a census.
Status could thus be demonstrated by reference to a corpus of properly kept archives. Certified copies of such records could be obtained in the form of portable wooden diptychs (folding tablets). In the opinion of some scholars, when Paul claimed Roman citizenship, he may have been able to produce a certificate for corroboration. (Acts 16:37; 22:25-29; 25:11) Since Roman citizenship was viewed as having almost “sacred quality” and entitled a person to many privileges, forgery of such documents was an extremely serious offense. Falsification of one’s status was punishable by death.
Historic Costume in Pictures/Dover Publications, Inc., New York
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Saul’s Roman Name
Every male Roman citizen had at least three elements to his name. He had a first name, a family name (connected with his tribe, or gens), and a surname. One famous example is Gaius Julius Caesar. The Bible gives no full Roman names, but secular sources tell us that Agrippa was Marcus Julius Agrippa. Gallio was Lucius Junius Gallio. (Acts 18:12; 25:13) Scriptural examples of the last two of a person’s three names are Pontius Pilatus (inscription below), Sergius Paulus, Claudius Lysias, and Porcius Festus.—Acts 4:27; 13:7; 23:26; 24:27.
It is not possible to establish with certainty whether Paullus was Saul’s first name or his surname. It was not unusual to add informally another name by which a person might be called by his family and acquaintances. Alternatively, a non-Roman name like Saul could be used as a substitute. “[Saul] would never do as a Roman name,” says one scholar, “but as a native name given as a signum to a Roman citizen it will do very well indeed.” In multilingual areas, the situation may have determined which of his names a man might choose to use.
Photograph by Israel Museum, ©Israel Antiquities Authority