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Bible Commentaries
Romans 11

Carroll's Interpretation of the English BibleCarroll's Biblical Interpretation

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Acts 21:39; Acts 22:3; Acts 23:6; Acts 23:34; Acts 26:4-5; 2 Corinthians 11:22; Romans 11:1; Galatians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:4-6; 1 Timothy 1:12-13; 2 Timothy 1:3.

This discussion does not make much headway in the text book, but it covers an immense amount of territory in its facts and significance. This section is found in Goodwin’s Harmony of the Life of Paul, pages 15-17, and the theme is Paul’s history up to the time that he enters the New Testament story. Saul, now called Paul, a Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, of the sect of the Pharisees, yet a freeborn Roman citizen, by occupation a tentmaker, by office a rabbi, and a member of the Sanhedrin, was born in the city of Tarsus, in the province of Cilicia, about the time of our Lord’s birth. Tarsus was situated on the narrow coast line of the eastern part of the Mediterranean, just under the great Taurus range of mountains, and on the beautiful river Cydnus, which has a cataract just before it reaches the city, and a fall, beautiful then and beautiful now, coming down into that fertile plain where the city goes into a fine harbor, which opens the city to the commerce of the world through the Mediterranean Sea. It was on the great Roman thoroughfare, which was one of the best roads in the world. There were two of these mountain ranges, one of them right up above the city through the Taurus range into the coast of Asia Minor, the other following the coast line, which leads into Syria. This is the way that the mountains came down close to the sea, making a certain point very precipitous, and there was a typical beach between those mountains and the sea. That road into Syria was called the Oriental way. Over the Roman thoroughfare passed the land traffic, travel and marching armies for centuries. It was in that pass that Alexander fought his first great battle against the Persians, and thus obtained an entrance into the East. It was through that pass that, marching westward, and before Alexander’s time, Xerxes the Great, the husband of Esther (mentioned in the Bible), marched his 5,000,000 men to invade Greece. I could mention perhaps fifty decisive battles in ancient history that were set and were successful conquests by preoccupation of that pass. That shows the strategical position of this city – that it commanded the passes of the Taurus into Asia Minor, and the pass into Syria, and through its fine harbor came in touch with the commerce of the world on the Mediterranean Sea.

Paul says that it was "no mean city," in size or in population. It was notable, (1) for its manufacture, that of weaving, particularly goat’s hair, for on that Taurus range lived goats with very long hair, and this was woven into ropes, tents, and things of that kind; (2) because it was the capital of the province of Cilicia; (3) because, under Rome, it was a free city, i.e., it had the management of its own internal affairs, which constituted a city a free city, like the free city of Bremer in the early history of Germany. Other cities would be under the feudal lords, but there were a number of cities free, and these elected their own burghers, and governed their own municipal matters – a tremendous advantage.

Tarsus received from the Roman Emperor the privilege of being a free city. Keep these facts well in mind, especially and particularly as regards the land and sea commerce. (4) Because it possessed one of the three great world-famous universities. There were just three of them at that time: One at Tarsus; one at Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile; and one at Athens. It was not like some other cities, remarkable for its great buildings, its public games and its works of art. You could see more fine buildings in Athens or in Ephesus or in Corinth than you had any right to look for in Tarsus. It celebrated no such games as were celebrated in the May festivals at Ephesus, and in the great Greek amphitheater in that city, or in such games as the Isthmian, celebrated in Corinth. It was not remarkable for any of these. Its popular religion was a low and mixed order of Oriental paganism. There is this difference between the Oriental and Occidental heathen – the former in the East, and the latter at Rome, and the West. Ephesus had an Oriental religion, though it was a Greek city. Tarsus, too, was a Greek city, but was partly Phoenician and partly Syrian. There were more arts and intellectuality in western paganism than in the Oriental, which was low, bestial, sensual, in every way brutal, shameful, immodest, and outrageous. The Phoenicians, who had a great deal to do with establishing the city of Tarsus, had that brutal, low form of paganism. That infamous emperor, Sargon, celebrated in the Bible, the Oriental king of the original Nineveh, was worshiped in that city. There never lived a man that devoted himself more than he to luxury in its fine dress, gorgeous festivals, its gluttony, its drunkenness, its beastiality. Paul was born in that city, and he could look out any day and see the heathen that he has so well described in chapter 1 of the letter to the Romans.

