Meet Rabbi Sha’ul: Why the Holy One Chose His Enemy

Saint George Preca has been likened as a succe...
I repeat: Why doesn't anyone ever paint Paul with a yarmulke?

I’ve had this post in my back pocket for a while, and Smoodock’s post today, Who Was Paul of Tarsus, Really? has finally inspired me to post it.  In particular, the following statement got my attention:

Some may say, well, God can do anything, and Paul was merely a tool in God’s hands. This is true, but we need to remember that God gives us a tremendous amount of grace and freedom in Christ. God called and commissioned all of the apostles, but Paul claims that he worked harder than all the others (1Corinthians 15:10). Therefore, though God is indeed almighty, he has limited his power to what he is able to do through us, implying Paul made himself more available to God and was more willing to cut all ties that came between him and Jesus than the others. Of course this opinion is pretty subjective, especially since we know very little of the lives of the other apostles. However, if the amount of the New Testament each one is responsible for is any indication of a favorite, God used Paul, more than he did anyone else.

Including Yeshua Himself, which is what makes me uncomfortable with Ed’s statement.  I don’t think that we should pick our “favorites” by mere word count.  Nor do I think we should try to guess God’s favorites by word count either.  Enoch gets, what, three or four verses in the entire Bible?  And yet we are told that he walked with the Holy One so closely that he never died, but that Hashem simply took him.

That’s not to put down Paul.  I like, respect, and admire Paul.  But the simple fact is that he never walked with Yeshua during His earthly ministry, was not chosen to rule one of the Twelve Tribes like the Twelve Apostles were (Mat. 19:28), and actually described himself as the least of the apostles (1Co. 15:9).  It is true that Paul was very zealous, but so were many others.  So why then did Yeshua choose Paul, His enemy, out of all people to serve Him?

1) Paul was extraordinarily well-educated.
It is often assumed that Paul’s evident knowledge of Greek language, culture, philosophy, rhetoric, etc. were the result of a boyhood spent in Tarsus. However, this is probably not the case. We are told that he was “Brought up” (̓ανατρεφω ) in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Ανατρεφω is used to denote raising/nourishing children in Luke 4:16 (of Yeshua growing up in Nazareth) and Acts 7:21 (of the raising of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter).

It turns out that Rabban Gamaliel, to this day one of the most respected and beloved sages of the Jewish people, was known for having his students educated in Greek matters:

But is Greek learning, for its part, forbidden atall? And did not R. Judah say Samuelsaid in the name of R. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel, “What is the meaning of thefollowing verse of Scripture: ‘My eye affects my soul, because of all thedaughters of my city’ (Lam. 3:51)?’ There were a thousand children in my father’s house, five hundred ofthem studied Torah, and five hundred studied Greek learning. And I am the only one of them who hassurvived here, and my father’s brother’s son [survived] in Asia .”The household of Rabban Gamaliel is in a separate category [and may studyGreek], for they had a relationship with the government. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 49b)

That is, because he knew his students would have to represent the Jewish people to a pagan world, Gamaliel made sure they were educated so as to be able to carry out that mission. It was through that training that Paul was gifted to uniquely explain a Semetic religion to a Iapetic people, making it possible for many Gentiles to understand and respond to the Gospel.

2) Paul did not throw out the baby with the bathwater
It turns out that Paul not only received his Greek education from Gamaliel, but many of his attitudes and modus operendi as well. Rabban Gamaliel, like his grandfather R. Hillel before him, was known for his light halakhah, or rulings. For example, he:

  1. Lightened the Sabbath laws for witnesses, midwives, and other public servants (b. Rosh Hashanah 23b)
  2. Enacted laws to protect women and others and generally lighten the yoke of the Law (m. Shekalim 3:6)
  3. Ruled in favor of a woman who claimed her virginity against her husband’s word (b. Ketuvot 10b)
  4. Was tolerant towards the new Messianic sect, as shown in his mercy to Peter and John (Acts 5:38f)

Gamaliel w as also known for writing “epistles” to deal with situations where he could not be present himself. Three are preserved in the Talmud (b.Sanhedrin 11b, t.Sanhedrin 2:6; y.Sanhedrin 1:2, 18d). It is no surprise then that his disciple became the most prolific writer in the New Testament.

