From Jerusalem To Rome: Paul

WAS SHAUL A MEMBER OF SANHEDRIN?

Our next meeting is with Paul (Shaul -Saul). When Stephen was stoned by the Sanhedrin, Shaul was present:  “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” This is the first mention of Paul in the New Testament. We all know that soon, Shaul will experience a revelation of Jesus and will become his passionate follower and apostle. Meanwhile, however, he is there – why? Is he there because of his zeal or because of his formal status?

Here is what the Talmud says about the sentence of stoning during the time of the Second Temple: “a man was stationed at the door of the court with the signaling flag in his hand, and a horse-man was stationed at the distance yet within sight of him, and then if one says, ‘I have something to state in his favor’, the signaler waves the flag, and the horseman runs and stops them.”[1]

The signaling flag was called in Hebrew a sudar; this word could also mean “scarf, shawl”. David Stern, in his “Jewish New Testament Commentary,” brings the opinion that a Greek writer of Acts (or a Greek translator of Acts from a presumed original Hebrew text) didn’t understand the Jewish context and therefore wrote of laying coats at Shaul’s feet, while Shaul was, in fact, a member of the Sanhedrin holding the sudar. If this interpretation is correct, then Acts 7:58 can be read as evidence of Shaul being a member of the Sanhedrin before his conversion.

 

SHAUL ON THE STRAIGHT STREET 

Then in Acts 9, we read about a life-changing encounter: Jesus reveals Himself to this Pharisee. This revelation turns Shaul’s life upside-down and gives new meaning to everything he knew and believed. Have you ever considered what went on inside Shaul during his three days in Damascus, on the street called Straight? What did he meditate on during his enforced inactivity, as he reassessed – straightened – his life and beliefs?

Maybe even today, in the age of digital cameras, some of you still remember how ordinary, non-digital photographs were developed in the (not so distant) past. The film was placed in a special solution – the developer – and sometime later a picture would begin to appear. First, the contours would appear, then the finer details of the image, and after a while, the whole picture would emerge. In fact, this is the purpose of the developer:  to make the latent image visible.

To me, this entire process has always seemed like some sort of mysterious, almost mystical undertaking. It seems completely incredible that, on the one hand, the image is already there – it already exists in its entirety, perfectly imprinted on the film, the complex chemical process changes nothing about this image and adds nothing to it – it merely develops, puts on display, and reveals what was already there. However, on the other hand, although only this one step separates us from seeing what is imprinted on the photograph, without this step, without developing the film, we will never discover what is embedded in it; until the developer does its job the latent image remains invisible. 

Now we can better understand what happened to Shaul.  As we know, he studied the Torah and Scriptures his whole life, but until these Scriptures were “developed”, he didn’t see Jesus there. Let us meditate together on this situation:  Paul didn’t get any new texts, no New Testament scroll fell on him from heaven – these were the same Scriptures, the same texts of the Tanakh, that he had read his entire life. There is a traditional Christian view of Paul’s conversion from Judaism, which goes somewhat like this: ‘Once upon a time, there was a good, but deluded Jew who zealously read and tried to fulfill the Torah, but meanwhile he had no relationship whatsoever with the living God. Then suddenly, upon meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, he understood everything, made a decisive break from Israel and the Torah, changed his clothes, and became a normal person and an exemplary Christian – a forerunner of the brand new religion (Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal – depending on what denomination is laying forth these views).’ I hope that, for most of my readers, it is perfectly obvious just how ludicrous of an anachronism this traditional image is. It does not stand up to either biblical or historical, criticism: Shaul could not have become a Christian in the sense that we understand it today, if for no other reason than that, at the time he met Jesus,  such a word did not even exist (the first time this term appears is in Acts 11:26).

Nonetheless, it is indubitable that, after his meeting on the Damascus Road, a change occurred, not only in the heart but also in the head of this Pharisee. Once again, what was going on within Shaul during those three days that he spent, shocked and blinded, in fasting and prayer in Damascus on Straight Street, before Ananias was sent to him? What did he think about during his imposed standstill, while rethinking – straightening out – his life and his convictions, without the ability to physically read, and therefore mentally paging through the Scriptures on which he was nurtured? Following the analogy with the developer, we can say that these Scriptures began to be “developed” – to be seen, understood, and read in a completely new light. They had always been his life, the meaning and the foundation for his existence, but now, to his incredible bewilderment, the One who three days ago he had been perfectly confident was not there, simply could not be there, began appearing on these pages – confirming no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said.[2]

THE UNKNOWN RABBI

The Church has always asserted that Shaul gave up his old name and took a new Christian name in order to identify himself as no longer a Jew, but a Christian. Once, I witnessed an interesting scene. A Christian pastor happened to attend a Messianic conference – a large gathering of Jews who believe in Jesus – and was listening attentively to a Messianic preacher. At some point, the preacher said: “Rav Shaul wrote” – and he quoted some famous words of Apostle Paul. At this moment, the pastor jumped up in his seat: “How dare he? These are the words of Apostle Paul, not some Shaul!  Who is he talking about?”

