St. Paul’s significance in the history of Christianity
can hardly be underestimated: an indefatigable missionary, the first interpreter
of the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world, he is also the author of
more New Testament books than any other writer.
When we first meet him in
the Book of Acts (7:58-8:1) it is as Saul; and later, Acts 13:9 describes him as
“Saul, who is also called Paul.” As a Jew he bore the name of Israel’s first
king (1 Samuel 9:2, 17); but as a free citizen of the Empire, he also bore a
Roman name. Many Jews of this period in history had two names, one Semitic and
the other Greek or Roman. A child of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1;
Philippians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 11:22), Paul proudly identified himself as an
“Israelite” and a “Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee”
(Philippians 3:5) “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” who
excelled his peers “in Judaism” (Galatians 1:14). But he was also proud to be “a
Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” (Acts 21:39). Tarsus was
a Hellenized city, famous for its university, gymnasium, theatre, art school and
gymnasium. It became the capital of the province of Cilicia during Pompey’s
reorganization of Roman Asia Minor in 66 BC. Later on, Mark Antony – famous as
Cleopatra’s lover – granted freedom and Roman citizenship to the people of
Tarsus. In an age when most of the people living within the boundaries of the
Pax Romana were slaves, Paul was born a free citizen of the Empire.
St. Paul was “educated
strictly according to the law of our fathers” at the rabbinical school conducted
in Jerusalem by the great rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel was a Pharisee
and a member of the Sanhedrin, “a teacher of the law respected by all the
people” (Acts 5:34). Although Gamaliel is depicted in the New Testament as
lenient towards Christians (Acts 5:33-39), his disciple Saul was active in the
earliest persecutions of Christianity and attended the stoning of St. Stephen
the deacon and first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58). Paul “persecuted this Way to
the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women” (Acts 22:4).
Intent on exterminating the
new faith, Paul sought to travel to Damascus to undertake the persecution of
Christians there. It was during his trip from Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria
that his life would take a crucial turn when he encountered the risen Jesus in a
searing vision of light that left him temporarily blind. This experience was
revolutionary, engendering a complete transformation and redirection of his
life. As a result of this “revelation” (Galatians 1:12), Saul, the bloodthirsty
persecutor of Christianity converted to the faith he once hated, was baptized by
Ananias and received into the Church of Damascus, the very community he had set
out to suppress (Acts 9:10-31). From this moment on, he became a “slave of Jesus
Christ” (Romans 1:1) and in that slavery discovered “the glorious freedom of the
children of God” (Romans 8:21).
Luke recounts this Damascus
experience three times in the Book of Acts: once in the narrative, Acts 9:3-19;
and twice, in speeches, before a crowd in Jerusalem (22:6-16) and before Festus
and King Agrippa (26:12-18).
“Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the
disciples of the Lord,
went to the high priest and asked him for letters to
the synagogues of
Damascus, so that if he found any that belonged to the
men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about
noon, I saw
a great light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that
around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to
I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,
‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
I answered, asking, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are
But get up and stand on your feet!
I have appeared to you for this purpose:
to appoint you to serve and testify to the things you
I will rescue you from your people and the Gentiles –
to whom I am sending you,
to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness
and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may
receive forgiveness of their sins
and a place among those who are being made holy by
faith in Me.”
This vision of
the glory of God - what later theologians and saints will call the uncreated
light - is the call by which Paul becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles, the
greatest missionary in the history of Christianity. It is through his missionary
efforts that Christianity, originally a sect of Judaism, becomes a world
PREACHING, MISSIONARY JOURNEYS AND THE
APOSTOLIC COUNCIL IN JERUSALEM
After his encounter with
the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and baptism at the hands of Ananias, Paul
tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he “went away at once into Arabia,”
spending time in the desert wastes before returning to Damascus, where he
remained for three years (1:17-18). By the time of his return to Damascus, the
essentials of his teaching were crystal clear: God’s promise to Abraham has been
fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Jesus is the climax of history
for He is both the Messiah, the Christ, and “the power and wisdom of God” (1
Corinthians 1:24). Teaching in the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus “is the Son
of God,” his preaching proved so controversial that there were plots to kill
him. He escaped Damascus by being lowered over the city walls in a basket at
night (Acts 9:19-25).
Three years after his
conversion, Paul journeyed to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and stayed with him
for fifteen days. “But I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s
brother” (Galatians 1:18-19). In Acts 9:26-30 Luke describes the suspicion with
which the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem greeted Paul and that it was
Barnabas who secured Paul’s acceptance. From Jerusalem, Paul returned to Syria
and ultimately went to its capital, Antioch, the third city in the empire after
Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt.
It had been in Antioch of
Syria that followers of the Way had first been called Christians (Acts 11:26)
and it was this community that would commission Paul and Barnabas as
missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).
Luke organizes Paul’s
missionary activity into three segments or journeys. Paul’s missionary journeys
cover roughly 46-58AD, the most active years of his life, as he evangelized
Greece and Asia Minor. Paul’s first missionary journey is recounted by Luke in
Acts 13:3-14:28 and lasted for three years, probably from 46 to 49AD.
