Why did Saul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

In the book of Acts, Luke introduces Saul dramatically as the someone who not only participated in the stoning of Stephen, but as an authority who gave approval for the execution. After Stephen delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7 and describes his fellow Jews as a stiff-necked generation, like the tribes of Israel in the wilderness. He is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and stoned. This is not a legal action, it is a lynching!  Saul approved of this execution (Acts 8:1). Whether Saul was a legal representative of the Sanhedrin is unclear, but the verb can be used for legal approval (see, for example, 1 Maccabees 1:57). Luke describes Saul as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534). Much later Paul described his persecution of the church as being zealous for the traditions of his Fathers (Gal 1:14). Like Elijah against the priests of baal, Paul burned with zeal and tried to destroy the church (Gal 1:22-23, Phil 3:6).

One problem for modern readers is a misunderstanding about what Saul was doing. We tend to read modern persecution of Christians into the passage, or maybe lurid scenes from old movies of Nero throwing the saints to the lions. Nor should we think of rabbi Saul like a Puritan going going door-to-door to root out the heretics. Stephen was teaching Jesus was the messiah and in some way replaces worship in the Temple. The High Priest executed Jesus unjustly but God raised Jesus from the dead, proving he was in fact the messiah. Saul saw all this as a dangerous defection from the Law and could result in the judgment of God.

What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

Stoning of StephenIt is important to observe Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem worshiping in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not in the Temple speaking in Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there. Stephen is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship. While we cannot know this for certain, but it is not unlikely Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue. Although he spoke Aramaic as well, he was from Tarsus in Cilicia. People from Cilicia are specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9. Stephen argues powerfully that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53). This pushed the crowd to attack Stephen and Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.

Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and forcing them into Acts 7. For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were accepting Gentiles into the synagogue without circumcision. This seems unlikely since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10. God-fearering Gentiles were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul.

Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws. This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first. There is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period. Jewish and Gentiles sharing meals is a problem in the book of Galatians, but that is as many as fifteen years after the stoning of Stephen.

A more likely motivation is the possible political and social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah. How would this sound to the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity? The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile audiences. The early apostolic mission prior to the stoning of Stephen was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.

It is best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as a false and potentially dangerous teaching about the messiah. For Rabbi Saul, the very idea Jesus was the Messiah was absurd. Because Jesus was crucified (“hung on a tree”) he was under the curse of the Law. Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself. Paul sees himself as a reformer within Second Temple Judaism. He represents the high priest (who approved of the execution of Jesus) and reacted with violence against those who argued this the condemned rabbi Jesus was the Messiah and that worship of Jesus is superior to worship in the Temple.

31 thoughts on “Why did Saul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

  1. Replace the words ‘Judaism, synagogue and high priest’ in the last paragraph with ‘Islam, mosque and iman’ and you get a modern day equivalent that is very similar.

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    • Wow….thanks Mike, you are probably right. I was thinking less provocatively than that, in some churches shifting too far away from the proper confession is enough to light some fireworks. (Imagine an Anglican re-defining Justification, for example!)

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  2. I also think that the reason Paul saw himself as the reformer in persecuting Jewish Christians. As it says in Philippians 3:4-6, he grew up with so much confidence in who he was as a Pharisee. He was ‘faultless’ when it came to legalistic righteousness. He was also very zealous for what he believed in persecuting the church. So when he saw Jesus’ disciples proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, even though He had been crucified, was an abomination to him. Growing up as a Jew under the schooling of Pharisees, Paul would have believed that the Messiah would come in splendor and establish his kingdom. However, Jesus came in the form of a servant and suffered on the cross at the hands of men. In Stephen’s speech, he condemns them for they betrayed and murdered the Righteous One (Acts 7:52). This obviously rubbed Paul the wrong way. He very staunchly believed that Jesus was a false teacher and now the disciples were leading people astray. So out of his “all-out” belief, his only choice was to persecute the Jewish Christians.

