What do we know about Paul's family?
Paul was a Roman citizen:
Paul the Roman Citizen. “Saul, who is also called Paul” (Acts 13:9), was born about the
beginning of the Christian era in Tarsus, the principal city of
Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (9:11; 22:3). His description of
himself as a “Hebrew” (2 Cor. 11:22), “a Hebrew born of Hebrews”
(Phil. 3:5), shows that his parents though living in Diaspora among
the Greeks were far from being assimilationist Jews, but remained
faithful to the language and customs of Palestinian Jewry. An
incidental confirmation of this is Paul’s statement in Acts 26:14 that
the voice on the Damascus road addressed him “in the Hebrew [probably
Aramaic] language” — probably because Hebrew was Paul’s mother tongue
rather that because it was Jesus’ habitual speech. According to Jerome
(De viris illustribus, 5) Paul’s ancestors belonged to Gischala in Galilee and
migrated to Tarsus at the time of the Roman conquest of Palestine (63
B.C.); the accuracy of this tradition is uncertain. Although born into
an orthodox Jewish family Paul was born a Roman citizen (22:28); thus
his father must have been a Roman citizen before him.
How the citizenship came into Paul’s family is not known. Paul’s
native Cilicia fell within the provincia of more than one Roman
general in the 1st cent B.C. — e.g., Pompey and Antony — and the grant
of citizenship to approved individuals was included in the imperium
conferred on these generals by law. But whether one of these generals
or someone else granted Roman citizenship to Paul’s family and why it
was so granted are unknown. In a letter dated February 18, 1953, Sir
William Calder said of Paul: “Had not his father (or possibly
grandfather) been made a citizen by Antony or Pompey? Were they not a
firm of skēnopoioi [tentmakers], able to be very useful to a fighting
proconsul?” This suggestion is as reasonable as any that could be made
on this point, but the evidence is uncertain.
As a Roman citizen Paul had three names — praenomen (first name),
nomen gentile (family name), and cognomen (additional name) — but only
his cognomen, Paullus, is known. His nomen gentile if known might give
some clue to the circumstances of his family’s acquisition of the
citizenship (for new citizens commonly assumed their patron’s nomen
gentile). His cognomen may have been chosen because of its assonance
with his Jewish name Saul — Heb. Šāʾûl, in the NT sometimes spelled
Saoul and more often Saulos, the latter form rhyming with Gk Paulos.
Since he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5) his parents may
have named him Saul after the most illustrious member of that tribe in
their nation’s history, Israel’s first king.
On more than one occasion Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman
citizen — at Philippi (Acts 16:37), to protest his having been beaten
with rods by the lictors attendant on the chief magistrates of the
colony before he had received a proper trial; some years later, at
Jerusalem (22:25), to avoid being scourged (much more murderous than a
beating with rods) by authorities who wanted to know how he had
enraged the Jews in the temple court. He later availed himself of his
citizen rights when he appealed to Caesar (25:11)....
The rights of Roman citizens were laid down in a long succesion of
laws (most recently the lex Julia de vi publica), going back
traditionally to the lex Valeria of 509 B.C. They included exemption
from certain ignominious forms of punishment, protection against
summary execution, and the right of appeal to the sovereign authority.
When a man claimed his citizen rights — when he said civis Romanus sum
(“I am a Roman citizen”) or its equivalent in Greek — how did he prove
his claim? Certainly it was a capital offense to claim falsely to be a
Roman citizen, but how did an official know whether the claim was
true? A new citizen might have a duly witnessed copy of his
certificate of citizenship; auxiliary soldiers received such a
document when they were enfranchised, and civilians may have been
given something similar. But Paul was not a new citizen. He might,
however, have produced a diptych containing a certified copy of his
birth registration. Each legitimate child of a Roman citizen had to be
registered within (it appears) thirty days of birth (cf. F. Schulz,
Journal of Roman Studies, 32 , 78ff; 33 , 55ff).
If he lived in the provinces, his father or some duly appointed agent
made a declaration in the appropriate record office that the child was
a Roman citizen (civem Romanum esse professus est); the declaration
was recorded in the official register, and the father or agent
received a copy in diptych form, properly certified by witnesses.
It is doubtful that an itinerant Roman citizen customarily carried
this diptych around with him. F. Schulz was sure that Paul did so and
produced it for corroboration when he claimed civic privileges
(Journal of Roman Studies, 33 , 63f). A. N. Sherwin-White,
however, thought it more likely that such certificates were normally
kept in the family archives (Roman Society and Roman Law in the NT
, p. 149; cf. Roman Citizenship ).
A further point to consider is that registration of Roman citizens at
birth was apparently enacted by the lex Aelia Sentia of A.D. 4 and the
lex Papia Poppaea of 9; if Paul was born even a year or two before the
earlier enactment, he might not have been registered in this way.
This information on Paul the Roman Citizen was taken, in its entirety, from F.F. Bruce, "Paul the Apostle", in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 3: K-P, ed. by. G. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1995), pages 709-710.