3) Though called to stand as a bridge between two worlds, Paul never lost his zealous love for his people.
It is truly sad that today, Christians and Jews alike regard Paul as the harbringer of a new religion that supplanted Judaism and became the persecutor of the Jewish people. Paul himself never separated himself from his people, nor from the exacting practices of the Pharisees. He declared under oath before the Sanhedrin that he remained a Pharisee nearly three decades after his “conversion” (Acts 23:6)–which was in truth not a conversion to another religion, but a repentance within true Judaism–and rejected claims that he taught Jews to cease to follow the Torah, circumcise their sons, or give up the traditions of our fathers (Acts 21:21-26). In the opening verses of Romans chapter 9, he pours out his heart’s grief over his people’s blindness.

He even went out of his way to avoid excommunication. On five separate occasions, he accepted the penalty of forty strokes minus one (1Co. 11:24). We miss the significance, but his readers did not: Under Jewish Law, a person who accepted that penalty could not be excommunicated, but must be received back as a brother (b.Makkot 3:15). As a Roman citizen, Paul didn’t have to take a beating from anybody! He willingly accepted incredible pain and the risk to his life to remain a part of Jewish life. How many of us would be willing to do the same?

4) Paul was uncompromising in his vision
Given that his rabbi had counseled tolerance of the new Messianic sect of the Nazarenes, what on earth would cause R. Sha’ul to go against him? (The seriousness of that breach between teacher and student is almost impossible to describe to Twenty-First Century American Christians.) The answer is in a trait that the Holy One used for his own purposes: Paul was not someone who compromised.

He did not compromise for a second when the Judaizers came (Gal. 2:5). He did not compromise even to avoid a confrontation with Peter (Gal. 2:11)–who, it must be recognized, was far higher in the pecking order of the early Ekklesia than Paul! He would not compromise with Barnabas over giving Mark another chance, which resulted in the breakup of that team (Acts 15:37f). Once Paul saw the path he thought right, he would never deviate from it short of a vision from Heaven. That same trait which lead to him uncompromisingly attacking the Disciples of Yeshua, who had defied even the Sanhedrin, was channeled by the Holy One into the service of the Good News.

5) Paul was a uniter
Even though he refused to compromise the mission God had given him, Paul ultimately saw his role as bringing together Jew and Gentile into one new body in God’s service. The book of Romans, written to a body which had been left without a Jewish presence for some years due to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, was written with that unifying vision, declaring to both sides: All have sinned, all have been saved by grace, all have been elected together, all are being made into one olive tree, and all will know the same salvation, whether born Jew or Gentile. Therefore (ch. 14), we should not let relatively minor disputes about the correct application of Scripture or different traditions tear us apart, but must all serve the same Master and each other.

In the end, Paul was chosen because of not only his zeal, but because his educational and religious background gave him the ability not only to communicate a Semitic religion into Hellenistic terms, but to do so without compromising Judaism either in actuality or even in appearance.  He did the former so successfully that in Christian Bibles ever since, his letters are given pre-eminence over the other Apostles’ not only in position, but in actual authority.  This is extraordinarily unfortunate, since as we  have shown before, while Paul insisted that his calling did not come from the Twelve, he never claimed to have greater authority than they.

As a final note, there is a picture of redemption in the experience of Paul.  The Bible tells us about two Sha’uls of the tribe of Benjamin, the first being Israel’s first human king.  Both Sha’uls were guilty of persecuting the Davidic King.  The first never truly repented of his persecutions (though he made a show of repentence when David refused to harm him at En Gedi).  Sha’ul of Tarsus did, and not only repented, but even knelt at His feet and served Him at great cost to himself.  It was almost as if he redeemed his whole line and name by his submission.

Small wonder then that he became the most erudite writer of Scripture on the subject of Grace.


6 Replies to “Meet Rabbi Sha’ul: Why the Holy One Chose His Enemy”

  1. Jon and I have enjoyed reading this, we are always interested in learning about our Jewish roots in the Brit Hadashah and of hearing about the Jewishness of Paul, the quote from b.makkot 3:15 that Paul undertook was a real eye opener. Jon says keep up the good research!


  2. Thank you for this post. I am fascinated by Pauls conversion. For me Jesus achieved the unthinkable in Paul’s life. This event is a pillar of strength to me. I belief that Jesus appeared and coverted Paul, partly, but exactly for this reason. It is very difficult for the detractors of Jesus to get past this “fork” in the life of Paul. Surely Paul could not have had any other motive to convert but that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah.


    1. Hi Rey,

      Thank you for asking.
      A conversion from being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus the Christ. A conversion too becoming a follower and believer that Jesus is the promised Christ.


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