A Hellenistic Jew Saul, later to be known as Paul the Apostle, Apostle Paul and Paul from Tarsus is known worldwide as one of the earliest Christian missionaries, along with Saint Peter and James the Just. However, he preferred to call himself “Apostle to the Gentiles”. Paul had a broad outlook and was perhaps endowed as the most brilliant person to carry Christianity to varied lands, such as Cyprus, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), mainland Greece, Crete and Rome. St Paul's efforts to accept gentile converts and make Torah unnecessary for salvation was a successful task.
He was born in the Cilician city of Tarsus and his date of birth is placed by the scholars between 1 AD and 6th AD. He was from the Jewish tribe of Benjamin, and when describing himself, he said he was a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the Mosaic Law, a Pharisee.
St. Paul was privileged to have been born as a Roman citizen at a time when it was not yet a universal right for people in the empire, initially confined to freeborn natives of the city itself. As Roman controls extended throughout Italy and then to the lands bordering the Mediterranean and beyond, the certain individuals and communities were given this right. At the time of St. Paul's ancestors, one way of attaining to Roman citizenship was serving in the Roman army for twenty-five years. However, because of Sabbath and Mosaic Law food prescriptions this profession would not have been normally possible for a Jew.
The second way by which Roman citizenship could be gained was slavery. It was known that during the two centuries preceding St. Paul's time, thousands of people were deported from the eastern Levant to Italy and made slaves. In the course of time some of these were able to distinguish themselves by their skill and profession and were either freed by their masters or bought their freedom and thus were given Roman citizenship. A remote ancestor of St. Paul, after obtaining this citizenship, seems to have returned to his native city Tarsus and reestablished the family business. Neither Acts nor his letters give enough information about St. Paul's ancestors or parents. He is known to have had a married sister in Jerusalem and a nephew (Acts 23:16). From one of his letters we learn that he had some distant relatives (Romans 16:7, 11, 21).
The most important privilege that Roman citizenship conferred on a subject was that he enjoyed legal protection and could not be scourged and had the right of appeal to the emperor in person, hence St. Paul's journey to Rome to appeal to Caesar. It is thought that during the floggings he endured (2 Corinthians 11:25), the Apostle may have not revealed his citizenship because of the fact that he wished to follow Christ in his suffering. Even if they were condemned to death, Roman citizens could not be crucified. In the course of time, however, it seems that the avaricious government officials began selling this right as admitted by the cohort commander Claudius Lysias to St. Paul: “acquired this citizenship for a large sum of money” (Acts 22:28). A citizen's responsibilities included the performance of military service, from which Jews were exempted on religious grounds such as Sabbath and kosher food.
There are several theories about why the Apostle chose the name by which he is known today. St. Paul's cognomen, 'Paulus' the name by which he was known, was probably chosen because of its similarity to his Hebrew name 'Saul'; as it means “small” it might also have been an allusion to his size. New citizens would take on the first two names, the praenomen and nomen, of the official granting their admission. Thus, 'St. Paul' might have also been the name of the patron of that unknown ancestor who granted the latter Roman citizenship. By the time of the early empire the use of two names seems to have been acceptable, at any rate in the New Testament, thus Judas called Barsabbas (Acts 15:22) etc. The Apostle must have had a second name which is not mentioned. Whatever the reason of choosing it was, 'St. Paul' was a rare name even among Gentiles. It has also been suggested that the Apostle may have chosen the name after his first Gentile convert, known by name Sergius Paulus in Cyprus. St. Paul would probably have carried a birth registration certificate for identification purposes when traveling. The information of citizenship was included in the birth registers whose authorized copy could be obtained to be displayed when questioned by authorities. From the various references to his Roman citizenship in Acts, it is clear that St. Paul valued this privilege which certainly helped him at times of trouble.
Acts and his letters make it clear that St. Paul worked to support him and those who were with him. This was a period when boys usually learnt their craft from their fathers, which was often the family's business. The nature of his work is clearly stated as tent making when he stayed with Aquila and Priscilla: 'and, because he practiced the same trade, stayed with them and worked; for they were tentmakers by trade' (Acts 18:3). Given St. Paul's rabbinical background there is nothing extraordinary about this; Jewish sources indicate that rabbis were expected to work and not to profit from their study and interpretation of the Torah. This does appear to have been the case and there are several references to working hands. In his address to the elders of Ephesus the Apostle reminds them, saying 'these very hands have served my needs' (Acts 20:34); also when he says 'we toil, working with our hands' (1 Corinthians 4:12) or 'nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you (2 Thessalonians 3:8).
These remarks also answer the questions about financial sources of the Apostle's missionary journeys. In spite of the gifts he seems to have received from Christian communities for which he expresses his gratitude, most of the time he relied on his own resources, a fact which is often hinted at in his letters and clearly expressed in the one addressed to the Philippians. 'I find myself, to be self-sufficient...still, it was kind of you to share in my distress' (Phillippians 4:11,16).