Citizenship in a free city under Rome did not make one a Roman citizen, as did citizenship in Philippi, a colony. To be born in a free city did not make one a Roman citizen. It conferred upon its members, its own citizens, the right to manage their own municipal affairs. To be born in Philippi would make one a Roman citizen, because Philippi was a colony. The name of its citizens were still retained on the muster roll in the city of Rome. They had all the privileges of Roman citizenship. Their officers were Roman officers. They had processions, with the magistrates, and the lictors and with the bundles of rods. But there was nothing like that in Tarsus. The question came up in Paul’s lifetime, when the commander of a legion heard Paul claiming that be was a Roman citizen. This commander says that with a great sum of money he did purchase his citizenship in Rome. Paul says, "But I was freeborn." If freeborn, how then could he have obtained it? In one of two ways: Before Christ was born, Pompey invaded Jerusalem, and took it. He was one of the first great triumvirate, with Julius Caesar and Marcus L. Crassus. Pompey’s field of labor was in the East, Caesar’s was in the West, and he (Pompey) took Jerusalem and led into slavery many Jews of the best families. When these slaves were brought to Rome, if they showed culture, social position, educational advantages, they were promoted to a high rank or office, among slaves; and if they particularly pleased their owners they were manumitted, either during the lifetime of their owner, or by will after his death. In this way many noble captives from all parts of the world were carried as slaves to Rome. They were first set free and then had conferred upon them the rights of Roman citizenship. It could have been that Cassius, who with Brutus, after the killing of Julius Caesar, combined against Mark Anthony, and Octavius (Augustus), who became the emperor and was reigning when Christ was born, captured this city of Tarsus and led many of its citizens into Rome as slaves. Paul’s grandfather, therefore, or his father, might have been led away captive to Rome, and through his high social position and culture may have been manumitted, and then received as a citizen. Necessarily it occurred before this boy’s time, because when he was born, he was born a Roman citizen. It could be transmitted, but he had not acquired it.

There is a difference between the terms – Jew, Hebrew, Israelite, Hellenist, and a "Hebrew of the Hebrews." All these are used by Paul and Luke in Acts. We get our word, "Hebrew" from Heber, an ancestor of Abraham. Literature shows that the descendants of Heber were Hebrews, and in the Old Testament Abraham is called "the Hebrew." That was not the meaning of the word in New Testament times. We come to the New Testament meaning in Acts 6, which speaks of the ordination of deacons, and uses the word "Hebrew" in distinction from "Hellenist." They both, of course, mean Jews. While a Hebrew in the New Testament usually lived in Palestine, but not necessarily, he was one who still spoke or was able to read the original Hebrew language and who practiced the strict Hebrew cult. A "Hellenist" was a Jew who had either been led into exile, or who, for the sake of trade, had gone into other nations, and settled among those people and had become liberalized, lost the use of the Hebrew tongue entirely, and neither spoke nor wrote the Hebrew language, but who spoke and wrote mainly in Greek. "Hellenist" is simply another term for "Greek." Whether used in the New Testament Greek or the Hellenistic Greek, it means Jews living among Greek people, and who had acquired the language, and in the many respects had followed more liberal Greek customs. Then a Hebrew living in Palestine would not allow himself to be liberalized.

Paul lived out of Judea. He, his father, and indeed his grandfather, adhered strictly to all the distinguishing characteristics of the Hebrews. The "Israelite" and the "Jew" mean anybody descended from Jacob. "Israelite" commenced lower down in the descent. "Hebrew" gets its name from the ancestor of Abraham, but an Israelite was a descendant of Jacob. The distinction of "Jew" came a little later to those descendants of Jacob living in Judea. The "Hebrew of the Hebrews" means a Jew-who went to the greatest possible extreme in following the Hebrew language, cult, habits, training, and religion. He was an extremist among them.

