It is difficult to gauge the importance of Paul to Christianity, but, without doubt, his conversion is the most important event to occur in the early Jesus’ movement after the Pentecost blessing of 31 CE. Paul is personally responsible for at least ten epistles and fourteen if one counts Timothy, Titus and Hebrews as Paul’s work. Try to imagine what our New Testament Scriptures would look like had God not intervened in Paul’s life and called him for the work of Christ.
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.
Paul was born in Tarsus, a large city in the province of Syria-Cilicia, to Jewish parents. In 66 BC, the inhabitants of Tarsus received Roman citizenship, so Paul was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29). Paul or Paulos was Paul’s official or Roman name, but his Jewish name was Saul, born of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5). Paul grew up in Jerusalem and trained in the Jewish Scriptures (Acts 22:3). When Paul moved to Jerusalem is difficult to say, but he was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). Did Paul’s father move to Jerusalem when Paul was young, or did his father live as a Pharisee in Tarsus? We don’t know, but Paul did have family in Jerusalem, for when his life was threatened, it was Paul’s sister’s son who warned him of the danger (Acts 23:16), so, evidently, at least part, if not all, of Paul’s family had returned to Jerusalem.
Paul was a passionate man both before and after his conversion, and his zeal was bent toward God (Acts 22:3; cp. Philippians 3:6). Paul found idol worship deeply offensive (Acts 17:16), and this may be at least partially responsible for his zeal to destroy the church before his conversion. The disciples had been preaching that God resurrected Jesus and placed him alongside himself on the very throne of God (Acts 2:31-36). While there are Scriptures in the Old Testament pointing to this Messianic event, it is unclear how first century CE Judaism would have received the idea. Certainly there was in existence Jewish extra-biblical literature showing the Messiah would be a divine being, but all Jews didn’t receive this tradition, so Paul may have found this doctrine irritating.
Paul was a first rate theologian both in Judaism and later in the Messianic faith. In this regard, we need to remember that Paul strove to exceed others in both zeal and knowledge of Jewish traditions (Galatians 1:14). One has to wonder exactly what was going on in the synagogue of the Libertines cir 34 CE (Acts 6:9), and notice that among those who disputed with Stephen were Jews of Cilicia, the very area in which Paul was born. Later, in his epistle to the Romans Paul confesses that he had no occasion to accuse himself of sin, until he realized the Law’s claim on him that he should not covet (Romans 7:7). He thought he was alive, but when he realized the depth of the commandment, he died (Romans 7:9). Did Paul’s confession in Romans, chapter seven, point to what occurred in the synagogue of the Libertines at Jerusalem on that eventful day in 34 CE? Did Paul’s covetousness lead to Stephen’s death? Paul prided himself on being more zealous for the Law and the traditions of the Jews, but the Scriptures claim that no one could defend their point of view against either Stephen’s wisdom or their passion for the traditions of the elders against his zealous spirit. Does this mean Paul could not resist Stephen’s wisdom, and was Paul’s zeal for the Jewish traditions overwhelmed by Stephen’s own zeal for Christ? Moreover, the Lord pointed to Paul’s “kicking against the goads” at his transforming vision of his Savior. Was Paul still thinking about and still resisting Stephen’s argument? One can only wonder!
Whatever occurred in the synagogue of the Libertines, Paul was among those who stirred up the elders and the scribes who then sent for Stephen to be brought before the council, or Sanhedrin. The outcome of the trial, if that is what it was, was the stoning of Stephen, while Paul stood by approving of what occurred (Acts 7:58; 8:1).