Paul's birth and early life
Chapter 7

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There is therefore little doubt that, though the native of a city filled with a Greek population and incorporated with the Roman Empire, yet Saul was born and spent his earliest days in the shelter of a home which was Hebrew, not in name only but in spirit. The Roman power did not press upon his infancy: the Greek ideas did not haunt his childhood: but he grew up an Israelitish boy, nurtured in those histories of the chosen people which he was destined so often to repeat in the synagogues, (Acts 13:16-41; see Acts 17:2, 3, 10, 11, 28:23) with the new and wonderful commentary supplied by the life and resurrection of a crucified Messiah. "From a child he knew the Scriptures," which ultimately made him "wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus," as he says of Timothy in the second Epistle (2Timothy 3:15). And the groups around his childhood were such as that which he beautifully describes in another part of the same letter to that disciple, where he speaks of "his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice" (2Timothy 1:5).

We should be glad to know something of the mother of Apostle Paul. But though he alludes to his father, he does not mention her. He speaks of himself as set apart by God "from his mother’s womb," that the Son of God should in due time be revealed in him, and by him preached to the Heathen. (Galatians 1:15) But this is all. We find notices of his sister and his sister’s son, (Acts 23:16) and of some more distant relatives:(Romans 16:7, 11, 21) but we know nothing of her who was nearer to him than all of them. He tells us of his instructor Gamaliel; but of her, who, if she lived, was his earliest and best teacher, he tells us nothing. Did she die like Rachel, the mother of Benjamin, the great ancestor of his tribe; leaving his father to mourn and set a monument on her grave, like Jacob, by the way of Bethlehem? (Genesis 35:16- 20, 48:7) Or did she live to grieve over her son’s apostasy from the faith of the Pharisees, and die herself unreconciled to the obedience of Christ? Or did she believe and obey the Savior of her son? These are questions which we cannot answer. If we wish to realize the earliest infancy of the Apostle, we must be content with a simple picture of a Jewish mother and her child. Such a picture is presented to us in the short history of Elizabeth and John the Baptist, and what is wanting in one of the inspired Books of Luke may be supplied, in some degree, by the other.

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The same feelings which welcomed the birth and celebrated the naming of a son in the "hill country" of Judea, (Luke 1:39) prevailed also among the Jews of the dispersion. As the "neighbors and cousins" of Elizabeth "heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her, and rejoiced with her," - so it would be in the household at Tarsus, when Saul was born. In a nation to which the birth of a Messiah was promised, and at a period when the aspirations after the fulfillment of the promise were continually becoming more conscious and more urgent, the birth of a son was the fulfillment of a mother’s highest happiness: and to the father also (if we may thus invert the words of Jeremiah) "blessed was the man who brought tidings, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him glad." (Jeremiah 20:15) On the eighth day the child was circumcised and named. In the case of John the Baptist, "they sought to call him Zacharias, after the name of his father. But his mother answered, and said, Not so; but he shall be called John." And when the appeal was made to his father, he signified his assent, in obedience to the vision. It was not unusual, on the one hand, to call a Jewish child after the name of his father; and, on the other hand, it was a common practice, in all ages of Jewish history, even without a prophetic intimation, to adopt a name expressive of religious feelings. When the infant at Tarsus received the name of Saul, it might be "after the name of his father;" and it was a name of traditional celebrity in the tribe of Benjamin, for it was that of the first king anointed by Samuel. Or, when his father said "his name is Saul," it may have been intended to denote (in conformity with the Hebrew derivation of the word) that he was a son who had long been desired, the first born of his parents, the child of prayer, who was thenceforth, like Samuel, to be consecrated to God. "For this child I prayed," said the wife of Elkanah; "and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of Him: therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent unto the Lord." (1Samuel 1:27, 28)

Admitted into covenant with God by circumcision, the Jewish child had thenceforward a full claim to all the privileges of the chosen people. His was the benediction of the 128th Psalm:— "The LORD shall bless you out of Zion, and you shall see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life." (Psalm 128:5, HBFV). From that time, whoever it might be who watched over Saul’s infancy, whether, like king Lemuel, he learnt "the prophecy that his mother taught him," or whether he was under the care of others, like those who were with the sons of king David and king Ahab, - we are at no loss to learn what the first ideas were, with which his early thought was made familiar. The rules respecting the diligent education of children, which were laid down by Moses in the 6th and 11th chapters of Deuteronomy, were doubtless carefully observed: and he was trained in that peculiarly historical instruction, spoken of in the 78th Psalm, which implies the continuance of a chosen people, with glorious recollections of the past, and great anticipations for the future:

"For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should teach them to their children; So that the generation to come might know them, children which shall be born; and they shall arise and tell them to their children, So that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments;" (Psalm 78:5-7, HBFV)

