BORN: 3 • Tarsus, Cilicia
DIED: c. 67 • Rome
Cilician theologian; preacher
Saul of Tarsus, better known to Christians as Saint Paul, was born a Jew. He later came to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce; see entry) and converted, or changed his religious affiliation, to Christianity. Paul played a central role in the development of Christianity. He composed many doctrines (principles or rules) of the church and interpreted the words and teachings of Jesus for his followers throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and other areas around the Mediterranean Sea. Some historians suggest that the early Christian Church might not have survived had it not been for Paul's tireless efforts on its behalf. In the late twenty-first century Christian churches continued to assert that "Pauline Christianity" is the official Christianity, rather than a number of competing forms of the religion preached by other groups during Paul's lifetime. Included among these groups were the Ebionites, who denied the divinity of Christ, and various other sects.
"So, as much as is in me, I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also…. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes."
Paul is perhaps best known as the undisputed author of several important books of the New Testament of the Bible, the sacred book of Christianity. These books are generally referred to as the Epistles, which means "letters." They include Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Traditionally Paul has also been regarded as the author of other books in the New Testament, including Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. A number of biblical historians, however, suspect that someone else wrote some or all of these books.
It is virtually impossible to construct an accurate picture of Paul's life. This is mainly because the only two sources of information known to exist on his life are Paul's own Epistles, mostly written from the years 50 to 58 ce, and the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles. The Acts contain a number of passages informally referred to as the "we passages," which were apparently narrated by an observer, likely one of Paul's followers. Most modern-day biographers regard Paul's Epistles as their primary source but also draw on information contained in Acts. Two other books from the New Testament, Acts of Paul and Thecla, also contain information on Paul's life. Elements within these books, however, are considered less reliable by scholars, or researchers. As a result, no reliable timeline of the events in Paul's life can be constructed.
Saul was born in the year 3 ce in the town of Tarsus, Cilicia (pronounced ki-LIK-ya), a region on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor along the Aegean Sea in what is now modern-day Turkey. Saul identified himself as an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin, and his name was a common one among that tribe because it honored the first king of the Jews. People who lived within the Roman Empire typically had two names. In the case of Jews, one name would be Hebrew and the other either Latin or Greek. Thus, Saul also had the Latin name of Paul. He referred to himself as a Pharisee, or a member of a major sect, or division, of Judaism that placed great emphasis on tradition and biblical scholarship, or study of the Tanakh. He had one brother, Rufus, and was unmarried. Saul may have suffered from epilepsy, a brain disorder that at the time was thought to produce religious visions.
Saul received a Jewish education and may have studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, a famous scholar of Jewish law. As a young man Saul supported himself by making tents and working as a traveling preacher. Some historians believe he had a patron, or financial supporter, named Phoebe, who may have been a deaconess in the early Christian Church and delivered some of his letters to the church in Rome. A deaconess, or deacon, is someone who assists the bishops and priests in the Christian faith. Saul may have acquired citizenship in the Roman Empire, and later relied on that citizenship to defend him when he encountered legal difficulties. Some Christian sects believe that he was actually a Greek-born Roman citizen and that he tried to convert to Judaism so that he
Was Paul the First Protestant?
The Protestant Reformation was a religious reform movement in sixteenth-century Europe. Many Protestant Christian groups emerged from this period, such as Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists, in response to criticism of the Catholic Church. Much of the opposition to the Catholic Church was based on the greed of the church's institutions and their focus on worldly rather than spiritual matters. There was also debate over basic Christian doctrines, or policies, and beliefs. One of the chief points of disagreement concerned the manner in which a person can achieve salvation, or deliverance into heaven.
