Paul was a 1st century Jew who, after being the bitterest enemy of the Christian Church, became its leading missionary and possibly its greatest theologian. His letters, the earliest extant Christian documents, antedate the Gospels of the New Testament. More than half of the Acts of the Apostles deals with his career, and this, together with the letters written by him or in his name, comprises one-third of the New Testament. His efforts and his vision of a world church were responsible for the rapid spread of Christianity and for the speed with which it became a universal religion. None of the followers of Jesus did more than he to establish the patterns of Christian thought and practice.
For Paul’s life, there are no reliable sources outside the New Testament. The primary source is his own correspondences, of which Romans I and II, Corinthians, and Galatians are acknowledged to be genuine by all scholars; Philippians, Colossians, I and II, Thessalonians, and Philemon by most. About Ephesians, opinion is divided, but it contains little biographical material. The Pastoral Letters (to Timothy and Titus) were written by a disciple of Paul beat probably contain Pauline defragments. The letters alone, however, provide no connected story. For that, it is necessary to rely on Acts, written some 30 years after Paul’s death. Because its evidence sometimes conflicts with that of the letters, some scholars question the historicity of Acts. The general belief is, however, that Acts was written by Paul’s companion the evangelist Luke, who drew on his own diary for much of the story.
Paul’s birthplace, Tarsus in Cilicia, a district of Asia Minor lying on the main trade route between East and West, was a cosmopolitan university city, which had been the home of famous Stoic philosophers. Paul was proud of his native city and manifested his debt to its Greek culture in his command of idiomatic Greek, in the occasional use of philosophical terms, and in a wealth of metaphors drawn from city life. He was proud, too, of the Roman citizenship inherited from his father; he used his Roman name Paulus in preference to his Jewish name Saul, and he found in the world empire of Rome a model for his later faith in a universal Christian commonwealth. Yet his formal education must have been strictly Jewish. He grew up with a knowledge of Hebrew and under the scrupulous regimen of the Pharisees, a religious and political Jewish party that emphasized moral purity and reinterpreted the Torah, or Law, according to the needs of the time. His subsequent conversion never robbed him of his pride in the ancestral traditions absorbed in childhood.
The notion that Paul had an unhappy adolescence, tortured by religious doubts and an uneasy conscience, is based on a misunderstanding of the Letter of Paul to the Romans, chapter 7. Though in the guise of autobiography, this chapter is a Christian analysis of religious legalism. Paul’s explicit references to his early life are free from any suggestion of inner struggle. He excelled all his contemporaries in his zeal for the Law of Moses, and by its standards his life was blameless. Ks picture -in Romans, chapter 2, verses 17-20- of the pious Jew exulting in the Law, proud of his God, confident of being the guide to the blind, is a self-portrait.
According to Acts, Paul was trained as a rabbi under Gamaliel 1, a renowned teacher of the Law, and this is borne out by his frequent use of rabbinic methods of exegesis (i.e. interpretation of a scriptural text) and his knowledge of Midrashic legends (i.e. commentaries or explanations of a scriptural text in the form of edifying lessons). Like most rabbis be also learned a trade -tent making- by which throughout his missionary career he was regularly to earn his own living. It is unlikely that he ever met Jesus. In Jerusalem, however, he learned enough about Jesus to regard him as a menace to Pharisaic Judaism, for Paul first appears on the scene of history as a persecutor of the Christian Church. In the judgment of Paul the Pharisee, Jesus chapter 15. Acts, chapter 11, mentions an earlier visit of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to deliver a relief fund for a famine that occurred probably in AD 46, and it is best to assume that they took advantage of that occasion to lay their plans before their Jerusalem colleagues. Shortly after this Peter visited Antioch. One question that had not been discussed at Jerusalem was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the new community. Jews were forbidden by their Law to eat with Gentiles. The Church at Antioch had been disregarding this rule and holding common meals and Eucharists until a protest came from James that this practice at Antioch was making things difficult and even dangerous for the church in Jerusalem. The Jewish members, including Peter and Barnabas, accordingly abandoned their liberalism for fear of Jewish reprisals against the mother church. According to Galatians, it was left for Paul to show his mettle by insisting that not only church unity but the very truth of the gospel was at stake.
