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How old was Paul of Tarsus?

The question came in my g-mail this morning and a quick response grew into this blog post.

The Question: "How old do you think Paul was - at any given time - let's say his death?"

My answer: The only educated guess I can make on Paul's age would be as follows, based on the most likely dates as I've worked out Paul's timeline:

Paul died in 64 AD, and met Jesus on the Damascus road in 34 AD. I don't know how long Pharisaical training used to take, but I don't suppose we should imagine Paul was less than 20 years old at Stephen's death. At Paul's own death, untimely as it was, being caused by execution and not by old age, it wouldn't be very reasonable to imagine Paul living past age 60. Kings and Emperors lived to 70 sometimes, but they had the best of comfort, health, medicine, etc. Common folks very often didn't live to age 50, which may help a bit to explain the remark about Jesus' age in the Gospel of John. Today we think of 100 as an age most people don't reach, but the few who do are considered really old, and it seems to me '50' had that same relevance then.

So, then, here is one possible reconstruction: If it was possible to become "a Pharisee of Pharisees" by age 20, then we're safer putting Paul's age at Stephen's death much closer to age 20 than to age 30. On the road to Damascus, then, Paul would be in his early to mid twenties. At his return to Tarsus, only 3 to 4 years older than that. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), Paul would be in his mid to late 30's. At his death in Rome, Paul "the aged" would indeed be around 50 years old, but probably not much older.

It's hard to imagine Paul living that long with all the travelling he did and all the beatings he took, but of course one option is to assume divine providence over Paul's longevity. Still, it's more reasonable to put the execution near 50 (than 60). Also, "Pharisee of Pharisees" doesn't sound like he'd attained lofty status. If Paul started training around age 13, he could easily have felt very full of his own knowledge by age 18. On the balance, then, my "possible reconstruction" above could be stretched a bit in either direction, which makes me happy enough to stick with these dates, given the understood "margin of error".

Calendar Year        Paul's Age (approximate, plus or minus 3 to 5 years)
AD 34  --->                         21     (Damascus Road experience)
AD 35  --->                         22     (Unknown activity in Nabatea)
AD 36  --->                         23     (Paul left Nabatea, returned to Damascus, fled to Jerusalem)
AD 37  --->                         24     (Left Jerusalem for Tarsus, this year or late last year)
AD 38  --->                         25     (In Antioch with Barnabas, by this year at the latest)
AD 39  --->                         26
AD 40  --->                         27
AD 41  --->                         28
AD 42  --->                         29     (Approximate year of Paul's "3rd heaven" vision)
AD 43  --->                         30
AD 44  --->                         31     
AD 45  --->                         32
AD 46  --->                         33     (Approximate date of the prayer meeting in Acts 13, plus 'trip prep')
AD 47  --->                         34     (Approximate start of the Gentile mission with Barnabas)
AD 48  --->                         35     
AD 49  --->                         36     
AD 50  --->                         37      (Council of Jerusalem, this year or last; Paul writes Galatians)
AD 51  --->                         38      (Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth; Paul writes 1 & 2 Thess)
AD 52  --->                         39     (Corinth, Jerusalem, Antioch of Syria)
AD 53  --->                         40     (Paul joins Aquilla & Priscilla in Ephesus)
AD 54  --->                         41     (Paul writes 1 Corinthians, before Claudius' death in October)
AD 55  --->                         42     (Paul by this time is said to demonstrate some healing ability)
AD 56  --->                         43     (Paul writes 2 Corinthians, after planting a church in Dyrrachium)
AD 57  --->                         44     (Paul writes Romans, 1 Timothy, arrested in Jerusalem)
AD 58  --->                         45     (Caesarea prison, from AD 57 to 59)
AD 59  --->                         46     (Caesarea to Crete, shipwreck on Malta)
AD 60  --->                         47     (Paul reaches Rome)
AD 61  --->                         48     (Paul writes Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, this year or last)
AD 62  --->                         49     (Paul writes Philippians, this year or last)
AD 63  --->                         50     (Paul released, this year or last; arrested again in Asia Minor)
AD 64  --->                         51     (Paul writes 2 Timothy; Nero persecutes the Roman church)

Note One: I do not entertain the timelines that keep Paul alive after Nero's purge for a number of reasons. For a brief sketch of my Timeline on Paul's activity, see here.