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  3. As a staunch Grace Bible College student, I firmly agree with Josh regarding why Saul responded the way he had. There’s no doubt that Stephen’s motives were to, for lack of a better term, call out the Sanhedrin and even more specifically Israel as a whole. Their disobedience and unfaithfulness towards God throughout their history is evident. Stephen’s proclamation of Israel’s offense and intentional rejection of the Messiah and the Holy Spirit is what provokes Saul and other Jews. Both Philippians 3:4-6 and Galatians 1:14 state the extent of how Jewish Saul was. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. This suggests that his upbringing had emphasis on Mosaic law and Jewish traditions. And his zeal did not get left behind in his youth, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). Saul was brought up a Pharisee and studied under a Sadducee who was well honored and respected who also belonged to the Sanhedrin. Saul wasn’t messing around when it came to Judaism. Being Jewish was his life. And he had great passion for his religion. So when this Jesus movement starts happening and completely contradicts what he and other Jews are stating there is obviously going to be conflict. And after each event started piling up, Saul started persecuting the church and using violence to stop the spread of Jesus as Messiah. “…the proclamation of the earliest followers of Jesus was regarded as so utterly despicable and mistaken that Paul became convinced that aggressive measures needed to be taken in order to stop the activities of these people” (Schnabel 44). As Josh mentioned earlier, as a Pharisee, Jesus is not what Saul and many others expected in a Messiah. Therefore, Peter and the apostles were way off track and he was going to do anything in his power to stop what was happening and preserve Judaism.

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    • Paul was brought up under Gamaliel who is a Pharisee. Yeshua, Paul were both Pharisee as were their disciples. They were simply of the Nazarite sect.

      Sadducee did not believe in the oral law nor the resurrection or the after life and were the absolute poorest interpreters of the law. Which is why Paul is addressing the Pharisee of the court. The Pharisee did believe in those aspects, it was fundamental to their theology. Moreover, the Sadducees were so entangled with the romans and could not officiate the sacrifices in the temple, the Pharisee had to do it even when they werent part of the temple course do to do.

      Paul stated he is a Pharisee among Pharisee not a hebrew of hebrews.
      However per Euseibus (p.111), the first 11 bishops of the church were Hebrews, followed the Torah and the teachings of Yeshua and taught the congregation such.

      Yeshuas’ teaching did not conflict with Torah,he was sent to remove the corruption that man had attach to the Torah. Yeshua stated in Matt. 23:2 his institutions who is to teach his people.

      Peter, John the Just and Nicodemus are mentioned many times in the Talmud as just and righteous men. Peter has infact wrote several prayers and some are in orthodox liturgy today. There were many Pharisee who believed in Yeshua and it wasnt a surprise for them and this includes Joseph of Arimathea.

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      • “Peter, John the Just and Nicodemus are mentioned many times in the Talmud as just and righteous men. Peter has infact wrote several prayers and some are in orthodox liturgy today.”

        Can you cite a source in the Talmud for this?

        “There were many Pharisee who believed in Yeshua and it wasnt a surprise for them and this includes Joseph of Arimathea.”

        This is accepted by everyone, Acts 15:1-2 for example.

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  4. There is no doubt that Saul persecuted and hated Christians, but the possible reasons for Saul’s persecution of Christians are many but only a few have some validity behind them. One of reasons that lack substantial value is that Saul persecuted the church because of, “Possible political/social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified savior.” People believe this to be a reason why persecution against Christians took place because the Roman government felt threatened by Christians that they may cause an anti-Roman revolution. This argument however lacks evidence because the early preaching from the Apostles generally only took place in the temple in Jerusalem (Long). The possibility that I similarly to the post find to be the most valid is Saul persecuted these Christians because he seen their preaching as something that was heretic. This would make the most sense because Saul grew up a devoted Jew whose family belonged to the Second Temple Period Judaism (Schnabel, 41), which would explain his devotion to the traditional Jewish ways. His devotion to his Jewish principles would explain why he believed these Apostles to be heretical because they were preaching of a saving messiah. Instead, Saul would reject these teachings and would have devotion to the Jewish law and reject Jesus as the Messiah (Schnabel, 43). Saul in turn seen himself as a defender of the Jewish faith and traditions, he tried to protect these Jewish traditions at all cost (Acts 9:2).

