Body and Blood of Christ


The Years in Tarsus
Jerome Murphy O’Connor


T Saint Paul just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Herod the Great died in the Spring of 4 BC. He had been king of the Jews for 33 years, and his rule had been severe and oppressive. His secret police were everywhere, and reported on even the most harmless meeting of friends. The release from pressure at his death was explosive, and inevitably got out of hand. Celebrations turned into riots, which gradually melded into a full-scale rebellion. Rome felt it had to intervene, and Varus arrived in Galilee with two legions from Syria.

After a campaign, if a Roman legion had a financial deficit, it sent out patrols to capture healthy men and women of the vanquished population. These were then sold as slaves to provide the revenue needed to balance the books.

At this point Paul was still a small child and lived with his parents in Gischala (modern Jish), a village in the mountains of Upper Galilee that was famous for its olive oil. It was unlucky to be visited by one of the legion patrols, and Paul and his parents were dragged from their little home. They were driven across country to Ptolemais (modern Akko) where the slave ships awaited. If it is degrading to be offered for sale, how much more to be rejected? Paul’s parents much have suffered several refusals as the ships moved north up the coasts of what are today Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Only when they reached Tarsus in south-eastern Turkey did they find a buyer.

We do not know who their master was, but a number of assumptions can be made. First he was a Roman citizen. This is the simplest explanation of Paul’s Roman citizenship, which he inherited from his parents. They would automatically have acquired the citizenship of their owner when he set them free. This would have taken place probably when they were in their forties. Everyone knew that it was uneconomical to keep slaves beyond a point where they were eating more than they produced.

Second their owner was interested in education. We know this because Paul had a first class tertiary education. His letters reveal a fully professional mastery of all the techniques of rhetoric. He was a trained speaker and writer in Greek. Clearly he had followed the courses on offer at what we would call the University of Tarsus, which ranked beside Athens and Alexandria as one of the great graduate schools of antiquity. To reach this level, however, he would have had to have had a solid primary and secondary education. He must have been free to study from a very early age. He did not have to do the multiple chores that usually ate up the day of a child slave. A hint of Paul’s privileged upbringing emerges much later in life when he accidentally betrays a very snobbish leisured class attitude towards manual labour. It was ‘slavish’ and ‘demeaning’.

The University of Tarsus was famous as a bastion of Stoicism. It is unlikely that Paul studied this pagan philosophical system, but it was so much in the air that he could not fail to take in elements of it. Traces surface, perhaps unconsciously, in his letters. The basic tenets were very simple. Wisdom is the acceptance of the fact that whatever happens does so in accordance with divine reason. Virtue consists in striving to live in harmony with divine reason. The sensible, therefore, simply acquiesce in whatever happens to them, believing all external circumstances to be indifferent and irrelevant. In consequence, it is a lack of virtue to protest against pain, poverty, injustice, or death. Nonetheless, human action is rooted in freedom, and one is responsible for one’s deeds. Since everyone possesses a spark of the divine reason, distinctions between Greek and barbarian, master and slave are meaningless. All belong to a universal brotherhood.

Even with the idealism of youth Paul could not subscribe wholeheartedly to such generous ideas. He was a Jew, and Jews did not accept that all were equal. They believed that they were a unique people, set apart from all others. This would have been drummed into Paul every Saturday in the synagogue, which provided the other dimension of his ongoing education. This is where he learned the Jewish Scriptures, which he quotes over 90 times. Even though Paul subsequently abandoned the Law of Moses as a rule of life, he never lost the sense of the Scriptures as God’s communication with his people. For him it was ever a voice, not of the past, but of the present.


A Pharisee in Jerusalem
As a teenager in Tarsus Paul was pulled in two directions. On one hand there were all the attractions of a Roman provincial capital, which, moreover, lay on one of the great trade-routes of antiquity linking Syria and points east with Asia Minor and the Aegean. Paul’s secular studies gave him access to this cosmopolitan world, but his Jewish studies imposed restrictions. The dietary laws were designed to make association with pagans difficult, if not impossible. For example, Paul could have a drink with friends only if he brought the bottle. Jews were forbidden to drink non-kosher wine.


Model of teh TempleAt about the age of twenty, in an effort to dominate this tension, Paul decided to live for a while in a completely Jewish world. Presumably with the financial support of his parents he travelled to Jerusalem. Once there he was immediately conscious of the difference. The city shone with the new stone of Herod the Great’s rebuilding program of palaces and houses. The temple he built was not only stunningly beautiful, but was the largest religious complex in the Greco-Roman world. All these were Jewish achievements, and Paul’s heart swelled with pride. No longer was he merely tolerated as one of a minority in the Diaspora, he belonged. He realized in some indefinable way that he was home. But what was he to do? How was he to insert himself into the life of the city?

He did not have much of a choice. The Sadducees would not have welcomed him because he had neither priestly blood or a large bank account. The Essenes would have been glad of a new convert, but Paul gave them scant consideration. They were a fringe group and he had no desire to be again a member of a minority, even though this time it was within Judaism. The Pharisees were the only group that offered any hope of fulfiling Paul’s ambition to get to the roots of his Jewishness. They had made it their goal to forge a new social and religious identity for Jews in a developing and changing world. To this end they did everything possible to clarify the demands of the Mosaic Law in matters of daily domestic life. Over two-thirds of their surviving teachings concern the dietary laws, ritual purity for meals, and the quality and tithing of agricultural produce.

Pharisees tended to congregate in groups. Observance of the dietary laws was greatly facilitated if all were committed to the same high standards in the selection and preparation of food. Moreover, the Pharisees had realized that the best way to work out exactly what the Law meant was by vigorous debate which thoroughly explored all possible options. They also devised a way of continuously moving ahead. Solutions that had been generally accepted became part of the Oral Law, the body of interpretation that grew up around the Written Law of the Bible, and which was equally authoritative.

The hothouse intensity of this way of life appealed greatly to Paul’s idealism. It was a challenge that he could not refuse. Nonetheless commitment took courage. He would have been well formed in the Written Law by his education at Tarsus, but a Pharisee had also to know the Oral Law. Paul had a lot to catch up. He had to learn hundreds, if not thousands, of legal opinions on a vast array of topics, if he was to be able to argue convincingly. None of his classmates had wasted time studying pagan rhetoric. This gave them a head start of ten or even fifteen years.

Undaunted, Paul plunged in with the whole-hearted commitment that was one of his salient characteristics. Much later, when he looked back on a way of life that he had long since abandoned, he could not hide a note of smug complacency in his success, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). He could not claim to be the best absolutely. It was enough to be top of his age group.

This success tells us two things. He was a full-time student, who lived on charity (there would have been no time to earn a living), and he was married. Since God commanded all to marry (Genesis 1:28), celibacy was not an option. Paul could not have been the success he claimed had he remained unmarried into his twenties. As an outsider who wanted to be accepted he had to conform.

Why does he never mention his wife and children? I can only think that they died in an accident so traumatic that he sealed off their memory for ever. It was too painful to be revisited, and too sacred to be disclosed to others. In any case, Paul never remarried.

This article first appeared in the Irish Catholic.
The picture of St Paul, by Bernardo Daddi, 1333 - Andrew W. Mellon Collection



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