The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Paul of Tarsus

Paul of Tarsus (originally Saul of Tarsus) or Saint Paul the Apostle (d. 67) is considered by many Christians to be the most important disciple and interpreter of Jesus teachings. He was, next to Jesus, the most important figure in the development of Christianity. Paul is described in the New Testament as a Hellenized Jew and Roman citizen from Tarsus (present-day Turkey). He made the first great efforts through his epistles to gentile communities to show that the God of Abraham is for all people, rather than for Jews only.

Paul is recognized by all Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians as a saint. Paul did much to advance Christianity among the gentiles and is considered to be one source (if not the primary source) of early Church doctrine. His epistles form a fundamental section of the New Testament. Some argue that it was he who first established Christianity as a distinct religion rather than a sect of Judaism.

Due to his body of work and his undoubted influence on the development of Christianity, many modern scholars have considered him the founder of Christianity, who modified Jesus's teachings and added important new doctrines. However, this view remains controversial. Many Christian scholars say that no teachings were modified and assert that Paul taught in complete harmony with Jesus.


Textual challenges

In reconstructing the events of Paul's life, we have two sources, written either during or soon after the period of his life: Paul's own surviving letters (although his authorship of some has been disputed; see below), and the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, which at several points draws from the record of an eye-witness (the so-called "we passages"). However, both sources have weaknesses: Paul's surviving letters were written during a short period of his life, perhaps only between AD 50 - 58, and the author of Acts makes a number of statements that have drawn suspicion (e.g., the claim that Paul was present at the death of Stephen [7:58]).

There is also the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. However, the events recorded in this work do not coincide with any of the events recorded in either Paul's letters or Acts, and scholars usually dismiss this as a 2nd century novel.

Because of the problems with the contemporary two sources, as Raymond E. Brown explains (An Introduction to the New Testament, 1998), historians take one of four approaches:

  • 1. the traditional approach is to completely trust the narrative of Acts, and fit the materials from Paul's letters into that narrative;
  • 2. the approach used by a number of modern scholars, which is to distrust Acts; sometimes entirely; and to use the material from Paul's letters almost exclusively; or
  • 3. the approach to completely disregard anything that Paul has written.(Ebionite and Restorationist view)
  • 4. a more mediate approach, which is to treat Paul's testimony as primary, and supplement this evidence with material from Acts.

The following construction of a possible chronology is based on this 4th approach. There are many points of contention, even between scholars, but this outline reflects an effort to trace the major events of Paul's life.


A picture of Paul of Tarsus
A 19th century picture of Paul of Tarsus

Paul described himself as an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin and a Pharisee (Rom. 11:1, Phil. 3:5). He was born as Saul in Tarsus of Cilicia and received a Jewish education. According to Acts 22:3, he studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel; Thomas Robinson depicts Paul as coming to study in Jerusalem under Gamaliel when Shammai became Nasi of the Sanhedrin and the rise to supremacy of the house of Shammai from AD 20. However some scholars, such as Helmut Koester, have expressed their doubts that Paul either was in Jerusalem at this time or studied under this famous rabbi. Paul supported himself during his travels and while preaching, a fact he alludes to a number of times (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:13-15); according to Acts 18:3, he worked as a tentmaker.

Acts 22:25 and 27-29, also states that Paul was a Roman citizen, a privilege he used a number of times to defend his dignity, including appealing his conviction in Judea to Rome. Because Paul himself never mentions this privilege, some scholars have expressed skepticism whether Paul actually possessed citizenship; such an honor was uncommon during his lifetime. Citizenship would have required participation in the Imperial Cult, which would have been in conflict with Hebrew religious ideals. The Ebionite and Restorationist view is that Paul was a Roman who tried to convert to Judaism so he could marry or court a Jewish woman and that his conversion was denied. And that Paul held to esoteric mystery religion ideas and that he later superimposed these ideas on the teachings of Jesus.

Paul himself admits that he at first persecuted Christians (Phil. 3:5) but later embraced the belief that he had fought against. Acts 9:1-9 memorably describes the vision Paul had of God or Jesus on the road to Damascus, which led him to dramatically reverse his opinion. Paul himself offers no clear description of the event in any of his surviving letters, and this, along with the fact that the author of Acts describes Paul's conversion with subtle differences in two later passages, has led some scholars to question whether Paul's vision actually occurred. However, Paul did write that Jesus appeared to him "last of all, as to one untimely born" (1 Cor. 15:8), and frequently claimed that his authority as an apostle came directly from God (Gal. 1:13-16).

