Among the Church’s persecutors, Saul was singular in his zeal, unabashed in his purpose. He went about “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Ravaging the Church, and “entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). The mere mention of Saul’s name was enough to strike fear in the heart of those who followed Jesus’ way (see Acts 9:13-14).
From his earliest days, Saul had sense of divine calling. His birthplace, Tarsus, was a bustling coastal city and administrative center for the Roman province of Cilicia (what is now southeastern Turkey). Like his father, Saul was a tradesman — a tentmaker. Like his father, he held Roman citizenship, a coveted privilege. Like his father, he observed the doctrine and discipline of the Pharisees.
A prodigy, he went early to Jerusalem to study in the great center of Jewish learning, where he studied under the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He also fell under the influence of radical ideas. Some teachers believed that faithful observance of the Torah was the pre-condition of God’s saving action — and that sectarians like Jesus were discouraging people from keeping the Law. Jesus, after all, had repeatedly violated the laws regarding the Sabbath — healing people, encouraging His disciples to pick grain, and so on. He had even declared Himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8). thus putting Himself in the place of God. Saul believed that Jesus’ disciples should be
given a choice. They should adopt a strict obser-vance of the Law — or they should die, so that they would not bring divine judgment down on the rest of the nation.
The disciples fled Jerusalem, but they were not cowed into silence. St. Luke reports that “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This new persecution, like the death of Jesus before it, just exacerbated the problem for the Jerusalem authorities. Wherever the disciples fled, they made new disciples.
The growth of the Church surely fueled Saul’s fury. He believed he was on a divine mission — “as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless” (Phil. 3:6). As he traveled to bring the persecution to Syria, however, something happened.
Struck to the ground, he received a revelation from God. And he learned that Jesus was the Messiah he had sought. He ceased to be a persecutor of Jesus and began to be a disciple. He converted, but he did not abandon the religion of Israel. Long after his incident on the road to Damascus, he made it clear that he was still a Jew (Acts 21:39) and still a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). The people of Israel would always be, for him, “my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (Rom. 9:3). Accepting the Messiah was not something alien to his Jewishness. Indeed, for all the time he was a Pharisee, it was what he had been waiting for.
Editor’s note: This article is the seventh part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c). Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.