Given that historians look to those who are contemporaries of the events, Paul is an important resource for what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s letters. Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Both Christian and non-Christian scholars have come to have great respect Paul. Allow me to mention a few comments here:
“Without knowing about first century Judaism, modern readers—even those committed to faith by reading him—are bound to misconstrue Paul’s writing…Paul is a trained Pharisee who became the apostle to the Gentiles.” –Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), xi-xii
“Paul has left us an extremely precious document for Jewish students, the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew…Moreover, if we take Paul at his word—and I see no a priori reason not to—he was a member of the Pharisaic wing of first century Judaism.”–Daniel Boyarian, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.
“Paul was a scholar, an attendant of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, well-versed in the laws of Torah.”-Rabbi Jacob Emeden (1679-1776)–cited by Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 18.
Allow me to list some of the basics every Christian should know about Paul:
1. Paul was educated
In this case, I have adapted much of this material from A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Galatians (The Jewish Roots of the New Testament) by Joseph Shulam and Hilary Le Cornu. I have taken most of these points from their section called Paul: A Biography, pgs, 435-469.
1. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel.
2. Hillel the Elder was nicknamed “the Babylonian” because he was descended from a family of Babylon.
3. Beit Hillel ended up having three successors, Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder being the first Sage esteemed with the honorific title of Rabban—“our master.”
4. The house of Hillel was unique in that it was an example of a family of who originated from the diaspora, with no priestly connections, which attained the position of hereditary leaders of the nation until, in the time of Rabbi Judah ha Nasi (170-200 C.E.), its members were officially recognized as by the Roman government as Patriarchs.
5. Beit Hillel ended up having three successors, Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder being the first Sage esteemed with the honorific title of Rabban—“our master.” The New Testament evidence demonstrates that Paul belonged to Beit Hillel rather than Beit Shammai. This is supported by Paul’s halakhot (with the possible exception of his view of the legal status of women), his tolerance and openness of Gentiles, some of his no literal interpretations, and his anthropocentric rather than theocentric emphases.
5. The Talmudic sources distinguish between the beit sefer (i.e., the house of the book”) wherein the (sofer) taught the reading of the written Torah- and the beit talmud (i.e., the house of learning). Children would learn the alphabet and how to read in the former, the teacher would write the letters on a wax tablet with a stylus and the pupils would recite them aloud. Reading skills were attained through repetition after the teacher and auditive memory since the scriptural text was not yet vocalized, students were dependent on the teacher’s precision in orally transmitting the precise reading for every passage.
6. Young children were taught how to read and understand the Torah and Prophets, to recite the Shema and the basic blessings over the food, and received instruction regarding their future roles in family and command of life. Following years of Bible study, students moved on to the study of the Oral Torah. School studies would finish at the age of twelve or thirteen (bar mitzvah age) and of the boy was gifted and so inclined he would then enroll at a “beit midrash” to study Torah with other adults who devoted themselves to Torah study in their spare time.
7. If he showed further ability and willingness he could go to one of the famous Sages and learn from him for a number of years. Gamaliel would of served as one of the foremost teachers of the “beit midrash” (e.g., a college or “seminary”) conducted by pharisaic leaders within the Sanhedrin. Therefore, given that Gamaliel was such a distinguished teacher, it may be possible that Paul began to study with him only after he had displayed great promise and reached an age whereby he could profit from learning under a great master like Gamaliel.
8. In the relationship between the students and teacher, a deep bond could be established which led to great love and respect. The subject matter of study revolved around three main areas: Bible, midrash (creative biblical interpretation), aggadah (narrative elaboration of the biblical text). Since Paul’s letters demonstrate a strong familiarity with biblical text among other ways, since he quotes from the Tanakh over ninety times in his letters, the standard hermeneutical rules are displayed both halakhically and aggadically.
9. Paul spoke mishnaic Hebrew/Aramaic as well as Greek (cf. Acts 21:37), in addition to possessing a reading knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Paul also demonstrated he was familiar with Greek poets (e.g., Epimendies, Aratus, Euripides, Memander). Therefore, since Paul’s letters show familiarity with rabbinic methods for interpretation of Scripture and popular Hellenistic philosophy to a degree, this makes it likely that he received a formal education in both areas.
2. Paul as an active persecutor
The language Paul uses in his pre-revelatory encounter with the risen Lord shows how antagonistic he was towards the messianic movement. In Gal. 1:13-15, Paul uses terms such as “persecute” and “destroy” to describe his efforts to put and end to the spread of the early faith. We see here:
Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him (Stephen) to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1-3).
Furthermore, Luke summarizes Paul’s persecution of the early Messianic community.
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:10-11).
3. Paul’s Antagonism Towards the Early Messianic Movement
Paul doesn’t give a list of reasons as to why he persecuted the early Messianic community. It may be that Paul perceived faith in Jesus as a threat to Torah obedience. His zeal for the Torah is evident in his Letters (Phil. 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13). Any tampering with the Torah was off limits cause it defined the identity of the Jewish people. Or, perhaps Paul wanted to help keep the peace. Hence, he feared a Roman reprisal of a Jewish sect proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. Another possibility is that given that Deut. 21:22f. puts “the one who is hanged under a divine curse” and Paul’s language about the offensiveness of a crucified Messiah (1 Cor. 1:23), Paul knew the seriousness of his fellow countrymen proclaiming a crucified blasphemer like Jesus. In the end, we can’t be dogmatic as to why Paul was the persecutor that he was. Paul doesn’t list his reasons for why he persecuted the early followers of Jesus.
4. Paul’s Encounter with the Risen Messiah
Paul did not follow Jesus from the beginning. However, Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). His turning to Jesus happened though a dramatic revelatory encounter (Acts 9: 1-7). His first years as a follower of Jesus in Arabia remain a mystery. Three years later he went to Jerusalem to visit; this is where he saw Peter and James. Paul’s account of his calling in Galatians 1:15-16 is similar to what Jeremiah’s says about his own calling:
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal 1:15-17)
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jer.1: 4-5)
Regarding what happened to Paul, he more likely received a “call” rather than a conversion to a new religion. He says “ I am a Jew” (Acts 22;3) “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23;6), and “I am a prisoner for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). Notice that Paul didn’t say “I was a Pharisee” or that “I was a Jew.” He saw his calling as being in line with the same divine mission that was given to the prophets of the Old Testament.
5. Paul’s Letters: Primary and Secondary Sources
Remember, written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness. A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. Since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).
6. Paul’s use of oral tradition terminology
Paul employs oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters in the following places:
Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”
1 Corinthians 11:23: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.
Philippians 4:9: The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
1 Thessalonians 2:13: For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
2 Thessalonians 2:15: So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
7. Why do Paul’s Letters Matter?
Paul’s letters are dated between AD 40 and 60. These are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. Therefore, to jump to the Gospels as the earliest records to the life of Jesus is a tactical mistake.
Note: To see some of the common objections to Paul, see our post Evidence We Want and Evidence We Should Expect: A Look at Paul’s Letters