Some people would suppose from Paul’s occupation – tentmaking (he worked at that occupation, making tents with Aquila and Priscilla) – that from this unskilled labor his family were low in the social position, and poor. The inference is wholly untenable. In the first place, every Jew had to have a trade, even though he were a millionaire, and Paul’s old teacher, Gamaliel, used this language: "Any kind of learning without a useful trade leads to sin." Paul took up this trade because he lived at Tarsus. There anybody could go out and learn the trade of weaving ropes and check-cloth made out of the long hair of Mount Taurus goats. The trade would not simply satisfy the Jewish requirement, but a man could make his living by it. We see Paul a little later making his living just that way. Well for Paul that he knew something besides books.

I am more and more inclined to follow an industrial idea in systems of education. We have our schools and universities where the boys and girls learn a great deal about books, and the girl goes home and does not know how to make bread. She does not know how to rear a brood of chickens; she does not know how a house is to be kept clean, nor how to keep windows clean. The floors in the corners and in places under the beds and sofas are unswept. Boys come home that cannot make a hoe handle. They have no mechanical sense, no trade. They can neither make a pair of shoes nor a hat nor a pair of socks, nor anything they wear. And thus graduates of universities stand with their fingers in their mouths in the great byways of the world – practically beggars – not knowing how to do anything.

The Jews guarded against that. Let Paul fall on his feet anywhere, and withdraw from him every outside source of financial support, and he would say, "With these hands did I minister to my necessities." He could go out and get a piece of work. He knew how to do it. All this is bearing on the social and financial position of Paul’s family. Everything indicates the high social position of his family, and that it occupied a high financial position. They did not take the children of the lowest abode and give them such an ecclesiastical training as Paul had. They did not educate them for the position of rabbi, nor let them take a degree in the highest theological seminary in the world. Paul’s family, then, was a good one.

Paul’s religious and educational advantages were on two distinct lines: Purely ecclesiastical or religious, and I can tell just exactly what it was. A little Hebrew boy five years old had to learn the Ten Commandments, and the hallelujah psalms. When six, he advanced to other things which could be specified particularly. His education commenced in the home and went on until he entered the synagogue, which trained him in all the rudiments of biblical education. When he was twelve or thirteen years old he was called "a son of the commandments." Just like the occasion suggests when Jesus was twelve years old he had them take him to Jerusalem, and he was allowed to go into the Temple and to be with the great doctors there.

When Paul was twelve or thirteen his influential father sent him to the great theological seminary. There were two of these seminaries. One had a greater influence than the other in the city of Jerusalem. Therefore, he says, "I was brought up in this city. I was born in Tarsus, but brought up in the city of Jerusalem, at the feet of Gamaliel." He was a very noble character. The opposite seminary differed from this one. It was the Shammai Seminary, differing from the other on this point: The Shammai Seminary was very narrow; did not allow its pupils to know anything about literature whatsoever except religious literature. But the aged Gamaliel said to Paul and to all his other students, "There are certain classical lines along which you may study and learn." This is the kind which Paul attended, the school of Gamaliel, graduating there and becoming a doctor of divinity, or a rabbi. He studied profoundly. This religious part of his education he got in the original Hebrew. When he and Jesus met at the time of his conversion, they spoke in the Hebrew tongue to each other. "There came a voice which said in the Hebrew [the old Hebrew tongue], Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" And he answered in the Hebrew. Then, of course, he spoke and wrote in the Aramaic, which was the common dialect in Judea, and different from the Hebrew, since the Hebrew had gone altogether out of use in the ordinary speech, and almost in the ordinary reading.

The New Testament abounds in evidence of Paul’s general educational advantages. The city of Tarsus possessed one of the three great universities of the world. Did Paul take a course in that? There is no evidence that he did, and no probability that he did. For the universities in that day did not mean as much as they do today in a certain line, though I am sorry to say that the great universities of the present day are dropping back and adopting the old utterly worthless studies of the universities of that day; that is, speculative philosophy about the origin of things, and they do not know anything more when they get through than when they began. Also the Epicurean philosophy, which we now call "Darwinism," making a speculative study of biology, botany, geology, etc., trying to prove that everything came from a primordial germ, and that man not only developed from a monkey, but from a jellyfish, and that the jellyfish developed from some vegetable, and that the vegetable is a development of some inorganic and lifeless matter.

