In What Context Do We Understand Paul and His Writings? (Part 1/4)

An important figure in New Testamental studies is the Apostle Paul.  He is the author of 13, maybe 14, books of the New Testament.  But what if what we’ve been taught about him and his writings were not historically, nor biblically, accurate?  What if we’ve been taught to view him and his writings from the wrong context?  This would cause our interpretations of him and his writings to be distorted, inaccurate, and possibly even, for errors to be introduced into the faith.  And after years and years of research, and revelations given to my wife and I from the Messiah Jesus [Heb. Yeshua] Himself, it is my conclusion that the “Paul” who is often presented in many churches whose writings “freed Christians from the legalistic bondage of the Law of God” is NOT, in fact, the biblical, historical Paul of the New Testament.

A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT INTENT

I am not trying to call the New Testament into question, nor am I trying to invalidate Paul or his writings, rather I want to examine these things that we are commonly taught about Paul and his life and compare and contrast them with what the Bible actually teaches us about him.

A BRIEF NOTE ON MY APPROACH TO BIBLICAL STUDIES

I approach all my studies of the Bible from a Whole Bible Perspective, meaning that every passage of Scripture must be examined within the context of not only the immediate, surrounding material, the context of the chapter and the book, but also it must line up with what ALL of the Bible teaches.  In addition, we must also interpret and understand it within its proper historical, cultural, religious and linguistic contexts as well. To take any text out of its proper context is to open the door to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and error.

Secondly, we cannot take only one passage of Scripture and redefine the entire Bible nor can we formulate a doctrine from it.  A basic principle we see taught in the Bible is that “out of the mouth of two or three witnesses, a thing is established.” This means that the truth of God is not in “It is written…,” but in “Again and again, it is written.”  This general principle began as part of the law about capital punishment (Numbers 13:5; Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15), but by the time of the New Testament (1st century, C.E.), it had become a general principle about establishing truth in general (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; I Timothy 5:9; and Hebrews 10:28).  Therefore, doctrine must be based on the repetitions we see taught within the Bible, not on any individual passages.

WHO WAS PAUL?

 HIS BACKGROUND INFORMATION

So let’s start with the question, “Who was Paul”?  Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in the city of Tarsus, located in south-central Turkey, about 12 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.   Tarsus today is known as Cumhuriyet Alani.   According to Sha’ul Paulus’s (Paul’s) own written testimony, he was –

Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.  (Philippians 3:5-6; Romans 11:1)

Being of the tribe of Benjamin, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was then a direct descendant of Jacob and Rachel’s youngest son, Benjamin.

ABOUT HIS NAME

The name “Paul” is the shortened English form of his name Sha’ul Paulus (pron. “shah-ool paul-us“).  “Sha’ul” was his Hebrew name, and “Paulus” (or “Paul”) was his Roman name.

If his name in Hebrew is “Sha’ul,” then why is it written in English as “Saul”?  Because our English translation is based on the Greek, rather than taking the name back to its original Hebrew form.  When “Sha’ul” is transliterated into Greek, there’s no “sh” sound in Greek.  The closest sound is the Greek letter Sigma or “S” sound.  Consequently, his name becomes “Saul” in both Greek and English.  And even in the Old Testament, the name “Saul” is based on the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, rather than on the original Hebrew text itself, and this is true of other names and words in the Old Testament, such as “Eve” (Heb. Chavah) and “Moses” (Heb. Mosheh) and not just the name “Saul.”

Again, I am not trying to take away from, demean, or diminish the authority of the Old Testament or New Testament, Absolutely Not!  I am merely trying to explain the differences.

DID SAUL CHANGED HIS NAME TO “PAUL” WHEN HE GOT SAVED?

There are many ministers who say Sh’aul Paulus (Paul) changed his name to “Paul” when he was saved.  The textual evidence contradicts this view.  Between Acts 9 and Acts 13, the Holy Spirit refers refers to Sha’ul Paulus as “Saul” 10 times before He ever calls Sha’ul Paulus “Paul.”  For example, immediately after “Saul’s” conversion experience, we read,

But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which lived at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ [Messiah].  (Acts 9:22)

This verse is the first mention of “Saul” after he becomes a believer in the Messiah Yeshua [Jesus].  If his change of name was connected to his conversion, this would have been the place to indicate it, but it doesn’t happen here.  Then in Acts 9:23-31, we have the account of “Saul” escaping those in Jerusalem who wanted to kill him by being lowered in a basket.  In this section of verses, his name “Saul” is mentioned two times (Acts 9:24, 26).