So, was he Paul or Shaul(Shaul)? Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen and as such he had to have a Latin name. However, his original Hebrew name was Shaul, probably after the first King of Israel, who was also from the tribe of Benjamin.  It’s highly meaningful that, on the Road to Damascus, Jesus called him by his Hebrew name: “Shaul, Shaul, why do you persecute Me?” Later, when Ananias of Damascus came to pray for him, he called him “Brother Shaul“.

In Acts 13:9, Shaul is called “Paul” for the first time. Luke indicates that the names were interchangeable: “Shaul, who also is called Paul.”  From this point on, the New Testament calls him Paul (Pavlos in Greek).  However, that doesn’t mean that Shaul gave up his old name. In fact, we also find abundant proof of his Jewish identity after he became a follower of Jesus (we will definitely talk more about this in future posts). It just was typical for the Jews of Diaspora of that time to have two names, a Hebrew one and a Gentile one (this practice still exists today, by the way). Shaul used his Hebrew name with his “brethren according to the flesh,” and his Gentile name while reaching to Gentiles.

[1] Sanhedrin 42b

[2] Acts 26:22

I would like to remind you, dear friendsthat we offer a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament.  As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information.  Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

You might also be interested in:

From Jerusalem To Rome: To The...

By Julia Blum

From Jerusalem To Rome: Reaching...

By Julia Blum

Join the conversation (9 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. Viera Emunah

    So important, so important ..! Thank you for a great post, dear Julia.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much, Viera! It is indeed very important – to see all these scenes and episodes in Acts against their Jewish Background. It is part of my mission here, on these pages, and I am so glad you find my articles helpful! Blessings!

  2. Dorothy & Damien Healyy

    Thanks again for a great post Julia. Since your Acts posts began, I have been drawn to read through Acts again – and more carefully. What an extraordinary man Stephen must have been: full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, and faith, also full of grace and power (6:8), not to mention being steeped in Scripture, as his speech attests. How far we fall short in these attributes. One questions why the Lord allowed him to be taken so soon – “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” and Acts attests to this event being a catalyst for the Gospel being spread, as great persecution broke out.
    With regards to Paul, in Acts 22:20 we read Paul’s words to the Lord. “And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ He may not have been a member of the Sanhedrin, but it seems he was certainly in league with them.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Dot. Yes, the book of Acts tells us about great people and great deeds – and it’s absolutely crucial that we would see these people and these deeds against their Jewish Background! For instance, I’ve been wondering whether the aggressive negative reaction to Stephen’s speech could be explained, at least partly, by the fact that some details in his speech were different from the traditional biblical text. What do you think?

  3. John M Akin

    Thank you, This post fits perfectly with the teachings of Joseph Shulam.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, John. Yes, I am well acquainted with Joseph’s teachings and many things we see the same way.

  4. Luis Anderson

    Thank you again for another great post. I like the analogy of the developing film, which gradually begins to show what is on the film but can not bee seen without gong through the process of revealing it. I think it applies to what happened in Saul’s case.
    Saul, a Pharisee of Pharisees as he said of himself, had much knowledge, but this encounter on the road to Damascus was a shock that called for questioning the significance of what he had been taught up to that time. He was in this condition for three days. That is a long time when you think about it. Enough time to meditate, ask questions when answers are needed. I think he spent much of those three days talking with and learning from Jesus. Consider that Jesus had many negative things to say about the Pharisees and teachers of the law of that time and Saul was one of them. I think Saul got a revelation about these things during those three days. Those three days without sight were an excellent opportunity for Saul to see what had previously not been seen.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Luis, I agree – indeed, “those three days without sight were an excellent opportunity for Saul to see what had previously not been seen”. Three days when the Developer did the job and the latent image was becoming visible. In this sense, the name of the street is very meaningful: according to Luke, Shaul was straightening out his life and his understanding of the Scriptures on “the street called Straight”.

  5. Nick Edwards

    Yes! Yes! There was no plan A and then plan B, as traditional Christian teaching implies! God’s presence is there, but hidden. I often feel that I would have done things differently if I were in charge of Creation- maybe make things more clear and avoid so many difficult choices! Ha!
    Thanks Julia!
    Nick