Why Did Saul Persecute Christians?
‘I REALLY THOUGHT I OUGHT to commit many acts of opposition against the name of Jesus the Nazarene; which, in fact, I did in Jerusalem. Many of the holy ones I locked up in prisons, as I had received authority from the chief priests. When the disciples were to be executed, I cast my vote against them. By punishing them many times in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to make a recantation. Since I was extremely mad against them, I went so far as to persecuting them even in outside cities.’—Acts 26:9-11.
SO SAID Saul of Tarsus, also known as the apostle Paul. By the time he said this, of course, he was a new man. No longer an opposer of Christianity, he was now one of its most ardent promoters. But what had formerly motivated Saul to persecute Christians? Why did he think ‘he ought to commit’ such deeds? And is there any lesson to be drawn from his story?
The Stoning of Stephen
Saul enters the Bible record among those killing Stephen. “After throwing [Stephen] outside the city, they began casting stones at him. And the witnesses laid down their outer garments at the feet of a young man called Saul.” “Saul, for his part, was approving of the murder of him.” (Acts 7:58; 8:1) What led to that assault? Jews, including some from Cilicia, disputed with Stephen but were unable to hold their own against him. Whether Saul, also a Cilician, was among them is not stated. In any case, they used false witnesses to accuse Stephen of blasphemy and dragged him before the Sanhedrin. (Acts 6:9-14) This assembly, presided over by the high priest, acted as the Jewish high court. As the ultimate religious authority, its members also safeguarded what they held to be doctrinal purity. In their view Stephen was deserving of death. He dared to accuse them of not observing the Law, did he? (Acts 7:53) They would show him how it was to be observed!
Saul’s approval of that opinion was a logical consequence of his convictions. He was a Pharisee. This powerful sect demanded strict observance of law and tradition. Christianity was held to be the antithesis of those tenets, teaching a new way to salvation through Jesus. First-century Jews expected the Messiah to be a glorious King who would free them from the hated yoke of Roman domination. That the one who was condemned by the Great Sanhedrin on a charge of blasphemy and thereafter impaled on a torture stake like an accursed criminal could be the Messiah was thus completely alien, unacceptable, and repellent to their mentality.
The Law stated that a man hung upon a stake was “accursed of God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22, 23; Galatians 3:13) From Saul’s viewpoint, “these words were clearly applicable to Jesus,” comments Frederick F. Bruce. “He had died under the curse of God, and therefore could not conceivably be the Messiah, upon whom, almost by definition, the blessing of God rested in unique measure. To claim that Jesus was the Messiah was therefore blasphemous; those who made such a preposterous claim deserved to suffer as blasphemers.” As Saul himself later acknowledged, the very idea of the “Christ impaled [was] to the Jews a cause for stumbling.”—1 Corinthians 1:23.
Saul’s reaction to such a teaching was to oppose it with the greatest possible determination. Even brute force was to be used in an effort to stamp it out. He was sure that this was what God wanted. Describing the spirit he nurtured, Saul said: “As respects zeal, [I was] persecuting the congregation; as respects righteousness that is by means of law, one who proved himself blameless.” “To the point of excess I kept on persecuting the congregation of God and devastating it, and I was making greater progress in Judaism than many of my own age in my race, as I was far more zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”—Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13, 14.
Protagonist in Persecution
After Stephen’s death, Saul no longer figures as a mere accessory to persecution but as its champion. As such, he must have acquired a certain notoriety, since even after his conversion, when he made efforts to join himself to the disciples, “they were all afraid of him, because they did not believe he was a disciple.” When it became clear that he really was a Christian, his conversion became a cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving among the disciples, who heard, not that just any former opposer had undergone a change of heart, but rather that “the man that formerly persecuted us is now declaring the good news about the faith which he formerly devastated.”—Acts 9:26; Galatians 1:23, 24.
Damascus lay some 140 miles [220 kilometers]—a seven- or eight-day walk—from Jerusalem. Yet, “breathing threat and murder against the disciples,” Saul went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus. Why? So that Saul might bring bound to Jerusalem any whom he found who belonged to “The Way.” With official approval, he ‘began to deal outrageously with the congregation, invading one house after another, dragging out both men and women to turn them over to prison.’ Others he had ‘flogged in the synagogues,’ and he ‘cast his vote’ (literally, his “voting pebble”) in favor of their execution.—Acts 8:3; 9:1, 2, 14; 22:5, 19; 26:10, footnote.
Considering the schooling Saul received under Gamaliel and the powers he now wielded, some scholars believe that he had progressed from being a mere student of the Law to the point of exercising a measure of authority in Judaism. One supposed, for example, that Saul may have become a teacher in a Jerusalem synagogue. However, what is meant by Saul’s ‘casting his vote’—whether as a member of a court or as one expressing his moral support for the executions of Christians—we cannot be certain.a
Since at the outset all Christians were Jews or Jewish proselytes, Saul apparently understood Christianity to be an apostate movement within Judaism, and he considered it the business of official Judaism to set its adherents straight. “It is not likely,” says scholar Arland J. Hultgren, “that Paul the persecutor would have opposed Christianity because he saw it as a religion outside of Judaism, a competitor. The Christian movement would have been seen by him and others as subject yet to Jewish authority.” His intention then was to force wayward Jews to recant and return to orthodoxy, using all available means. (Acts 26:11) One method open to him was imprisonment. Another was flogging in the synagogues, a common means of discipline that could be administered as a chastisement for disobedience against rabbinical authority in any local court of three judges.
Jesus’ appearance to Saul on the road to Damascus, of course, put a stop to all of that. From being a fierce enemy of Christianity, Saul suddenly became an ardent advocate of it, and soon enough the Jews in Damascus were seeking his death. (Acts 9:1-23) Paradoxically, as a Christian, Saul was to suffer many things he himself had meted out as a persecutor, so that years later he could say: “By Jews I five times received forty strokes less one.”—2 Corinthians 11:24.
Zeal Can Be Misdirected
“Formerly I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and an insolent man,” wrote Saul after his conversion, when he was better known as Paul. “Nevertheless, I was shown mercy, because I was ignorant and acted with a lack of faith.” (1 Timothy 1:13) Being sincere and active in one’s religion, therefore, is no guarantee of having God’s approval. Saul was zealous and acted according to conscience, but that did not make him right. His fiery zeal was misdirected. (Compare Romans 10:2, 3.) That should make us reflect.
Many today are firmly convinced that good conduct is all that God requires of them. But is it? Each one would do well to listen to Paul’s exhortation: “Make sure of all things; hold fast to what is fine.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) That means taking time to acquire accurate knowledge of God’s Word of truth and then living in full harmony with it. If we realize from examining the Bible that we have changes to make, then we should by all means make them without delay. Perhaps few of us were ever blasphemers, persecutors, or insolent men to the extent Saul was. Nevertheless, only by acting according to faith and accurate knowledge can we, like him, gain God’s favor.—John 17:3, 17.
a According to the book The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135), by Emil Schürer, although the Mishnah contains no account of the procedures of the Great Sanhedrin, or Sanhedrin of Seventy-One, those of the lesser Sanhedrins, of 23 members, are set out in minute detail. Law students could attend capital cases tried by the lesser Sanhedrins, where they were permitted to speak only for and not against the accused. In cases not involving a capital offense, they could do both.