(Ca. 3-62 CE) The first Christian (or Jesus-Jewish) theologian and author of the oldest books of the New Testament; missionary and founder of some of the first congregations in the Middle East and southeastern Europe.
The Conversion of Saul. Artistic representation by Caravaggio.
Second to Jesus, is Paul is the most important personality of the formation of mainstream Christianity. It is quite possible to say that in terms of theology Paul came to play a more important role than Jesus: There were early on more than one interpretation of Jesus and his ideology, but it was the school of Paul that came to succeed through the 2nd century. Christianity has ever since interpreted the Gospels through the teaching defined by Paul.
Paul's theology came to form the basis of St. Augustine's, which was incorporated as the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church.
In one single account, in the 2nd century apocryphal Acts of Paul, do we hear about his appearance: "Small of stature, balding, bow legs, large eyes, eyebrows meeting, nose slightly hooked". With such an uncomplimentary description, it could well be authentic.
Paul explains that the background of his authority is the call from Jesus. He claims that he his word is as good as the word of the original apostles (2. Corinthians 11:5). But the theology of Paul was never accepted by the Jesus-Jewish leaders of Jerusalem.
Paul's image of himself and his role was apparently not a modest one. From Colossians 1:24-29 we read a passage where he claims that he compliments the lacks of the sufferings of Christ. He claims that his mission is to complete the word of God, that this is a secret that has been latent over centuries.
In the New Testament are collected 13 letters ascribed to Paul. 9 are written to congregations in Europe and Asia Minor, 4 to individuals. About half are long, while the shortest, the Letter to Philemon is only 25 verses long.
Despite being preceded by the Gospels, several of the letters of Paul are the oldest texts in the New Testament. The Gospels were compiled between 70 and 100 CE, while Paul composed his letters between 50 and 60 CE.
The genuineness of several of the letters have been disputed. 4 are normally considered to be fully genuine: Romans, 1. and 2. Corinthians and Galatians. The letters to the Philippians, the 1. Thessalonians and the Letter to Philemon are considered most likely genuine.
3 letters are normally considered to have been written after Paul's death: The 2 for Timothy and the one for Titus. The 3 remaining are doubtful in origin, but could be written by Paul.
The period of Paul's authorship is estimated by some scholars to be 8 years, while others claim that it must have lasted at least 15 years. Due to an often personal tone, the letters must be concluded to have been intended for a fairly small audience. The reasons why they were collected, and later incorporated into the New Testament is probably best answered by one circumstance: The theological line of Paul became victorious, especially in regions far from Jerusalem. Hence his letters contained the introduction to this theology.
It is possible that the letters were collected by Marcion. At least it was Marcion who in 140 went to Rome to propagate that the letters of Paul belonged to the collection of canonical scriptures.
It is however a common theory that the letters of Paul were soon copied and circulated among believers and congregations. Hence Marcion could well have had a very easy job collecting the letters.
Reading the Gospels, more than one interpretation is possible, as Paul himself is fully aware (2. Corinthians 11:4). But with Paul's work in defining the role of Jesus, modern Christianity now understands Jesus as the actual son of God in the sense that God acted on earth through Jesus. Moreover, it is thanks to Paul that Christianity understands the crucifixion of Jesus as an act of redemption, where human beings could be cleansed from their sins, provided that they acknowledged Jesus as Lord. The sins were transferred to Jesus, who, as God's son were cleaned from these sins directly by God.
Paul defined the new religious orientation as open for all humans, not only Jews. He clearly expressed that all humans were open for the divine message (Gal. 2:15).
Paul also defined the end to the Jewish Law, and that man's relation to God now was through Christ (Gal. 2:19-20). These two radical definitions were of such a character that they would inevitably lead to a final division between Judaism and Jesus-Judaism, so that the latter could evolve into Christianity through the following decades.
For his time, Paul's message gave women a stronger position in the Jesus-Jewish (soon Christian) congregations than they could expect in other religious groups. Women were allowed to mix with men and in many cases be treated as equal to men.
Paul's main achievements were to establish, or strengthening, a number of congregations around the northeastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea. Without these communities Christianity might never have become a world religion. A large part of the members of these congregations were of non-Jewish origin. Paul was not the first to preach to non-Jews, but his efforts were stronger than with any other Jesus-Jew.
Paul had great influence on the openness of the churches, as he was an advocate for the abolition of central and strict Jewish regulations. With this, the threshold for entering the congregations of the churches was lowered.
The earliest churches were private houses. Here the believers in Jesus gathered to perform a few limited forms of actions and hear preaches. Over time, the owners of the houses would automatically become leaders of the congregations.
Many of the early rituals were formed by Paul. The community meal appears to have been one of the central rituals in the early churches, and Paul uses expressions like "cup of the Lord" and "table of the Lord". These meals were forerunners of the Communion. In 1. Corinthians 5:7-8 he gives the Jewish feat of Passover a new robe: The physical rituals were replaced with symbolic ones.
The only good sources of Paul, his existence, life and acts are with the New Testament texts, like the Acts and the letters claimed to be written by him. All together, the texts of Paul and about him fill about 30% of the full content of the New Testament.
The lack of other sources corresponds well with his contemporary importance: Nobody could at that time have predicted what importance he would play in the development in the future's largest religion. Hence he was probably deemed as nothing but one of several active and travelling Jesus-Jews.
Investigations into the Acts clearly indicates that they were written long after Paul's death. Many believe that Luke was the author of the Acts. But the Acts are by themselves based upon older, and most likely, reliable sources. Some of these sources may have been written, the remainder oral. In addition the author must have benefited from his own recollection of the actions of the Jesus-Jewish missionaries.
