God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.
Paul grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in a Gentile city. The Bible gives us only a few pieces of information about his upbringing; but based on those tidbits, we may draw a number of conclusions.
We know that Paul was reared as closely to the letter of the Jewish law as possible (see Phil. 3:5-6); therefore, based on Scripture and the traditional Jewish code of law, we can describe many details of his young life. We will begin our study of the apostle in the most appropriate place—his cradle.
The following narrative describes the events that most likely took place soon after his birth. The story line is fictional to help you picture the events, but the circumstances and the practices are drawn from Scripture and the Jewish code of law. “For centuries the Code of Jewish Law has been and continues to be the cornerstone of Jewish life. Its rules and precepts are the guardians of Jewish custom and tradition and an eternal light guiding Jewish moral, social, and religious behavior.” Sit back and imagine the beginning of one of the most significant lives in all Christendom.
“I thank Thee, O living and eternal King, Who hast mercifully restored my soul within me; Thy faithfulness is great.”
The words fell from his tongue while his eyes were still heavy from the night’s rest. His morning prayers invited unexpected emotion this particular dawn as he soberly considered the honor that lay before him. Eight days had passed since the birth of his friend’s son. Today would be the child’s Berit Milah. He would stand beside the father at the infant’s circumcision as the sandek, the Jewish godfather, assuming solemn responsibility—second only to the parents—over the child’s devout religious upbringing.
“I think they are naming him Saul,” said his wife.
“We shall not presume his name until we hear it from the lips of his father,” he responded.
He had intended to arrive first so he could assist the father with preparations, but a few members of the Minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish men, had already gathered at the door. Normally, the woman of a Jewish household would offer warm welcomes to visitors at her door, but the newborn’s mother was treated with utmost care during the days following her delivery. Friends and relatives assisted the father in any preparations that had to be made for Berit Milah, a tiny infant boy’s first initiation into Judaism.
The small house was filled with people. The father, a Pharisee and Roman citizen, was an impressive man. He was one of a few men in the community who seemed to command a certain amount of respect from both Jew and Gentile. When all had finally gathered, the ceremony began. The sandek took his place in a chair next to the father, who remained standing. The new father was not a particularly tall man, but the sandek couldn’t help but notice that his stature seemed particularly stretched today. And why not? What could make a Jewish man stand taller than a newborn son?
The infant was placed on the sandek’s knees, and the father leaned over him with greatest care to oversee the circumcision of his beloved son. He then handed the knife to the mohel, the most upright and expert circumcisor available in Tarsus. The father watched anxiously for the interval between the cutting of the foreskin and its actual removal. He could not help but smile as he competed with his wailing son for the attention of the quorum as he spoke the benediction, “Who hath sanctified us by His commandments and hath commanded us to bring him into the covenant of our father Abraham.” With the exception of the sandek, all who gathered stood for the ceremony and responded to the benediction with the words, “Just as he has been initiated into the covenant, so may he be initiated into the study of the Torah, to his nuptial [marriage] canopy, and to the performance of good deeds.”
No one could deny the blessings of good health God had already bestowed on the infant boy. The sandek had to hold him securely between his calloused palms to keep the child from squirming completely off his lap. His tiny face was blood-red, his volume at full scale. This may have been his first bout with anger, but it would not be his last. Had the ceremony not held such sober significance, the sandek might have snickered at the infant’s zeal. He dared not grin, but he did wonder if God was. Tears of joy stung his eyes. The child lying on his lap was yet another piece of tangible evidence that God was faithful to do as He promised. In a society where a child could be discarded as rubbish, nothing was more important to the Jew than offspring. Yes, God had been faithful to a thousand generations.
The circumcision was completed but not soon enough for the master of ceremonies. The sandek cradled the child with a moment’s comfort and then handed him to his father, whose voice resonated throughout the candlelit home, “His name is Saul!”
As if only a few could hear, the guests rehearsed the words in one another’s ears. “His name is Saul! His name is Saul!” A perfectly noble name for a Hebrew boy from the tribe of Benjamin, named for the first king of the chosen nation of Israel. A fine choice met with great approval. While a great feast ensued, the mother slipped the agitated infant from his father’s arms and excused herself to nurse the child.
Custom demanded that the father host a feast to the limits of his wealth. A man who offered less than he could afford at his son’s circumcision was entirely improper. If baby Saul’s father was anything at all, he was painfully proper. Yes, this would indeed be a child well reared. “I have much to learn from the father of Saul,” the sandek surmised.
Darkness was quickly falling when the sandek and his wife finally reached their home. The day had been long but the fellowship sweet. Gathered with those who feared God and worshiped Him only, he had almost forgotten this city was not their own. Tarsus, the city of the Greeks, had given birth to another Hebrew. “Dear wife,” the sandek thought out loud, “our Saul seems special, does he not?”
“Dear man,” she teased, “he looked like every other eight-day-old infant boy I’ve ever seen: mad as a wronged ruler!” They both laughed heartily. She prepared for bed as he reached for the Torah, trying to fight off the sleep quickly overtaking him. He repeated the words of the Shema, and then he walked over to the mezuzah fastened to the doorpost of the house and placed his fingers on it. The Mesusah was a small, longitudinally folded parchment square, containing twenty-two lines, some of the most vital Words of God. He responded to the touch with the familiar words of his own father every night of his life, “The Lord is my keeper.” He crawled into bed, remembered their words, and smiled once again. Then he whispered as his thoughts drifted into the night, “I still say he’s special. Full of zeal, he is. Just something about him...”
No doubt you just encountered some Hebrew terms you had never seen before. Those terms give a glimpse into the Judaism of the first century and shed light on the life of Paul. The sandek was the newborn’s chosen godfather. The Berit Milah was the ceremony of circumcision, performed on the infant’s eighth day. The Minyan was the quorum of ten Jewish men necessary for a synagogue.
In Galatians 1:15-16, Paul spoke of being “set apart from birth.” Genesis 17:1-11 describes circumcision as “the sign of the covenant” between God and the descendants of Abraham. We cannot overstate the importance of Paul’s Jewish identity. It powerfully affected his lifestyle in every waking moment. We cannot hope to understand Paul the man apart from the identity of Saul “the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6).
The home of any devout Jew in Paul’s generation would have been marked by a mezuzah, which actually meant “doorpost.” The parchment inside the mezuzah contained the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. These Scriptures were the absolute watchwords of the Jewish faith. You are probably familiar with the first passage:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 6:4-9)
The father’s benediction during the circumcision ceremony was obviously my conjecture based on research. It did, however, express the three obvious priorities of the devout Jew: the study of the Torah, marriage, and the performance of good deeds.
I hope our opening chapter spurred some distinct images of the ancient Jewish home and Paul’s probable beginnings. We have so much to learn together. You’re off to a great start!