Gradually they lost sight of Taurus, and the heights of Lebanon came into view. The one had sheltered his early home, but the other had been a familiar form to his Jewish forefathers. How histories would crowd into his mind as the vessel moved on over the waves, and he gazed upon the furrowed flanks of the great Hebrew mountain! Had the voyage been taken fifty years earlier, the vessel would probably have been bound for Ptolemais, which still bore the name of the Greek kings of Egypt; but in the reign of Augustus or Tiberius, it is more likely that she sailed round the headland of Carmel, and came to anchor in the new harbor of Caesarea, - the handsome city which Herod had rebuilt, and named in honor of the Emperor.
To imagine incidents when none are recorded, and confidently to lay down a route without any authority, would be inexcusable in writing on this subject. But to imagine the feelings of a Hebrew boy on his first visit to the Holy Land, is neither difficult nor blamable. During this journey Saul had around him a different scenery and different cultivation from what he had been accustomed to, - not a river and a wide plain covered with harvests of corn, but a succession of hills and valleys, with terraced vineyards watered by artificial irrigation.
If it was the time of a festival, many pilgrims were moving in the same direction, with music and the songs of Zion. The ordinary road would probably be that mentioned in the Acts, which led from Caesarea through the town of Antipatris (Acts 23:31). But neither of these places would possess much interest for a "Hebrew of the Hebrews." The one was associated with the thoughts of the Romans and of modern times; the other had been built by Herod in memory of Antipater, his Idumaean father. But objects were not wanting of the deepest interest to a child of Benjamin. Those far hill-tops on the left were close upon Mount Gilboa, even if the very place could not be seen where Israel lost their battle against the Philistines and King Saul lost his life (1Samuel 31:1 - 6).
At the early age of twelve years, all his enthusiasm could find an adequate object in the earthly Jerusalem; the first view of which would be descried about this part of the journey. From the time when the line of the city wall was seen, all else was forgotten. The further border of Benjamin was almost reached. The Rabbis said that the boundary-line of Benjamin and Judah, the two faithful tribes, passed through the Temple. And this City and Temple was the common sanctuary of all Israelites.
"Thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord: to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord. There is little Benjamin their ruler, and the princes of Judah their council, the princes of Zebulon and the princes of Naphtali: for there is the seat of judgment, even the seat of the house of David."
And now the Temple’s glittering roof was seen, with the buildings of Zion crowning the eminence above it, and the ridge of the Mount of Olives rising high over all. And now the city gate was passed, with that thrill of the heart which none but a Jew could know.
"Our feet shall stand within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built like a city that is all joined together as one Where the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD," (Psalm 122:2-4, HBFV, see also Psalm 68)
And now that this young enthusiastic Jew is come into the land of his forefathers, and is about to receive his education in the schools of the Holy City, we may pause to give some description of the state of Judea and Jerusalem. We have seen that it is impossible to fix the exact date of his arrival, but we know the general features of the period; and we can easily form to ourselves some idea of the political and religious condition of Palestine.
Herod was now dead. The tyrant had been called to his last account, and that eventful reign, which had destroyed the nationality of the Jews, while it maintained their apparent independence, was over. It is most likely that Archelaus also had ceased to govern, and was already in exile. His accession to power had been attended with dreadful fighting in the streets, with bloodshed at sacred festivals, and with wholesale crucifixions; his reign of ten years was one continued season of disorder and discontent; and, at last, he was banished to Vienna on the Rhone, that Judea might be formally constituted into a Roman province. We suppose Saul to have come from Tarsus to Jerusalem when one of the four governors, who preceded Pontius Pilate, was in power, - either Coponius, or Marcus Ambivius, or Annius Rufus, or Valerius Gratus. The governor resided in the town of Caesarea. Soldiers were quartered there and at Jerusalem, and throughout Judea, wherever the turbulence of the people made garrisons necessary. Centurions were in the country towns; (Luke 7:1- 10) soldiers on the banks of the Jordan. (Luke 3:14) There was no longer even the show of independence. The revolution, of which Herod had sown the seeds, now came to maturity. The only change since his death in the appearance of the country was that every thing became more Roman than before. Roman money was current in the markets. Roman words were incorporated in the popular language. Roman buildings were conspicuous in all the towns. Even those two independent principalities which two sons of Herod governed, between the provinces of Judea and Syria, exhibited all the general character of the epoch. Philip, the tetrarch of Gaulonitis, called Bethsaida, on the north of the lake of Genesareth, by the name of Julias, in honor of the family who reigned at Rome. Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, built Tiberias on the south of the same lake, in honor of the emperor who about this time succeeded his illustrious step-father.
