The Apostle Paul Revisited: Paul and the Liars’ Club

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"The Conversion of St. Paul" Michelangelo Buanorroti
The Conversion of St. Paul
Michelangelo Buanorroti

The Strange Career of Saul of Tarsus

Would it be a great surprise to learn that people started lying about the Apostle Paul almost as soon as he became a believer in Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus)?  The story of his dramatic change on the road to Damascus is in Acts 9.  It is a tale that should be familiar to all Christians.  This man, Saul of Tarsus, star pupil of the sage Gamaliel, had made a name for himself by persecuting believers in Yeshua even to the point of death.  His mission in Damascus was to continue the work of hunting down these people and eliminating the threat they posed to the established religious and political order.

Why were these “Nazarenes” a threat?  Because they preached a gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Yeshua.[1]  That gospel differed from the system in place at that time which required formal conversion to Judaism and adherence to the works required by the traditions of the Jewish sages.  What made this complicated for the Jewish leaders was that these believers in Yeshua remained part of the synagogues, keeping Torah and worshipping in the Temple at Jerusalem on the prescribed feast days.  And what was worse, they accepted non-Jews into their fellowship!  No formal conversion to Judaism was required; only profession of faith in Yeshua and demonstration of a lifestyle change by learning and practicing Torah as Yeshua did.  If this movement continued to grow it would circumvent the authority of the Sanhedrin (Council) at Jerusalem and the established order of the scribes and interpreters of the Law (Torah).

It was recognition of this seditious threat that compelled High Priests Caiaphas and Annas to lead the Sanhedrin into condemnation of Yeshua, and later to condemn and execute Stephen, a deacon of the Apostle’s assembly.  Saul was quite familiar with those actions, and especially with the execution of Stephen, in which he played a role (Acts 7:57-60).  Thereafter he proved indispensable in carrying out the Sanhedrin’s policies of persecution in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.  The expedition to Damascus was the logical extension of these policies.  Thus, when Yeshua intervened directly and dramatically, everyone was caught off guard, especially Saul.

We know what happened next.  He was struck blind on the road to Damascus, and then spent three days fasting and praying until Ananias, a believer in Yeshua, came to bring him healing and explain how to follow Yeshua.  Then Saul began to preach the gospel of Yeshua, astounding the believers because he suddenly had become one of them, and astounding the unbelieving Jews because he had defected to the other side.  Few on either side trusted him, and many began to whisper rumors about his true allegiance.  Before long the unbelieving Jews organized a plot to kill him, and thus Saul had to escape Damascus by being lowered over the city wall in a basket.  Following several years of discipleship in Arabia, he finally came to Jerusalem and met the Apostles, but was once again in danger of his life from the unbelieving Jews.  Therefore he was hustled off to his home city of Tarsus, and some years later embarked on his career as Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles.[2]

When in Doubt, Assassinate the Opposition

The book of Acts relates several episodes of Paul facing heated opposition from Gentiles as well as Jews.  When they could not defeat him in open debate they tried to discredit him.  When that did not work they resorted to physical violence.  That didn’t work either, so they simply shouted him down.  But when even that failed to silence Paul, the final resort was assassination.  Oddly enough, it was the Jews who tried to kill Paul; the Greeks and Romans were content with intimidating him through mob action or tying him up in court battles.

Of all these tactics, the one that should disturb us the most is character assassination – spreading lies and rumors intended to discredit Paul and neutralize his witness for Yeshua.  The lies that probably disturbed Paul the most were the ones that led people to believe he had been teaching against the Law of Moses (Torah).  That was at the heart of the accusations brought against him when he returned to Jerusalem after three successful missionary journeys.  Here is what happened while he was fulfilling his Nazirite vows[3] in the Temple:

Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help!  This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”  (Acts 21:27-28 NKJV)

None of these accusations were true, and yet they resulted in Paul’s near-lynching by a mob, requiring the Romans to come to his rescue by putting him in prison.  He never walked freely again.  Once in Roman custody, he endured a series of trials in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome, until at last he was executed by order of Caesar Nero.  In the course of those trials Paul consistently defended his conduct, stating that he had never departed from Torah, nor offended Jewish customs.  The answer before Governor Felix is typical of his responses:

But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets.  I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.  This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men.  (Acts 24:14-16 NKJV)

"The Martyrdom of St. Stephen" Gustave Dore
The Martyrdom of St. Stephen
Gustave Dore

In Company of Liars

The logical conclusion from the accounts in Acts, along with inferences from Paul’s letters, is that the men who accused him were false witnesses.  If they believed their accusations, then they were mistaken in their beliefs and we may excuse their ignorance.  However, if they knew they were lying under oath, then they were false witnesses who broke not only the civil law of Rome, but the commandments of God.  This is especially disturbing since these men were devout Jews, men who enjoyed good standing with the Sanhedrin.