The Catholic Church had traditionally taught that salvation was achieved through a combination of faith and good works. The key biblical text in support of this view is contained in the second chapter of the New Testament book of James: "man is justified by works, and not by faith alone." Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry), a German Catholic monk and one of the leaders of the reform movement, disputed this point of view. He instead preached a doctrine called justification by grace through faith, often shortened to "justification through faith." According to this view, people cannot earn a place in heaven through good works. Salvation is an unconditional gift of God's love and grace that one receives through Jesus Christ by faith alone. In support of this view, Protestants cite several biblical texts, particularly the first chapter of one of Paul's major Epistles, Romans:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
Through statements such as this, Paul provided support for one of the major doctrines of Protestantism and helped to spark a revolt against the very church he helped establish. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, holds that these words can only be understood in the context of the debate over Jewish law. During Paul's lifetime Judaism was a religion based on "works," meaning that Jews believed that they could achieve salvation only by strictly following Jewish law as outlined in the Hebrew religious texts. Paul, the church argues, was simply trying to lessen the role of following Jewish law and focus instead on belief in Christ's atonement, or punishment, for the sins of humanity through his death and resurrection.
could court and marry a Jewish woman, the daughter of a high priest. This theory, however, is not widely accepted.
A key event in Saul's life was his conversion to Christianity. In his youth he had been an enthusiastic supporter of, and participant in, the oppression and harassment of Christians. In his letter to the Philippians in the New Testament of the Bible, Paul describes how he had "laid waste to the Church, arresting the followers of Jesus, having them thrown into prison, and trying to get them to blaspheme [curse]" the name of the Hebrew God. He had also taken an active part in the trial and execution of Saint Stephen (died c. 36), the first Christian martyr, or one who willingly dies rather than reject his religious faith.
One day Saul was traveling along the major road to Damascus, Syria. He carried letters that gave him the authority to apprehend any people he found practicing Christianity and bring them to Jerusalem for trial and probable execution. His goal, he said, was to wipe out the "sect of the Nazarene," referring to Jesus of Nazareth. (Nazareth is the town from which his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph, traveled before Jesus was born.) Along the road, however, Saul had a miraculous experience, as described in the ninth chapter of Acts of the Apostles:
Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute [mistreat] me?" and he said, "Who are you, Lord?" and he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."… Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing.
Although some biblical scholars dispute that Paul, as he then called himself, underwent such a dramatic experience, he was nonetheless transformed from a strongly loyal Hebrew into one of the most enthusiastic leaders of the new Christian faith.
After his conversion, which probably took place sometime around the year 35, Paul lived in a trading kingdom along the border between Syria and Arabia. He later returned to Damascus. After perhaps three years he was forced to flee the city again when he heard of a plot by Jews there to kill him for preaching that Christ had been the long-awaited savior, that is, the messiah whose coming had been predicted by the Old Testament prophets. He then traveled to Jerusalem, where he met Saint Peter (died c. 64) and Saint James the Just (died c. 62). Peter was the leader of the Christian church. In effect, he could be considered the first pope. He and James, who some believe was Christ's brother, were two of Christ's twelve apostles. The apostles were followers that Jesus Christ had chosen to help him spread his teachings.
Paul's travels may have then taken him to Antioch, a city in Asia Minor, then to Cyprus, a Mediterranean island south of Asia Minor. During this journey, often referred to as his first missionary journey, Paul preached Christianity and established Christian communities. Over the course of this and later missionary journeys, he endured many hardships, faced persecution, and was imprisoned. On at least one occasion he was almost murdered. On some of these trips, he took along a number of his followers.
The Council of Jerusalem
In the year 49 Paul traveled back to Jerusalem, where he met with leaders of the Christian Church, including Peter, James, and another apostle, Saint John (died c. 100). This meeting is generally called the Council of Jerusalem. The precise purpose of the council remains unclear. It most likely revolved around the ongoing issue of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. In the early decades of the Common Era (the years after Jesus's birth and death), Christianity was a sect of Judaism. Christ himself was born a Jew, as were most of his followers. As a result, considerable thought was given regarding the extent to which Christians were obligated to obey Jewish law. Indeed, some early Christians believed that one could not be saved without following Jewish law, a belief that persisted until at least the fourth century.
At the council Paul took the position that the death and resurrection of Christ freed people from Jewish law. (The resurrection is the belief that Christ rose from the dead three days after being crucified on the cross.) He believed that the emphasis of the Christian Church should be the preaching of Christ's words, not following Jewish law. After considerable debate the council took a middle position, concluding that Gentiles, or those not born Jews, should follow some restrictions of Jewish law but should not place great emphasis on doing so. Some Jewish laws made sense in purely practical terms, such as those dealing with hygiene and health in an agricultural community.