The next section where the name “Saul” is mentioned is in Acts 11:25-30, where Barnabas goes to get “Saul” to help him to raise financial aid for the disciples in Jerusalem.  In this section, the name “Saul” is mentioned two times (Acts 11:25; Acts 11:30).

The fourth section of verses where the name “Saul” is mentioned is when he and Barnabas are chosen to go on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-12).  In this section, now four chapters after his conversion experience and baptism, the Holy Spirit is still referring to him as “Saul,”

Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manean, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and SAUL.  As they [the congregation in Antioch] ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate Me Barnabas and SAUL for the work whereunto I have called them.  And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:1-3; Emphasis Mine)

It is apparent that some time has past since his conversion experience.  During those four chapters and passages where the name “Saul” is mentioned, if “Saul’s” name was changed to “Paul” due to his conversion, there were four passages where that could have been indicated prior to his first missionary journey here in chapter 13.

Nor did these four chapters cover a very short time span.  For example, during this time span, Cornelius, a God-fearer and Roman Centurion, has a vision from God and is told to send for Peter.  Peter, in turn, has a vision that results in him going with the servants of Cornelius, and Cornelius and his whole houshold are saved and filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10).  Then Peter explains what had happened to the other Jewish believers, and the growth that occurs in the church at Antioch (Acts 11).  And then there’s a persecution that’s escalated by King Herod against the Jerusalem church.  During which, he kills James, the brother of John, and he plans on killing Peter, but God sends an angel to free Peter from prison (Acts 12).   Obviously, then, there was some span of time that has happened between Paul’s conversion and water baptism and him and Barnabas being sent out on their first missionary mission.

In the book of Galatians, Paul adds to this span of time by telling us after his experience with Yeshua [Jesus] on the road to Damascus that he journeyed to Arabia before coming back to Damascus:

But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles [non-Jews], I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go to Jerusalem to those who were apostles [Heb. shlichim] before me; but I went away into Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. (Galatians 1:15-17)

But why would an Orthodox Jew, like Sha’ul Paulus (Paul), go to Arabia?  I can only think of one good, possible reason: he returned to where the Torah [God’s Word] had originally been given to Moses [Heb. Mosheh], Mount Sinai, to again be taught by God as Moses had been.

So in contrast to what we see in Scripture, many Christian films about Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) life have him change his name to “Paul” at his conversion or water baptism, but as we’ve seen that directly contradicts Scripture.  Again, some time has passed since his conversion and baptism, and yet when we get to Acts 13, the Holy Spirit has called him “Saul,” and NOT “Paul,” 9 times prior to this moment, and it is not until the 10th use of the name “Saul” that the Holy Spirit introduces us to his Roman name “Paul.”  This happens in Acts 13:9 while Barnabas and Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) are on their first missionary journey and they run into a sorcerer who tries to oppose them, and it is then that we read the following:

Then SAUL (WHO IS ALSO CALLED PAUL,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him.  And said, “O full of all subtilty and all mischief, you child of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? (Acts 13:9-10)

As discussed, “Paul” was not a different name for Sha’ul (“Saul”), but it was his Roman name he had been given from birth.  Consequently, Paul did not technically “change” his name; instead, he started using his Roman name rather than his Hebrew name.  But again, the question is why?

What we do know is that from this point on, the Bible does use his Roman name “Paul,” rather than his Hebrew name “Saul” (or “Sha’ul“).  The Bible actually does not give us an explicit reason for him using his Roman name; we just know that he does.  Since the “change” happens some time after his conversion and during his first missionary journey with Barnabas, I don’t believe it had anything to deal with his conversion.  Instead, I think it was to ease the communication between him and his Greek-speaking audience.