First Missionary Journey
Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Barnabas’ cousin John Mark, now set out for Cyprus on a preaching tour, beginning at Salamis, the principal city of the island, and ending at Paphos, the seat of government, where they had an encouraging interview with the governor, Sergius Paulus. They then crossed to the mainland and landed at Perga (Perge, Turkey). There, to Paul’s annoyance, Mark left the party for home. Paul himself was ill, probably with an attack of the recurrent illness that in II Corinthians he called his thorn in the flesh. He had to change his plans (presumably, in view of his later history, he already had his sights on Ephesus, an ancient Ionian city in western Asia Minor) and go to recuperate in the more healthful uplands of Anatolia, or Asia Minor. This reconstruction of events is known as the South Galatia theory – i.e. that Galatians was written to the churches founded during the mission of Acts, chapters 13 and 14-in contrast to a North Galatia theory that is no longer held by many scholars.
The Galatian mission started in the Roman colony of Pisidian Antioch (Yalvac, Turkey), where the missionaries preached in the synagogue until Jewish hostility first compelled them to turn to the Gentiles and finally drove them from the city. Their visit to Iconium (Konya, Turkey) followed the same pattern. At Lystra (Hatunsaray, Turkey) they were first mistaken for local gods, but subsequently, Paul was stoned and left for dead. Yet, after reaching Derbe (the site is disputed), they were able to retrace their steps and revisit the churches they had founded before returning to Syrian Antioch.
The Jerusalem Conference
The success of this tour in gaining Gentile converts made a settlement of the dispute over table fellowship more urgent than ever; and so a conference was held in Jerusalem, which issued a letter asking Gentile Christians to relieve Jewish Christians of embarrassment by observing some of the Jewish rules of ceremonial purity. The historicity of this conference, or at least of Paul’s participation in it, has been impugned on the grounds that Paul never mentions the apostolic letter or the solution propounded in it. Nevertheless, the probability is that events were moving so fast that this compromise was out-of-date almost as soon as it was promulgated.
Second Missionary Journey
Paul now proposed a new tour but refused to take Mark. Barnabas stood by his cousin, and the partners separated. Barnabas and Mark returned to Cyprus, and Paul chose as his new colleague Silas, who like himself was a Roman citizen, bearing the Roman name of Silvanus. Together they visited the churches of Syria, Cilicia, and Galatia. At Lystra, they were joined by Timothy – a young Christian with a Jewish mother and a Gentile father. At this point, it is possible to begin to see emerge Paul’s missionary strategy of concentrating on large centers of Roman influence. Aiming again for Ephesus, he was prevented by the Holy Spirit from entering the Roman province of Asia, turned north toward the large cities of Bithynia (northwestern Asia Minor), was diverted a second time, and so came to Troas, where he had a vision of Macedonian asking for help.
So Christianity gained its first foothold in Europe, with the formation of a small church in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia. From the serene letter written to this church at the end of his life, it seems that they never caused him any of the ethical, theological, or disciplinary difficulties be had bad to face elsewhere. Instead, they frequently sent money out of slender resume to help with the expenses of his work in other cities and ultimately for his own relief in prison in Rome. After the cure of a psychic slave girl, Paul and Silas were imprisoned on a charge of anti-Roman practices but were released with apologies when they revealed their Roman citizenship and complained of the illegality of their treatment. At Thessalonica (modern Thessaloniki, Greece) they preached for three weeks before being interrupted by a riot and a charge of treasonable adherence to a rival emperor, from which they escaped by departure. Hostile Jews, however, pursued them to the neighboring town of Beroea and cut short their work there also. Paul went on to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy to follow later. At Athens, Paul addressed the council of the Areopagus (formerly the supreme court of Atlas; at the time of Paul a body with wider and vaguer powers) and converted one of its members, but nothing is said about a church. The reason appears in the letter that he wrote soon afterward to Thessalonica. He was deeply concerned about the fate of the recent converts he had left behind there, exposed to persecution and without adequately instructed leadership. He was prevented 8em going back by Satan, probably a return of his recurrent illness. When Timothy arrived, Paul, with no thought for his own condition, sent him back for news. He himself went on to Corinth, still convalescent.
