Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Part I: Preparation for the Ministry

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St. Paul dates the beginning of his preparation for the ministry as far back as the day of his birth. He says himself that he was set apart for the Gospel of God from his mothers womb (Rom 1:1, Gal 1:15). All of the circumstances of his upbringing and subsequent lifehis social position, his intellectual training, his religious creedcombined to be a most eminent schooling for the mission he was destined to accomplish later in lifeto declare the universality of the Gospel and to gather the Gentiles into the fold of Christ. The way in which divine Providence had ordered the circumstances of his early life was very remarkable, in that it furnished him with a wide variety of studies and experiences such as would be needed to preach the good news to a diverse and fragmented world.

There were three countries in the ancient world which are commonly identified as the benefactors of the modern worldRome, Greece, and Judea. Rome, foremost of all nations in the science of government, has handed down to us the principles of law and order. Greece, drawing from her vast resources of thought and imagination, has been the origin of our art and literature. Above all, from the land of Judea we have learned our true relation to God, which gives significance to art and literature and an eternal value to law and order. While Rome formed the bone and sinews of the civilized man, and Greece infused him with grace and beauty, it was Judea that breathed life into him.i

All these three influences were combined in the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He was a citizen of Rome. His native city, Tarsus, was a great university of Greece. He was brought up in the Jews religion in its most traditional and rigorous form. Sometimes we are inclined to dwell solely on the Jewish education of St. Pauls ministry, which figures most prominently indeed in his epistles; but the other elements of his training must not be neglected. He whose maxim it was to "become all things to all men" and who had to travel extensively throughout a Roman empire and Greek society must have availed himself of the "Gentile" side of his education to the utmost.

1. First let us consider St. Paul as a citizen of Rome. This greatest of social honors, the civitas of Rome, was undoubtedly possessed by St. Paul, according to his own testimony.ii Since he was born a Roman citizen, it is certain that his father had acquired the citizenship before him, although we do not know how he was able to acquire it. Roman citizenship was originally confined to freeborn natives of the city of Rome; but as the empire grew and spread its borders, the franchise was also extended to select individuals of provincial lands. Although Cilicia was a Roman province, its capitalTarsuswas a free city, and as such was exempt from a Roman garrison, was governed by its own laws and enjoyed immunity from public taxes. But nowhere is it hinted that Tarsians were all Romans; and so, it must be presumed that Pauls father had won the citizenship by the performance of some noble duty on behalf of the empire, which he then passed on to his son by inheritance.iii

This citizenship was one of the indispensable traits God had worked into the life of the Apostle in order to guarantee him the right and freedom to move about easily in a vast and distant empire. To a Roman his citizenship was his passport in foreign lands and his protection in seasons of danger. It shielded him alike from the caprice of municipal law and the injustice of local magistrates. It had granted him safe discharge from the prison at Philippi;iv it loosed his chains in the fortress of Antonia;v it rescued him from an angry mob and hurried him under escort to Caesarea;vi and it gave him the right to be transferred from the hearing of a local governor to the court of Caesar himself.vii These are but a few instances of the many perilous obstacles which we can well imagine St. Paul overcame by the right to call himself "Roman".viii

2. Now let us consider St. Paul born in Tarsus of Cilicia, a "no mean city", as he himself styles it. According to the geographer Strabo, writing near the beginning of the first century AD, the inhabitants of Tarsus were a highly cultured and intellectual people. They applied themselves so avidly to the study of philosophy and liberal arts, the whole "encyclopedia of learning" in general, that the University of Tarsus surpassed even Athens and Alexandria in its day. "Its great pre-eminence," Strabo adds, "consists in that the men of learning here are all natives."ix Tarsus was what we would call a university cityone in which the pursuit and diffusion of knowledge was the primary goal of social life.

How far St. Paul availed himself of such an opportunity to gain a learning of Greek literaturehow much of his boyhood was spent in the University of Tarsus and how much in the University of Jerusalemwe cannot say. It is probable that his Jewish teacher Gameliel, who was distinguished for his liberality of mind and sympathy for genuine Gentile wisdom, would have at least encouraged him not to neglect Greek culture. One thing is evident: his epistles exhibit a profound familiarity with Pagan ways. The picture he paints of the degradation of the heathen world in the opening chapters of Romans, or his address to the philosophical Athenians from the Areopagus, show how thoroughly St. Paul entered into the moral and religious mindset of the heathen world. These examples along with the generally deep insight with which he applies the Gospel to his Gentile hearers must be ascribed to lessons derived early in life from his residence in the center of a great school of Greek thought and learning.x

