Paul's Conversion on the Way
to Damascus by Caravaggio St. Paul (A.D. 10? to A.D. 64?) was one of the most important major figure of the early Christian period. Regarded as a fiery, charismatic orator and a passionate and tireless activist, he helped spread Christianity along with other missionaries and wrote the earliest known documents on Christianity. Paul’s first letters, written between A.D. 49 and 62, are the earliest New Testament texts.
Some believe that Paul was more important than even Jesus in establishing Christianity as a great religion. He transformed what had been a been a fringe movement of Jews into a religion that embraced all peoples that spread through the Roman Empire, one of the largest political domains the world has ever known. Paul is given credit for shaping Christianity’s Orthodoxy and shaping the way the Gospels have been interpreted.
Paul is closely associated with Damascus, Syria. On Street Called Straight in the Old City of present-day Damascus, according to the New Testament’s Book of Acts, Saul of Tarsus regained his sight and became St. Paul, the Apostle. According to the Bible, Saul began his career terrorizing Christians in Jerusalem and later was blinded by a vision from God outside of Damascus. He was led into the city and cured of his blindness by a man named Ananias, who received a vision from the Lord and told Paul: "Arise and go into the street which is called Straight.” Along the former Roman road is St. Paul’s Chapel, where Paul was lowered in basket to flee a mob of Jews; the House of Ananias, said to be original house of the man who helped Paul; and Hanania Chapel, an ancient church built on the site where St. Paul was converted to Christianity with the help of Hanania.
Paul of Tarsus Websites and Resources: Britannica on Christianity britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/115240/Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Historical Jesus Theories http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Britannica britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303091/Jesus-Christ ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ;
Websites and Resources with Christian art and images: Princeton Index of Christian Art ica.princeton.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Art arthist.umn.edu ; Early Christian Art University of Oklahoma ou.edu/class ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Space and Motion Article spaceandmotion.com/christianity-christian-jesus-christ. ; Online Icons MIT mit.edu:8001/activities/ocf/icons
Book: History of Christianity by Owen Chadwick; The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brian Moynahan
Book: Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson (1997); Paul Among the People: the Apostle Reinterpreted and reimagined in His Own Time by Sarah Ruden (Pantheon, 2010)
St. Paul’s Life
Paul by Durer Originally named Saul of Tarsus, Paul was born into a Greek-speaking Jewish family that had attained Roman citizenship in the city of Tarsus in southern Turkey. He was born between A.D. 7 and 10 (his 2000th birth year declared a jubilee year by the Catholic church) and was educated in Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel,” grandson of the great Jewish sage Hillel. Paul learned how to make tents when he was young. During his travels he often supported himself as a tentmaker.
In Corinthians Paul wrote about a “thorn in the flesh” that he said was sent by “a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” Scholars have suggested that may have a been a reference to epilepsy, malaria or some other malady.
Paul is believed to been a member of a radical, violent Jewish sect called the Shammaite Pharisees, followers of a Jewish sage that advocated a strict interpretation of Jewish law and harsh treatment of non-Jews. Describing himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul regarded Christianity as blasphemous and was a persecutor of Jesus’s followers before his conversion. He is believed to have been involved in beating, imprisoning and even executing Christian men, women and children.
St. Paul's Conversion and Writings
Paul's Conversion Paul converted to Christianity around A.D. 32 to 35, about five year's after the death of Jesus, while traveling on the road from Galilee and Jerusalem to Damascus to take prisoner as many Christians as he could find. According to Acts IX in the New Testament, Paul was suddenly blinded by a radiant light, and a voice spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Shaken and lying on the ground, Paul (Saul) said, “Who art thou, Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus, who thou persecute.”
Trembling and still blinded, Paul made his way to Damascus, where he changed his name from Saul to Paul, regained his sight and was baptized. He was “filled withe the Holy Spirit” and “straightaway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.” Afterwards, Paul mediated alone for months and then sought out Peter to learn how Jesus lived. Jesus later appeared to Paul in other visions.
The Epistles (Letters) of Paul, including Thessalonians and Corinthians, are the earliest known Christian documents. The earliest were written around A.D. 50. They were written before the Gospels and make up a considerable part of the New Testament. These letters were written over the years to his friends and to churches. The Book of Acts describes the early history of the Christian Church and Paul’s life and works.
St. Paul Work as a Missionary
Paul Addresses a Crowd_ Paul was not a theologian or a scholar but was a missionary. He helped spread Christianity along with other missionaries mainly to Gentiles or quasi-Jews who rejected Jewish laws like circumcision. He founded the first Gentile Christian communities (up until that time nearly all Christians were Jewish converts) and established many churches in Asia Minor and Greece.
Paul used the same tactics wherever he went. After arriving in a town he spoke at the local synagogue. When the congregations would get aroused and angry he retreated and organized a church in Gentile districts. By doing this, Paul is credited with taking the first steps to make Christianity a world religion open to anyone, rather than one previously open only to Jews.
In his wake, Paul left behind self-supporting assemblies called ekklesiani , an extension and transformation of a Galilean movement of protest in which the crucifixion of Jesus and coming Kingdom of God were seen as events meant "to deliver us from the present evil age." Some scholars believe that Paul was not trying to establish Christianity but rather was trying to reform and expand Judaism.
St. Paul’s Travels and Converts
Paul preached for three years in Arabia and Damascus and then began his career as a missionary after receiving a call to “witness to all the world.” He spent 15 years on the road, traveling throughout the Roman empire, spreading the word of Jesus.