It is possible that St. Paul's family had made their money equipping the Roman legionaries, who used very large tents, made of leather panels stretched together so that rain water would run off. The Roman legions stationed in Syria may not have required leather tents but used the traditional goat-hair tents similar to those of the present day nomads. These are made of the rough cloth manufactured from goat's hair, which in the past was known as cilicium, and took its name from the region of Cilicia. Tent making might well have embraced not only the manufacture and the repair of these large, military tents, but also a range of related leather and woven goods. Apart from military tents, there would have been considerable demand for awnings, booths and canopies from vendors at market places and elsewhere.
Since there were many Roman legions based on the upper Euphrates and in Syria, tent making was perhaps a very profitable profession, considering the flourishing animal husbandry in the region since early antiquity. Within the family and Jewish community he was called Saul; Paul being the Latinized form he used when speaking Greek; this he did well and idiomatically, as befitted one who had grown up in a cosmopolitan and largely Greek city. He would probably also have spoken Aramaic, the language of Palestine and the whole Near East, where he spent fairly extended periods. As he had a strict Jewish upbringing, which was followed by study in Jerusalem where he trained to be a rabbi, he would have known Hebrew too. In the Jewish Diaspora he dwelled on his Jewish background. Elsewhere, in conversing with Greeks he spoke their native tongue and in the world of Romans he would emphasize his Roman citizenship.
Saul came from the Pharisees, a sect that observed strict ritual purity and adherence to Mosaic Law. Its members thought that they alone could interpret the Torah correctly and felt their responsibility to teach other Jews the ways of living righteously. Saul, the name chosen for him, was the name of the first king of the Jews about a millennium before. The Pharisees and other such Jewish sects regarded the Christian movement as a threat and so it is as a persecutor of the Christians and witness to the death of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, that St. Paul first appears in Acts.
The only available physical information about the Apostle comes from the apocryphal “Acts of St. Paul”. Here, Onesiphorus, a man of Iconium, who wants to receive St. Paul in his house, waits on the 'king's highway' coming from Lystra, for 'a man of little stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining, and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace: for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel', his description by Titus whom St. Paul had sent before him to the city to announce his arrival. The fact that the commander of the soldiers who arrested St. Paul in Jerusalem thought that his prisoner may have been 'the Egyptian' they were looking for (Acts 21:38), may imply that the Apostle had a wheat-colored complexion. The Apostle himself may have been conscious of his insignificant physical look because he admits that this could be used against him by his enemies (2 Corinthians 10:10). The 'short dark hair, domed brow and black, pointed beard' became the distinct features of his physiognomy in Byzantine art.
St. Paul was not one of the original Twelve Apostles, but regarded as the Thirteenth Apostle. By the sixth century he took the place of St. Matthias, who had taken the place of the traitor Judas Iscariot after the latter's death (Acts 1:26). Byzantine iconography usually depicted the Apostle looking to his right, with the book of his letters in his left hand, garbed in a dark green or dark blue tunic on which he wears an open dark red cloak. As is well known, St. Paul was converted to Christianity after a vision of the risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Blinded, he was led to Damascus and there, after three days of fasting and praying, he recovered his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit and then baptized (Acts 9:3-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-18). There have been innumerable attempts by theologians and others to understand and explain precisely what happened at this turning point in his life. All that can be said is that St. Paul's theology should perhaps be traced to his experience of conversion. He claimed to have received his gospel 'through a revelation of Jesus Christ' (Gall: 12); this in turn led to his proclamation of salvation through the reconciling grace of God; thus the death of Christ for the atonement of sins was God reconciling the world to himself through Christ.
In whichever way St. Paul's vision and conversion are understood, it is clear, that like the prophets of the Old Testament, he saw himself as chosen by God for a specific task, to be an apostle (messenger of the church) to Gentiles. For him the Christian message, that Christ died to atone for the sins of man and for the salvation of man, was resurrected and ascended to heaven, was both the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes and the basis for a united humanity; love, reconciliation and salvation were central themes of his theology. This clear message of the Apostle may have been the reason why he did not became an object of a separate Christian cult, such as that of St. John in Ephesus, St. Barnabas in Cyprus or St. Peter in Antioch.
His conversion was followed by a period of solitude in Arabia, a word which is probably to be understood as somewhere in Syria, before he returned to Damascus, where he spent three years preaching the doctrine of the crucified and risen Christ. This antagonized the Jews of Damascus. 'But his disciples took him one night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket' (Acts 9:25). He returned to Jerusalem where he met St. Peter and James, the brother of Christ, and he was then sent to the city of Tarsus. Back in his native city once more, he was joined by Barnabas, and together they journeyed to Syrian Antioch, where they were so successful in finding followers that a church, later to become famous in the annals of early Christianity, was founded. It was here that the disciples of Jesus were first given the name of Christians (from the Greek “christos”, anointed).
He was subsequently fetched and brought to Antioch on Orontes by St. Barnabas to help him there. At Antioch the converts included many Gentiles, a situation which ultimately led to a crisis from which St. Paul emerged as the advocate of Gentile conversion. The controversy, which lasted several years, had at its heart Jewish purity laws, which made Jews reluctant to eat with non-Jews. The latter, not being circumcised or bound by the obligations of Mosaic dietary observances, were regarded as impure. As the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine were central to Christian fellowship, there was clearly an impasse. The resolution of this, St. Paul's decision to convert Gentiles, ensured that Christianity did not remain just another Jewish sect, but in time became a universal religion.