There never was at any time in the world one particle of truth in the whole business. None of it can ever be a science. It does not belong to the realm of science.

Saul never had a moment’s time to spend in a heathen university, listening to their sophistries, and to these philosophical speculations, or vagaries. If he were living now he would be made president of some university. We learn from the Syrians that one of these universities, the one in Tarsus, had a professor who once stole something, and was put in "limbo." Their university professors were also intensely jealous. They had all sorts of squabbles, one part in a row with another part; so that after all there was not much to be learned in the universities of those times, and after a while there will not be much in ours, if we go on as we are now going. I am not referring to any university, particularly, but I am referring to any and all, where philosophical speculations are made thee basis of botany, zoology, natural history of any kind, geology, or any kindred thing. Paul struck it in the city of Athens, its birthplace, and smote it hip and thigh.

I do not suppose at all that Paul was a student in the university of Tarsus, but that while he was at Jerusalem, and under the teaching of Gamaliel, he did study such classics as would be permitted to a Jewish mind. Hence we find in his letters expressions like this: "One of themselves, a prophet of their own said, Cretans are always liars," and when at Athena he says, "Certain, even of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." How could he become acquainted with those classical allusions if he had never studied such things? That chiliarch, who commanded a thousand men – a legion – said to Paul, "Do you speak Greek?" He had heard him speaking Greek. Of course he spoke Greek, and wrote Greek, All of his letters were written in Greek. He had learned that Greek language somewhere. He had not learned it in that university at Tarsus, but in the Seminary at Jerusalem. Take his letters and see his profound acquaintance with the Greek games of every kind. Some of them he may have attended, but he certainly knew all about them as though he had witnessed them. He may have seen only an occasional game. So he must have learned it from the literature, for he discusses every phase of it, especially the foot-racing, the combats in the arena between the gladiators, and the wrestling with the lions in the arena. His letters are full of allusions that indicate his acquaintance with the Greek literature. At Alexandria there was one of the other universities, a much greater one in its Greek literature than the university of Tarsus. Alexandria was founded by a Greek, Alexander the Great. One of the Ptolemies had a great library, the greatest library in the world, which was destroyed by the Saracens. But notice also how Paul puts his finger right upon the very center and heart of every heathen philosophy, like that of Epicureanism – our Darwinism; that he debated in Athens; and note the Stoics whom he met while there, and the Platonians, or the Peripatetics. You will find that that one little speech of his, which he delivered in the city of Athens, contains an allusion which showed that he was thoroughly and profoundly acquainted with every run and sweep of the philosophic thought of the day, and anybody not thus acquainted could not have delivered that address. This is to show the general culture of his mind.

Take the mountain torrent of his passion in the rapid letter to the Galatians. Take the keen logic, the irresistibility of its reasoning, which appears in the letter to the Romans, or take that sweetest language that ever came from the lips or pen of mortal man, that eulogy on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Then take the letter to Philemon, which all the world has considered a masterpiece in epistolary correspondence. It implies that he was scholarly. Look at these varieties of Saul’s education. He was a man whose range of information swept the world. He was the one scholar in the whole number of the apostles – the great scholar – and I do not see how any man can read the different varieties of style or delicacy of touch, the analysis of his logic or reasoning, which appear in Paul’s letters, and doubt that he had a broad, a deep, a high, and a grand general education.

As to Paul’s family the New Testament tells us in Acts 23:16 that he had a married sister living in Jerusalem, and that that sister had a son, Paul’s nephew, who intervened very heroically to help Paul in a certain crisis of his life. And in Romans 16:7-11 are some other things that give light as to his family: "Salute Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners . . . who also have been in Christ before me." Here are a man and a woman, Andronicus and Junias, Paul’s kinsfolk, well known to the apostles in Jerusalem, for he says, "Who are of note among the apostles." They were influential people, and they had become Christians before Paul was a Christian. Take Romans 16:11: "Salute Herodion my kinsman," and Romans 16:21: "Timothy, my fellow worker saluteth you; and Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen." So here we have found six individuals who are kinspeople to Paul, and who were all members of the church at Rome. We know that much of his family, anyhow.