Above all, he would be familiar with the destinies of his own illustrious tribe. The life of the timid Patriarch, the father of the twelve; the sad death of Rachel near the city where the Messiah was to be born; the loneliness of Jacob, who sought to comfort himself in Benoni "the son of her sorrow," by calling him Benjamin (Genesis 35:18) "the son of his right hand;" and then the youthful days of this youngest of the twelve brethren, the famine, and the journeys into Egypt, the severity of Joseph, and the wonderful story of the silver cup in the mouth of the sack; - these are the narratives to which he listened with intense and eager interest. How little was it imagined that, as Benjamin was the youngest and most honored of the Patriarchs, so this listening child of Benjamin should be associated with the twelve servants of the Messiah of God, the last and most illustrious of the Apostles! But many years of ignorance were yet to pass away, before that mysterious Providence, which brought Benjamin to Joseph in Egypt, should bring his descendant to the knowledge and love of JESUS, the Son of Mary. Some of the early Christian writers (Genesis 49:27) see in the dying benediction of Jacob, when he said that "Benjamin should raven as a wolf, in the morning devour the prey, and at night divide the spoil," a prophetic intimation of him who, in the morning of his life, should tear the sheep of God, and in its evening feed them, as the teacher of the nations. When Apostle Paul was a child and learnt the words of this saying, no Christian thoughts were associated with it, or with that other more peaceful prophecy of Moses, when he said of Benjamin,

"The beloved of the LORD shall live in safety beside Him and shall cover him all the day long. Yea, he shall dwell between His shoulders." (Deuteronomy 33:12, HBFV)

But he was familiar with the prophetical words, and could follow in imagination the fortunes of the sons of Benjamin, and knew how they went through the wilderness with Rachel’s other children, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, forming with them the third of the four companies on the march, and reposing with them at night on the west of the encampment. (Numbers 2:18-24; 10:22-24) He heard how their lands were assigned to them in the promised country along the borders of Judah:(Joshua 18:11) and how Saul, whose name he bore, was chosen from the tribe which was the smallest, (1Samuel 9:21) when "little Benjamin" (Psalm 68:27) became the "ruler" of Israel. He knew that when the ten tribes revolted, Benjamin was faithful:(2 Chronicles 11.:see 1 Kings 12) and he learnt to follow its honorable history even into the dismal years of the Babylonian Captivity, when Mordecai, "a Benjamite who had been carried away," (Esther 2:5, 6) saved the nation: and when, instead of destruction, "the Jews," through him, "had light, and gladness, and joy, and honor: and in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them." (Esther 8:16, 17) Such were the influences which cradled the infancy of Apostle Paul; and such was the early teaching under which his mind gradually rose to the realization of his position as a Hebrew child in a city of Gentiles.

If we turn now to consider the social position of the Apostle’s father and family, we cannot on the one hand confidently argue, from the possession of the citizenship, that they were in the enjoyment of affluence and outward distinction. The civitas of Rome, though at that time it could not be purchased without heavy expense, did not depend upon any conditions of wealth, where it was bestowed by authority. On the other hand, it is certain that the manual trade, which we know that Apostle Paul exercised, cannot be adduced as an argument to prove that his circumstances were narrow and mean; still less, as some have imagined, that he lived in absolute poverty. It was a custom among the Jews that all boys should learn a trade. "What is commanded of a father towards his son?" asks a Talmudic writer. "To circumcise him, to teach him the law, to teach him a trade." Rabbi Judah saith, "He that teacheth not his son a trade, doth the same as if he taught him to be a thief;" and Rabban Gamaliel saith, "He that hath a trade in his hand, to what is he like? he is like a vineyard that is fenced."

And if, in compliance with this good and useful custom of the Jews, the father of the young Cilician sought to make choice of a trade, which might fortify his son against idleness or against adversity, none would occur to him more naturally than the profitable occupation of the making of tents, the material of which was hair-cloth, supplied by the goats of his native province, and sold in the markets of the Levant by the well-known name of cilicium. The most reasonable conjecture is that his father’s business was concerned with these markets, and that, like many of his scattered countrymen, he was actively occupied in the traffic of the Mediterranean coasts: and the remote dispersion of those relations, whom he mentions in his letter from Corinth to Rome, is favorable to this opinion. But whatever might be the station and employment of his father or his kinsmen, whether they were elevated by wealth above, or depressed by poverty below, the average of the Jews of Asia Minor and Italy, we are disposed to believe that this family were possessed of that highest respectability which is worthy of deliberate esteem. The words of Scripture seem to claim for them the tradition of a good and religious reputation. The strict piety of Apostle Paul's ancestors has already been remarked; some of his kinsmen embraced Christianity before the Apostle himself, and the excellent discretion of his nephew will be the subject of our admiration, when we come to consider the dangerous circumstances which led to the nocturnal journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea. (Acts 23)

