Who Was Saul of Tarsus?
A good way to understand a person we have never met is to learn about how he lived his life. In the case of Saul (later known as Paul), we have plenty of first-hand material to work with, including statements by Saul himself.
He is first mentioned in Acts 7:58 at the stoning of the martyr Stephen. We read: “And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This means that Saul, as a direct witness to Stephen’s stoning, saw this man of immense and immovable faith there on his knees, facing death with a joyful hope while asking God to forgive his enemies. As the events unfold, we read in verse 60: “Then [Stephen] knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
How did the stoning of Stephen affect Saul? One would think he was deeply shaken and moved to compassion, but instead, we read the chilling words: “Saul wholeheartedly approved of Stephen’s death” (Acts 8:1, Amplified Bible).
Saul’s Education and Beliefs
Paul himself offers some insight as he presents his defense before the high council in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3–5). Here, Paul makes several significant points:
1. Where was he from?
“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia.” With this statement, Paul emphasizes his identity as a Jew by birth, which was significant in those days and in his situation.
2. Where did he study?
He was “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel.” Gamaliel, his teacher, was the preeminent religious and legal scholar of his time and was “held in respect by all the people” (Acts 5:34).
3. What was he taught?
He was “taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law.” This is a reference to the Old Testament scriptures that formed the foundation of a true Israelite’s religious education. The verse also mentions how zealously Saul pursued his studies.
4. What did he learn?
He “was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way [of the followers of Jesus] to the death.” We see how the young, enthusiastic, and perhaps overly zealous Saul became a fanatical enemy of the people who loved and followed Jesus.
Let us take a quick look at Saul’s career. Considering that Saul was instructed in the Word of God by his nation’s best teacher, his subsequent path into blind opposition to God’s will and way must have been paved by his own ambition and willfulness. We can attend the best schools with the wisest teachers and collect a lot of outward knowledge about God’s Word but still not recognize His will.
Saul’s Persecution of the Followers of Jesus
Acts 8:1 reads: “Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” As a well-educated Pharisee, Saul must already have enjoyed a good reputation among his peers to be an instigator of the persecution, as we see in verse 3.
During the persecutions, we read that“they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” Seeking refuge from persecution, the members of the church in Jerusalem fled to other places to save their lives and continue in their faith in Christ.
“As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” In the thrall of his cause, Saul did not differentiate between those he persecuted. He had only one objective, and that was to rid the earth of the Church and all who believed in Christ.
In Acts 9:1, we find this dramatic depiction of Saul the Persecutor: “Saul [was] still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” This picture evokes connotations of a powerful predator preparing to pounce on his prey. A similarly fervent zeal consumed Saul in his persecution of the Christians. Is it not terrifying to think that a Pharisee, educated in the scriptures of the Old Testament, was able to find pleasure in the sentencing and death of the followers of Christ while believing that he was serving God and doing His will? What a dangerous delusion did Saul serve!