In Corinth, Paul lodged with a Christian couple, Aquila and Priscilla, tentmakers like himself. Aquila was a Jew from Pontus (northeastern Asia Minor), but he and his wife had been living in Rome until the previous year when an edict of emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from the capital. These two became lifelong friends of Paul and on one occasion risked their lives for him. Soon Silas and Timothy arrived with the cheering news that the Christians in Thessalonica were loyal and in good heart. The only cause for anxiety was that some of them had misunderstood Paul’s preaching about the advent of Christ, taking his language about its imminence with a literalness he never intended. To deal with this situation, he wrote his first letter to them. Some weeks later, when he heard that members of the church had actually given up their daily work to prepare for the end, he wrote his second, somewhat sterner, letter accusing them of truancy.
After a year and a half in Corinth, Paul was arraigned before the new governor Gallio on a charge of practicing an illicit religion. The case was dismissed, and for the author of Acts, this episode was the strongest argument in his apology for the Christian religion. For the historian it has an even greater importance, providing the one fixed date in Paul’s biography, from which the rest of the chronology has to be worked out, backward and forward. An inscription found at Delphi proves that Gallio’s year of office began on July 1, AD 51. Paul must have arrived in Corinth early in 50. Some time afterward (the author of Acts has a tantalizing way of adding vague indications of time to precise ones) Paul left Corinth for Ephesus, Caesarea (on the coast of Palestine), and Jerusalem and so returned to base at Antioch. Of Silas, no more is heard until he reappears in the final salutation of the First Letter of Peter.
Third Missionary Journey
From Antioch, Paul set out on a further tour of the Galatian churches, after which he at last succeeded in reaching Ephesus. Here he was to stay for three years, longer than he devoted to any other city. At first, he taught in the synagogue, then, when that was closed to him, in a hired lecture hall. Luke was not with him and records in Acts none of the events of this long period except the discrediting of a Jewish exorcist and a dangerous riot started by the silversmiths’ guild because Paul’s success was having an adverse effect on their market. From Paul’s letters, however, some of the gaps can be filled. He gathered around him a team of colleagues who evangelized the surrounding province of Asia. It must have been at this time, for example, that the churches of the Lycus Valley were founded, at Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea. Here, as elsewhere, missionary work bad its dangers. Aquila and Priscilla, who seem to have made their home in Ephesus, risked their necks for Paul. He speaks, too, in II Corinthians, of a mysterious trouble that made him despair of life and, in I Corinthians, of fighting with wild beasts at Ephesus. It is possible that he spent some of the time in prison.
Much of his attention was taken up with the church in Corinth, to which he wrote four letters and paid one visit, unrecorded in Acts. The first letter has not survived, but in reply to it, he received a letter that raised questions about various matters of faith and conduct, marriage and divorce, the eating of meat slaughtered in the pagan ritual, the right of women to lead public worship, ecstatic speech, and the resurrection of the body. The writers seem to have been those whom Paul refers to as the strong party, and they did not simply invite instruction but stated a case and expected him to agree with it. Paul bad also received a verbal report of a more disquieting nature from Chloe’s people, who told him of party divisions within the church, litigation between its members, disorderly conduct at the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, and a case of incest that had gone unrebuked. Paul’s answer to all this was the letter known as I Corinthians. Before long the troubles in Corinth were exacerbated by the arrival of newcomers with letters of introduction from another church, who questioned Paul’s credentials and undermined his authority. Paul decided to deal with this crisis in person, but his visit was not a success, and he came out of the encounter badly. Back in Ephesos, he wrote a third letter (of which 11 Corinthians, chapters 10-13 may be a part), so severe that he regretted it as soon as Titus, his courier had left. Titus was to return through Macedonia, and Paul was to meet him at Troas, where he planned to spend some time in evangelism. So great, however, was his anxiety about Corinth that he could not settle there. He went on to Macedonia, where Titus met him with the good news that the severe letter had had its desired effect. All the pent-up feelings of the past weeks were then poured out in the letter known as 11 Corinthians (or perhaps only chapters 1-9).
