In Acts 8:1 we are told that Saul (Paul) consented to Stephen’s death. This may indicate that he was a member of the Sanhedrin and was perhaps a prosecuting attorney. However, I’ll pursue this possibility in another blog. For now I wish to focus upon the year of his mission to afflict the Messianic believers at Damascus. It is worthy of note that the Apostles were not persecuted. Why was this so? The only logical answer, as far as I can see, is that it was only that branch of the church to which Stephen belonged that was persecuted. The Grecian or Hellenistic Messianic believers had separated under good terms from the main body of Palestinian Messianic believers (Acts 6:1-6).
It was at that time that a large bloc of the priesthood who believed in Jesus joined themselves to the Apostles (Acts 6:7), implying that while the Hellenistic Messianic Jews were joined to the Apostles, these priests considered the body ceremonially unclean, probably due to the iffy traditions of the Hellenistic believers. Some may not have retained kosher eating habits, and most likely all were not as picky concerning the washing traditions of the fathers—the Oral Law—as the Apostles probably were. Remember Peter’s ministry (and therefore that of all the Apostles) was to the Jews, particularly those who lived in Judea and Galilee. It would be very difficult to minister to a society that considered you unclean. If most of the Palestinian Jews wouldn’t keep company with the Apostles, how could they understand and receive the Gospel? Therefore, those Apostles who did not ordinarily practice the Oral Law (cf. Mark 7:1-5) most likely submitted themselves to it in order to reach their Jewish brethren who were considering Jesus, and wondering if he were the Messiah. So at this point in Acts 6 we can see that the Messianic Jews have grown into a body which can be described as being composed of liberals (the Grecian or Hellenist believers), moderates (the Apostles and those close to them) and conservatives (those who were particularly sensitive to ceremonial washing etc., of which James, the brother of Jesus, would later be the head).
Therefore, Paul most likely pursued only the liberal Messianic Jews or only those who believed as Stephen. It was not, therefore, that Jesus’ resurrection per se was the reason for the persecution, because, remember, Paul was a Pharisee who believed in the resurrection. It was Stephen’s message, namely, that the Temple was not needed for men to walk with God that was so troubling. For religious Jews, the idea that the Temple was not needed was the same as saying the name of God, which was perceived to be upon the Temple, was not needed, and this amounted to blasphemy. All who held to this idea and preached it had to be punished.
According to Acts 9:1-2, Paul sought letters from the high priest to go to Damascus in order to arrest and return Messianic Jews to Jerusalem for judgment. Most likely, Paul sought these letters of extradition in the spring of 35 AD, or about 6 months after the time Stephen was stoned. Personally, I don’t see the point in believing Paul persecuted believers longer than this, if God intended to use him as his Apostle to the gentiles. Therefore, if we allow time for Saul to vex the believers around Jerusalem and perhaps even pursue known Messianic believers who had been attached to Stephen to specific synagogues in Judea, probably it wouldn’t take much longer than 5 or 6 months to establish a reputation as an extremist and persecutor of the church.
Historically, Paul’s journey to Damascus would be about the time when Licius Vitellius, governor of Syria, sent Pilate packing for Rome (Passover of 35 AD) after his 10 year tenure in Judea [Josephus: Antiquities; 18.4.2], to appear before Tiberius and answer charges of cruelty leveled at him by the Samaritans.The governor also removed Caiaphas from the office of high priest at the same time and replaced him with Jonathan, the son of Annas. Paul was probably referring to Jonathan in Acts 22:5, who was then serving as high priest for the second time while Festus was governor of Judea, that it was he who gave Paul the letters of extradition for suspected Messianic believers at Damascus. If this is logically so, this would more or less solidify the approximate season and year of Paul’s fateful journey to Damascus.