Despite the agreement of the council Paul later had an argument with Peter, an event sometimes referred to as the "incident of Antioch." Paul believed that Peter placed too much emphasis on Jewish law, to the degree that Peter refused to share a meal with Gentile Christians. Perhaps because of this disagreement, Paul set out on his second missionary journey, revisiting some of the towns that he had visited on his first journey. His travels took him through Asia Minor and into Macedonia, where he established the first Christian church in Philippi. In this city he was imprisoned for theft because he supposedly exorcized, or drove out, a demon from a slave woman. The woman's owner claimed this reduced her value to him because she had supposedly been able to read fortunes before the exorcism, but could not afterwards. After his release Paul traveled to Athens, Greece, and then to the Greek region of Corinth, where he wrote 1 Thessalonians, the first of his surviving Epistles.
In Corinth, Paul once again encountered legal difficulties, as Jews brought charges against him for preaching Christianity. In the year 52 he was called before an official named Gallio, who concluded that the matter was unimportant and dismissed the charges. The event is of some significance because it is one of the few in Paul's life actually documented with archaeological evidence as having taken place. Archaeological evidence are physical remains from history, such as ancient records. Afterward Paul began his third missionary journey, which again took him through Asia Minor to Macedonia and Antioch. In Ephesus, a region of Greece, he caused an uproar when he spoke out against the practice of worshipping statues of the Greek goddess Artemis. Many of the city's silversmiths earned their living making and selling such statues. Paul and his companions almost lost their lives to an angry mob of Ephesians.
Paul eventually arrived back in Jerusalem, bringing money that he had gathered on his travels for victims of a food shortage in the region. Outside the Jewish temple, he was recognized and nearly beaten to death by a mob of people who believed that he had made the temple unclean by entering with a Greek companion. The Romans rescued Paul from the mob, only to imprison him, and for two years he remained in custody awaiting trial. He insisted that as a Roman citizen he had the right to be tried in Rome. After a new governor took office, the governor agreed and ordered Paul sent back to Rome.
Paul's journey to Rome by ship was unpleasant. The voyage was made difficult by uncooperative winds, and the ship floated aimlessly for two weeks before being wrecked in a storm off the coast of Malta. The ship's party spent three months there before resuming the journey in the spring. Finally they arrived in Rome, probably in the year 61. Paul appears to have spent two years in a Roman prison, during which time some historians believe he wrote the books of Ephesians and Philemon. After being released from prison, he may have traveled to Spain and Britain on a fourth missionary journey, although the evidence for this is inconclusive.
Information about Paul's death is equally uncertain. A fourth-century bishop named Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–c. 341), often called the "Father of Church History" because he was one of the first Christians to document events involving the early church, wrote that Paul was beheaded by the Roman emperor Nero in either 64 or 67. (The later date is traditionally given for Paul's death.) A third-century writer named Gaius wrote that Paul was buried in Rome in a cemetery on the Via Ostiensis, an important road in the city. Neither of these claims can be confirmed. According to the Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), a prominent historian and author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in 665 the pope, Vitalian, gave Paul's remains to Oswy, the king of Britain.
For hundreds of years Christian theologians (people who study religion) have attempted to explain and interpret the teachings of Paul. These teachings essentially created the primary doctrines of the Christian faith. The chief belief of Pauline Christianity is the importance of religious faith in and through Christ. Paul vocalized the central beliefs that Christ suffered and died to atone for humanity's sins and that people could achieve spiritual salvation through faith in Christ. Indeed, Paul was one of the first New Testament writers to comment on the nature of Original Sin, the concept that all of humanity is born in a state of sin due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the first humans, in the Garden of Eden. He stated that people could achieve salvation in heaven only by overcoming their basic sinfulness through faith in Christ.