But, though a cloud rests on the actual year of Apostle Paul's birth, and the circumstances of his father’s household must be left to imagination, we have the great satisfaction of knowing the exact features of the scenery in the midst of which his childhood was spent. The plain, the mountains, the river, and the sea still remain to us. The rich harvests of corn still grow luxuriantly after rains in spring. The same tents of goat’s hair are still seen covering the plains in the busy harvest. There is the same solitude and silence in the intolerable heat and dust of the summer. Then, as now, the mothers and children of Tarsus went out in the cool evenings, and looked from the gardens round the city, or from their terraced roofs, upon the heights of Taurus. The same sunset lingered on the pointed summits. The same shadows gathered in the deep ravines. The river Cydnus has suffered some changes in the course of 1800 years. Instead of rushing, as in the time of Xenophon, like the Rhone at Geneva, in a stream of two hundred feet broad through the city, it now flows idly past it on the east. The Channel, which floated the ships of Antony and Cleopatra, is now filled up; and wide unhealthy lagoons occupy the place of the ancient docks. But its upper waters still flow, as formerly, cold and clear from the snows of Taurus: and its waterfalls still break over the same rocks, when the snows are melting, like the Rhine at Schaffhausen. We find a pleasure in thinking that the footsteps of the young Apostle often wandered by the side of this stream, and that his eyes often looked on these falls. We can hardly believe that he who spoke to the Lystrians of the "rain from heaven," and the "fruitful seasons," and of the "living God who made heaven and earth and the sea," (Acts 4:17, 15) could have looked with indifference on beautiful and impressive scenery. Gamaliel was celebrated for his love of nature: and the young Jew, who was destined to be his most famous pupil, spent his early days in the close neighborhood of much that was well adapted to foster such a taste. Or if it be thought that in attributing such feelings to him we are writing in the spirit of modern times; and if it be contended that he would be more influenced by the realities of human life than by the impressions of nature, - then let the youthful Saul be imagined on the banks of the Cydnus, where it flowed through the city in a stream less clear and fresh, where the wharves were covered with merchandise, in the midst of groups of men in various costumes, speaking various dialects.

We have seen what his infancy was; we must now glance at his boyhood. It is usually the case that the features of a strong character display themselves early. His impetuous fiery disposition would sometimes need control. Flashes of indignation would reveal his impatience and his honesty. (See Acts 9:1, 2, 23: 1-5; and compare Acts 13:13, 15:38, with 2Timothy 4:11) The affectionate tenderness of his nature would not be without an object of attachment, if that sister, who was afterwards married, (Acts 23:16) was his playmate at Tarsus. The work of tent-making, rather an amusement than a trade, might sometimes occupy those young hands, which were marked with the toil of years when he held them to the view of the Elders at Miletus. His education was conducted at home rather than at school: for, though Tarsus was celebrated for its learning, the Hebrew boy would not lightly be exposed to the influence of Gentile teaching. Or, if he went, to a school, it was not a Greek school, but rather to some room connected with the synagogue, where a noisy class of Jewish children received the rudiments of instruction, seated on the ground with their teacher, after the manner of Mohammedan children in the East, who may be seen or heard at their lessons near the mosque. At such a school, it may be, he learnt to read and to write, going and returning under the care of some attendant, according to that custom which he afterwards used as an illustration in the Epistle to the Galatians (and perhaps he remembered his own early days while he wrote the passage) when he spoke of the Law as the Slave who conducts us to the School of Christ.

His religious knowledge, as his years advanced, was obtained from hearing the Law read in the synagogue, from listening to the arguments and discussions of learned doctors, and from that habit of questioning and answering, which was permitted even to the children among the Jews. Familiar with the pathetic history of the Jewish sufferings, he would feel his heart filled with that love to his own people which breaks out in the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 9:4, 5) - to that people "whose were the adoption and the glory and the covenants, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ was to come," - a love not then, as it was afterwards, blended with love towards all mankind, "to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile," - but rather united with a bitter hatred to the Gentile children whom he saw around him. His idea of the Messiah, so far as it was distinct, would be the carnal notion of a temporal prince - a "Christ known after the flesh," (2Corinthians 5:16) - and he looked forward with the hope of a Hebrew to the restoration of "the kingdom to Israel." (Acts 1:6) He would be known at Tarsus as a child of promise, and as one likely to uphold the honor of the Law against the half-infidel teaching of the day. But the time was drawing near, when his training was to become more exact and systematic. He was destined for the school of Jerusalem. The educational maxim of the Jews, at a later period, was as follows:— "At five years of age, let children begin the Scripture; at ten, the Mishna; at thirteen, let them be subjects of the Law."

Maps of Paul's Missionary Journeys
All Cities Visited
Travels just after conversion
First Missionary Journey
Second Journey
Third Journey
Fourth Journey
Final Journey

The Life and Epistles of Apostle Paul

by Conybeare and Howson
(adapted and edited by


Religious Life
of the Jews
AntiochThird Missionary

Civilization of
the Greeks

First Missionary

A short visit
to Corinth

The Roman
in Pisidia
At Ephesus,
revisit churches

Dispersion of
the Jews

Lystra, Derbe

Warning to
Church Elders

Cilicia and
Last Journey
to Jerusalem

Sects of
the Jews

Background of
Asia Minor

Arrest in

Paul's birth
and early life
Second Missionary
A Prisoner
of Rome




The death
of Stephen
Thessalonica, Berea
to Rome

Paul's conversion

In Athens

Trial delay

Arabia, Jerusalem
CorinthAcquittal, Last
Journey, Death

Serving new

Spiritual Gifts
and Heresies

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