Another of Paul’s concerns during his stay in Ephesus was the organization of a relief fund for the impoverished church in Jerusalem. Many of his own churches were poor, but he encouraged them to be generous because be saw in this collection a demonstration of unity between Jewish and Gentile churches.
It is notoriously difficult to date Paul’s letter to the Galatians; but arguments from language, style, and theology would place it between 11 Corinthians and Romans, and in that case, it must have been written from Macedonia. Acts give the impression that, after meeting Titus, Paul hurried on to Corinth, stopping only to visit the Macedonian churches in passing. But in Romans Paul claims to have preached the gospel from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum; i.e. the Yugoslav coast. The closing paragraph of the letter to Titus mentions a plan to spend a winter in Nicopolis, at the western end of the Corinthian gulf. If this last passage is one of the genuine Pauline fragments embedded in the Pastoral Letters, these two pieces of evidence together would seem to point to an extended ministry in the northwest part of the Balkan Peninsula.
Early in AD 57, Paul paid his last visit to Corinth, and it was probably during the three months he spent there that he wrote his letter to the church in Rome. In chapter 16 of Romans is an integral part of that letter, this origin is certain because that chapter is a letter of introduction for Phoebe, a deacon from Cenehreae, the port of Corinth. Even if that chapter is a separate note addressed to the church of Ephesus, Paul’s account of his plans makes it almost certain that he was in Corinth when he wrote. He had not founded the church in Rome (there had been a church there by AD 49 when Aquila and Priscilla were forced to leave); and he wrote this full statement of his faith to prepare the way for a visit, in the hope that the church would then sponsor his projected mission to Spain related in Romans. First, however, he had to go to Jerusalem to accompany the relief fund raised by the Gentile churches. Paul had intended to travel by ship, but a plot against his life dictated a partial change of plans. He went overland to Troas, stopping for a week in Philippi for the Passover. He then took a passage on a ship that stopped at several ports along the coast and enabled him to meet the Ephesian elders at Miletus in Turkey and take leave of them. After a week’s stay with the deacon Philip at Caesarea, he reached Jerusalem.
Arrest & Imprisonment
On his last journey to Jerusalem, Paul had been accompanied by representatives of the churches that had contributed to the relief fund. One of these, Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, was recognized b; some Asian Jews, who jumped to the conclusion that Paul had taken him into the part of the Temple forbidden to Gentiles. Paul had to be rescued from the ensuing riot by Roman soldiers and escaped further ill-treatment by informing the commanding officer that he was a Roman citizen. While still in protective custody he heard of a plot on his life and informed the commanding officer, who sent him under guard to governor Felix at Caesarea. Having no evidence for a conviction but unwilling to antagonize the Jewish authorities, Felix kept Paul in prison for two years. When his successor, Festus, arrived, rather than be sent to Jerusalem for trial, Paul appealed to the Emperor. The journey to Rome began in late autumn, and a shipwreck delayed the travelers for three months in Malta so that they arrived in Rome in the spring of AD 60. There Paul remained for two further years, in-house custody awaiting trial. At this point, the narrative of Acts comes to an abrupt end, without disclosing the outcome of the trial. As long as the Pastoral Letters were accepted as Pauline, their evidence demanded the hypothesis of an acquittal and second imprisonment. By this theory, Paul must have spent two or three further years in missionary work in Greece, Macedonia, Epirus (northwestern Greece), Asia Minor, and Crete before being arrested again, taken to Rome a second time, and this time sentenced to death. Now that these letters are recognized to be pseudonymous, however, there is no reason to suppose that the verdict at the first trial was favorable. There is good evidence from later authors that Paul died a martyr’s death in Rome sometime during the reign of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68). It is usually assumed, and with good reason, that Paul’s remaining letters, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians (if the last is his), were written from his Roman prison. If so, they provide some evidence to fill out the story of his last years. A slave from Colossae, called Onesimus, had run away from his master