As I said earlier, there was no “sh” sound in the Greek language; consequently, this would have prevented Greek-speaking people from freely speaking and interacting with him.  Many people, even today, if they cannot pronounce a person’s name correctly will avoid speaking with them so that they don’t feel embarrassed about not being able to correctly pronounce the person’s name.  The same thing would have kept people from interacting with Sha’ul (“Saul”), so to remove this barrier, Sha’ul (“Saul”) simply began to use his Roman name of “Paul” to remove that stumbling block in communication, so that his name would not be difficult for people to pronounce, thereby opening the door of communication and interaction between them and him.

KING SHA’UL (SAUL) VS. SHA’UL PAULUS

What is also interesting is that both King Sha’ul (Saul) and Sha’ul Paulus (Saul Paul) could have written the same lines in regard to their ancestry.  They were both descendants from Jacob’s and Rachel’s youngest son, Benjamin, and they were both named “Sha’ul” (Saul).

Both Sha’uls (Sauls) knew and tried to kill the “David’s” of their time: King Sha’ul (Saul) knew and later tried to kill David, and in the New Testament, Sha’ul Paulus (Saul Paul) knew and tried to kill the disciples of the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus), the son of David.  Some might argue that in the New Testament, Sha’ul (Saul) did not chase, arrest, torture and kill Yeshua (Jesus), but His Jewish disciples.  But on the road to Damascus, when Sha’ul (Saul) encounters the Risen Messiah Yeshua [Jesus], look what Yeshua [Jesus] tells him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4)  Yeshua [Jesus] did not ask him why he was persecuting His followers, but “why are you persecuting Me?”  So Sha’ul (Saul) was, in fact, persecuting the son of David, as his namesake in the Tanakh (“Old Testament”) persecuted David.

When Sha’ul (Saul) then asks, “Who are You, Lord?”  Yeshua [Jesus] responds,

I am Jesus [Heb. Yeshua] whom you are persecuting:  it is hard for you to kick against the pricks. (Acts 9:5)

It is clear that Yeshua [Jesus] saw Sha’ul’s (Saul’s) attack against His disciples as an attack against Him.  King Sha’ul (Saul) attacked David, and ultimately committed suicide, rather than be captured by the Philistines (I Samuel 31:1-6), but the Sha’ul (Saul) of the New Testament, who was chasing and attacking the Messiah, the son of David, was given a revelation of the Messiah on the road to Damascus, where he saw the truth, and then became an ardent follower and ‘emissary (or apostle) of the Messiah, as well as the writer of half of the New Testament.  The parallels here are indeed interesting.

PAUL – AN ORTHODOX JEW & A ROMAN CITIZEN

Then in Acts 22, we also learn that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29); this, of course, explains why Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) had both a Hebrew and a Roman name.  But when Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is arrested in the Temple complex, he asks the guard to allow him to address the crowd in Hebrew.  In this address, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) states,

Men, brethren, and fathers, hear you my defense which I make now unto you.  (And when they heard that he spoke in the Hebrew tongue to them, they kept the more silence; and he said;) I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia [a providence in Turkey], yet brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day.

Notice that in this address, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) addresses three groups within the crowd: “Men, brethren, and fathers.”  The term “Men” being used in a general sense, the term “brethren” being used to perhaps address other Jewish men of his own age or perhaps to address other Jewish Pharisees within the crowd.  The term “fathers” is used to address those older than Sha’ul Paulus (Paul).  In essence, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) here is identifying himself as being a part of the crowd that he is addressing, and this is an important point.  Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) does not see himself as being something different than the Jews he is addressing, but that he is a part of them, and they, in turn, are a part of him.  They are one people, and he is addressing them as such.  So even though this speech is recorded down in Acts in Greek (just like the rest of the book of Acts), the text tells us that He spoke it in Hebrew.  Consequently, what we are reading is the English translation of Luke’s Greek translation of what Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) said in Hebrew to the crowd.

ABOUT HIS EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND

In addition to this, we learn from this address that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was “brought up in this city” of Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers.”  What is really interesting is when we compare the King James version of this verse with the same verse in the Interlinear Greek-English New Testament:

King James Version

Interlinear Greek-English
New Testament

I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and TAUGHT ACCORDING TO THE PERFECT MANNER OF THE LAW OF THE FATHERS, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. I indeed am a man a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, being brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, HAVING BEEN INSTRUCTED ACCORDING TO [THE] EXACTNESS OF THE ANCESTRAL LAW, being a zealous one for God, even as all ye are this day.

