Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. This title was given to Paul by the early church and it continues to describe his ministry to this day. How could someone who was raised to have nothing to do with Gentiles come to be their primary recruiter for the Christian faith? We will look at his life, and then his writings as they are found in the Christian Bible, for an answer to this perplexing question.
Paul was born in the diaspora (that is, the Jews who had migrated from the Holy Land into various parts of the Roman Empire). He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, located on the southwestern coast of modern day Turkey. He was brought up in a strict orthodox Jewish home and probably learned his trade as a tentmaker while residing in Tarsus. His parents may have been Roman citizens, which meant they were probably wealthy and had some important job in that area. Although he may have known Hebrew, his native tongue was Greek. At some point, he moved to Jerusalem; Luke suggested it was to study with Gamaliel, one of the most influential rabbis of the first century.
We know more about Paul than any other writer in the Christian Bible. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke commits the last half of the book to Paul’s mission work (see Acts 13-28); it could have been called the Acts of Paul the Apostle. Thirteen of the 21 epistles in the Christian Bible are credited to the pen of Paul. The Letter to the Hebrews was written anonymously. Some in the early church assumed it was written by Paul, but that view was discredited and the epistle has remained anonymous through the centuries.
There is much discussion among biblical scholars about the authorship of many of Paul’s 13 epistles, but I believe he was the original author of each. During the next few months, I will endeavour to give my reasons for this belief. Remember, there were no computers or printing presses. Every word had to be written by hand. We possess no original manuscripts today. All are copies of copies, and sometimes the copyist may have added his own comments.
It is important to note that the early churches thought enough of Paul to keep his letters and then to provide copies of them to other churches. I don’t believe Paul was writing theology. His letters are usually in response to problems in the local churches. Each situation was different, and his letters were in reply to those differences.
He was a creative thinker and demanded thinking followers. He was also limited by the structures of his age. He believed that the local Christian community must be one, with no distinction between rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. Paul loved each local community that he established but castigated them when necessary.
We first meet Paul at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was one of the elected deacons, chosen to serve the needs of the widows and orphans in the early church. Most of these deacons quickly became preachers of the Gospel. Stephen was speaking at one of the leading synagogues in Jerusalem when he was accused of blasphemy. This led to his stoning. Paul was there, representing the Sanhedrin, and gave permission for the execution. He was called Saul, his Hebrew name at that point.
I think that was the real beginning of Paul’s conversion. As he watched Stephen die in peace and forgiveness, I think this deeply affected him. His first reaction was to lash out at the church. It was blaspheming the word of God. How could a convicted criminal who was put to death on a tree be the Messiah? (See Deuteronomy 21:23.) This was inconceivable for Paul, so he went out and persecuted the church, dragging Christians before the Sanhedrin.
Many Christians fled from Jerusalem, and Paul obtained orders from the chief priest to follow these unbelievers to Damascus and drag them back to face the Jewish court. Here Paul has an encounter with the risen Christ and is changed from persecutor to apostle. This is recorded in Acts 9:1-9.
What follows is quite a story, one that we will examine in some detail in the months ahead. Enjoy the dialogue.