Note Two: I do hope no one is eager to use Paul's age as a comparison for accomplishments, against themselves or against anyone else. For one thing, that's not at all fair. More importantly, the best use of reconstructed data like this is to help us flesh out the details of Paul's story. Hopefully there's a lot we can learn from Paul's life, and not just from Paul's words. Perhaps the best thing a list like this can accomplish is to make us think four-dimensionally about a human being whose living and active engagement with God's mission on Earth was much more than the sum of his collected thoughts put down on paper.

One last thing, just because it's been on my mind.

The work of History, rightfully, is about taking 2 and 2 and coming up with 5. It doesn't give us rules to stand on. It gives us potential realities to consider... and a fleshed-out depiction of actual reality - while understanding that it happens to be an approximate and reconstructed reality - is always going to be much more valuable for real people to consider, and much more enriching for our actual lives, than always focusing merely on extracted principles, taken at random from decades of thought, which are then artificially cut down to a [seemingly] manageable size.

"Paul" is not a system of thought. "Paul" is not a collection of writings.

Paul of Tarsus was a man of God who walked the earth and built the church.

Examine his life, and examine your own. And please, God, be merciful to all of us, after that!


Anonymous said...

Let me ask, would a person aged 20-25 (or so) be given such an important task as rounding up heretics?

Also Schiffman speculates that the Acts Damascus may well have been Qumran, though I think the Epistles Damascus may well have been Syrian Damascus.


Bill Heroman said...

In the ancient world, Rick, age 20 usually meant something quite different than it meant today. Today, at least in the 'first world', most 20 year olds are still unprepared to live independently of their parents. In the ancient world, a 20 year old male had often been pulling his own weight for many years, and was capable of much more than you'd think.

Besides, the task of "rounding up" isn't as important as you might think, for that matter. What you're basically saying is, he was deputized. Also, the fact that Saul was nobody special is underscored by the fact that he needed the letters. He was a bit like a bounty hunter. All he needed to be was committed.

On Schiffman, btw, I don't know how Damascus can be somewhere other than Damascus... but Galatians says Paul returned to the same Damascus he left once before. The most economical solution is that Acts refers to Paul's first escape (leaving out Arabia) and 2Cor11 refers to Paul's second escape, when the Nabateans were more likely to know who Paul even was. I've blogged a few times on this as well. You can search the site for "Paul Damascus escape", if you want.

Thanks for the good challenge. (!)

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of Pirkei Avot, ch. 5, m. 21 (and yes, I know the pitfalls of applying the Talmud to the pre-Talmudic age):

He used to say: At five years of age...; At twenty for pursuit [of livelihood]; At thirty the peak of strength; At forty ....

Explanation: At five years of age the study of Scripture…; At twenty for pursuit [of livelihood]: Once he has married a woman and had a child or two, he must pursue means to support his family. By twenty a person should have a profession. Others interpret this to mean that at twenty a person stops learning Torah and begins to work. Still others interpret this to mean that at twenty he pursues the enemy in war. This is the age at which one is liable to join the army, according to the Torah (Numbers 1:3). At thirty the peak of strength: At thirty a person is at the peak of his strength. In the Torah the Levites only begin to work in the Tabernacle at thirty (see Numbers 4:47). At forty: …

As far as Schiffman goes, in paraphrase, he said that the Essenes extensively used code language, so why think that 'Damascus' was not code? He considered that 'Damascus' was most likely Qumran [I said "Acts Damascus" when I should have said "CD Damascus"]. Broader than Schiffman alone, the first century CE theme of Israel in exile developing as 'True Israel' could very well have played into the hands of the Essenes who were exiled to Qumran (they were scattered in the Land as well, but did those Essenes ever have/develop their own literature?) and considered themselves as true believers as opposed to the Jerusalem Jewish establishment, as it did with other messianic groups. Back to Schiffman in paraphrase, therefore wherever the earliest mention of exile to Damascus meant (Amos 5.27: most likely Syrian Damascus), for the Essenes Qumran was most likely 'Damascus'.

As far as needing letters of authorization, remember this was a Roman-dominated region where the Jews were permitted to follow their religion. Those in Judea were granted religious authority over Jews in neighboring administrative areas. I don't know that Saul wasn't anyone special (especially in his own mind!) as he was working under the express direction of the High Priest in rounding up heretics.

I still say figuring out the Nabatean angle would be key to a definitive timeline with fixed, accepted hard dates. But that is as elusive as any other angle!