Following his conversion, Paul first went to live in the Nabataean kingdom (which he called "Arabia") for three years, then returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17-20) until he was forced to flee from that city under the cover of night (Acts 9:23-25; 2 Cor. 11:32f). He travelled to Jerusalem where he met Saint Peter and James the Just.

Following this visit to Jerusalem, Paul's own writings and Acts slightly differ on his next activities. Acts states he went to Antioch, from whence he set out to travel through Cyprus and southern Asia Minor to preach of Christ, a labor that has come to be known as his First Missionary Journey (13:13-14:28). Paul merely mentions that he preached in Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:18-20), and though Acts states that Paul later "went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches" (Acts 15:41), it does not explicitly state that these were churches that had been founded by Paul on a previous journey.

These missionary journeys are considered the defining actions of Paul. For these journeys, Paul usually chose one or more companions for his travels. Barnabas, Silas, Titus, Timothy, John, surnamed Mark, Aquila and Priscilla all accompanied him for some or all of these travels. He endured hardships on these journeys: he was imprisoned in Philippi, was lashed and stoned several times and almost murdered once (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

About AD 49, after 14 years of preaching, Paul travelled to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church—namely Peter, James the Just, and the Apostle John; an event commonly known as the Apostolic Council. Here the accounts of Acts (chapter 15) and Paul come at things from fairly different angles. Acts states that Paul was the head of a delegation from the Antiochene church that came to discuss whether Christians should continue to observe Mosaic Law, most important of which were the practice of circumcision and dietary laws. This was said to be as a result of men coming to Antioch from Judea and "teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."" (Acts 15:1). Paul later said he had attended "in response to a revelation", to "set before them the gospel (he) preached to the Gentiles" (Gal 2:2), "because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves." (Gal 2:4) It appears that he wanted to make sure that what he had been teaching to the Gentile believers in previous years was correct - that Christ's fulfilment of the Mosaic Law, death and resurrection had freed Christian believers from the need to obey Mosaic Law and "for fear that (he) was running or had run (his) race in vain" (Gal 2:2).

After much debate and discussion, Peter says that "(God) made no distinction between us (Jews) and them (Gentiles), for he purified their hearts by faith." (Acts 15:9), and James the Just states that "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19). They sent a letter accompanied by some leaders from the Judean church back with Paul and his party to confirm that the Gentile believers should not be over-burdened by the Mosaic Law beyond "abstain(ing) from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality" (Acts 15:29). The letter also refers to Barnabus and Paul as "our dear friends" (Acts 15:25), cf Paul's account "James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me." (Gal 2:9).

Despite the agreement they achieved at the Apostolic Council, Paul recounts how when he met Peter in Antioch not long after their meeting in Jerusalem, he berated that apostle over his reluctance to share a meal with gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11-13). Acts recounts nothing of this, saying that "some time later", Paul decided to leave Antioch (usually considered the beginning of his Second Missionary Journey) with the object of visiting the believers in the towns where he and Barnabus had preached earlier. It could be that his public disagreement with Peter was a factor. However, Paul and Barnabus then had a severe falling-out over whether they should take John, surnamed Mark (Barnabus' cousin) with them and went on separate journeys (Acts 15:36-41) - Barnabus with John/Mark and Paul with Silas. Later on there is some reconciliation - Paul mentions that John/Mark is in prison with him, and tells the church in Colosse to welcome him if he comes to them (Col 4:10).

Paul spent the next few years traveling through western Asia Minor, this time entering Macedonia, and founded his first Christian church in Philippi, where he encountered harassment. Paul himself tersely describes his experience as "when we suffered and were shamefully treated" (1 Thess. 2:2); the author of Acts, perhaps drawing from a witness (this passage follows closely on one of the "we passages"), explains here that Paul exorcised a spirit from a female slave—which ended her ability to tell fortunes, and reduced her value—an act which the slave's owner claimed was theft and had Paul briefly put in prison (Acts 16:22). Paul then traveled along the Via Egnatia to Thessalonica, where he stayed for some time, before departing for Greece. First he came to Athens, where he gave his legendary speech in Areios Pagos where he said he was talking in the name of the Unknown God who was already worshiped there (17:16-34), then travelled to Corinth he settled for three years and wrote the earliest of his letters to survive, 1 Thessalonians.