When two groups are opposed to one another over an issue, one side tends to “demonize” the other side.  In this address, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is reaching out to his audience, building bridges between him and them, trying to show that he is not, in fact, some “demon” who is trying to destroy them or their world.  He is like them.  He is like them in being part of the city of Jerusalem, He is like them in his upbringing, and He is like them in being zealous for God.  He is not the enemy; he is like them.

But what I also find interesting about his address are the differences between these two versions of what he said.  The phrase “perfect manner” in the King James is the term “exactness” in the Interlinear Greek-English NT, and the word “fathers” in the King James is the term “ancestral” in the Interlinear Greek-English NT.  When we look at this from a direct Greek translation, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is crediting Gamaliel here of teaching him in the “exact” interpretation, meaning and understanding of the “ancestral law,” i.e., the writings of Mosheh (Moses).  This is extremely high praise that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is giving to his teacher and mentor, Gamaliel.  In essence, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is saying that he learned the “ancestral law” from the best of the best!  And that as a result of his excellent teaching and instruction, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was as “zealous toward God” as the Jewish audience is that he’s addressing.

In addition, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is also saying by this that the way to interpret and understand the “ancestral law” [or Heb. Torah] is the “exact,” right way to interpret and understand it.  The inference from this is that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is alluding that what he teaches is in essence (though with some changes in light of Yeshua [Jesus]) the same thing that he learned from Gamaliel, who as Torah-teachers are concerned is “the best of the best!”  So rather than placing himself outside of Pharisaic teaching of the 2nd Temple period, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) here is placing himself firmly within it.

Now if Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) here had said anything that was not accurate, there were plenty of people there who could have contradicted his statement, but no one does.  So from the silence of the crowd, we can infer that it was well-known that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) had, indeed, been a student of Gamaliel.

WHO IS “GAMALIEL”?

Most Christians should recognize Gamaliel’s name from Acts 5.  In Acts 5, Yeshua’s [Jesus’s] disciples have been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin for the second time for preaching about Yeshua [Jesus].  It is during this second trial that we read,

Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named GAMALIEL, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; and he said to them, “You men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do as touching these men.  For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: whom was slain [killed]; and all, as man as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to naught.   After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.  And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this council or this work be of men, it will come to naught.  But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5:34-39; emphasis mine)

Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee in Jerusalem and a highly respected member of the Sanhedrin, was the one who advised the other members of the Sanhedrin to let the disciples “alone.”  There’s no evidence to suggest he was a believer in Yeshua [Jesus]; in fact, his advice actually implies that he is not a believer, yet he does advise caution.  He presents to the Sanhedrin what’s known as a Precedent Argument, that is, an argument based on previous examples (two in this case): Theudas and Judas the Galilean.   Based upon these two precedents, Gamaliel argues here that if the Sanhedrin would just leave the disciples of Yeshua [Jesus] alone that ultimately the disciples, like the disciples of the two given examples, would ultimately be “scattered and come to naught.”  In other words, if this thing is of human origin, then they need to quit “encouraging the fire” by their persecution of it, and then this thing would just fall apart and become nothing in time.  But if this thing is of divine origin, then they will not be able to overthrow it, and they will place themselves in opposition against God Himself.

Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel the Elder, one of the prominent founders and leaders of one of the schools of Pharisaic Judaism, known in Hebrew as Beyt Hillel (pron. “Bayt Hill-el”; “the School/Community of Hillel”).  Gamaliel not only passed on his grandfather’s teachings, but he built on them as well.  He became a highly respected leader among the people, and as I said, was a member of the Sanhedrin.  And as a leading teacher in Beyt Hillel (School/community of Hillel), he would’ve passed many of Hillel’s teachings, along with his own, down to His disciples, including that of Sha’ul Paulus (or Paul).

