This Sunday, I mentioned that it was possible that the Apostle Paul’s father was a Gentile. This is a theory which cannot be absolutely proven, but it is based on two premises:
1. Paul was a Roman citizen.
Three times in the book of Acts, Paul makes declarations of his citizenship:
But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” (Acts 16:37-38, ESV)
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog ra man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about sto examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also twas afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” (Acts 22:25-29, ESV)
If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar. (Acts 25:12, ESV)
At the period when Paul lived, Roman citizenship was quite limited and most definitely did not include Jews as a rule. Jews could not receive citizenship in any way except being born to a Roman citizen prior to 212 CE.
Paul’s declarations make it plain that he claimed one of the higher forms of citizenship and that it was a right of birth. He was not a peregrinus, some of whom had limited citizenship. The fact that he came from Tarsus meant he also was not one of the socii or foederati.
We cannot be certain, but it is likely that Paul’s citizenship was of a class called civus romani non optimo jure. This meant that he had the right to property (jus comercii) but could not serve as a magistrate. It was also a hereditary citizenship, passed through the father. It was granted to tradesman and merchants, serving as a protection throughout the empire.
Citizenship in all its forms, however, did not extend to women. While the wives and daughters of citizens received the benefits of their husband’s citizenship, they could not vote or receive any of the benefits of citizenship separate from their fathers or husbands. In order for a boy to be born a citizen, his father must be a citizen and then by right of paterfamilias recognize his son. He need not be civilly married to the mother in order to extend citizenship.
That means Paul’s citizenship must have come from his father, and since his father could not have earned his citizenship if he was a Jew, it is very likely that Paul’s father was a Gentile, even if perhaps a convert to Judaism (which would have made him quite an anomaly).
2. Paul was a Pharisee of the Pharisees.
It is also abundantly clear that Paul was a Pharisaic Jew, educated at the school of Gamaliel – a rabbi we know from secular history in Josephus, the Talmud and the Book of Acts. In order to be a Pharisee, one had to not only be a Jew but to be a very devout Jew.
Unlike his fellow Pharisees, Paul seemed to have been eager to prove his faithfulness (Acts 9:1-2). Could this have been because he was fully aware of his foreign extraction and had something to demonstrate to his fellow Pharisees?
Judaism is not the same a Christianity. In modern Christianity, belief defines whether you are considered a Christian or not.
Since the rabbinical period (the first couple of centuries of the Common Era), a Jew was defined as someone whose mother was Jewish. While one can become a Jew through conversion and submission to the mitzvoth, Jewishness was not defined by belief but by descent.
This practice was present already in Jewish thought when the Mishnah was put to paper and may be one of the oldest components of the Halakha, dating perhaps to the early Pharisaical period (possibly as early as 500 BCE) and the definition was universally accepted in Judaism. It has only been in modern times that the a group of what we might consider “literalist fundamentalists” called the Karaites have questioned the practice. While official capacities (king and priest) are based on patrilineal descent, one’s Jewishness is determined by your mother.
Thus, in order to be a Roman citizen, Paul’s father had to be a citizen and might have been a Gentile. There’s no way to even know whether his parents were even legally married. One way or the other, he was fully Roman citizen of Tarsus – with all the rights pertaining to that citizenship.
(Interestingly, citizens could lose their rights and be downgraded if they relocated to a city of lesser status from their hometown. Paul was a citizen of Tarsus, a provincial capital, and then made Antioch, the capital of the Syrian province, his home for his ministry work. This probably had as much to do with the protections it afforded him as the group of believers worshiping there.)
But in order to be a Pharisee, his mother had to be Jewish. It was not enough for him to accept the tenets of Judaism. He had to be raised as a Jew in order to be educated in the most prestigious Jewish school outside of Babylon at the time.
Paul provides us with a unique bridge between Jewish Christianity (which evolved into the Ebionite movements) and Gentile Christianity. He was both – legally and fundamentally – and that gave him a unique perspective. Although highly literate, with an intellect worthy of his Roman citizenship, he was also an immensely knowledgeable student of Torah. He could see the worlds he lived in and the new kingdom that was emerging from the fusion of the two.