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  5. We have talked a lot about what the Jews and the Pharisees must have been feeling after the apostles started to preach. They had finally gotten rid of the man (Jesus) who had been calling them out and challenging their way of life. Now, a group of people have come back and started to declare once again the message of this Jesus. I can only imagine that this angered the Pharisees further as they had believed they had solved this problem. So Saul, as a young and zealous follower of the law wanted to dispose of this problem forever. One of the ideas that i have had is that, what if Saul wanted to prove himself? He is still at this Jr. Pharisee status, and he wanted to show his zeal and commitment to law. Is there a better way to do this than to wipe out a heretical group that is giving the Sanhedrin problems? Maybe this is why he was so adamant about wiping them out. As we look in Exodus we see a situation where Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. It is also possible that God hardened Paul’s heart towards the gospel message creating this hatred. So in his conversion, we see a massive story of redemption that God would use to reach the known world. for whatever reason, God used Saul for some incredible things, and this persecution that he oversaw was crucial to demonstrating the love and salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

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  6. When you read Acts 7, you will see that the members of the Sanhedrin became incensed when Stephen said ““Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
    Obviously, for any Jew this is a great blasphemy, since the first principle of Judaism is that God is One; no other being is divine, with Him in heaven.

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    • You are right Bob, although I am not sure that Stephen’s “blasphemy” represents what all of the followers of Jesus were saying or doing. They are preaching that Jesus is Messiah, that God raised him from the dead. Saul sees these things as “punishable” teachings.

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  7. I believe that the reason Saul so whole heartily persecuted the church was because he was so confident in his faith. Knowing his faith and being so confident to a level of not letting any one mess with your beliefs that he was willing to take the steps that he thought to be necessary. Saul was so perfect and faultless by the standards of the law, and when Stephen started preaching that we are not saved by the lay, or rather justified, he was angry because he thought himself to be faultless and had lived his life persecuting people that disobeyed the law.

    Later in this story of Saul we are on the road to Damascus. Saul is traveling to do some more persecuting of the church. He hears a voice that calls his name, and in our text book it says, “Paul’s response to the voice is Lord…” What does he mean by this word. I believe that this is important. Maybe Saul was just honestly blind to the fact the the Messiah had come, being so caught up in the law that he didn’t realize that he along with many other Pharisees had just killed the messiah. Maybe the rad to Damascus was a wake up call to get back on the right track.

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    • Good, Dan. You are making the connection to Saul’s particular practice of Judaism. That has to be a factor – but it seems to me that he could back up his confidence! He was really, with respect to the Law, blameless. How is believing that Jesus is the Messiah, or even that Jesus raised from the dead blasphemous?

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  8. I think that Saul was a legal representative because no one ever questioned his authority of giving the “ok” or approval of the killing of Jews and in the first case that we read about, Stephen. As Saul says in his letters, he was filled with zeal against the church and against the Christian Jews. I think that Saul was already filled with hatred towards them before Stephen’s speech, but his speech was what pushed him over the edge and took action to kill anyone that spoke the way that Stephen did. If someone was teaching something false about what you believe to be true, you would be filled with the same frustration and zeal that Saul felt. He is trying to shut up those that are going against the High Priest and that’s another reason why Stephen was killed because he spoke directly to them for the sin murder that they committed. Saul took pride in his high posistion as a Pharisee. Anything that went against what they believed to be true was something worth killing for. Especially with the amount of converts that the early church was having, would be enough to cause Saul to want to go on a killing spree. I don’t doubt that another valid reason for this zeal was because of the political and social problems that they were causing.

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  9. Acts 9:1-2 starts the story off by giving us a brief look at how Saul looked at followers of Jesus Christ. It says, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”

    Just within these two short verses we see the anger Paul had for these Christ Followers. He wanted to find any person that was declaring that Jesus was the Messiah and drag them into the street, beat them, throw them into prison, and even kill them. Why did he have this hatred for the followers of Jesus? First of all, Paul was a Pharisee and Jesus never had anything good to say about the Pharisees. Another reason I think Paul was so mad right now is because of everything that just happened with Stephen the martyr. I can imagine that for Paul it felt pretty good to put out a leading influential follower of Jesus Christ the way Stephen was murdered. I am sure that Paul felt like a king when he gave the orders to have Stephen Killed and then when the people were putting their cloaks down in front of him. Simply put, Paul wanted to destroy the Church. Schnabel says, “When Paul asserts that he wanted to “destroy” the church, he probably means that he wanted to make it impossible for followers of Jesus to exist within the institution of the synagogue” (44). He also says, “Jews who rejected the claims of the Jewish believers in Jesus were convinced that faith in Jesus as Messiah and in the atoning efficacy of his death on the cross was an attack on the foundation of Torah obedience as the basis of Israel’s salvation that Yahweh had revealed to Moses” (44-45). When you start feeling attacked, especially your religion, people get very edgy and do irrational things that they feel are justified like in Paul’s case.

