Was Paul from a Wealthy Family?

Apostle PaulAlthough Longenecker says there is no evidence to indicate Paul grow up with “a silver spoon in his mouth” (Thinking through Paul, 26), John Polhill speculates Paul may have been wealthy for several reasons (Paul and His Letters, 9). First, Paul was born a citizen, so his father or grandfather obtained citizenship. In order to “buy” a citizenship, one might need to spend 18 months wages or more on necessary gifts in order to receive the honor.

Second, the fact Paul was a tent maker from Tarsus may imply he worked with the costly material cilcium, used for both tents and saddles. Since Jews were known to have worked in the very active textile industry in Tarsus, it is possible that Paul’s family was connected to this trade.

On the other hand, Paul may have learned his trade through his rabbinical training.  A trade was required in order to support one’s study of the Torah, tent-making may have been a choice he made while studying in Jerusalem rather than the family business. Tent-making was potentially lucrative.  Tarsus was known for a particular felt-like material made from the wool of goats native to the region.  This cloth and other linens were expensive and required special handling. It is possible Paul and his family worked with this sort of cloth, doing jobs for the wealthy of Tarsus.

Third, Martin Hengel speculated Paul’s education may be a hint at his social status. If he came to Jerusalem at a young age, then he was likely from a “well-to-do” family which could afford to send a son to study on Jerusalem.

Fourth, Paul’s extensive travels were expensive and he need to finance travel for a group. It is likely he rented rooms in Corinth to live and in Ephesus he rented space to teach for two years.  On at least two occasions Paul had to support himself while under house arrest (Caesarea and Rome). In Rome he lived in a rented house for two years and was unable to work to support himself.  Is it possible that Paul was able to use his family’s wealth in order to pay for travel and housing?

Fifth, Paul sponsored a vow in Acts 21.  The Nazarite vow was a Jewish tradition that was supposed to be a deeply spiritual exercise.  To sponsor such a vow would be an indication of Jewish loyalty and fidelity to the Law.  For example, Agrippa I sponsored vows for several young men in order to show his personal loyalty to the law (Josephus, Antiq. 19.294).  Since the expenses for the vow itself could be high, wealthy men could show their support by paying the expenses for one or more men completing their vow. While it is possible Paul took this money from the collection he delivered to Jerusalem, it is not clear from Acts he sponsored the vows from this money. In any case, taking money intended for the poor in Jerusalem to sponsor the vow does not seem appropriate, the money ought to be come from Paul’s own pocket.

To what extent does Paul’s wealth effect the way he did ministry?  Jesus targeted on the “down and out,” people who on the fringes of society, and many modern evangelistic strategies follow this pattern. Did Paul target wealthy, higher class people such as Roman citizens because he was a moderately wealthy Roman citizen?