Was Saint Paul really a “tentmaker” as we understand this idea today?
I think that we are all fairly familiar with the general history of St. Paul and his life. We understand from the New Testament that St. Paul’s family, as far as the Jewish world was concerned, must have been considered quite well off. They were Roman citizens. In fact, he went to study Jewish law and jurisprudence in Jerusalem from an early age. He even mentions that he “studied at the feel of Gamliel.” (Acts 22:3) Note the following synopsis.
“In this article we aren’t so much interested in Paul’s biography as we are in relating his theological background to his role as apostle of grace. We know that Paul (then Saul) was born in Tarsus, the son of a Pharisee who was also a Roman citizen. Paul went to Jerusalem early in life to study with the great rabbi Gamaliel. In his first Jerusalem trial (Acts 22:2), Paul introduced himself to the Sanhedrin as he who learned "at the feet of Gamaliel." This phrase means more than we would take it for at first glance. It sounds like Paul is giving homage to his teacher, and that he hung on Gamaliel’s every word. Actually, Paul used this figure of speech to remind the Sanhedrin just how important a figure Saul of Tarsus was, even from his earliest years in Jerusalem. In the synagogues, students sat in an arrangement that reflected their academic position. We have a description of a typical academic synagogue setting in which Paul would have studied:
"The academy head presided, seated on a chair or on special mats. In the front rows opposite him sat the important scholars, including his colleagues or outstanding pupils, and behind them all the other scholars. When the academies grew larger, particularly in Palestine, the order of the seating was based on a precisely defined hierarchy. In the first row sat the great scholars, in the second row the less important sages, and so on" (Adin Steinsaltz, The Essential Talmud).
We can, therefore, picture the apostle as a young man, seated front and center, at the very feet of the renowned and revered Gamaliel. Already at the top of his class, he was on his way to becoming the leading Pharisee.
Paul also wrote to the Galatians (1:14) that he was extremely zealous for the law, and his academic accomplishments exceeded that of many of his peers. This may have been a humble way of saying that he really excelled above everyone when it came to legalistic knowledge. Along with other mentions of his "qualifications" (Phil. 3:4-6, Acts 22:3, 23:6) we can assume that Paul had no superiors in the world of Pharisaism. Had not God intervened in his life, he was destined to become the next great rabbinical leader. Just as men like Gamaliel, Hillel, Rabbi Akiba, and many others have become Talmudic legends, so also Saul of Tarsus would have doubtless joined the list. Perhaps he may have achieved the great title of Rabbi Saul of Tarsus.” (http://www.tidings.org/studies/legalism1199.htm)
No doubt, of the people who make up the writers of the Holy Bible, St. Paul was certainly the most educated. But did he make physical tents for a living? According to the book of Acts, Paul is termed as a “tentmaker.” (Greek: skenopoios) However, isn’t it interesting that find this word used only one time in the Bible? In addition, note that according to the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, in the article “Paul,” vol. VII, pg. 789, it says: “This trade is described by Luke as that of a skenopoios, a word regarding the meaning of which there has been no small difference of opinion.” Maybe this word does not actually mean “tentmaker?”
Yes, Paul may very well have been an actual tentmaker, but note what Ronald Hock of UCLA says: “That Paul was a tentmaker (skenopoios) we learn only from Luke (cf. Acts 18:3). Although there is no reason to doubt Luke at this point (cf. E. Haenchen; The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971] 538), the nature of Paul’s trade is still not clear. Of the two options – weaving tent clothe from goat’s hair (cilicium) or cutting and sewing leather to make tents – the latter is to be preferred.”
We can see from these points that it is not exactly clear what Paul’s precise occupation was. However, it appears to have involved leather cutting, which may have been used in the fashioning of tents.
Let us be clear though on one thing. St. Paul, being that most educated of all of the Biblical writers, he no doubt was involved in the transmission of written records (including his own) to the Christian Church. Note the following discussion that my father made concerning Paul and his academic pursuits, which related in a practical way to the construction of codex form books. Those of you who have read the book Restoring the Original Bible will remember this important discussion:
“Timothy and John Mark were asked by Paul to fetch three important items and bring them to Rome. "When you come, bring the cloak [Greek: phelonen] I left with Carpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments" (II Timothy 4:13). It is interesting that the phelonen, usually considered to be a heavy outer garment, would be mentioned alongside the paper scrolls (actually scrolls made from the papyrus plant) and the parchments (these were animal skins on which permanent documents were normally written). It seems odd that a heavy coat would be in the same context with literary documents. Most scholars, however, point out that Paul wanted Timothy and Mark to hurry to Rome before winter (verse 21) and that he probably wanted the phelonen which he left with Carpus in order to keep himself warm when the cold would set in.
