Saint Paul is the apostle par excellence. When one thinks of evangelization and missionary life, one thinks of him. A man of the great cities, he lived among the capitals of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire (Ephesus, Corinth, Antioch, Thessalonica). Born into the diaspora, he traveled to Jerusalem for his studies as a Pharisee. A Jew of noble birth, his education gave him the best that Hellenistic-Judaic culture had to offer. At first a persecutor of Christians and someone who was “blameless” regarding observance of the law of Moses (cf. Phil 3:6), he later became a Christian around 33-34 A.D.
In the Acts of the Apostles Luke tells us three things that Paul himself does not tell us. First, that he was from Tarsus. Paul’s cultural level is in keeping with this city of his origins. Paul belonged to a wealthy family. In the capital of Cilicia, a city with flourishing philosophical schools, he had received an excellent Hellenistic education, which included knowledge of rhetoric and the basic elements of Greek culture.
Second, because of his family he was a Roman citizen by birth, which was somewhat rare at that time. Paul would write to the Corinthians: “What is vile and despised by the world, what is nothing, God has chosen” (1 Cor 1:28). This is undoubtedly true of most of the Christians in Corinth, but Paul, because of his family, his education and his intellectual training, belonged to the elite of the Empire.
Third, Luke informs us that initially Paul was called “Saul,” but, strangely enough, he gives no reason for this change of name (cf. Acts 13:9). Many Jews of that time had two names: one for intra-communal use and the other for dealings with the non-Jewish world. Was Saul then Paul’s Jewish name? This name was rare among the Jews of that time, who preferred to bear the names of members of the Hasmonean dynasty. Who would have given the name “Saul” to their son unless a family for whose members this gesture would have been a sign of prestige, precisely because they belonged to the same tribe as Saul? Paul himself informs us: “For I too am an Israelite, one of the descendants of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1). It is therefore very likely that the Benjamite Saul called himself Paul in the Greco-Roman context.