The things which distinguished a Pharisee from a Sadducee were of several kinds: (1) The latter were materialists, whom we would call atheists. They believed in no spirit; that there was nothing but matter; that when a man died it was the last of him. (2) There were Epicureans: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die," they said. (3) Also in their political views they differed from the Pharisees. The Pharisees were patriotic, and wanted the freedom of their nation. The Sadducees were inclined to the Roman government, and wanted to keep up the servitude to the Romans. (4) The Pharisees also cared more about a ritualistic religion. They were Puritans – stern, and knew no compromise, adhering strictly to the letter of the law, in every respect. If they tithed, they would go into the garden and tithe the cummin and the anise. The phrase, "Pharisee of the Pharisees," means one who would whittle all that down to a very fine point, or an extremist on that subject. He said (Galatians 1:14), "I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of mine own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers." They were just Pharisees – he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He went all the lengths that they would go, and he topped them. It meant something like this: "I am a son of Abraham; I am freeborn; I have never sinned; I need no vicarious expiation for me; I need no Holy Spirit; I was never in that bunch; you need not talk or present regeneration to me; I am just as white as snow." It followed that they were not drunkards, they were not immoral; they were chaste, and did not have any of the brutal vices.

Paul had perhaps never met Jesus. They were about the same age. Paul went to Jerusalem when he was thirteen years old, and stayed there until he graduated in the same city. Some contend from certain expressions, as, "I have known Christ after the flesh; henceforth I will know him . . . no more," that he had known Jesus in the flesh. It will be remembered that in the public ministry of Christ he was very seldom in Jerusalem. He stayed there a very short time when he did go. His ministry was mainly in Galilee. Even in that last mighty work of his in Jerusalem – there is a big account of it – but it just lasted a week. And Saul may have been absent at Tarsus during that time. I think when he saw Jesus the fact that he did not recognize him is proof enough, for if he had known him in the flesh he would have recognized him. But he said, "Who art thou?" when he saw him after he arose from the dead.

Paul, before conversion, was intensely conscientious in whatever he did – free from all low vice, drunkenness and luxurious gluttony and sensuality of every kind. He was a very chaste man, a very honest man, a very sincere man, a very truthful man, and all this before conversion. I take it for granted that he was a married man. An orthodox Jew would not have passed the age of twenty unmarried. He could not be a member of the Sanhedrin without marrying; and in that famous passage in Corinthians he seems to intimate clearly that he was a married man. Speaking to virgins (that means unmarried men and women and includes both of them that had never married) he says so and so; and to widows and widowers, "I wish they would remain such as I am." It seems to me that the language very clearly shows that at that time he was a widower. Luther says that no man could write about the married state like Paul writes if he was an old bachelor. I think Luther is right; his judgment is very sound. Paul did not marry again; he remained a widower, and in the stress of the times advised other widowers and widows to remain in that state; but if they wanted to marry again to go ahead and do so; that it was no sin; but the stress of the times made it unwise; and he boldly took the position that he had a right to lead about a wife as much as Peter had, and Peter had a wife.


1. What the theme of this section?

2. What Saul’s name, nation, tribe, sect, citizenship, occupation, office, birthplace, and date of birth?

3. Give an account of Tarsus as to its political, strategical, commercial, manufacturing, educational advantages, and its popular religion.

4. Did citizenship in a free city under Rome make one a Roman citizen as did citizenship in Philippi, a colony?

5. How, then, could one obtain it?

6. Distinguish the difference between these terms: Jew, Hebrew, Israelite, Hellinist, and a "Hebrew of the Hebrews."

7. What the social and financial position of Paul’s family, particularly in view of his occupation?

8. What Paul’s religious and educational advantages?

9. What New Testament evidences are there of Paul’s general educational advantages?

10. What do we know about Paul’s family as seen in the New Testament?

11. Was Paul a rabbi? If so, where did he probably exercise his functions as a rabbi?

12. What is the meaning of the phrase, "Pharisee of the Pharisees?"

13. Did Paul ever meet Jesus before his death? If not, how account for it in view of the interest and publicity of the last week of our Lord’s life?

14. What was Paul’s character before conversion?

15. Was he a married man, and what the proof?

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Romans 11". "Carroll's Interpretation of the English Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bhc/romans-11.html.
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