Paul, Saul of Tarsus

Paul, Saul of Tarsus

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God.... (Romans 1:1)

With these words, Paul introduces himself to the Roman Christians. He is credited with writing almost one-third of the New Testament. Many believe him to be the architect of the Christian Church, its first great missionary and theologian. Some call him saint and man of God. Others claim he perverted the vision of Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have been hard to get along with. Even the apostle Peter, who called him "our dear brother Paul," is on record as saying that some of Paul's teachings are "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3). Some theologians refer to Paul as the "Moses" of the Christian Church, the one who set its doctrines in firm concrete. But did Jesus really mean to begin a whole new faith tradition, or was that Paul's idea?

The arguments swirl on and on. We won't solve them here. Probably no one ever will. But we can get an idea of what he thought about himself by reading closely his own autobiography, summarized in the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible that carries his signature.


Names used to mean something. Paul was born Saul of Tarsus, named after the first great king of Israel. His parents must have been fairly wealthy because, although born to a Jewish family of the tribe of Benjamin, he was an educated Roman citizen and a Pharisee, taught by none other than the great Rabbi Gamaliel.

That he was certain of his heritage and fervent in his patriotism is obvious. We first meet him in the seventh chapter of the book of Acts. Stephen, about to become the first Christian martyr, has just been found guilty of blasphemy because he accused his brother Jews of resisting, and then murdering, Jesus. They take him outside the city and proceed to stone him to death. Because it is easier to throw stones when your arms are unencumbered, they pile their cloaks "at the feet of a young man named Saul," who "gave approval to [Stephen's] death."

The execution must have had a great impact on Saul. When next we meet him he is on his way to Damascus, armed with letters from no less an authority than the high priest, giving him permission to arrest members of the new Christian cult and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. Because of that fateful journey, his life, his name, and world history were forever changed. His name became Paul, which means little. (The only physical description we have of Paul is that of a small, very intense, bowlegged man whose eyebrows were so bushy that they met over his nose.)

Servant of Christ Jesus...

Paul traveled to Damascus with escorts. Their thoughts and impressions were not recorded, but it seems from what Paul later wrote that they didn't really understand what was happening when Saul was knocked from his horse and blinded by a great light. A voice spoke to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

Paul responded with perhaps the dumbest question in the whole Bible. He even answered it himself. "Who is it, Lord?"

The men traveling with Saul were at a loss. They heard a sound, maybe even saw a light, but couldn't figure out what was happening. They managed to get Saul to Damascus. He was blind for the next three days and couldn't eat or drink anything. But a Christian named Ananias had been told by God to go to Saul, pray for him, and restore his sight.

Ananias was justifiably upset and tried to talk God out of it. "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." Maybe it's a trick!

"But the Lord said to Ananias, `Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and their kings.'" (Acts 9:15)

(There is great speculation concerning a physical ailment Paul referred to as his "thorn in the flesh." He believed God gave it to him to keep him humble. But he never says exactly what it is. He does hint, however. Although his usual method of writing was to dictate letters, he often wrote, in his own hand, a final closing paragraph. Sometimes he says, "See what large letters I am using," implying that he couldn't see well. Was the apostle almost blind? And did that blindness begin on the road to Damascus? It's another puzzle.)

Called to Be an Apostle...

And so it began. Paul would later refer to himself as an apostle "born out of time." In other words, he considered himself equal in stature with the twelve apostles of Jesus, even though he was chosen after Jesus died.

This notion raises an interesting question. The first order of business on the apostles' agenda following the ascension was to hold an election to fill the place left open following the death of Judas. They elected a man named Matthias. We never hear from him again. Did Paul consider himself the proper candidate to fill the slot?

Paul began preaching right away. But he took his new job very seriously. He felt the need for training. So he studied a full fifteen years before he began the task that would occupy the rest of his life.

Set Apart for the Gospel of God...

Paul accomplished more than anyone when it came to laying the foundation of the early Church. No one really knew how to go about it. So Paul just jumped in and began.

First he had to persuade the others that the Church was for Gentiles as well as Jews. Peter, who accompnied Jesus from the start and was the acknowledged leader of the Church in Jerusalem, was convinced people had to become Jewish before they could be Christian. That meant circumcision, a kosher table—the works.

Paul insisted this had to change. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female," he wrote to the Galatians (3:28), "for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (He later, however, promoted males over females and endorsed slavery.)

Having won his argument with Peter at the first Christian convention (Acts 15) he began what was to be his life's work. He undertook three great missionary journeys. In the back of almost every Bible there are a lot of maps hardly anyone ever looks at. One of them is called Paul's Missionary Journeys. It traces out the three trips with three different colors.

It was on the second of these journeys that Paul picked up his faithful chronicler, Luke, the physician. He was later assisted by young Timothy. Early on, his companion was a man named Barnabas, with whom Paul had some disagreements. But they seemed to have patched them up after Barnabas came around to Paul's way of thinking.

His method of operation was always the same. He would enter a town and proceed to preach about Christ at the local synagogue. Then he would get kicked out, often arrested, and have to stay at the home of a Christian sympathizer. But a group of believers would gather around him. A church would form. Later Paul would write letters of encouragement back to these churches. He wrote to the churches of Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica. Sometimes he wrote letters, called Epistles, to individual people such as Timothy or Titus. All these letters would circulate from church to church. One town would make a copy of the letter, substitute a neighbor's name in the address, and send it along. Eventually, when collected and perhaps edited, these letters became a substantial portion of the New Testament.

It was Paul's carefully constructed letters, as much as anything else, that set the foundation for Christian theology. He usually began with an extensive section of systematic theological presentation. Then he would say, "therefore..." and begin to apply the teaching to everyday life. This set the pattern for most contemporary sermons. First theory, then application.

These letters didn't always bring good news and happy thoughts. When he wrote to the Galatians, for instance, he didn't even bother to begin with a polite greeting. "You foolish Galatians," he roars, "who has bewitched you?" And in what can best be described as Paul's gentlest letter, he mentions two Philippian women by name, Euodia and Syntyche, saying, right in front of the whole church, "Get along with each other, girls. Stop fighting!" (Philippians 4:2)

Paul's mission eventually began to cause too many problems to too many public officials. Even during his lifetime, Christians were being accused of "turning the whole world upside down" (Acts 17:6). When he returned home triumphant to Jerusalem, according to Acts 21, he was arrested. Here Paul's legal training came in handy. Taking advantage of his Roman citizenship, he summoned a higher court. He appealed to Caesar. This meant an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome, where he wanted to go anyway. After an exciting journey he finally arrived in the capital.

Roman law gave witnesses two years to show up and press charges. If they didn't come within that time, the accused went free. Maybe that's the reason Luke emphasizes, in the book of Acts, that Paul stayed for "two whole years in Rome." The implication is that he went free afterward.

But where did he go? That's the question. No one knows. Some legends have him going on to Spain; others back to Jerusalem. We don't know how he died. And perhaps that's the intent of the Bible. In many ways, Paul doesn't die. He lives on.

Love him or hate him, Paul has been a controversial figure since the beginning. Even while he was alive there were those who were jealous. They said he couldn't preach.

Paul was not above sarcasm. To those who wanted to hear a good sermon, he promised to bring along his friend Apollos, the "silver-tongued orator." But there was never any doubt whose ideas Apollos would be conveying.

Paul's was not an easy life. He was jailed, beaten, thrown out of town, stoned, and left for dead. He was ridiculed. At times he must have felt utterly forsaken. Sometimes he was a bit petulant—"Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). But at the end he could cry that he had "finished the race" and "kept the faith" (Timothy 4:7).

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.