Again in Corinth he ran into legal trouble: on the plaints of a group of Jews, he was brought before the proconsul Gallio , who decided that this was a minor matter not worth his attention and dismissed the charges (Acts 18:12-16). From an inscription in Delphi that mentions Gallio, we are able to securely date this hearing as having occurred in the year 52, providing a secure date for the chronology of Paul's life.

Following this hearing, Paul continued his preaching (usually called his Third Missionary Journey), travelling again through Asia Minor, Macedonia, to Antioch and back. He caused a great uproar in the theatre in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income due to Paul's activities. Their income relied on the sale of silver statues of the goddess Artemis, whom they worshipped, and the resulting mob almost killed him (19:21-41). As a result, when he later raised money for victims of a famine in Palestine and his journey to Jerusalem took him through the province once again, he carefully sailed around Ephesus, instead summoning his followers to meet him in Miletus (20:17-38).

Upon Paul's arrival in Jerusalem with the relief funds, Ananias the High Priest made accusations against him which resulted in his imprisonment (Acts 24:1-5). Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome, but due to the inaction of the governor Felix, Paul languished in confinement at Caesarea Palaestina for two years until a new governor, Porcius Festus , took office, held a hearing, and sent Paul by sea to Rome, where he spent another two years in detention (Acts 28:30).

Acts describes Paul's journey from Caesarea to Rome in some detail. The centurion Julius had shipped Paul and his fellow-prisoners on a merchant vessel, on board which Luke and Aristarchus were able to take passage. As the season was advanced the voyage was slow and difficult. They skirted the coasts of Syria, Cilicia, and Pamphylia. At Myra in Lycia the prisoners were transferred to an Alexandrian vessel transporting wheat bound for Italy, but the winds being persistently contrary a place in Crete called Goodhavens was reached with great difficulty and Paul advised that they should spend the winter there. His advice was not followed, and the vessel driven by the tempest drifted aimlessly for fourteen whole days, being finally wrecked on the coast of Malta. The three months during which navigation was considered most dangerous were spent there, where Paul is said that he healed the father of the Roman Governor Publius from fever and other people who where sick and preached gospel, but with the first days of spring all haste was made to resume the voyage.

Acts only recounts Paul's life until he arrived in Rome, around 61; Paul's own letters cease to furnish information about his activities long before then. While Paul's letters to the Ephesians and to Philemon may have been written while he was imprisoned in Rome (the traditional interpretation), they may have just as likely been written during his earlier imprisonment at Caesarea (first suggested in 1799), or at Ephesus (suggested in the early 20th century).

We are forced to turn to tradition for the details of Paul's final years. One tradition holds (attested as early as in 1 Clement 5:7, and in the Muratorian fragment) that Paul visited Spain; while this was his intention (Rom.15:22-7), the evidence is inconclusive. Another tradition, which can also be traced back to the first century, places his death in Rome. Eusebius of Caesarea states that Paul was beheaded in the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero; this event has been dated either to the year 64, when Rome was devastated by a fire, or a few years later to 67. One Gaius, who wrote during the time of Pope Zephyrinus, mentions Paul's tomb as standing on the Via Ostensis . While there is little evidence to support any of these traditions, there is no evidence against their truths, nor alternative traditions of Paul's eventual fate. It is commonly accepted that Paul died as a martyr in Rome.

His theology

Paul had several major impacts on the nature of the Christian religion. First was the concept that the death and resurrection of Jesus superseded the value of the Mosaic Law, a belief that is often expressed as "Jesus died for our sins." It is unclear how much of this idea is original to Paul; Jerome notes the existence in the 4th century of a Christian sect in Syria called the Ebionites who still observed the Mosaic Law, thus suggesting at least some Christians may not have believed in the salvatory qualities of the Passion.