There are several small conflicts between the Acts and the Letters, often presenting different versions of what happened. The common way of dealing with this problem, is to use the Acts for laying out the framework of Paul's life, but generally to prefer the information Paul himself gives when this does not correspond with what is written in the Acts.
It is hard to outline what influenced Paul in his ideas, whether they came by divine inspiration, which many Christians will believe, or were influenced by contemporary ideas. The first option will not be discussed here, as it is a matter of faith.
The world of Paul was one of many ideas: Hellenistic philosophy, gnostic speculations, Jewish theology and mystic cults. All these must have influenced him, but the degree varies. First, it is clear that Paul's Jewish background is vital. For him, the belief in Jesus was a continuation of his former faith, not a breach with it. But this continuation involves reinterpretation of the Old Testament by the idea that Jesus had fulfilled the Law and the promises of the prophets.
An indication of the importance of Hellenistic philosophy comes from the information that about half of the pupils of rabbi Gamaliel, from whom Paul received his Jewish training, were also instructed in Greek wisdom.
Many have found similarities between the mystery cults of his days and the rituals that Paul helped bring forth, as well as Paul's emphasis on the close relationship between a deity and the worshipper. Whether he is actually influenced by the mystic thoughts is hard to conclude on, but Paul's interpretation of the baptism appears to be close to ideas popular with the mystery cults. He also borrowed some of their ways of presenting matters.
Concerning the dating of Paul's life we struggle with few clear indications on when things happen. The only event which can be fixed with relative certainty is Paul's stay in Corinth during his 2nd Missionary Journey. Here the Roman proconsul Gallio is mentioned (Acts 18:12), and from Roman sources we know that he operated in Corinth from July 51 to July 52. The dating below has a range of uncertainty with as much as 3 years.
Around 3 CE: Born in Tarsus (now Turkey) in a Jewish family, with a Roman citizenship. His Jewish name was Saul, while he used Paul in other contexts. A Roman citizenship was not a common privilege, indicating that his father or grandfather had been rewarded for some sort of service. At several occasions would his citizenship give him with special protection, as well as allowing him to move around so freely.
Young Saul studies the Torah in Jerusalem under rabbi Gamaliel. During this time, he met some of the followers of Jesus' interpretation of Judaism, but never Jesus. In order to protect Judaism, Saul came in opposition to the Jesus-Jews, and joined the persecution against them. From Acts 8:3 it appears that Saul even played a leading role. It is not clear for how long time Saul was involved in the persecution of the Jesus-Jews.
33: In Acts 9:3-6 we hear of Saul on his way to Damascus receiving a revelation of Jesus, calling him to act on his command. From this time on, Saul joins the Jesus-Jews both as a believer and as a preacher. In several passages does Paul claim that he was especially called to preach to non-Jews (and non-Jesus-Jews) (see Romans 1:5, Galatians 1:16).
34: Paul settles in the Nabatean Kingdom (corresponding to modern Jordan).
35?: Paul comes back to Damascus (it is possible that this happened as early as 34). Here he starts preaching his message of Jesus, to the irritation of local Jews.
36: Paul flees from Damascus, and comes to Jerusalem, where he meets several of the Apostles. Reluctantly they accept him.
Fearing for his own life, Paul flees to Tarsus.
46: Paul installs himself in Antioch, to help Barnabas in establishing a community of Jesus-Jews of Greek origin. This would be the beginningAntakya of his 1st Missionary Journey.
46-62: Paul would never settle anywhere for the rest of his life. All together he would embark on 3 missionary journeys with the fourth Paul travelled as a prisoner. During these journeys, Paul chooses very specific congregations, and stays in the same place often for long periods of time. On the way back and forth, he also visits other congregations, but only for short stays.
1st Missionary Journey 46-48
Paul leaves from Antioch in company of Barnabas and John Mark, for Cyprus and Galatia (modern Turkey). It is clear that during this journey Paul did not require circumcision nor observance of the Jewish law for new converts.
Letters are sent from the Jesus-Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to the congregations Paul visited, urging them to observe a minimum of Jewish law. After his return, there were clashes of opinion in Antioch. The entire journey had lasted between 2 and 3 years.
48: Paul and Barnabas establish themselves in Antioch.
2nd Missionary Journey 49-52
Paul sets out for Galatia together with Silas. They would continue to Macedonia and Athens. He had limited success in Galatia, Thessalonica and Beroea, and none in Athens. But he managed to establish a strong community in Philippi, mainly consisting of non-Jews. Allies he made in Corinth, would go to Ephesus and found a congregation there. The entire journey had lasted between 3 and 4 years.
3rd Missionary Journey 53-57
This journey became more of a consolidation journey, than a missionary one. For possibly as much as 3 years did Paul stay in Ephesus. The information is scant, but it appears that he also founded churches in Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea. During this journey, Paul also composed his most important letters, like the 1. Corinthians. In his letter to the Galatians 4:4-5 does Paul make a final breach with Judaism, and formulates the core message of Christianity. The entire journey had lasted between 4 and 5 years.
57: Paul is arrested in Jerusalem by Jewish officials, accused of causing a riot in the temple. He is soon moved to Caesarea on the coast.
59: Paul is sent for Rome. He survives a shipwreck on Malta.
60: He arrives in Rome, and put under house arrest.
62: The trial against Paul starts. What then happens is beyond the sources of the New Testament. One theory is that he was acquitted, and continued his missionary activities in Greece, Asia Minor, Crete and possibly Spain. The other theory is that he was convicted, and either died in prison or was executed.
64 or 65: According to most theories, Paul dies 2 or 3 years after the trial. According to one theory, he was rearrested in 64 or 65 at the time of Nero's persecution and quickly executed.