For example, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) would have been taught this teaching from Hillel the Elder,

Be the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, and pursuing peace, loving your fellow-creatures, and drawing them near to the Law [Heb. Torah]. (Avoth or “Ethics of the Fathers” 1:12)

Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) would’ve known this teaching of Hillel that was taught to him by GamalielHillel also did not believe that non-Jewish men had to be circumcised before they could become a part of the Jewish community.  This may surprise many Christians.  However, the other school of Pharisaism did.  It was known as Beyt Shammai [pron. “Bayt Shuhm-migh”; “School/Community of Shammai”].  The following story about Hillel and Shammai comes from A. Cohen’s  book Everyman’s Talmud, page 65:

The story is told that a heathen came to Shammai with the request to be accepted as a convert on condition he was taught the whole of Torah while he stood on one foot.  The Rabbi [Shammai] drove him away with the yard-stick which he was holding.  He then went to Hillel with the same request; and he [Hillel] said to him: ‘What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow-man.  That is the whole of Torah and the remainder is but commentary.  Now, go and learn. [Shab. 31a]

This account would have been well known to both Yeshua [Jesus] and Sha’ul Paulus [Paul].  What’s interesting to me is the contrast between Hillel and Shammai.  In Paul Johnson’s book The History of the Jews, he notes the following about the distinct differences between these two men:

To Shammai, the essence of the Torah lay in its detail; unless you got the detail exactly right, the system became meaningless and could not stand.  To Hillel, the essence of the Torah was its spirit: if you got the spirit right, the detail could take care of itself. (127)

For Shammai, the detail of the Torah, like circumcision, had to be done BEFORE a gentile, a non-Jew, could become a part of God’s people, but this was not the belief of Hillel.  Why is this important?  Because look at Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) own confession in the book of Galatians,

And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still [being] persecuted?  then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished.  (NASB, Galatians 5:11)

From this, we learn two things:

  • Before his transformation from a persecutor of the Jews who believed that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah to a fellow believer and one of the important leaders of the movement, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) used to go around and preach circumcision to non-Jews.  He went from place to place preaching circumcision, the need for non-Jews to be circumcised in order to become a part of God’s people.
  • By not preaching circumcision anymore, the new message that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) is preaching has become a “stumbling block” to many.

But why is he preaching circumcision?  The school/community of Hillel did not require it for non-Jews to be a part of God’s people, but the school/community of Shammai did.  In other words, Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) so strongly desires to climb the social ladder of his day that he was trying to satisfy both schools at the same time.  In the U.S., we would say that he is “burning the candle at both ends.”  That can work for a while, but ultimately, it no longer works (i.e., you run out of candle).

In his transformation experience with Yeshua [Jesus] on the road to Damascus, Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] is brought back to what he had been taught by his teacher Gamaliel about circumcision, that for non-Jews, it was not required.  Consequently, then, contrary to what Christians have traditionally taught, Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) message that non-Jews do not have to be circumcised to be “saved” (i.e., to go to heaven) does NOT remove him from 2nd Temple Judaism at all, nor does it remove him from the Pharisaic teachings of his day.  Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) remained throughout his life “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee.”

ABOUT PAUL’S MARITAL STATE

WAS PAUL SINGLE OR MARRIED?

Although there are many who teach the traditional view that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was single, and not married, the historical evidence likewise contradicts this view.  According to the early Church historian, Eusebius (260 – 340 A.D.), who collected and recorded the facts and details of the early church – whether the information was favorable to the movement or not, he writes that Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) was, in fact, a married man:

Peter and Philip, indeed, had children, Philip also gave his daughters in marriage to husbands, and Paul does not demur in a certain epistle to mention his own wife, whom he did not take about with him, in order to expedite his ministry the better. (Book 3, chapter 30, page 95)

This quote is found in the English translation of his writings, entitled Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: Complete and Unabridged, which was translated by C.F. Cruse.

What many people do not know is that not all of Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) epistles are in the New Testament, due to the fact that some were lost to history.  For example, we know that what is known as I Corinthians and II Corinthians are really Sha’ul Paulus’ (Paul’s) second and fourth letters to the church at Corinth.  His actual first and third letters have been lost to history, and all we have left of those four letters are the two letters within our Bibles.  It might have been in one of those missing letters where Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) had made mention of his wife.  And, unfortunately, whatever happened to his wife, we have no way of knowing.

 

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