However, Paul’s message
created controversy wherever he went. Initially preaching and teaching in the
synagogues of the various cities they visited, it was in Antioch of Pisidia that
the conflict led Paul and Barnabas to declare that they were now “turning to the
Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). This decision, to preach not only to the Jews but to all
peoples, marks a decisive turning point in the history of Christianity. From
that moment on the message of Jesus, the crucified yet risen Messiah, was
clearly open to everyone and this was understood by Paul and Barnabas to be the
fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures (Acts 13:47-48). God had “opened the
door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
But it was in Antioch of
Pisidia that Paul and Barnabas soon found themselves in conflict with other
teachers in the Church, “believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees”
(Acts 15:5), men “from Judea” who were teaching that “unless you are circumcised
according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). When this
leads to “no small dissension and debate, Paul, Barnabas and some of the others
were appointed to go up to Jerusalem” to consult “the apostles and presbyters”
about the status of Gentile converts and whether or not it was necessary for
them to conform to the Mosaic covenant (Acts 15:1-5). This visit leads to the
council of Jerusalem (circa 49-50AD). This council was to be a paradigmatic
event in the life of the Church, the pattern for ecumenical councils yet to be
called in the centuries to come. At this council there was “much debate” as Paul
and Barnabas presented their Gospel before the assembled community, which
included “James, Peter and John” who were “acknowledged” as “leaders” and
“pillars” of the Church (Galatians 2:1-10). According to Acts 15:6-21, it was
Peter’s voice that carried the day in favor of Paul and Barnabas. But it was
James, speaking on behalf of all, who announced the decision of the council:
circumcision is not obligatory for salvation.
After the council of
Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways: Barnabas taking John Mark
and sailing to Cyprus, Paul choosing Silas and traveling throughout Syria and
Cilicia “strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:36-41).
In the decade to come, Paul
was to embark on two more missionary journeys, the second one from 50 to 53AD
and the third and final missionary journey lasting six years, from 53 to 59 AD.
During these journeys Paul would travel throughout the ancient Mediterranean
world, preaching and teaching, establishing new churches everywhere he went. His
Letters leave a trail of churches founded and/or nurtured by him: Ephesus,
Corinth, Thessaloniki, Philippi. He preached in Athens and was to die in Rome,
the intellectual and political centers of the Empire.
To view maps of St. Paul’s missionary journeys
throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, click below:
Paul’s letters are the oldest Christian documents that
we have. Most modern scholars believe that Paul’s First Letter to the
Thessalonians is the first book of the New Testament to be written, sometime in
52AD. His letters are also the largest collection of writings by any one person
in the New Testament. In modern Bibles, they are placed in order of their
length, with the longest letter, that to the Romans, being first and then
followed by letters to individuals (Timothy, Titus and Philemon) last. Paul’s
letters are exactly that: letters, occasional writings meant to deal with
specific issues in the churches to which he addressed them. They are not
systematic theological treatises in the modern sense. And yet, they have
provided rich and deep theological insights that have never been surpassed in
the Church’s history.
IMPRISONMENT AND FINAL YEARS
It is during his last visit
to Jerusalem “to visit James” (Acts 21:18) that Paul is arrested near the Temple
after a small riot and taken by a Roman tribune before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish
council. Paul defends himself before the Sanhedrin by playing on the dissension
between the Pharisees and Sadducees and their conflict over the resurrection.
After a plot to assassinate Paul is discovered, Paul’s case is transferred to
Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judea, who keeps him in prison for two years,
expecting a bribe. When Felix’s successor, Festus, arrives on the scene, Paul
appeals his case to Caesar, requesting a trial in Rome by virtue of his Roman
citizenship. “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go,”
Festus replied (Acts 25:12). Paul’s journey to Rome was to be an eventful one
that included shipwreck. The Book of Acts closes with Paul under house arrest in
Rome still carrying out his ministry of teaching and preaching – faithful to his
Master to the end.
During his thirty-year
ministry as an apostle what had Paul suffered for the sake of the Gospel?
Already in 2 Corinthians, Paul describes some of what he endured to preach the
Good News of Jesus risen from the dead: “Five times I have received from the
Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I
received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. For a night and a day I was
adrift at sea. On frequent journeys, I was in danger from rivers, from bandits,
from my own people, from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the
wilderness, in danger at sea, in danger from false brethren; in toil and
hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without
food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure
because of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:24-29).
Eusebius, the 4th century
bishop of Caesarea who is often called the first Church historian, records that
the apostle Paul was executed in Rome during the persecution of the emperor and
madman, Nero. Nero’s persecution of Christians lasted for four years, from 64 to
68AD. It was also during this persecution that the apostle Peter was executed.
As a Roman citizen entitled to a quick death, Paul was beheaded. St. Gregory the
Great, the 6th century pope, wrote that Paul’s execution took place on the left
bank of the Tiber River on the Via Ostiensis, the road to the port of Ostia, and
is buried near the site of the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Facing danger at sea and fearful
you became a chosen vessel of the Savior.
By your sermons you enlightened the nations
and to the Athenians you revealed the unknown God.
Teacher of the nations, St. Paul the Apostle, protector
of us all,
keep us who honor you safe from every trial and danger.