However, there is some evidence that suggests Paul's concept of salvation coming from the death of Jesus was not unique amongst Christians; Philippians 2:5-11, which expounds a Christology similar to Paul's, has long been identified as a hymn of the early Christians, and dated as existing before Paul's letter.

Related to Paul's interpretation of the resurrection are his concepts of faith, which he explains through his explanation of Abraham, and of righteousness and the forgiveness for sins, using language that Augustine of Hippo later elaborated on in his formulation of original sin.

In the New Testament the doctrine of original sin is most clearly expressed by Paul's writings. His writings also clearly express the doctrine that salvation is not achieved by conforming to Mosaic law, but through faith in (or the faith of) Jesus Christ. This doctrine was confirmed at the Apostolic Council (see above). Paul was also one of the first Christians to expound the doctrine of Christ's divine nature.

One development clearly not original to Paul, but for which he became the chief advocate, was the conversion of non-Jews to Christianity. While a number of passages in the gospels (e.g. Mark) acknowledge that Gentiles might enjoy the benefits of Jesus, Paul is known as "The Apostle to the Gentiles", a title that can be traced back to Galatians 2:8. His missionary work amongst the non-Jews helped to raise Christianity beyond its initial reputation as a dissident (if not heretical) Jewish sect.

Paul also develops a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Much of Romans and particularly the ending to 2 Corinthians portrays the Spirit in equality to the Father and Son. These inferences would later be developed into the doctrine of the Trinity. Paul's notion that the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers at the time of their conversion is integral to his soteriology, ecclesiology, missiology, and eschatology.

Paul's social views that became part of Christian doctrine

Paul's writings on social issues were just as influential on the life and beliefs of the Christian culture ever since as were his doctrinal statements. In fact, being part of the texts that were generally accepted as inspired scripture, these views were and still are considered part and parcel of the broader Christian doctrine by the more conservative Christians.

Paul condemned sexual immorality, including homosexuality, apparently based on the strict moral laws of the Old Testament, as well as presumably his own private revelation from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:9ff; Ephesians 5:21-33). (Paul is traditionally considered a virgin.) Some of his other dictums included advice to his contemporaries not to marry in the expectation of the near return of Jesus and the Apocalypse; permission to marry, or at least to stay married to, an unbeliever, in the hope that the spouse of a Christian will be converted sooner or later; the recommendation for women to obey men (based on the story of Eve—"man was not made for woman, but woman was made for man") and raise families; the "he who does not work, neither shall he eat" dictum; and the command to young men who have trespassed by sleeping with a woman to marry her, a notion that remained prominent in the European culture and the English Common Law until relatively recently.

Paul may have been ambivalent towards slavery, saying that pending the near return of Jesus, people should focus on their faith and not on their social status (1 Cor. 7:21f). Due to his authority, these views have had an influence in Western society into modern times; Paul's apparent failure to explicitly condemn slavery in his Epistle to Philemon may have been sometimes interpreted as justifying the ownership of human beings.

Paul was not only establishing a new cultural awareness and a society of charity but was also subverting the Roman authority through language and action. Paul borrowed titles from the Caesars to describe Jesus. Augustus claimed the titles "Lord of Lords", "King of Kings", and "Son of God" (as he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar whom he declared to be a god). When Paul refers to Jesus as the "Good News", evangelon in Greek, he is borrowing another title given to Augustus. Ancient Roman inscriptions call Augustus the evangelon, good news, for Rome. These titles were meant to subvert Roman authority and speak directly into the contemporary culture.


Paul wrote a number of letters to Christian churches and individuals. However, not all have been preserved; 1 Cor. 5:9 alludes to a previous letter he sent to the Christians in Corinth that has clearly been lost. Those letters that have survived are part of the New Testament canon, where they appear in order of length, from longest to shortest. A sub-group of these letters, which he wrote from captivity, are called the 'prison-letters', and tradition states they were written in Rome.

His possible authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews has been questioned as early as Origen. Since at least 1750, a number of other letters commonly attributed to Paul have also been suspected of having been written by his followers at some time in the 1st century—early enough that religious writers like Marcion and Tertullian knew of no other author for them.

The following Epistles of Paul are included in the New Testament canon. Those whose Pauline authorship is questioned by a majority of scholars are in italics; those considered "prison-letters" are marked with an asterisk (*).

