Longenecker and Still argue Paul was a Jew who valued his ancestral traditions despite living in a Jewish Diaspora community in Tarsus (Thinking through Paul, 26). Paul’s describes his Jewish heritage in Philippians 3:4-6, claiming he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, and the Tribe of Benjamin, a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews.’” Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles was born and raised a Jew, and never repudiated that heritage. Even in Philippians Paul lists his accomplishments with a little bit of pride.
Paul’s claim in Philippians 3 is that he is a proper Jew even though he was born in the Diaspora. That he was circumcised on the eighth day indicates he comes from a family interested in keeping Jewish traditions despite living in the Diaspora. It is possible that there were Diaspora Jews who did not circumcise their sons. Paul was not a Jew pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.
Paul’s claim to be from the tribe of Benjamin is significant since not every Jew in the first century could claim a particular tribe (and some may have not particularly cared). Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem. Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.
Paul’s education is another indication his family was more conservative with respect to their faith. Paul studied “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3, see this post on Gamiliel). That Paul would be sent to Jerusalem to study with a prominent rabbi and Pharisee is another hint Paul’s family was committed to their son being trained as a teacher at the highest level possible. Imagine a modern British family living in America insisting their son return to England to study at Eton College. This sort of prestige is expensive! In addition, Acts 23:16 indicates Paul had a sister and a nephew living in Jerusalem in the late 50s.
The phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” can be taken in several ways. This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home.
Paul is, in the words of J. B. Lightfoot, making a progressive argument. A convert to Judaism may be circumcised, someone with some Gentile in his linage might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew! Of course, in Philippians 3 Paul is clear this heritage is of no value now that he is “in Christ,” but it seems obvious that Paul’s Jewish heritage is one of the major factors behind his successful evangelism.
To what extent do these observations about Paul’s early life help us understand Paul’s persecution of Christ followers in Jerusalem? How does his Jewish heritage impact his life after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus?