MODERN-DAY REPORTER SERIES:
by Bill Byrnes
Psalms: 18:48: “ He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, he liftest me up above those that rise up against me. He hast delivered me from the violent man.”
Jerusalem:34 A.D.- Reporter: Bill Byrnes — This was going to be a very long day, but there was no choice–I saw a huge story looming and had to be part of it. I had become an assistant Muleteer in a small caravan heading to Damascus. The real story was its owner–the infamous Saul of Tarsus; his purpose–to go to Damascus and persecute any Christian converts he could find. The plan would follow the same methodology he used in Jerusalem and towns into the Jordan Valley, and as far away as Scythopolis. He would gather up the Nazarenes (the name Temple clergy had given to followers of Jesus), bring them to local synagogues where judgments were made, then provoke them into confrontations ending with beatings and tortures. There were, of course, some ensuing deaths.
There would be plenty of time to consider the best way to approach my report. It was a week’s journey to Damascus. Despite the very hard work involved with being assistant to the mule-drivers, it was the only way to be on the front edge of a massive story.
We left at daybreak, and looking back from Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem had such a pretty, serene glow. It was the type of glow many towns had before its inhabitants awakened.
We took the usual route to Ginae in the plain of Esdrelon. Once there, our guides decided to head to the western shore of the lake of Galilee and go northward. We crossed the Jordan river about halfway to the Lake of the Marshes. We kept trekking east into the upland region for about five hours until we came to a small town that lay at the intersection with the road to Gilead. Thus far, our trip has taken approximately 4 1/2days and the whole time, my thinking focused on the meteoric rise of Saul of Tarsus– persecutor!
Saul was born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia (in Asia Minor–modern day Turkey) approximately the same time as Jesus. His parents were devout Pharisees and his father traced his lineage back to the tribe of Benjamin- who had given the Hebrews their first king–Saul. His dad, a wealthy textile merchant, was also a Roman citizen, so he gave Saul a Roman name–Paul–a name to be used among Gentiles including the Greek speaking peoples common to the area.(This was a common practice for Jews outside the “homeland”– their real names to be used only among their own kind) The legacies of family wealth and Roman citizenship would prove invaluable for Saul’s development and later success. With Roman citizenship, he could travel anywhere within the empire. His family’s wealth meant that he didn’t have to be pressed into servitude, and instead, could pursue scholarly interests, which he did.
Although a contemporary of Jesus, Saul never met him. He grew up in Tarsus and left for Jerusalem at age 17-18. His father hoped he would continue in the Pharisee tradition and above all else–keep to the law of God. After beginning his studies at the Temple, Saul was very impressed with the noted Pharisaic scholar-Gamaliel, but found himself lacking in knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language and scriptures. After checking with local scholars he decided to visit the main colony of the Essenes, a devout sect of Jews located upon a shelf above the plain bordering the Dead Sea. They lived in a walled-in community and were totally isolated from any contact with the outside world except for occasional trips to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were extremely committed to living in the “old ways”. They were very active in scholarly pursuits and constantly transcribed books onto leather scrolls. His “visit” lasted more then two years and during that time, Saul established the foundation of knowledge he was seeking.
Saul never met Jesus.
However, that was also the same time that Jesus of Nazareth carried on his ministry in Galilee. Because of their isolation, the Essenes (and Saul) were totally unaware of Jesus’ passing thru Jericho-only a few miles on the other side of the river from them. Of course, this also meant the Essene colony knew nothing about Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Saul learned of these momentous events from visitors to the compound and soon after, left for Jerusalem.
It’s interesting to note that during Saul’s first stay at the Temple in Jerusalem, his qualifications drew interest from no less than Caiaphas- the High Priest. It’s no surprise, then, that after his return he was quickly brought up to date on the surging Nazarene(Christian) movement. After the first Pentecost, the movement was spreading rapidly, especially into areas inhabited by Hellenistic Jews…like Damascus. Saul found this deeply troubling. This new movement, if it spread far enough into the Gentile world, could be viewed as a threat by the Roman empire, which had been very good to Jews within its domain. Also, it ran against his Pharisaic beliefs. Unnamed sources, associates of young Saul, said that at this time he concluded that the best course of action was to stop the movement before it started spreading into the Roman world.
He started going to meetings at the house of one of the High priests with a group of other like-minded young men. They realized that Saul would be their best choice to lead them. He spoke Greek, so he could easily identify with Hellenistic Jews, and, his Roman citizenship meant his movements in areas outside Judea wouldn’t draw Roman suspicions. Next question was: how to begin!
Since the episode with the “gift of tongues” on the first Pentecost, Temple priests had felt more threatened, and confused, each time they heard about the miracles of healing and the subsequent conversions. When John and Peter healed the lame man at the East Gate(see last article- “Solomon’s Porch”) they were imprisoned, then released because the priests didn’t want to chance angering the followers who were still on the Temple grounds. Not long after, Peter and John were again arrested while visiting Solomon’s Porch and preaching to the public. After being jailed, their cell door was “miraculously” unlocked and they went right back to preaching the message of Jesus. This enraged the priests, who wanted to kill them. Fortunately for them, Saul’s mentor, Gamaliel addressed the gathering. He said that if this movement was God’s plan they wouldn’t be able to stop it, if it wasn’t, then it would soon fall apart, as was the case with the beliefs of previous false prophets. This made sense to the priests, who decided to beat Peter and John and send them on their way.
Their cell door was mysteriously unlocked.
The healings and conversions continued and a new follower, Stephen, became prominent with his Temple preaching. Stephen worked with the disciples in dispensing food to the needy. Friends admit that he was full of the “Holy Spirit”, and was a gifted speaker. He was also credited with some healing miracles. Being only a co-worker of the disciples, and not one of the twelve leaders, he quickly drew the attention of Saul and his conspirators. Indeed, Stephen would be their initial target.
It’s still not clear whether Saul’s group went out and arrested Stephen, or if they waited for one of his regular Temple visits. Either way, when Stephen addressed the priests, their previous frustrations became quite clear. They were enraged at him. Witnesses at the gathering said that Saul seized the moment and shouted, “Blasphemy!”, knowing his word would incite the others. Stephen was dragged out of the Temple, into the city streets, and stoned to death! What’s interesting to note is that Saul, though leading the group, never picked up a stone. Instead, he held the cloaks of the murderous group. When it was over, Saul comforted the priests, and those involved, by saying, “It is a good thing he was killed.”. From this moment on he was treated with great respect. And, any of the new Christians definitely had to beware of the coat-holder! A “reign of terror” against these new converts to Jesus was beginning. It’s leader was Saul of Tarsus!
Stephen would be their first target.
Several campaigns later, Saul was on the verge of his most ambitious undertaking yet–Damascus. His usual “henchmen” from the Jerusalem temple were not with him, probably because he wanted to avoid drawing attention from the Romans.
Inhabitants of the small village we stopped in warned that Eastern tribesmen were robbing caravans along the Damascus road. They advised that it would be better to wait until tomorrow and we could team up with another Damascus-bound caravan that was overdue. This way, it might be too large a target for the outlaws to attack. Saul ignored their warnings and forged ahead. It was still 12-13 hours ahead, including an overnight stop, and he didn’t want to delay his journey for one minute longer than necessary.
We were traveling on some rough road, thru a bare, rocky area West of the Trachonitis Range–it’s volcanic hills showing a deep purple façade. Looking ahead even further, to the Northwest, we saw the massive Mt. Hermon, complete with snow covered peaks despite the fact that it was May. We would have to pass by the entire base of the mountain before arriving in Damascus.
Unimpressed by the scenery, Saul kept up a pace that left us lagging. Undaunted, his pace never lessened. Despite our best efforts, we fell further behind. It was difficult to keep him in our sight. Then we noticed the weather starting to change. It appeared his horse also sensed it as it made nervous attempts to outdistance the dark clouds rolling off of Mt. Hermon. The dark clouds soon became darker, the winds increased dramatically causing temperatures to plummet. The clouds continued their metamorphosis into an almost-black hue! My fellow muleteers had been saying that Spring storms coming off of Mt. Hermon could drop to bone-chilling extremes. We stopped, as we all started reaching for the packs carrying our warm Cilicium coats.(Cilicium was the name given to garments made in Cilicia, which were standard cold-weather gear for Roman soldiers. Many of these coats were made by Saul’s father and, undoubtedly, played a large role in his being granted Roman citizenship.) As I slipped into my coat, I realized that Saul carried no provisions on his horse. When I told this to my mule driver he yelped something to the effect of, “You noticed –start running with a coat for the boss! A frozen owner would be unable to pay wages!”
I took off in Saul’s direction. He was barely visible in the heavy cloud cover ahead. I was cursing my lack of speed when I looked ahead, trying to focus in on Saul’s distance, and what I saw stopped me almost dead in my tracks! His horse had made it to a walled enclosure(khan), but just before it entered, it stumbled, throwing its rider. I had managed to reach a point approximately 50 yards behind him. The dark clouds surrounded Saul. I dropped to my knees, awestruck, when an strange eerie light pierced thru the clouds- as if it were seeking just him! Once it found its target, the sounds of the violent storm ceased. All I could hear was a muted thunder. It was strange because it was not the usual ominous sound of thunder–but it sounded– almost soft with staccato rhythym–the sound was almost–well–it sounded– CONVERSATIONAL! The sounds seemed incredulous– and then I noticed something that was truly a sight for the ages…Saul, the dreaded persecutor , was lying prostrate on the ground, his arms straight in front of him palms down, as if he was WORSHIPING that light!
It was as if he was worshiping the light…
My co-workers caught up to me as the surrounding area resumed its normalcy as rapidly as it had lost it. One of Saul’s assistants raced ahead to help his master up and then lead him into the enclosed area to rest. When we caught up to them what we discovered chilled us as much as the storm: he was BLIND–Saul of Tarsus was blind! When we asked his helper what we could do, he said just rest until the morning, then we would continue into Damascus. As I laid down to rest, I inched towards the reclined invalid as much as I could without appearing menacing. It was enough to barely hear Saul’s conversation. His voice, understandably, was very strained when he told his helper, “…then I asked him, ‘What shall I do Lord?’ Then he said, ‘Go into Damascus, and you will be told what to do.’ ”
I was shocked by what I just heard. But it had to be true–Saul of Tarsus was not worshipping light in a storm–he was talking with God! He had just been converted to the Christian belief! Absolutely incredible!
Fatigue was overcoming me quickly. My last thoughts for this momentous day were about that prophetic statement of Gamaliel: “If this new movement was part of God’s plan, no one could stop it.” Well, after what I just observed–I don’t think anyone will. I sort of smirked when I thought about God’s template for change. What’ll happen when this new religion confronts the mighty Roman empire? Will God change them like he just changed Saul? “Oh…that’ll be the day!”, I thought. Then I fell into the caress of a much needed, wonderful sleep.
***Note: Don’t stop here–READ “Acts of the Apostles” – located in a Bible near you! It really is the 2nd greatest story ever told!