The Apostolic age was remarkable for the growth of learned Rabbinical schools; but of these the most eminent were the rival schools of Hillel and Schammai. These sages of the law were spoken of by the Jews, and their proverbs quoted, as the seven wise men were quoted by the Greeks. Their traditional systems run through all the Talmudical writings, as the doctrines of the Scotists and Thomists run through the Middle Ages. Both were Pharisaic schools: but the former upheld the honor of tradition as even superior to the law; the latter despised the traditionalists when they clashed with Moses. The antagonism between them was so great, that it was said that even "Elijah the Tishbite would never be able to reconcile the disciples of Hillel and Schammai."
Of these two schools, that of Hillel was by far the most influential in its own day, and its decisions have been held authoritative by the greater number of later Rabbis. The most eminent ornament of this school was Gamaliel, whose fame is celebrated in the Talmud. Hillel was the father of Simeon, and Simeon the father of Gamaliel. It has been imagined by some that Simeon was the same old man who took the infant Savior in his arms, and pronounced the Nunc Dimittis . (Luke 2:25- 35) It is difficult to give a conclusive proof of this; but there is no doubt that this Gamaliel was the same who wisely pleaded the cause of Peter and the other Apostles, (Acts 5:34-40) and who had previously educated the future Apostle Apostle Paul. (Acts 22:3) His learning was so eminent, and his character so revered, that he is one of the seven who alone among Jewish doctors have been honored with the title of "Rabban." As Aquinas, among the schoolmen, was called Doctor Angelicus, and Bonaventura Doctor Seraphicus, so Gamaliel was called the "Beauty of the Law;" and it is a saying of the Talmud, that "since Rabban Gamaliel died, the glory of the Law has ceased." He was a Pharisee; but anecdotes are told of him, which show that he was not trammelled by the narrow bigotry of the sect. He had no antipathy to the Greek learning. He rose above the prejudices of his party. Our impulse is to class him with the best of the Pharisees, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea. Candor and wisdom seem to have been features of his character; and this agrees with what we read of him in the Acts of the Apostles, that he was "had in reputation of all the people," and with his honest and intelligent argument when Peter was brought before the Council.
Until the formation of the later Rabbinical colleges, which flourished after the Jews were driven from Jerusalem, the instruction in the divinity schools seems to have been chiefly oral. There was a prejudice against the use of any book except the Sacred Writings. The system was one of Scriptural Exegesis. Josephus remarks, at the close of his "Antiquities," that the one thing most prized by his countrymen was power in the exposition of Scripture. "They give to that man," he says, "the testimony of being a wise man, who is fully acquainted with our laws, and is able to interpret their meaning." So far as we are able to learn from our sources of information, the method of instruction was something of this kind. At the meetings of learned men, some passage of the Old Testament was taken as a text, or some topic for discussion propounded in Hebrew, translated into the vernacular tongue by means of a Chaldee paraphrase, and made the subject of commentary: various interpretations were given: aphorisms were propounded: allegories suggested: and the opinions of ancient doctors quoted and discussed. At these discussions the younger students were present, to listen or to inquire, - or, in the sacred words of Luke, "both hearing them and asking them questions:" for it was a peculiarity of the Jewish schools, that the pupil was encouraged to catechise the teacher. Contradictory opinions were expressed with the utmost freedom. This is evident from a cursory examination of the Talmud, which gives us the best notions of the scholastic disputes of the Jews.