3. Thus far we have dwelt solely upon the Gentile side of St. Pauls preparation; now there is left to be considered the most important part. He was a Jew in the strictest sense of the term. This is his own account of himself: "If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews." Or as Lightfoot paraphrases: "I was not admitted to the privileges of the covenant late in life, like a proselyte. I was circumcised on the earliest day as sanctioned by the law. I was not even the son of proselyte parents, but of the race of IsraelIsrael the chosen of God. I was not descended from the rebellious Ephraim, who had played fast and loose with the covenant, as many Jews are, but from the select tribe of Benjamin, always faithful to Jehovah. I had no admixture of alien blood in my veins, for my ancestors from first to last were Hebrews."xi

From this description it may be positively concluded that, though St. Pauls family lived in a Greek-speaking city and enjoyed citizen rights therein, they strongly resisted Hellenizing tendencies and remained strictly loyal to the language and customs of traditional Hebrew religion; they were not in the least inclined to adopt Greek habits or Greek opinions.xii They were certain, for example, to make the young Saul familiar with the history of his own illustrious tribe. The life of the great Patriarch, father of the twelve; the loneliness of Jacob, who sought to comfort himself in Benoni "the son of my sorrow", by calling him Benjamin, "the son of the right hand" (Genesis 35:18); then the turbulent days of the youngest of the twelve patriarchs, the famine, the severity of Joseph, the wonderful story of the silver cup in the sackthese are all stories which were inculcated in him from his earliest days, and which he no doubt listened to with the greatest of interest and delight. And in order to assure that the memory and pride of his tribe would be kept alive, he was assigned the name of its first king: Shal.xiii

His early religious training followed that of every Jewish boy. At the age of five he would begin the study of the Holy Bible with his parents at home. At ten he would begin the study of those earlier and simpler developments of the oral law which were gathered into the Mishna. At thirteen, he would by a ceremonial event become a "Son of the Commandment" (bar mitzvah), where the boy now understood the Law and was fully accountable for his actions. And as every precocious boy who was destined to enter an honorable profession of Judaism, such as becoming a lawyer or scribe, he was sent by his parents to complete his education in the school at Jerusalem.xiv

It was at Jerusalem that he was put under the tutelage of the famed Rabban Gamaliel. Gamaliel, the grandson of the great Jewish doctor Hillel, was so revered for his learning and character that he is one of the seven among Jewish doctors who have been honored with the title "Rabban".xv As Aquinas was called Doctor Angelicus by the medieval schoolmen, 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." All the Talmudic notices of him agree with the statement in Acts, that he was "held in respect by all the people." He was a Pharisee; but he was not confined by the narrow-mindedness of his sect. His liberality of intellect showed itself in his allowance of Greek literature, and his largeness of heart in the tolerance which breathes through his speech before the Sanhedrin.xvi It was at the feet of this eminent Sanhedrist that the young Saul sat probably for many years of his early life. He had gleaned from his master on the one hand an earnest and indefatigable zeal for the Jewish law, an unyielding drive to holiness and piety, and a love for the "traditions of the fathers". On the other hand, despite the burning zeal of his temperament which often drove him to excesses of intolerance toward heretics and Gentiles alike, we can see from St. Pauls later lifein the charity and generosity shown to those in error, in the earnest care shown to the churches, in the whole-hearted acceptance of the Gentilesthe seeds sown in the heart of the young pupil by the character of his master which lay dormant till they would sprout when first the glorious light shown on them on the way to Damascus.xvii

It is important to mention here the importance of Sauls connection with the Pharisees. Of the three sects that ruled Jewish thought in the Apostolic agethe Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenesit is only Pharisaic doctrine that could have adequately prepared Saul for the preaching of the Gospel. For whatever may have been their faults, they alone entered into the religious life of the nation. They were the true representatives of the consciousness of the chosen people in two important respects: their belief in the immortality of the soul and in the cherished expectation of the Messiah. The Sadducees would be wholly unable to understand "salvation" when they disbelieved in anything after death to be saved from; and even if they did maintain some faint Messianic hope, it was rendered meaningless by their denial of a future state. And so again with the Essenes; however noble we may consider their mystical reveries to beespecially when surrounded by a Judaism that was altogether stiffened into mere formalismstill in their isolation from national life they cut themselves off from the historic consciousness which had always been the lifeblood of the people, and with it the anticipations of the coming Messiah.xviii It is not the faith of the Sadducee, nor of the Essene, but only of the Pharisee, a son of Pharisees, that could travel from continent to continent to preach "the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers."xix