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    • Well I think more the point is Jesus isn’t the type of Messiah they were looking for; those Jews were looking for someone to help the Jews overthrow the rule of the Romans over them and Jesus wasn’t what they envisioned. I’m sure they thought the “Messiah” would recognize the Pharisees “importance” on how they were zealous for the law, but Jesus called most of them hypocrites.

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      • Certainly that is the case, although not believing in the right messiah did not always meet with the violence of Paul, or the violence Paul received. In Paul’s case, he was radically attacking the core of Judaism by saying not only that Messiah would save Gentiles, but that they could be part of God’s people without keeping the Law. That was very radical and for some Jews, it was enough to stir up Zealously reminiscent of Elijah and Phineas.

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  10. I guess they really didn’t understand Abrahams promised of all he nations of the Earth being blessed through him. I guess all nations of the Earth “meaning Gentiles” seemed irrelevant.

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  11. Great above comments. A friend will be asking me about the “hypocrisy of Paul” … My friend is not a believer but the above comments have given me much to work with. The secular world only sees Paul as a hypocrite without doing any research … despite our wealth of information at our fingertips. I also liked the above comment … “when you start feeling attacked, especially your religion, people get very edgy and do irrational things that they feel are justified…” I can relate very clearly how Saul wud be a complete zealot in judaism, and his complete devotion to the God of the Old testament (the LAW). Saul would feel he is completely … justified before God .. to persecute christians. And his love for God … i.e., the LAW … would indicate that Saul is doing ‘Gods work’ when ridding of these christians. Saul’s primary purpose in life, his existence is … to protect the God … he knows. A complete devotion and love towards the God he knows … gave him the full justification needed to kill anyone who dare … mock God by preaching the message of Jesus.

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  12. When Stephen was seized in Acts chapter 6, the Jews of Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia were the ones who started arguing with Stephen. I have an picture of a drama show in my head. Stephen laid a foundation for Moses and Moses laid a foundation for Saul in Damascus. It could very well be that Saul was one of the Jew’s who argued against Stephen. Although there is no representation of that in Scripture, that would all the more emphasize the the New Perspective of Paul. In Acts chapter 7, when Saul approved Stephen’s killing, it represents the process of coming to Jesus. Galations 5:4 says, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated by Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Saul was justifying his actions and was blinded by the law. But when Saul heard the Lord’s voice in Acts chapter 9, he seemed to have been convicted and obeyed right away by walking to Damascus blind.

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  13. Acts as history in the sense that we moderns use the term is questionable. Now Paul does admit that he persecuted the earliest believers, who probably considered themselves Jews, but his motives would take careful exegesis to uncover. One key is that Paul describes himself as “zealous” which implies a strong desire to uphold God’s law, at least as Paul understood it at that time, so I find that to be the key. Any kind of official approval though, especially for capital punishment as Acts implies, would have had to come from Roman authorities not Jewish ones.

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  14. I find it very compelling that Paul was willing to go to such lengths to defend Jewish law and to eliminate the apostolic mission. I know the bible does not say or elude to this, but it reminds me of Pharaoh, how God hardened his heart. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God could make a point and make himself known. I wonder if this is a similar situation, Saul’s heart was “hardened” so that persecution would spread the believers to different areas so the gospel could be heard. It is interesting how God uses situations like these for ultimately his glory.

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  15. Paul said that his violence against Christians was done in ignorance, and that’s why he obtained mercy:

    13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; (1 Tim. 1:13 NAU)

    When today’s apologists assure me that God has provided enough evidence to leave me without excuse for rejecting the gospel, I always ask them how much evidence in favor of the divine authenticity of Christianity Paul experienced during his pre-conversion violence against Christians.