If we could look back upon the assemblies of the Rabbis of Jerusalem, with Gamaliel in the midst, and Saul among the younger speakers, it is possible that the scene would be as strange and as different from a place of modern education, as the schools now seen by travelers in the East differ from contemporary schools in England. But the same might be said of the walks of Plato in the Academy, or the lectures of Aristotle in the Lyceum. It is certain that these free and public discussions of the Jews tended to create a high degree of general intelligence among the people; that the students were trained there in a system of excellent dialectics; that they learnt to express themselves in a rapid and sententious style, often with much poetic feeling; and acquired an admirable acquaintance with the words of the ancient Scriptures.
These "Assemblies of the Wise" were possibly a continuation of the "Schools of the Prophets," which are mentioned in the historical books of the Old Testament. (1Samuel 10:5, 6, 19:20; 2Kings 2:3, 5; 4:38). Wherever the earlier meetings were held, whether at the gate of the city, or in some more secluded place, we read of no buildings for purposes of worship or instruction before the Captivity. During that melancholy period, when the Jews mourned over their separation from the Temple, the necessity of assemblies must have been deeply felt, for united prayer and mutual exhortation, for the singing of the "Songs of Zion," and for remembering the "Word of the Lord." When they returned, the public reading of the law became a practice of universal interest: and from this period we must date the erection of Synagogues in the different towns of Palestine. To this later period the 74th Psalm may be referred, which laments over "the burning of all the synagogues of God in the land." (Psalm 24:8) - These buildings are not mentioned by Josephus in any of the earlier passages of his history. But in the time of the Apostles we have the fullest evidence that they existed in all the small towns in Judea, and in all the principal cities where the Jews were dispersed abroad. It seems that the synagogues often consisted of two apartments, one for prayer, preaching, and the offices of public worship; the other for the meetings of learned men, for discussions concerning questions of religion and discipline, and for purposes of education. Thus the Synagogues and the Schools cannot be considered as two separate subjects. No doubt a distinction must be drawn between the smaller schools of the country villages, and the great divinity schools of Jerusalem. The synagogue which was built by the Centurion at Capernaum (Luke 7:5) was unquestionably a far less important place than those synagogues in the Holy City, where "the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, with those of Asia and Cilicia," rose up as one man, and disputed against Stephen.
In this posture the Apostle of the Gentiles spent his schoolboy days, an eager and indefatigable student. "He that giveth his mind to the law of the Most High, and is occupied in the meditation thereof, will seek out the wisdom of all the ancient, and be occupied in prophecies. He will keep the sayings of the renowned men; and where subtle parables are, he will be there also. He will seek out the secrets of grave sentences, and be conversant in dark parables. He shall serve among great men, and appear among princes: he will travel through strange countries; for he hath tried the good and the evil among men." (Ecclus. 39:1-4) Such was the pattern proposed to himself by an ardent follower of the Rabbis; and we cannot wonder that Saul, with such a standard before him, and with so ardent a temperament, "outran in Judaism many of his own age and nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of his Fathers." (Galatians 1:14) Intellectually, his mind was trained to logical acuteness, his memory became well stored with "hard sentences of old," and he acquired the facility of quick and apt quotation of Scripture. Morally, he was a strict observer of the requirements of the Law; and, while he led a careful conscientious life, after the example of his ancestors, (2Timothy 1:3) he gradually imbibed the spirit of a fervent persecuting zeal. Among his fellow-students, who flocked to Jerusalem from Egypt and Babylonia, from the coasts of Greece and his native Cilicia, he was known and held in high estimation as a rising light in Israel. And if we may draw a natural inference from another sentence of the letter which has just been quoted, he was far from indifferent to the praise of men. Students of the Law were called "the holy people;" and we know one occasion when it was said, "This people who knoweth not the Law are cursed" (John 7:49).
