The Apostle Paul
The Apostle Paul was one of the most influential leaders of the early Christian church. He played a crucial role in spreading the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews) during the first century, and his missionary journeys took him all throughout the Roman empire.
Paul started more than a dozen churches, and he’s traditionally considered the author of 13 books of the Bible—more than any other biblical writer. Only 7 of the 13 books, however, can be accepted as being entirely authentic (dictated by Paul himself). The others come from followers writing in his name, who often used material from his surviving letters and who may have had access to letters written by Paul that no longer survive. Although frequently useful, the information in Acts is second hand, and it is sometimes in direct conflict with the letters. The seven undoubted letters constitute the best source of information on Paul’s life and especially his thought; in the order in which they appear in the New Testament, they are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The probable chronological order (leaving aside Philemon, which cannot be dated) is 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Romans. Letters considered “Deutero-Pauline” (probably written by Paul’s followers after his death) are Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians; 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are “Trito-Pauline” (probably written by members of the Pauline school a generation after his death).
For this reason, Saint Paul is often considered one of the most influential people in history. He had a greater impact on the world’s religious landscape than any other person besides Jesus, and perhaps Muhammad.
But before he was known as a tireless champion of Christianity, Paul was actually known for persecuting Christians. The Book of Acts tells us that Paul was even present at the death of the first Christian martyr—where he “approved the stoning of Stephen” (Acts 8:1).
Over the last two millennia, countless books have been written about Paul and his teachings.
Of all the apostles, Saint Paul stands out as the one who was the traveller par excellence. His journeys through the length and breadth of the ancient world are nothing short of remarkable and given the difficulties of travelling in these times, let alone the animosity and danger he faced trying to convert populations to the new faith, it is a credit to the endurance and tenacity of the man that he accomplished as much as he did. Paul, originally Saul, was born in Tarsus in what is now southern Turkey and changed his name after converting Sergius Paulus. He is traditionally represented as a stocky little man, with a bald head and a grey, bushy beard. He studied Jewish law in Jerusalem under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He and his parents were Roman citizens, having special rights and privileges. Roman citizens could not be imprisoned without a trial nor could they be scourged or crucified. His Roman citizenship saved Paul many times during his ministry. He made three great missionary journeys before being arrested in Jerusalem and taken to Rome where he was beheaded in AD 62.
Saul witnessed the stoning and death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and guarded the clothes of his executioners (Acts 7:58). He then started persecuting the Christians and imprisoned many of them (Acts 8:3). The followers of Jesus Christ were regarded as heretics by the Pharisees. The persecution in Jerusalem caused the believers to disperse abroad and preach the Word everywhere they went (Acts 8:4).
Saul planned to persecute Christians even abroad. He obtained letters to the synagogues in Damascus from the high priest in Jerusalem, and set out to bring Christians bound from there to Jerusalem. On the road to Damascus the most famous conversion in the history of Christianity took place, described in Acts, chapters 9,22 and 26. At midday, light shone down suddenly from heaven, encompassing Saul. He heard Jesus Christ's voice,
Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
This man who hated Christ and all Christians capitulated in the front of the living God. Then Jesus told him to go into Damascus, and there he would be told what to do. Paul became blind and did not eat or drink for three days. In Damascus, the Lord sent a disciple called Ananias to him, who restored his vision, filled him with the Holy Spirit and baptised him. After his conversion, Saul is mentioned in the Bible by his Latin name, Paul. He then began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues in Damascus. The Jews wanted to kill him, but he escaped with the help of some Christians who lowered him in a basket from the top of the city wall.
Paul went away to Arabia for a period of time, then returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17), and after three years journeyed to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18). The disciples there did not trust him, knowing he had previously persecuted Christians, but Barnabas took him to the apostles who were staying in Jerusalem at that time (Gal. 1:18-19, Acts 9:26-27). Paul preached boldly in Jerusalem, but after 15 days had to flee again, this time to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30).
In Antioch, the capital of Syria then, Gentiles were turning to Jesus Christ, and the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas there to instruct these new believers. Barnabas in turn took Paul from Tarsus to be his companion (Acts 11:19-25). The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Christians in Antioch sent relief funds by Barnabas and Paul back to Christians in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). They returned with young John Mark, Barnabas' nephew from there (Acts 12:25).
Paul established numerous churches throughout Europe and Asia Minor, and was typically driven toward regions no one had evangelised to before:
“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” —Romans 15:20
The Book of Acts and Paul’s letters specifically record three missionary journeys to various cities throughout Europe and Asia, each lasting for several years.
Everywhere he went, Paul established new Christian communities and helped these fledgling believers develop their own leadership. He corresponded with these churches regularly and visited them as often as he could. Occasionally, they financially supported him so that he could continue his ministry elsewhere (Philippians 4:14–18, 2 Corinthians 11:8–9).
Pope Benedict XVI declared 2008 as the "Year of St Paul" in honour of the saint, to mark 2000 years since St. Paul's birth. The anniversary year formally began on the 28th of June 2008 and gathered millions of Christian pilgrims to his birth town Tarsus, in south eastern Turkey.
From the moment he became a believer in Christ, Paul’s life was transformed. While Jesus didn’t give Saul a new name, he did give him a new purpose: one that redefined his life. Instead of persecuting Christians, Paul was called to be persecuted as one of them.
Despite never witnessing Jesus’ ministry, Paul arguably contributed more to the growth of the Christian movement than any other apostle. He laid the foundation for missions work that has continued around the world today, and through his life he modelled evangelism, discipleship, perseverance, and suffering—for the Christians who knew him, and for every believer today.