The following apocryphal works have been attributed to Paul:

Alternative views

  • 1. In his books The Mythmaker and Paul and Hellenism , Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby proposed a theory that Paul was actually a Gentile raised in an environment influenced by the popular Hellenistic mystery religions centered on dying and resurrected savior deities, who later converted to Judaism, hoping to become a Pharisee scholar. He found work in Jerusalem as a police officer of the Sadducee High Priest, who was at that time a de facto Roman quisling in Jerusalem. Paul's work persecuting the enemies of the High Priest led to an internal conflict in his mind, which manifested itself while he was travelling to Damascus on a covert mission. Maccoby believes that Paul's revelation was thus actually a resolution of his divided self; Paul subsequently fused the mystery religions, Judaism and the Passion of Jesus into an entirely new belief, centered on the death of Jesus as a mystical atoning sacrifice. Maccoby considers Paul's claims to a Jewish background and Pharisaic education to be false, claiming that a number of passages in Paul's writings betray his ignorance of the Jewish Law. Maccoby also contends that Paul invented many of the key concepts of the Christian religion, and that Gospels and other later Christian documents were written to reflect Paul's views rather than the authentic life and teaching of Jesus. Maccoby questions Paul's integrity as well:
Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence towards Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances. (The Mythmaker)

Some, like the Talmidi Jews, share Maccoby's views on Paul's doctrines. They see Paul as an apostate from Judaism. While the teachings of Jesus may be the basis of Christian ethics, they view Paul's teachings as the true basis of modern Christian beliefs such as the atoning death of Jesus and the concept of original sin.

  • 2. A more critical view of Paul of Tarsus comes from the comprehensive work of A. Victor Garaffa. He maintains that Paul of Tarsus effectively usurped the authority of the remaining disciples, and the original Jerusalem Church operating under James the Just. Using the New Testament works themselves as his primary source, Garaffa offers a reinterpretation of key passages, and suggests an aggressive power struggle is preserved in the canonical New Testament Writings themselves. (An assessment of Paul of Tarsus from this viewpoint can be found online at The Pauline Conspiracy.)
  • 3. Another alternative view is what has become known as the "New Perspective" on Paul, first set forth by Rabbi Jacob Emden (16971776 CE). Emden's view was that Saul of Tarsus was a devout and learned Pharisee, who (turning away from his early Shammaite views) came to believe in salvation for the gentiles and under the guiding authority of the very learned and devout Simon Kepha (i.e., Saint Peter) set about refining a noahide religion for the gentiles based around the Jehoshua (Jesus) movement. Paul believed the advantage of the Jews was their being entrusted with the oracles of heaven, and that the law was upon them. But he opposed the Jewish Christians who insisted (under some kind of Shammaite influence) that Gentiles were beyond salvation unless they became Jews. Paul insisted that they need only their purified faith and was firmly against proselytizing. He did however insist that any man born of a Jewish woman be circumcised (for example Timothy whom he himself carried out the ceremony upon) and live under the law. In recent years perhaps the most exemplary developers of Emden's view are the orthodox Rabbi Harvey Falk and Pamela Eisenbaum [1]. In this view, Paul is seen as a rabbi who understood the ruling that although it would be forbidden to a Jew, "Shittuf" (believing in the divine through the name of another) would be permissible for a gentile despite the noahide ban on idolatry. This is further backed up by Paul in his first letter to the Romans when he compliments them on their religion. Again when he spoke to Greeks about a divinity in their pantheon called "The Unknown God", it can be understood that he was trying to de-paganise their native religions for the sake of their own salvation.
  • 4. Retired Episcopal Bishop and controversial author John Shelby Spong, in the book Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, argues that much of Paul's misogynist attitude, and attitude towards his 'thorn in the flesh', is understandable in light of a theory that Paul may have been gay:
"This is the way my thesis would suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ was experienced by Paul, the man from Tarsus. To me it is a beautiful idea that a homosexual male, scorned then as well as now, living with both the self-judgment and the social judgments that a fearful society has so often unknowingly pronounced upon the very being of some it its citizens, could nonetheless, not in spite of this but because of this, be the one who would define grace for Christian people." (John Shelby Spong [2])


External links

Last updated: 06-01-2005 23:23:06
The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy