Paul was a Jew through and through. His becoming a Christian never made him a renegade Jew, who would turn his back on his heritage. In the context of his defense against the attacks of opponents, Paul never hesitated to stress his Jewishness:
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. (2 Cor 11:22)
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee… (Phil 3:4-5)
What made Paul different from the ordinary Jew of his day?
Paul was born in Tarsus, which he described as “no mean city.” His boast was not without justification. Tarsus was the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia. It was a large prosperous port, and a commercial center that welcomed traders from all over the known world of that time. It was a celebrated center of learning that produced and exported a good number of famed scholars and philosophers. There could not have been a more ideal place in which to bring up a child who would soon be a missionary to the world. In this cosmopolitan milieu, Paul learned to establish his first connections with non-Jews, a fact that served as a seed for his future mission as Apostle of the Gentiles. The final broad stroke that completes this portrait of Paul is the fact that he was a Roman citizen by birth, thus with a claim to rights and privileges which were transnational and transcultural.
No doubt, Paul had this personal background in mind when he declared that, “I had been set apart before I was born, and called through God’s grace” (Gal 1:15).
About the image:
“Covenant” by Sieger Köder
Bernardita Dianzon, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St Paul. She obtained her Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and her Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Loyola School of Theology, where she also teaches the Letters of Paul and biblical Greek.