The Roman power did not press upon Paul's infancy. Greek ideas did not haunt Paul's childhood. 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, 17:2, 3, 10, 11, 28:23) with the new and wonderful commentary supplied by the life and resurrection of a crucified Messiah.
We should be glad to know something of the mother who gave birth to 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 Paul's sister and his sister's son (Acts 23:16) and of some more distant relatives in his family (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 Paul's mother die during giving birth 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 regarding Paul's family. If we wish to realize the apostle's earliest infancy, 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.
When was he born?
Of the exact period of Paul's birth within his family we possess no authentic information. From a passage in a sermon attributed to St. Chrysostom, it has been inferred that he was born in the year 2 B.C. of our era. The date is not improbable, but the genuineness of the sermon is suspected, and if it was the undoubted work of the eloquent Father, we have no reason to believe that he possessed any certain means of ascertaining the fact. Nor need we be anxious to possess the information. We have a better chronology than that which reckons by years and months.
We know that apostle Paul was a young man at the time of Stephen's martyrdom, and therefore we know what were the features of the period, and what the circumstances of the world, at the beginning of his eventful life. He must have been born in the later years of Herod, or the earlier of his son Archelaus. It was the strongest and most flourishing time of the reign of Augustus.
The world was at peace, the pirates of the Levant were dispersed and Cilicia was lying at rest, or in stupor, with other provinces, under the wide shadow of the Roman power. Many governors had ruled there since the days of Cicero. Athenodorus, the emperor's tutor, had been one of them.
It was about the time when Horace and Maecenas died, with others whose names will never be forgotten and it was about the time when Caligula was born, with others who were destined to make the world miserable. Thus is the epoch fixed in the manner in which the imagination most easily apprehends it. It was during this pause in the world's history that Paul's birth occurred.
The same feelings which welcomed Paul's birth in his family 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 after his birth Saul (Paul) the child was circumcised and named. When the appeal for names was made to his father as head of the family, 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. 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 (ultimately to become Paul), 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 in his family, the child of prayer, who was thenceforth, like Samuel, to be consecrated to God.