There is still the last and maybe most important aspect of St. Pauls background as a Jew and Pharisee to be considered. As the years of his religious life went on, he began to feel the increasing weight of the Law upon his back. In the mind of a Pharisee, to every preceptand they were many and minuteabsolute obedience was due. We know from his own testimony how seriously he strove to fulfill the outward demands of the Law; concerning its righteous demands he was "blameless".xx Yet we may trace in his epistlesxxi how bitterly he felt the emptiness of this outward obediencehow galling and how burdensome had become "the curse of the Law". He increasingly felt the pressure of a yoke which, in the words of St. Peter, "neither his fathers nor he were able to bear." He had attained flawless moral obedience to every precept; yet all this did not satisfy the innermost yearnings of his soul. Could all these Levitical minutiae, all these exacting prohibitions and splitting of theological hairs, really justify a sinner before a holy God? There undoubtedly grew in that sincere and honest heart a groping for another answer. The Mosaic Law could never adequately restore the broken love between man and God; he found it rather to put a strain on that loveto show how impotent and incapable man was of restoring a true relationship with God. The real answer must be found in another "law". And that law was the law of gracethe quintessential doctrine of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Only after thoroughly experiencing the "spirit of bondage" could he fully understand himself, and then teach others, the blessings of the "spirit of adoption".xxii

We have thus traced the three threads which were woven into the Apostles mind to strengthen its fabric and prepare him for his great work. St. Pauls preparation for the ministry is a most remarkable instance of divine Providence: the man who was to evangelize the entire world had the entire world contained within himself from the beginning. His nationality, culture, and religious upbringing spanned across countries and continents. His total character was, as it were, a cross-section of the entire human race. It may be said that when we first meet Saul in the Acts he bears none but his Jewish influences. He is a narrow-minded zealot, a merciless persecutor; he displays none of the patience or sobriety that developed in his later life. But is it not a common experience of man that the lessons learned early in life lay dormant and unnoticed, till they are suddenly awakened to activity from some electric stroke from without? That stroke came for St. Paul on the way to Damascus. The lightning from above fused the loose fragments of the Apostles character and gave it new shape; and "the knife of the torturer was forged into the sword of the Spirit".xxiii

i Lightfoot 202.
ii Acts 22:27.
iii Lewin 2.
iv Acts 16:37 sqq.
v Acts 22:25 sqq.
vi Acts 23:27.
vii Acts 25:12.
viii As Bishop Lightfoot points out, the citizenship also prepared Paul for the preaching of the Gospel in a way even more profound than just as a right of passage to distant countries: "So strong is the impression left in his mind, that he chooses the Roman franchise as the fittest image of the position of the believer in his heavenly kingdomI maintain it a universal principle, says Cicero, that there is no nation anywhere so hostile or disaffected to the Roman people, none so united by ties of faith and friendship, that we are debarred from admitting them to the right of citizens. What wonder then if the Apostle saw a peculiar fitness in this image? In the guarantee it offered to individual freedom, in its independence of circumstances of time and space, in its superiority over inferior obligations, in the sympathy it established between all members of the community, in the universality of its application, lying as it did within the reach of all, far or near, friend or foein all these points it expressed, as no other earthly institution could do, the eternal relations of the kingdom of Christ. Hence the language of St. Paul, Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). Only perform your duties as citizens in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Phil 1:27)."
ix Strabo xiv.
x Lightfoot 206.
xi Lightfoot 207.
xii See the discussion of the differences between "Hellenists" and "Hebrews" in the beginning of the section on St. Stephen.
xiii Conybeare & Howson 36.
xiv Farrar 25.
xv Conybeare & Howson 47.
xvi Acts 5:34 sqq.
xvii Canon Farrar states: "With the exception of Hillel, there is no one of the Jewish Rabbis, so far as we see them in the light of history, whose virtues made him better suited to be a teacher of a Saul, than Hillels grandson. We must bear in mind that the dark side of Pharisaism which is brought before us in the Gospels, the common and current Pharisaism, half hypocritical, half mechanical, and wholly selfish, which justly incurred the brightly flash of Christs denunciationwas not the only aspect which Pharisaism could wear. When we speak of Pharisaism, we mean obedience petrified into formalism, religion degraded into rituals, morals cankered by casuistry; we mean the triumph and perpetuity of all the worst and weakest elements in religious party-spirit. But there were Pharisees and Pharisees. The New Testament furnishes us with a favorable picture with the candor and wisdom of a Nicodemus and a Gamaliel. In the Talmud, among many other stately figures who walk in a peace and righteousness worthy of the race which sprang from Abraham, we see the lovable and noble characters of a Hillel, of a Simeon, of a Chaja, of a Juda the "holy". It was when he thought of such as these, that, even long after his conversion, St. Paul could exclaim before the Sanhedrin with no sense of shame or contradiction, "Men and brethren, I am a Pharissee, a son of Pharisees."
xviii Lightfoot 210.
xix Acts 26:6.
xx Phil 3:6.
xxi E.g. Rom 7.
xxii Conybeare & Howson 52.
xxiii Lightfoot 211.

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