    If Paul could be beating and torturing and imprisoning Christians while drowning in the best of eyewitness evidence for Jesus rising from the dead, and STILL be correctly judged sufficiently “ignorant” of Christianity’s truth during that time of his life so as to obtain mercy, then you can perhaps understand why I would conclude that, if the gospel is true, modern atheist bible critics, who have far less access to Jesus’ original disciples, and who are far less violent toward the cause of Christ than Paul was, will also be judged by God to be acting “ignorantly in unbelief” and therefore be given a divine experience equally as unmistakable as the one allegedly experienced by the shockingly violent Saul/Paul. When that day comes, expect one extra person to show up at your church the following Sunday.

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  16. If Saul/Paul was given authorization to see, arrest, and kill Christians…my CV question becomes, who gave Paul this authority AND how can did he “rate” this authority? I would think that Nero or whoever was emperor at the time, would not trust just anyone to bestow this authority on. Trust from someone like Nero is literally non-existent. Murderers trust no one. Ask Julius Ceasar!
    So, comes the next question. Where did a common person like Paul, even get authority to simply arrest people? Especially under an emperor who trusts no one.
    Next question..(sorry for so many but…)
    So, if Nero demanded loyalty to the point of “perfection”, isn’t it obvious that he would select someone from his own household or circle of protection? Surely, he had learned something from the previous emperor’s assassination’s, to protect himself.
    Selecting a “Captain” so to speak from his own army, through his chain of command, would lead someone to commonly believe that Paul was an appointed soldier or the Roman Empire, with a full compliment of soldiers at his disposal, to accomplish this task.
    Ultimately, Who gave Paul his authority of “policing” under the domineering control of the Roman Emperor Nero?
    I reasonably think, no one would dare “assume authority” like this in the face of Nero.

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    • Paul’s authority came for the high priest in Jerusalem, this hand nothing to do with the empire. The “mission” was to arrest Jews who were teaching a false doctrine (messiah cam and the high priest had him killed). Arrest here is not the same as a modern police state, Paul is extending the authority of the high priest to a synagogue in Damascus to correct what seems to be a false doctrine (that God would raise the executed false prophet Jesus from the dead).

      As for executions, only one was mentioned in Acts, and that was more of a lynching, even if Paul approved.

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  17. Many answers here that are very reasonable but I think the thing that really sparked Paul’s inner rage was that he was trying to be the blameless Pharisee, and outwardly apparently succeeding, yet knew within that he was failing. I believe Romans 7 describes Paul’s inner turmoil during this time. He was then almost certainly confronted in his own synagogue by this man who, now filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom from God was not only wiping the floor with him rhetorically but also clearly had a peace with God and a glorious certainty that he was now a dwelling place of God (temple of the Holy Spirit). And he claimed this was because of the Nazarene who was hung on a cursed cross! Paul would surely have had too much integrity to be one of those who presented lying witnesses to the kangaroo court (who broke the 9th commandment) but perhaps Luke understates it by saying Paul merely approved of Stephen’s death. Examined carefully the roots of much of Paul’s theology can be discerned in Stephen’s words, words he doubtless heard many of in those synagogue confrontations, developed by Stephen into full blown propositions which once heard were never forgotten.

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  18. One thing that stands out in Paul’s life is his persecution of the Church and Jewish Christians. However, an important subject matter that has be looked at more closely is why he performed such actions of persecution. It is clear, as stated in Acts 22: 3-4, where he explains that he persecuted those in the Church because of the zeal for God, and contradiction to the teachings of Gamliel (NIV). In essence, Paul’s persecution of Jewish Christians is important because he chose to persecute them based on a philosophical difference between him and his former teacher, Gamliel. Another foundational reason behind his actions are linked to his view of God, and his will to actively destroy and punish people for their association with the one true God. Ultimately, this a trend that was active before his transformation on Damascus Road and his heartfelt apologies throughout the book of Acts. Furthermore, Saul’s persecution of the Church is symbolic of something bigger than his life. As stated by Longenecker, he asserts Paul thinks that the crucifixion of Christ represents something bigger than any part of the secular sector (Longenecker, p. 116). At the end of the day, this assertion represents that Saul was persecuting Jewish Christians because he thought he was the one that could end the Jesus Movement by himself. However, when it comes down to it, Saul’s persecution of Jewish Christians showcases he was entrenched in something that was not benefiting his life.

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