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THE CONTINUITY OF THE BIBLE: PAUL THE MISSIONARY APOSTLE

[Series showing the progressive unfoldment of the Christ, Truth, throughout the Scriptures.]

Saul the Pharisee

From the February 1975 issue of The Christian Science Journal


It is of interest to see what is known about the famous Rabbi Gamaliel, one who we may be sure would have a strong influence upon his ardent young pupil, Saul of Tarsus. Gamaliel was a Pharisee of notably broad sympathies, honored among the Jews as Rabban, a distinguished title for a doctor of the Law. Unlike many of the others, he did not object to Greek learning. Thus he was particularly fitted to be the teacher of the young Saul, whose early days had been surrounded by both Jewish and Gentile influences, and whose future work was to bring him into intimate touch with Greeks as well as Jews.

The broad-mindedness of Gamaliel would, of course, bring upon him the disapproval of many of his fellow Pharisees as surely as it won him the love of the people; but for all that, he is thought to have attained high position in the Rabbinical College at Jerusalem. The Talmud says of him, "When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Law ceased and purity and abstinence died." In the book of Acts (5:34) he is characterized as "a doctor of the law" who was "had in reputation among all the people." The verses that follow (35-39) show him persuading the other members of the supreme Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, not to slay the apostles, declaring, "If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God."

In short, it is evident that Gamaliel was numbered among the more thoughtful, kindly, and moderate members of the Pharisaic party which, we must remember, included men like Nicodemus, who sought instruction from Jesus by night (see John 3:1,2), and probably Joseph of Arimathea, who "waited for the kingdom of God," and who arranged for Jesus' burial after the crucifixion (see Mark 15:43-46). We have no valid reason for supposing that Gamaliel, like his most famous pupil, became a convert to Christianity; but in him we glimpse the nobler side of Pharisaism. Young Saul found in his teacher not only a great exponent of the Hebrew Law, but also one whose fairness and tolerance must have been an education in itself, unknowingly preparing his thought for that higher law of liberty which occupied much of the apostle's attention in later years.

We learn from Acts that Paul was educated "at the feet of Gamaliel" (22:3). In Paul's time this was literally true. The teacher would sit on a dais or on a high seat and his pupils around him on the floor. Indeed the Jews had a saying that "men should powder themselves in the dust of the feet of the wise" if they would learn wisdom.

The chief subject of study in the House of Interpretation Paul attended at Jerusalem, as in similar schools throughout the country, was that of the oral traditions interpreting the Law of the Old Testament, traditions expected to be most carefully memorized. Occasionally in Paul's writings are to be found traces of another kind of interpretation—dealing with the historical aspect of the Hebrew Scriptures—which he would also have learned in his rabbinical training. One such example appears in his allegory of freedom, where he says that "Agar [Hagar, the servant girl who was mother of Abraham's son Ishmael] is mount Sinai in Arabia" (see Gal. 4:22-26).

The tradition of the elders might be of value in some instances, but it was inclined to become a list of arbitrary human opinions or regulations. Jesus had occasion to rebuke those who "reject the commandment of God," that they may keep their own tradition (see Mark 7:9). On the other hand, the years spent by Paul "at the feet of Gamaliel" played an important part in the preparation for his real lifework, for behind the mass of traditional opinions and regulations stressed by the rabbis lay a careful and painstaking study of the Hebrew Scriptures. Although the disciple of this tolerant rabbi did turn to the persecution of the Christians with fanatical zeal, in later years the seed of Gamaliel's moderation was to bear fruit in the work of that Paul who became "all things to all men" (I Cor. 9:22).

Coming to Jerusalem, very likely in his early teens, Saul probably remained there for some years. He may well have lodged with his sister and her husband, and it would be natural for one who had been raised at Tarsus in Cilicia to attend the synagogue of the Cilicians mentioned in Acts 6:9. It may also be assumed that he would frequent the temple. But unfortunately we have little or no definite information concerning him during the space of some twenty years between his arrival at Jerusalem and his appearance as leader of those who persecuted the Christians.

We do not know whether the apostle was ever married, though there are considerations which might lead us to infer that he may have been both a husband and a father. It is true that Paul writes in I Corinthians (7:8),"I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I." But the word "widows" here might perhaps be taken to include "widowers." So it is quite possible that, as some scholars believe, Paul himself was a widower at that time, and that his wife and child were no longer living when his ministry began. According to Hebrew custom, a Jew was supposed to marry at the age of eighteen, or even earlier, and to have children.

Was Paul, like Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin? Some have supposed he was. However, the reference to Saul's having given his "voice against them [Jesus' followers]"(Acts 26:10) need not of itself imply membership in the supreme council. The fact that he was a young man at the time of Stephen's martyrdom would also seem to argue against his being included among the elders, high priests, and scribes who comprised its membership.

We can be sure that in the years of his young manhood following his rabbinical training, Saul the Pharisee was continuing to study and practice the sacred Law of his fathers, applying to it that fervent zeal which he showed first as a persecutor and later as a staunch adherent of Christianity.

We have seen something of the background of Saul of Tarsus, and noted the influences which helped to mold his early years. We have seen him as a man of contrasts, as a Hebrew who was also a Roman, an Israelite who was proud to belong to a Greek city, and finally as a Pharisee who was to become above all a Christian.

The years of youth and young manhood at Tarsus and Jerusalem, years about which we have little information, may well be compared to the early life of Jesus at Nazareth, of which we know equally little. The carpenter of Nazareth and the tent-maker of Tarsus were quietly preparing themselves; the one to found the Christian faith and the other to establish it in distant lands. Paul's life at this period is well summarized in his own words, spoken in his defense before King Agrippa (Acts 26:4, 5): "My manner of life from my youth . . . know all the Jews; . . . after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee."

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