The apostle Paul, born between 5-15 CE, was a devout Jew, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the churches; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). Aside from noting his association with the Pharisees—a sect or party of elite Jews who resided in Palestine (see the Explorations section for Josephus’ account of the Pharisees)—and his violent persecution of the followers of Jesus, Paul’s epistles are notably devoid of information about his homeland, adolescence, education, and familial background. To fill this lacuna, scholars of the New Testament turn to the Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the third gospel, Luke, some twenty years after Paul’s death (Paul was crucified during the latter stages of the emperor Nero’s persecution against the followers of Jesus, ca. 64-68 CE, while the Acts of the Apostles was written around the turn of the century). Although Luke describes Paul’s missionary activity in great detail, scholars continue to debate the historical verisimilitude of the narrative of Acts. Not only are there several instances in which Acts and the letters of Paul diverge or flatly contradict one another, but Luke himself has a clear ideological position: to show how the missionary activity of Jesus’ apostles shifted from the Jews to the Gentiles. Though many of the biographical details provided by Acts are highly plausible, they remain largely unverifiable.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Saul (Paul’s Jewish name; Acts 13:9) was born a Roman citizen in Tarsus in Cilicia (ancient Asia Minor, modern Turkey), a city brimming with Hellenistic culture, including a prominent school of Greek rhetoric. The fact that he was a second-generation citizen outside of Rome has led some to posit that Paul was born into a relatively prominent family, despite the fact that Luke describes Paul as a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:3). Whatever his precise social standing, Paul’s literacy placed him within a privileged minority of the ancient Mediterranean world, where literacy rates are estimated to be between 10-15% of the total population. His ability to read and write with rhetorical sophistication indicates that Paul received some type of formal education. Luke claims that Saul studied under the great legal teacher Gamaliel, where he was “educated strictly according to our [i.e. Jewish] ancestral law” in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Paul himself never mentions his educational background, nor that he had ever been to Jerusalem prior his missionary activity. As a Jew living in the Diaspora (that is, outside Palestine), Paul wrote his letters in Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient Mediterranean. Though he appears not to have known Aramaic, the dominant language of ancient Palestine, debate persists over whether Paul could read the Bible in its original Hebrew.
While Paul is identified as the author of thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-one letters, scholars now regard only seven as authentically Pauline (1 Thessalonians, 1&2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon). The remaining six letters fall into two categories of pseudonymous writings (letters written by someone else in Paul’s name): the Deutero-Pauline epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians), authored by a “second Paul,” a later writer (or writers) who chose to fashion his texts in the style of the genuine letters, and the Pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy, and Titus), letters written to his brethren, Titus and Timothy, instructing them in pastoral duties.
Written by Todd Berzon, Department of Religion, Columbia University
Works Consulted & Further Reading:
Bart Ehrman’s textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, remains the best source for basic information about the entire New Testament
Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997
Gager, John G. Reinventing Paul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977
Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990