Paul was a principal figure in the debate over Jewish law and the extent to which followers of Christ were obligated to obey it. While Paul himself followed some elements of Jewish law, he argued that salvation was to be achieved through faith in Christ, not through the law. Related to this issue was the question of whether Christianity was intended just for Jews or also for Gentiles, many of whom at the time practiced polytheism, or the belief in more than one god. Paul took the position that Christianity provided a new path to God for Gentiles, earning him the nickname "Apostle to the Gentiles."
Paul also gave prominence to the Holy Spirit. He said that the Holy Spirit, a representation of God's divinity, became part of a person with conversion to or baptism into the faith. Baptism is a religious ritual marked by a symbolic use of water that results in a person being admitting into the church community. By insisting on the Holy Spirit's divinity, Paul was in large part responsible for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the concept that God exists in three "persons": the Father in heaven; the Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit.
For More Information
Stalker, James A. The Life of Saint Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press, 1984.
Wilson, A. N. Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. New York: Norton, 1998.
The main source for Paul's biography is Acts, which however must be tested against the sparse data in Paul's own letters. Paul (originally ‘Saul’) was a Jewish native of Tarsus in Cilicia. He was brought up as a Pharisee and probably studied in Jerusalem. He opposed the Christian movement, but while on a mission to Damascus (c.33 CE) to arrest Christians he was converted by an encounter with the risen Christ (described in Acts 9. 1–19), probably while practising merkabah mysticism. Paul's main missionary work appears to have begun fourteen or seventeen years later (Galatians 1–2). According to Acts it took the form of three missionary journeys beginning and ending at Antioch: 13–14, 15. 36–18. 23, 18. 23–21. He thus established congregations in south and central Asia Minor, Ephesus, and Greece. These were largely Gentile congregations, although he continued to preach in synagogues. He was constantly harassed by local authorities and Jewish communities (2 Corinthians 11. 24–7). He was at last arrested in Jerusalem, and sent for trial to Caesarea, and then (on his appealing to Caesar) to Rome (Acts 21–8). An early tradition holds that Paul was acquitted, and then preached in Spain before being re-arrested and put to death by the sword under Nero. The church of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome was built over the site of his burial. Feast days: with Peter, 29 June; conversion, 25 Jan.
Of the thirteen letters in Paul's name in the New Testament (Hebrews makes no claim to be by Paul), scholars generally, but not unanimously, distinguish seven as certainly genuine (Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) and six as ‘deutero-Pauline’. The latter (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus) reflect Paul's thought more or less weakly, but are by no means certainly not written by Paul. The genuine letters date from the period from c.51 (1 Thessalonians) to c.58 (Romans). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, known as ‘captivity epistles’, if from Paul, may have been written later in Rome, or from an earlier time in prison in Ephesus or Caesarea.
Although they are not systematic writings, Paul's letters laid the foundations for much of later Christian theology. Paul's doctrine, starting from the traditions he ‘received’ (1 Corinthians 15. 3–11), was further worked out in controversy with right-wing Jewish Christians, against whom Paul held that sinful humanity is redeemed and justified by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ, independently of keeping the Jewish law. Christ's death had abrogated the Law and ushered in the new era of the Holy Spirit. Christians therefore form a new ‘Israel of God’ (Galatians 6. 16) and inherit the promises of God to Israel (see especially Galatians and Romans). The local congregation is likened to a body by Paul, and in Colossians 1. 24 the whole church is called the body of Christ. Paul expected a speedy return of Christ to judge the world (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4) but this theme recedes in the later letters.
After a number of missionary journeys, Paul was arrested in Jerusalem for preaching against the Jewish Law; as a Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar, and was sent for trial to Rome. He was martyred there during the persecution of Nero, traditionally on the same day as St Peter (see Peter1).
Paul's experience on the road to Damascus has become proverbial as a life-changing revelation.
Paul's emblem is the sword with which he is said to have been executed. His feast day is 29 June; the feast of the Conversion of St Paul is 16 January.
if Saint Paul's day be fair and clear, it will betide a happy year traditional weather rhyme, late 16th century (but recorded in Latin from the mid 14th century); the day in question is 25 January, traditionally the day on which the feast of the Conversion of St Paul is celebrated.