Paul's First Voyage Paul passed through Galatia and Achaia. He was shipwrecked on Malta and stopped in places like Pisidian, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in southern Asia Minor. He stayed for two or three years and spoke before thousands and provoked a riot in Ephesus in western Asia Minor.
Paul also traveled to the Macedonian city of Thessalonika in present-day northern Greece (source of the New Testament book Thessalonians) and Corinth in present-day southern Greece (source of the New Testament book Corinthians). Corinth was the center of Roman administration of Greece and the greatest metropolis in Roman Greece.
Although the majority of his early followers were Jews, Paul recruited many uncircumcised non-Jews. The conversion of Gentiles went against the beliefs of some of the other Apostles who felt that Christian converts should be circumcised as well as baptized and that Jewish Christians were superior to non-Jewish Christians. St. Paul's acceptance of non-Jews was so unpopular that he was nearly beaten to death when he visited the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
Many of Paul’s converts were upwardly urban and mobile traders and professionals. In his book The First Urban Christians , New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks, concluded that "it was in the cities of the Roman Empire that Christianity, though born in village culture of Palestine, had its greatest success until well after the time of Constantine.”
Teaching of St. Paul
Paul's Second Voyage Paul never met Jesus, he claimed his authority from a revelation by Jesus. He briefly met St. Peter and James, but otherwise appeared to have little contact with the Apostles. Many of his views conflicted with those of the Apostles. Paul had no problem with this because he believed his views were revealed directly to him by Christ through his visions.
Paul has been credited with defining and expressing the significance of the Christian position on redemption, Jesus’s death and resurrection. He also: 1) described salvation as something that comes “by grace...rough faith” not from following the laws of Moses; 2) worked out the logic of Christ dying for the sins of mankind; and 3) portrayed redemption as emancipation from sin rather in the Old Testament concept of freedom from slavery and oppression.
Two other important contributions made by St; Paul were finding a place for the Old Testament law in Christianity and exploring the relationship between the Jews and Christians. On the former he asserted that the yes the Old Testament laws were holy but were not complete and new laws could be added and serve as a “tutor to bring us into Christ.” As to the latter he basically said the Jews had been given chance but blew it and now it was the turn of the “righteous remnant”—the Christians—to forge a new path. Christians were the ones whom “the end of the ages has come” and delivered “out of the darkness and translated...into the kingdom of the Son.”
Paul was a fervid believer in end of the world scenarios and thought that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. The hard tone of some of his teachings was intended to get sinners off their butts and repent before the second coming occurred. The teachings were not meant to be church dogma for the next 2,000 years.
St. Paul, Women and Sex
Paul's Third Voyage Many of Christianity’s strong positions against women’s rights and sexuality can be traced back to Paul, not Jesus. Although Paul encouraged Christians to be celibate, many scholars believe that he had a wife that he divorced before his conversion at the age of 30.
Paul was less tolerant for sexual deviancy and sinning in general than Jesus. Reacting to the “unbridled passion” and “sexual addiction” he observed in the Roman Empire, he wrote: “Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery, or homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanders or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”
On homosexuals, Paul added: “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural...Men committed shameless acts with men and received their own persons the due penalties for their error.”
Some of Paul’s more unpopular views must be seen in the context that he was spreading the word in a pagan Roman world that “deified violence and exploitation” and where keeping slaves, exploiting women and even raping young boys were common practices.
St. Paul Arrest and Death
Christian catacomb in Rome
with image of Paul the philosopher Paul was arrested in Jerusalem on the request of local Jewish leaders in A.D. 58 for trying to convert Jews to Christianity. He was sent to the port city of Caesarea, where he was imprisoned for two years. He invoked his Roman citizenship and was sent to Rome where he was kept under house arrest for another two years.
It is not exactly clear what happened to him but it is believed that he was martyred in A.D. 64, the year that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Jews. Before he was killed St. Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be beheaded. His wish was granted. According to some, Paul was martyred at the site occupied by the Monastery of the Three Fountains in Rome. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.
In June 2009, the Vatican announced that testing of remains believed to be St. Paul’s “seems to confirm” that they indeed belonged to the saint. Carbon dating of bone fragments found in a tomb said to be St Paul’s determined the fragments date to the A.D. first or second century. A few days before that Vatican officials said they found the oldest known icon of an a Apostle, a fresco of St, Paul. found in another tomb.
Roman Legal System and the Apostle Paul
Nero coin The Romans established Mirnada-like laws to protect the rights of accused criminals. One of the most famous to invoke these laws for his protection was the Apostle Paul. Chapter 22 of Acts, describes how Paul is charged by a Roman magistrate for the crime of something similar to inciting a riot. Just as he is about to be carted away to jail, he tells the authorities he is a Roman citizen, which means that he is allowed to remain free pending a trial.
After the chief priest of Jerusalem complained to the Roman governor Festus that Paul was still running loose, Festus replied in Chapter 25 of Acts: "It's not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had the opportunity to defend himself against their charges."
Paul later won his freedom for a couple of years by invoking his legal right to have his trail in Rome. Paul finally ends up in Rome, but the Book o Acts ends without saying anything about the final outcome of the case. Some Christians contend he was crucified or fed to the lions by Nero, but scholars believe that the charges were likely dropped because there are no other records of the case.
Image Sources: Wikipedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Symbols of Catholicism by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011