After again returning to Jerusalem to bring aid to members of the sect who were suffering from famine, these two missionaries, St Paul and St. Barnabas, went back to Antioch on Orontes and in about 47 AD set out on their first main missionary journey to Cyprus and then to Pisidia and southern Galatia in central Anatolia, returning to Antioch on Orontes next year by sea from the Pamphylia city of Attaleia (modern Antalya) by way of Palestine.
On the mainland of Asia Minor, they crossed the Taurus Mountains and visited many towns of the interior, particularly those having Jewish settlements. It was Paul's general practice in such places first to visit the synagogues and preach to the Jews; if rejected by them, he would then preach to the Gentiles. At Antioch in Pisidia Paul delivered a memorable discourse to the Jews, concluding with these words (Acts xiii, 46-47): It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord commanded us, I have set thee for a light to the Gentiles, to be a means of salvation to the very ends of the earth. After this, the Jews drove Paul and Barnabas out from their midst, and a little later the missionaries were back in Jerusalem, where the elders were debating the attitude of the Christian Church, still predominantly Jewish in membership, towards Gentile converts. The question of circumcision proved troublesome, for most Jews thought it important that Gentiles should submit to this requirement of Jewish law; Paul's side, the more liberal, standing against circumcision, won out eventually.
The second missionary journey, which lasted from 49 to 52, and on which he was accompanied by Silas and Timothy after Lystra, took him to Phrygia and Galatia, to Troas, and across to the mainland of Europe, to Philippi in Macedonia. The physician Luke was now a member of the party, and in the book of Acts he gives us the record. They made their way to Thessalonica, then down to Athens and Corinth. At Athens Paul preached in the Areopagus, and we know that some of the Stoics and Epicureans heard him and debated with him informally, attracted by his vigorous intellect, his magnetic personality, and the ethical teachings which, in many respects, were not unlike their own. Passing over to Corinth, he found himself in the very heart of the Greco-Roman world, and his letters of this period show that he is aware of the great odds against him, of the ceaseless struggle to be waged in overcoming pagan skepticism and indifference. He nevertheless stayed at Corinth for eighteen months, and met with considerable success. Two valuable workers there, Aquila and Priscilla, husband and wife, returned with him to Asia. It was during his first winter at Corinth that Paul wrote the earliest extant missionary letters. They show his supreme concern for conduct and his belief in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which gives men power for good.
Once again he returned by sea to Caesarea and from there to Antioch on Orontes, this time by way of Ephesus.
The third missionary journey covered the period of 52 to 56. He again visited the Galatian cities on his way to Ephesus. In Ephesus, an important city of Lydia, where the cult of the Greek-Ionic goddess Diana was very popular, Paul raised a disturbance against the cult and the trade in silver images of the goddess which flourished there. From there he visited Greece to which he returned again, by way of Alexandria Troas, on finally leaving from Miletus.
After his third journey, St. Paul went to Jerusalem where he caused a commotion by visiting the temple; he was arrested, roughly handled, and bound with chains; but when he was brought before the tribune, he defended himself in a way that impressed his captors. He was taken to Caesarea, for it was rumored that some Jews at Jerusalem, who falsely accused him of having admitted Gentiles to the temple, were plotting to kill him. He was kept in prison at Caesarea awaiting trial for about two years, under the proconsuls Felix and Festus. The Roman governors apparently wished to avoid trouble with both Jews and Christians and so postponed judgment from month to month. Paul at last appealed to the Emperor, demanding the legal right of a Roman citizen to have his case heard by Nero himself. He arrived there about 60 and lived under house arrest for two years. The unfinished narrative of Acts leaves him in the imperial city, awaiting his hearing.
His last brief visit to his native land was whilst being taken as a captive to Rome, when ships were changed at Andriace, port of Myra in Lycia. The date of most of St. Paul's journeys corresponds to the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54) whose rule was known to be milder and more peaceful than that of his predecessor Gaius Caligula (37-41) and his successor Nero (54-68). When the latter succeeded Claudius in 54, St. Paul was on his third journey. It’s difficult to say if he would have been able to carry out his journeys during the persecutions of Caligula or Nero.
Because of the pressure of his work, Paul usually dictated his letters, writing the salutation in his own hand. The most quoted of New Testament writers, Paul has given us a wealth of counsel, aphorisms, and ethical teachings; he had the power of expressing spiritual truths in the simplest of words, and this, rather than the building up of a systematic theology, was his contribution to the early Church. A man of action, Paul reveals the dynamic of his whole career when he writes, I press on towards the goal, to the prize of God's heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Although he himself was forever pressing onwards, his letters often invoked a spirit of quiet meditation, as when he ends his epistle to the Philippians with the beautiful lines: Whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable, whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything worthy of praise, think upon these things.