This may be the case, but there are some difficulties with this interpretation. The truth is, the word phelonen had another meaning in the Greek world at the time, and it is one that is intimately connected with scrolls and parchments.
Vincent, in his Word Studies in the New Testament, has this to say about the word phelonen. "Hesychius explains it as originally a case for keeping the mouthpieces of wind-instruments; thence, generally, a box. Phrynicus, a Greek sophist of the second half of the third century, defines it as ‘a receptacle for books, clothes, silver, or anything else.' Phelonen was a wrapper of parchments, and was translated figuratively in Latin by toga or paenula ‘a cloak,' sometimes of leather; also the wrapping which a shopkeeper put round fish or olives; also the parchment cover for papyrus rolls.
Accordingly it is claimed that Timothy in 4:13 is bidden to bring, not a cloak, but a roll-case. So the Syriac Version." (p.326)
The fact is, the word phelonen can mean either a cloak (and it is commonly used that way in Greek literature) or it could mean a receptacle for the placement of scrolls and parchments. It is the context which must determine what the apostle Paul meant by the use of phelonen in II Timothy 4:13. Since the word is found right next to scrolls and parchments, the immediate context would suggest a "book cover" a "book case" or "book slip" into which scrolls or pages of books were placed. As Vincent stated, the Syriac Version of the New Testament understood it in that manner.
Chrysostom, in the fourth century, commented on this very reference of Paul's and stated that some thought Paul meant a "book case" a receptacle for books (Hom. in loc. vol. XI, p.780, ed. Gaume). Even Jerome mentioned this point (Epist. 36, ad Damasum).
What is meant can only be determined by the context, because the word can signify either a heavy outer coat, a book case or some outer cover for books. Even in our modern times we have problems in interpreting similar words unless a proper context is provided. Let me give two illustrations to show the difficulty.
In these examples we will consider the modern words jacket, wrap and cover, Suppose a letter were found in which a woman college student wrote her mother. She said that she wanted her mother to "go to the closet and get out my heavy jacket and send it to me. It will provide the cover I need from the cold. I am now using the wrap you gave me for my birthday and it is not warm enough."
If such a letter were found, the context makes it clear that the girl is talking about outer garments in all instances. But what if the following letter were found, "Go to the bookstore and buy the latest fiction book you wrote me about. Take the jacket off, because dust wraps on the books annoy me. Make sure, however, that the book has a hard cover because I don't like paperbacks."
Though these two illustrations use exactly the same words, they signify opposite things. Obviously, no one would get confused over what was intended in either case, because the contexts are plain as to what was meant. But let us return to our word phelonen in II Timothy 4:13. It could mean either a book case, a book wrapper, a book jacket, a book cover, or it could mean a heavy outer garment. Vincent in his Word Studies had no objection to it being an ordinary cloak because, like many other modern translators, he noted that Paul asked Timothy and John Mark to come to Rome before winter (verse 21). To many scholars this provides the context in which to interpret phelonen, though admittedly the reference to winter is eight verses away from the use of the word. On the other hand, the word phelonen is found in the very verse (and context) which mentions the scrolls and parchments that Paul needed. Contextually, it would seem more logical to think of phelonen as being associated with literary documents. Indeed, it is even better to consider it that way because Luke was still with Paul in Rome and surely he could have secured for Paul any protective garment to keep away the cold during the approaching winter. Would it be necessary to fetch an outer garment all the way from Troas to keep Paul covered for the short time he was to remain alive? The fact is, Paul's reference to winter (verse 21) is by context too far away for the phelonen to mean an actual cloak. But with the word intimately connected (in a perfect context) with the literary documents which Paul was urgently requesting Timothy and John Mark to bring with them, it seems more probable that the interpretation of the Syriac Version, along with the suggestions found in Chrysostom and Jerome, happen to be correct. It appears that Paul wanted his important book case (his receptacle for carrying books) to be brought at once to Rome and the request was one of pressing necessity.” (Ernest L. Martin, Restoring the Original Bible, ASK Publication: Portland:OR, 1994 pgs. 385-387)
In this discussion, we can note the interesting point that here is Paul referring to something which could have been very well made of leather and it was used to cover books? Very interesting when we consider the whole “tentmaker” argument because my father endeavored clearly to show that St. Paul was involved in the construction of books and manuscripts and official documents related to the Christian Church. Perhaps his trade was one of a leather worker and he just transferred the knowledge that he had acquired in making leather items, like tents, to the trade of making books with leather covers and bindings utilizing leather in their construction? One thing for sure, St. Paul was certainly a highly educated man whose career path was going not into the private sector, but his destiny was to be a doctor of the law with the title of Rabbi Saul. He does not seem to have prepared himself specifically for a life of commercial enterprise. Let me know what you think on this interesting issue.