While thus he was passing through the busy years of his student-life, nursing his religious enthusiasm and growing in self-righteousness, others were advancing towards their manhood, not far from Jerusalem, of whom then he knew nothing, but for whose cause he was destined to count that loss which now was his highest gain. (See Philippians 3:5-7) There was one at Hebron, the son of a priest "of the course of Abia," who was soon to make his voice heard throughout Israel as the preacher of repentance; there were boys by the Lake of Galilee, mending their fathers’ nets, who were hereafter to be the teachers of the World; and there was ONE, at Nazareth, for the sake of whose love, they, and Saul himself, and thousands of faithful hearts throughout all future ages, should unite in saying:— "He must increase, but I must decrease." It is possible that Gamaliel may have been one of those doctors with whom JESUS was found conversing in the Temple. It is probable that Saul may have been within the precincts of the Temple at some festival, when Mary and Joseph came up from Galilee. It is certain that the eyes of the Savior and of His future disciple must often have rested on the same objects, - the same crowd of pilgrims and worshippers, - the same walls of the Holy City, - the same olives on the other side of the valley of Jehoshaphat. But at present they were strangers. The mysterious human life of JESUS was silently advancing towards its great consummation. Saul was growing more and more familiar with the outward observances of the Law, and gaining that experience of the "spirit of bondage" which should enable him to understand himself, and to teach to others, the blessings of the "spirit of adoption." He was feeling the pressure of that yoke, which, in the words of Peter, "neither his fathers nor he were able to bear." He was learning (in proportion as his conscientiousness increased) to tremble at the slightest deviation from the Law as jeopardizing salvation:"whence arose that tormenting scrupulosity which invented a number of limitations, in order (by such self-imposed restraint) to guard against every possible transgression of the Law." The struggles of this period of his life he has himself described in the seventh chapter of Romans.
Before our Savior ascended into heaven, He said to His disciples that they would be his witnesses throughout the earth (Acts 1:8). And when Matthias had been chosen, and the promised blessing had been received on the day of Pentecost, this order was strictly followed. First the Gospel was proclaimed in the City of Jerusalem, and the numbers of those who believed gradually rose from 120 to 5,000. (Acts 1:15; 2:41; 4:4) Until the disciples were "scattered," (Acts 8:1) "upon the persecution that arose about Stephen," (Acts 11:19) Jerusalem was the scene of all that took place in the Church of Christ. We read as yet of no communication of the truth to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans; no hint even of any Apostolic preaching in the country parts of Judea. It providentially happened, indeed, that the first outburst of the new doctrine, with all its miraculous evidence, was witnessed by "Jews and proselytes" from all parts of the world. (Acts 2:9-11) They had come up to the Festival of Pentecost from the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, of the Nile and of the Tiber, from the provinces of Asia Minor, from the desert of Arabia, and from the islands of the Greek Sea; and when they returned to their homes, they carried with them news which prepared the way for the Glad Tidings about to issue from Mount Zion to "the uttermost parts of the earth." But as yet the Gospel lingered on the Holy Hill. The first acts of the Apostles were "prayer and supplication" in the "upper room;" breaking of bread "from house to house;" miracles in the Temple; gatherings of the people in Solomon’s cloister; and the bearing of testimony in the council chamber of the Sanhedrin.
Looking back, from our point of view, upon the community at Jerusalem, we see in it the beginning of that great society, the Church, which has continued to our own time, distinct both from Jews and Heathens, and which will continue till it absorbs both the Heathen and the Jews. But to the contemporary Jews themselves it wore a very different appearance. From the Hebrew point of view, the disciples of Christ would be regarded as a Jewish sect or synagogue. The synagogues, as we have seen, were very numerous at Jerusalem. There were already the Cilician Synagogue, the Alexandrian Synagogue, the Synagogue of the Libertines, - and to these was now added (if we may use so bold an expression) the Nazarene Synagogue, or the Synagogue of the Galileans. Not that any separate building was erected for the devotions of the Christians; for they met from house to house for prayer and the breaking of bread. But they were by no means separated from the nation: they attended the festivals; they worshipped in the Temple. They were a new and singular party in the nation, holding peculiar opinions, and interpreting the Scriptures in a peculiar way. This is the aspect under which the Church would first present itself to the Jews, and among others to Saul himself. Many different opinions were expressed in the synagogues concerning the nature and office of the Messiah. These Galileans would be distinguished as holding the strange opinion that the true Messiah was that notorious "malefactor," who had been crucified at the last Passover. All parties in the nation united to oppose, and if possible to crush, the monstrous heresy.