Philemon (who happened to be a Christian and a friend of Paul); he came to Rome, met Paul, and was converted by him. Reluctantly, Paul decided he must send him back to his master and wrote a letter to Philemon asking him to receive his former slave as a brother. At about the same time he had another contact with the church in Colossae through its leader Epaphras, who came to consult him about an unorthodox philosophy that was gaining some following among Christians at Colossae. To refute this aberrant form of Christianity, Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians. At the same time, he wrote a letter that has not survived to the church in Laodicea. If the letter that is known as Ephesians is by him, it. was a circular letter to Gentile churches he had not founded or visited, written at the same time as the three letters mentioned above and carried by the same courier, Tychicus. The church of Philippi, which had sent Paul money in the past to help with the expenses of his missions, now sent one of its members, Epaphroditus, with a father gift. Epaphroditus fell ill on the way and nearly killed himself by completing the journey with the illness upon him. He had intended to stay with Paul and look after him; but Paul, hearing that his friends at home were anxious about his state of health, sent him back and wrote his letter to the Philippians to send with him. The rest is silence, except perhaps for a little farewell note to Timothy, preserved in II Timothy, chapter 4, verses 6-8.
Paul was a man of vivid contrasts. Small and unimpressive in physical stature, he must have had the immense stamina to withstand the rigors of travel, beatings, and imprisonments, bouts of intermittent illness, and not least the anxiety for all the churches (11 Corinthians). Though not a natural orator, he could dominate an audience by incandescence of spiritual power. He was capable both of coarseness and of delicate sensitivity.
Paul’s favorite metaphors from the athletic stadium, law court, and battlefield reveal him as every inch a competitor, debater, and fighter. He aimed at excellence, whether as a Pharisee or as a servant of Christ. He gave himself to the Lord (I Corinthians), determined only to spend and be spent (II Corinthians), and to repay to Greek and barbarian, to wise and foolish the debt be owed to Christ (Romans). He must always be breaking new ground (Romans), always pressing on to new discoveries of the mysteries of God (Philippians). Yet he gained the strength that was required for this restless activity from an inner peace that the outside world could not disturb (Philippians).
He could be violent in the assertion of his rugged independence (Galatians), acknowledging no superiors except Christ himself. Yet he had many friends and was never happier than when others shared with him his work, his enthusiasms, and his faith. He calls them fellow workers, fellow soldiers, fellow slaves, yokefellows. In a life devoted to the service of others, he had the grace to accept their service in return and to demand from his colleagues the same high standards that he demanded from himself.
Paul had an eye for detail and would take endless pains over matters of conduct that others thought trivial. Yet he combined with this a comprehensive grasp of the significance of his new faith, believing that it was God’s purpose to bring the warring powers of the universe to unity in Christ (Ephesians). It was clear to him that the mighty plan that embraced the whole of history and all nature could yet be reduced to microcosm in God’s love for one man.
He could be both stable and volatile, at one time wielding a massive common sense ’ at another, borne aloft on the wings of ecstasy. He had the gift of tongues g Corinthians) and of prophecy (Acts) and underwent occasional experiences of vision or trance (11 Corinthians). Yet he did not base either his faith or his authority on these but believed that God’s activity, as most clearly to be seen in normal life and above all in human weakness. He dominates the apostolic age not as a saint or superman but as a normative Christian in whom ordinary human nature was raised to its highest powers. This same contrast characterizes his writing. From humdrum details of conduct, he can elicit universal principles and can move in a moment from the prose of argument to the poetry of worship.
Above all, Paul was a man of God. He saw the hand of God in his own early life, in his conversion, in his apostleship, in his ministry, and even in his illness. His theology is an exposition of the hidden wisdom of God, which had lain behind all history but was now disclosed in Christ. For him, God had been, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself; and man’s salvation was God’s work from start to finish.