Why would honorable men such as this perjure themselves?  That is something only they can answer, and they must answer only to God.  All we can do is assess the circumstances and results of their perjury.  We do that by first considering what they accused Paul of doing.  Quite simply, they accused him of teaching that the Law of God (Torah) no longer applied to Jews or to anyone else.

Have we heard this accusation before?  Yes, we have.  The same charges were brought against Yeshua Himself, and by the same means.  The Gospel of Matthew tells us this:

Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none.  Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none.  But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’”  (Matthew 26:59-61 NKJV; see also Mark 14:55-59)

Yeshua did not have to deny these accusations.  He had already presented His defense earlier in His ministry:

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:17-19 NJKV)

For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”  (John 5:46-47)

Because He had preached these things consistently throughout His ministry, and because He had lived them out in the observation of the entire nation, Yeshua had no reason to answer the false witnesses who accused Him of breaking the Law (Torah) and teaching others to do the same.  Thus He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.  (Isaiah 53:7 NKJV)

Paul was in very good company standing with Yeshua against the false witnesses.  And yet there was another man whom Paul would have known very well who also stood against false accusers.  That man was Stephen, the martyred deacon, whose judicial murder Paul abetted.  We know Paul held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death, and we can surmise that he stood by at the trial listening both to Stephen’s accusers and to his defense.  It is a peculiar irony that, years later, he himself would be accused of the same charges in that very same place by similar false witnesses.  Regarding Stephen’s accusers, the Scripture record says this:

They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”  (Acts 6:13-14 NKJV)

Read again what those liars said.  They claimed that Stephen taught that Jesus of Nazareth had come to do away with the Temple and the Law of Moses (Torah).  Now consider what Stephen said in his defense:

“This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren.  Him you shall hear.’  This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us, whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected.  And in their hearts they turned back to Egypt. . . .”  (Acts 7:37-39 NKJV)

Stephen invokes Moses, the very one whom he is accused of preaching against.  He says that Moses received from God Himself the “living oracles”.  Where have we heard such a thing before?  From Paul, of course.  He explains that those oracles of God are what give the Jews a great advantage.  And what are those living oracles?  The Torah, which Moses delivered, the Prophets preached, Yeshua lived out, and the Apostles emulated.

Shun the Lie; Embrace the Truth

The common theme in these trials of Yeshua, Stephen, and Paul should jump out at us.  All three of them were accused of teaching that the Law (Torah) of God is no longer in effect.  Those who accused each of them were false witnesses (liars).  Each man stood on the record of Scripture and his personal ministry to refute the false charges and uphold Torah.  What, then, is the lesson for us?  Who today accuses Paul of teaching that the Law (Torah) no longer applies to believers in Yeshua?  Perhaps we should consider this prayerfully lest we find ourselves in the company of liars.

If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.  (John 15:10 NKJV)

[1] For more on this topic, see The Apostle Paul Revisited:  Paul’s Argument With Jesus, Part IV.

[2] Contrary to popular belief, Saul of Tarsus did not change his name to Paul upon his “conversion”.  When the apostle was moving among Jews he would be called Saul, but when ministering to Gentiles he would be known as Paul.  This is clear from the context of Acts 13:1-10.  This Jewish practice of carrying two names continues to this day.  Many Jews go by “Gentile” or “Christian” names when necessary.  This is nowhere more apparent than in Hollywood.  Some famous Jewish performers include Woody Allen (Allen Konigsberg), Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger), Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky), Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), Judy Garland (Frances Gumm), Larry King (Larry Zeiger), and Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman).

[3] Regarding Paul’s Nazirite vows see The Apostle Paul Revisited:  Paul Without Hair.

© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2014.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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