One of the big contributions Social Science has made to New Testament studies has been to stress the role of family in the Ancient World. Individualism as we know it is a modern creation. In the light of this, it’s particularly revealing that we know next to nothing of the family of St Paul.
He came from Tarsus, now in Southern Turkey. As the Roman Republic imploded, the city backed the right faction and in 42BC Marc Antony rewarded it with freedom and immunity from tax. Probably this was when Paul’s father received Roman citizenship, which later passed to his son.
A Roman citizen in the provinces was privileged. Paul was brought up “a Hebrew of Hebrews” – even more aware of his Jewishness for being outside the homeland. From childhood he would have memorised significant portions of the Greek Old Testament as well as Homerian epic. Secondary studies began around 11 years, and Paul would have learnt Aramaic and Hebrew alongside Greek and Latin. Four or five years on came the higher education of critical analysis, argument and public speaking. In his letters to Corinth Paul plays down his skills in this area but there can be little doubt of his training.
At some point he was sent “up” to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of the great Gamaliel. It was the ultimate aspiration for his parents. He found his milieu among the most fanatical Pharisees, and given he was a provincial interloper we can only guess at the brilliant promise of this rising star.
And then… it all went wrong. Meeting Jesus on Damascus Road, Paul’s life and priorities were turned around. He did visit Tarsus again but there’s no indication of him converting his family. His parents must have wondered what had become of their beloved son.
This article first appeared in Live The Word, Redemptorist Publications